Vincennes University is looking to expand south with plans to tear down nearly four square-blocks of buildings and houses in the city's Historic District to make way for a French-inspired housing development.
Phil Rath, VU's vice-president of finance and government relations, went before members of the city's Historic Review Board on Tuesday asking for permission to take the first step in the estimated $15 million project: tearing down buildings once part of an old lumber yard at the corner of First and Scott streets, specifically 600-602 N. First St.
Until recently, the building was home to the Church of Victory.
When finished, the development would be full of two-story townhouses inspired by the city's French history, Rath explained.
“We're calling it the French Village,” he said, holding up a rendering of brightly-colored homes in pastel hues of green, pink, blue and yellow. “We're going to fill that part of First Street with the hottest, most vibrant homes in Vincennes.
“We think it's really going to be a draw.”
VU is working to purchase all the properties in the blocks between First and Second streets to the east and west and Scott to Hart streets to the north and south as well as properties west of First Street to the Wabash River.
Rath said the university has acquired a handful of houses already, mainly those fronting First Street. It has also already purchased the Miracle Clean building at First and Scott streets, and it hopes to soon close on the purchase of the Piggy Banc Pawn Shop at 706 N. Second St. as well.
“That's the overall scope,” Rath told HRB members, “so obviously we'll be back.”
All of those houses and buildings fall within the city's Historic District so razing them will require permission from the HRB.
Thursday board members were only tasked with deciding the demolition of the building at 602 N. First St. as well as a small pole barn located just to the north that is part of the overall property.
“I don't think I have too many issues with that one,” said HRB president Tim Trotter just before the group voted to approve the measure. “If they were in better condition, more contributing, and so on, then maybe I'd feel differently.”
HRB member Elizabeth Dunn, too, said the building “didn't have any historic value.”
“We're used to seeing them there, sure,” she said, “but there's nothing really special about the buildings.”
“I don't think they do anything for the Historic District,” she said.
Looking down the road, however, HRB members shuddered a bit at the sheer number of houses that will have to be razed to make way for the development of French Village, particularly one listed as “contributing” to the district at 617 N. First St., one known to most local residents by its tile roof and wrought iron fencing.
“There will be a few sacrifices we have to make along the way,” Rath said. “But in the long run, it's going to be a spectacular investment.”
Rath also pointed to a downtown housing development project being taken on by local architect Andy Myszak and his development team. Riverview Lofts, construction of which will take place next year, will be a 3-story affordable housing complex located at the site of the grain silos on First Street.
“So Myszak is coming this way,” Rath said of downtown headed north, “and we're coming from the other way.
“So when you look down First Street, you'll see this beautiful, inviting, colorful development,” he said. “We're going to have walkways tying it all to Grouseland and then from Grouseland into the university.
“We're going to make this complex a destination.”
The housing will be off-campus student rentals, Rath said, and such housing, VU officials believe, is necessary for the university to improve student retention.
Too many students are lost, he said, because they live in rental “slums” near the VU campus.
Rath said the university also plans to remove most of the above-ground utility poles in that area and bury them, making for a cleaner-looking residential area.
It's also possible, he said, as the development expands, that they will look to private developers to build market-rate housing there as well.