If all goes according to plan, Aletha Dunston (above) will be out of a job soon.
Her position as executive director of the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority means every win brings her closer to completing the assignment of a lifetime, transforming an Army base into a picturesque community 20 minutes from downtown Indianapolis.
Dunston, who graduated from Ball State with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and development in 2005, doesn’t worry about her impending unemployment.
The job is such a good fit with my skill set: a mix of planning with a little economic development, a little preservation, a little community development, and a lot of promotion,” she said. “It was a very unique opportunity.
Dunston began her career as director of planning and community development in Marion, Indiana, where she was president of the Main Streets program and program director of Stellar Communities. After stints working as the state’s Community Development Block Grant director and as a consultant, she was immediately drawn to the Fort Harrison job when a posting appeared.
After federal cost-cutting closures and military base realignments, Fort Benjamin Harrison (more widely known as Fort Ben) was inactivated in the early 1990s. The Reuse Authority was then established, headed by a board representing entities including Indianapolis, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and Lawrence, a city of 49,000 surrounded by Marion County, where the fort is located.
The original plan reuse included preservation of 100 historic buildings including the officers’ quarters as well as a 1,700-acre state park and space for both residential and business uses. There was also a federal commitment to keep 4,000 jobs in place at the Army’s finance center on 56th Street.
In her role, Dunston follows two other Ball State urban planning alumni whose influence shaped the current Fort Ben redevelopment efforts.
A needed refresh
Urban planners specialize in turning plans into magic. That’s exactly what began to sizzle when Ehren Bingaman stepped into the role of executive director of the project in 2004. Bingaman left Ball State in 1999 with bachelor’s degrees in both urban planning and development and political science. He saw potential in the project, even though the heart of the Fort Ben area was comprised of “mid-90s suburban-style office buildings surrounded by a moat of parking.”
Bingaman convinced the board that a refresh was needed that would better create a sense of place and community.
Enter Adam Thies, who graduated a year behind Bingaman at Ball State with bachelor’s degrees in environmental design and
urban planning and development. He’d worked in Chicago for three years and had recently moved to Indianapolis where he started his own firm, Eden Land & Design. Eden’s proposal for a master plan was chosen by the reuse authority board as the best it received.
“There was a desire to make more of a there there, a little more of an urbanistic life for Lawrence because the fort was largely gracious and lawned and suburban in form,” Thies recalls. “The Army left them an amazing opportunity to do something special at the core of this community.”
The 70-page plan for Lawrence Village at the Fort (PDF) took a year’s worth of planning, community meetings, and sketching. It lays out what uses are permitted for each parcel of land and what those buildings should look like to create a unified sense of place. It complements and reflects the original style and brickwork of the historic buildings, and also provides a new main street for Lawrence and a new city hall.
However, the real magic, Theis said, was when “we embarked on another year to codify it in the Indianapolis zoning regulations with a planned unit development ordinance.” That might not sound like a magic wand, but it was the necessary tool government officials needed to enforce the plan.
The result was a mix of single-family homes, brick townhouses, and apartments, as well as sidewalks, parks, lush plantings, and bountiful public art. Shops, offices, and locally owned restaurants and coffee shops further added to Fort Ben’s growing charm.
We let the property help us decide,” Bingaman says of that time when he and Thies worked together. “We used what was there because that was part of what made it unique. If we overprogrammed it, it would lose its authenticity.
One pride point for him was building a new commissary and exchange store, the only ones in the state at the time. Bingaman brokered a deal to construct new buildings on quieter 59th Street in exchange for the feds cancelling out the reuse authority’s debt on the property. It also freed up prime real estate on a main artery through town.
And if that sounds daunting, Bingaman insists “it was a ton of fun.”
When the Great Recession hit in 2007, both Bingaman and Thies moved on. These days Bingaman is principal at TransPro Consulting in Atlanta and Thies is associate vice president of capital planning at Indiana University where he oversees planning and design for all IU campuses.
Their departure left Fort Ben’s transformation in capable hands — including Aletha Dunston’s.
In the home stretch
Two and a half years into Dunston’s tenure as executive director, less than 20 acres of undeveloped land remain, and she’s in conversations with developers interested in half of it. Want to build a house? There are 32 single-family lots left. Office space? Just a couple left.
Pre-pandemic, Dunston was still spending a good part of each day familiarizing people with the area, ticking off its amenities to business owners and answering queries from developers. She grabbed every chance she could to host a meeting, to show off the local restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops and to tout the tech campus and the amenities on the way, including:
- A cultural arts campus and amphitheater that blends historic and new buildings with a $5.85 million grant from Lilly.
- A huge branch of the Indianapolis Public Library.
- The Purple Line, a branch of the Indianapolis bus service that will snake through the village to an Ivy Tech campus before returning downtown.
In fact, the pandemic hasn’t slowed progress at the Fort nor cleared Dunston’s busy calendar, although it’s forced her to shift from in-person meetups and tours to virtual experiences and phone calls. And she’s worried about the 11 locally owned restaurants — in former mule barns and barracks, another in an Army blacksmith’s shop — which suffered as the switch to remote work decreased their steady clientele.
An affirming symbol of Fort Ben’s rebirth came in June as Dunston accepted the Rising Tech City Mira award on behalf of the tech campus and the City of Lawrence. The awards, bestowed this year via Zoom, is a statewide honor bestowed annually by TechPoint, described as the “non-profit industry-led growth accelerator for Indiana’s tech ecosystem.”
The award recognizes the hub of almost 30 tech companies within a half square mile in the core of Fort Ben’s campus. In focus groups, those companies’ employees tell Dunston how much they value the walkable spaces and more relaxed pace than they’d find in downtown Indianapolis. When they outgrow spaces, those companies say they intend to find bigger digs within the hub rather than moving.
Bingaman’s life slogan — “leaving it better than how I find it” — is now fully evident at Fort Ben after three decades of creative vision and hard work.
And Dunston? She says she is grateful for every day that brings her mission closer to completion. And when that finale comes, she’ll be looking for new challenges while treasuring some amazing memories.