Neighborhood Visionary: Bill Gray

BillGrayDavlan-FNL-231x300Along a delightfully diagonal street on Downtown Indy’s northeast side, seven blocks bustle with culture and life. Trees illuminated in blue, landscapes dotted with flowers, and public art installations decorate the sidewalks. Classic bars, specialty restaurants, and alluring storefronts welcome patrons from every side of town.

It’s hard not to fall for the charm of Massachusetts Avenue. But this bastion of urban cool didn’t appear overnight. Just 15 years ago, Mass Ave was facing an uncertain future—until a community came together to spark the growth of what has become one of Indy’s most vital neighborhoods.

And Bill Gray has been here all along. His warm smile and welcoming demeanor may not seem typical of a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps. But Bill Gray is very much a man on a mission. And his mission started with his becoming the executive director of Riley Area Development Corporation and revitalizing the Davlan Building on Mass Ave.

In the early ‘90s, when the City of Indianapolis was concentrating resources on the development of Mass Ave, the Davlan was owned by an out-of-town corporation that had let the building deteriorate. The city eventually bought the Davlan because its huge footprint on Mass Ave, made it a key property in the area’s transformation. “Riley ended up being able to purchase the Davlan from the city,” he said.

Riley Area Development Corporation was looking to revitalize the Avenue—and the Davlan was a great place to begin. “In 1997, we started developing neighborhood input in the Mass Ave area to see what we could do to change the scene,” said Bill. “We had community input from the residents and the neighborhood associations; we had public meetings where we did a lot of talking about what people wanted to see in an apartment and retail space on the avenue.”

Renovations of the Davlan began in 1999, and the project was finished in 2001. The project was named the best affordable housing project in Indiana that same year.

Today, the Davlan is thriving. The building includes affordable 36 apartments, eight condos, and more than 16,000 square feet of bustling retail space. “Our first tenant way back when was Starbucks,” Bill said. “It’s become one of the busiest and best Starbucks in the city—and after ten years, we’re now in the middle of remodeling.”

LISC has been influential throughout the project. Not only did LISC provide loan financing for purchasing and renovating the Davlan—LISC also helped Bill learn about community development in the first place. “When I was hired, LISC paid for me to attend a community development workshop in Baltimore,” he said. “I didn’t even know what community development was.”

He found out in a hurry—and it paid off for the City of Indianapolis and to everyone who loves what Mass Ave has become: a busy shopping, dining, and arts destination and a great place to live—not just for young urbanites and empty nesters, but also, because of projects like the Davlan, for people who need affordable housing, as well. “We truly have all kinds of people here. It’s exciting. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Bill said.