Why no Whole Foods? Blame Judy Conley

Dateline: Sat 19 Aug 2006

So is Whole Foods Market coming to Indy at the site proposed by developer Paul Kite -- 86th and Haverstick Road on the Northside?

Or is the lawsuit filed by the Driftwood Hills Neighborhood Assocation enough to keep the community-minded Austin-based company at bay? The suit challenges the rezoning of 13 acres in a residential area to accommodate Kite's project -- 32 town homes and the natural-foods, organic grocery.

WF itself is charmingly coy. I called their Midwest spokeswoman Kate Klotz Friday and reminded her that this issue is a hot (organic) potato among Indy's sophisticated foodie community. People in Indy -- well, palatable Northsiders and Northside sympathizers -- want WF. Here is what Klotz said:

"The nut-nut of the situation is, we have made no decisions at this time. We are so grateful that everyone is so passionate and excited ...but it sounds like the next call we have is Nov. 8...that is the next quarter, when we would announce any sort of updates and publish any information about a lease being signed."

Frustrating? Yes. Even more so because everyone knows the property dispute and lawsuit are at the heart of WF's delay to commit -- and for that we can blame Metropolitan Zoning Commission hearing officer Judith Hawley Conley. She's the turkey, non-organic, who gave the Kite project a green light, despite heavy-duty neighborhood remonstration.

As one reader points out, putting Whole Foods at 86th and Haverstick completely violated the county's comprehensive plan. Even worse, the city once-upon-a-time enjoyed a rich tradition of working with neighborhood groups on zoning issues. But under the Peterson administration -- thanks to appointments like Conley -- that's gone by the wayside.

Conley, by the way, does not know zoning law, say those who have seen her in action. The Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Association (McANA) called some time ago for her removal. But she's a Democrat and the wife of City-County Councilman King "Ro" Conley, and they are part of the cadre of black Dems who are ruling the roost -- and causing consternation in Center Township as well. (Conley is the hearing officer who approved the likker lounge proposed for the Julia Carson Government Center, and she also OK'd another controversial deal, the Savoy Lounge across from St. Vincent Hospital).

The point is, none of this should ever have taken place regarding WF -- Conley should have followed the comprehensive plan and Kite should have found another location.

Driftwood Hills resident Todd DeGroff, an attorney, is representing the neighborhood in the lawsuit. He's as frustrated as everyone else.

His point? "We are strongly opposed to any commercial development in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Just go to the other side (east) of Keystone...Why can't (Paul Kite) just move 100 yards to the east? From Keystone all the way to I-69, for six miles, everything is zoned commercial. Why do they want to build on the last undeveloped piece of property in that area? They are swimming upstream."

I reached Paul Kite last week and he made it clear that the property is still in play for both condos and grocery. "We haven't given up on the issue," he said, responding to rumors floating around that Kite was pulling out.

In fact, DeGroff noted, the Driftwood Hills lawsuit was originally against only the city of Indianapolis, but Kite recently hired Barnes & Thornberg to halt an injunction that would have prevented the city from issuing permits to that site. So Kite is now a direct party in the lawsuit.

Readers and sources have wisely pointed out that there are plenty of other areas in Indy suitable for WF -- most prominently the Binford and 71st area, which is seeking economic development and is demographically well-suited for a WF. Ruth Hayes of the Nora area speaks for many residents there when she says she'd love to see WF in "Downtown Nora" -- she envisions commercial development facing 86th street with parking hidden behind, similar to what's been done in Carmel. Ditch and 86th also has been touted as a good possibility, too.

Meanwhile, those of us not directly involved as neighbors or lawyers wonder what WF must think of Indy. The company's motto is "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet." WF has a great track record of being good corporate citizens, and I am certain they don't want to go where they are not wanted -- that would be Driftwood Hills.

Indy, for all its gleaming new city look and feel, is less than half a loaf when it comes to development. Frankly, we look like a bunch of rubes -- approving a project that was destined for the courts.

For this, ultimately, we can thank Mayor Peterson. But he could do damage control by taking Ms. Conley off the payroll. That would be a step in the right direction.

Contact me: ruth@ruthholladay.com

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