How the ‘average Jane’ changed a neighborhood

You don’t have to be a pol or an architect to transform a strip mall.

By , Staff writer

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    Jane Lommel saved a strip mall.
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[Read the full story here: After the mall: retrofitting suburbia]

For years, Jane Lommel silently watched blight seep into the outskirts of Greater Indianapolis. But when a strip mall near her home began to fail, inviting further deterioration of the neighborhood, Ms. Lommel decided to speak up."I gave myself a little inspiration speech," remembers Lommel, an author and business consultant. "I said, 'I am a college-educated person. I know how to ask the questions. I know how to present an argument. I can do this.' "

In April 2005, Lommel began plastering the area with invitations to a neighborhood meeting. She expected nine or 10 folks. She got 400. That month, BRAG (Binford Redevelopment and Growth) was born. The mission statement: to salvage the shopping centers around Binford Avenue and 71st Street and bring the noisy commercial district slowly back to life.

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Four years later, Lommel is responsible for one of the most ambitious revitalization efforts in the country, achieved almost entirely from the ground up. The first step was the most difficult: approaching local property owners and assuring them that she had their best interests in mind. Surprisingly, few proved resistant – Lommel says it was just a matter of being "nice" – and soon, BRAG had the support of civic leaders.

Unlike the Belmar project driven by architects, planners, and politicians, BRAG's efforts are "proof that a grass-roots effort can be really effective," says urban affairs and architecture blogger Aaron Renn (theurbanophile.blogspot.com).

Mr. Renn points specifically to BRAG's success in pulling in fresh retailers, including a large Kroger supermarket. The group also has helped to spearhead a prize-winning beautification effort and sponsored a successful farmers' market during the warmer months.

This strip mall, once scarred by graffiti and plagued by petty crime, now features rows of volunteer-planted flower beds. Police have even set up an outpost in one of the empty stores.

BRAG is working toward improved pedestrian traffic, Lommel says, and access to a proposed light rail system, which would connect the Binford area with downtown Indianapolis, nine miles away. Larry Riggle, an area resident and a vice president of BRAG, attributes all the success to Lommel. "It wouldn't have been possible without someone stepping up, presenting it as a crisis, and saying that it was time to do something," he says. "Everyone should have a champion like Jane."

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