A group of residents in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood is hopeful that a 1.5-acre patch of open land at 40th St. and Washington Boulevard can become a privately-managed, publicly-accessible “commons” in a neighborhood that, notably, has no park.

Complete with a sky-high sycamore, the grassy corner lot is behind the Basile Opera Center and next door to the home of entrepreneur and preservationist Bill Oesterle. At the moment, Oesterle owns both the grassy corner lot and the Opera building.

This week, he is petitioning the City to rezone the grassy lot as a residential property with the idea to sell it as one or two home lots. Some neighbors are asking if the land would be the perfect spot for neighbors to recreate.

Clarke Kahlo — a neighborhood resident, former city planner, and green space advocate—noticed the rezoning petition Oesterle filed in January. It struck him that the space might make a “popular urban oasis.”

Long-time Meridian-Kessler resident Alan Pyle responded positively to Kahlo’s idea. “We can imagine it as a commons, not part of the city parks department, but a neighborhood amenity,” says Pyle. “I see people over there all the time: playing catch, kids on bikes, people chatting and visiting.” 

While the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood has more architectural beauty and more mature tree canopy than many neighborhoods, Kahlo notes that, “Too often, lost trees are not replaced, or are replaced with chemically-dependent lawnscape or dinky ornamental trees which provide limited shade and habitat.” The land in question has four mature trees.

The fact is, green space adds quantifiable value to any neighborhood. According to the soon-to-be-released Indy Parks Economic Impact Study by the IU Public Policy Institute, “Property values near parks in Indianapolis appreciate at a higher rate and can therefore contribute more in property taxes. Properties around parks contributed a total of $3.4 million to city-county tax revenue from 2017 to 2019.”

Kahlo and Pyle have had initial conversations about the idea of the commons with Oesterle and his attorney. A preservationist himself, Oesterle played a major role reviving the historic brick buildings on East Washington St., known as Elevator Hill. He also owns the charming art deco former bank at 215 E. 38th St. and is a founding member of Friends of 38th Street.

“I’m totally supportive of the effort to make this lot public space,” Oesterle told NUVO. Among his conditions for allowing the space to become a commons are that a reputable nonprofit steps up to take responsibility for running it, that the neighbors can demonstrate an ongoing source of funds for maintenance, and that he is compensated in some way for the land. “I’ll give them a break, but there needs to be some compensation,” he says.

A reputable nonprofit has already offered itself as the future steward of the commons. Midtown Indianapolis, Inc. “would be open to serving as a fiscal agent, if needed, as planning advances and funding is secured for acquisition and maintenance of the property,” says Executive Director Michael McKillip. He also offered “some communication support to generate increased community engagement in the project.”

Alan Pyle is the first neighbor to come forward with a substantial financial contribution. The next step, Pyle says, is to identify neighbors willing to contribute additional time and money to acquire and maintain the property. 

It shouldn’t be a hard sell. 

“We see the commons proposal as an enhancement of the value to homes in the area,” says Pyle. “And there’s the safety factor. If kids can play here, they wouldn’t need to play in the street.” A neighborhood father reported that 50 children under age 18 live in the two-block section of Delaware Street from 40th to 38th Streets. Pyle says parents may be more willing to allow their kids to play on the commons than to trek over to Tarkington Park, a ten-minute walk away. 

Kahlo points to more benefits of the concept of the commons: enhanced streetscape diversity (to “offset the linear homogeneity of continuous residential”); more green infrastructure for the neighborhood given the lot’s ability to absorb stormwater runoff and reduce flooding; and the creation of a “third space” where neighbors meet informally to build social cohesion. A butterfly/pollinator garden is another perk Kahlo imagines. 

He says simply: “People have to come together and make it happen.”

Note: anyone wishing to get involved in helping to create “Washington Commons” may contact Kahlo at 317-283-6283‬.