Monument Circle is the heart of Indianapolis. It marks the center of downtown, the central business district. I love this part of town. However, as I have been exploring downtown over the course of my escapades, I have come to realize that Indianapolis does not have a big “downtown” region. My sister best explained it during a visit when she asked “isn’t downtown supposed to have buildings?” She lives in NYC so I excused her comment, but she did have a point.
This prompted me to start thinking about downtown as it truly exists, not as we wish it. As far as I can tell, downtown Indy only extends within two blocks of the Circle in any direction. This is the true downtown. If you walk two blocks away you are presented with parking lots, buildings that are only open for special events, and monumental parks lined with unfriendly streetscapes.
Looking at the area within two blocks of the circle, I think it is clear why this meets the definition of downtown. Great sidewalks, calm traffic, storefronts, tall buildings (at least 3 stories), and lots of pedestrian options. It is somewhat unfortunate that the urban towers have been set into this downtown region, because they have typically eschewed storefront space and brought parking garages with them. That is truly my only complaint, because otherwise this central core is all right.
Traveling westwards, the pedestrian environment breaks down at Capitol Ave. The state government buildings are obviously necessary, but many of them have abandoned good urban design principles. Looking at the aerial view, it is clear that few properties exist between Capitol Ave. and Haughville that would attract a pedestrian.
A pedestrian would have to walk for several blocks along uninviting, uninteresting streetscapes. Even the museum campus is set far back from the sidewalk. This helps the buildings take advantage of the canal, but the frontage along Washington St is a wasteland.
Northwest from the circle we find parking lots. Not much else for a downtown experience. And the one-way streets with timed lights sure make driving fast seem easy.
Directly north is our mall of city parks. Also some non-urban buildings. And more parking lots. Still nothing attractive to pedestrians. The library has a great location but we are missing a continuous pedestrian streetscape from the circle to the library door.
The problem with this area is that none of the buildings that front the park spaces are useful to pedestrians. They are just big plots of green that beautify the view for the nearby towers. I am not trying to minimize the importance of the parks, they are wonderful. But they need to be surrounded by properties that address it appropriately. The first step towards correcting this is to reduce one-way streets and slow down traffic. The park will never succeed as an island surrounded by an urban highway.
Walking northeast from the circle leads to Mass Ave, or at least it does after you walk past some more parking lots. Mass Ave is one of the crown jewels of downtown Indianapolis. And what did the city have to do to achieve this? Two important things: 1) preserve existing buildings & 2) encourage infill development. The old buildings correctly addressed the street with good urban design, but there were so many parking spaces and empty lots that infill development was needed. Urban Indy’s post discusses the issue and has a link to lots of photos of the area before and during infill stages.
Mass Ave should be the guide for downtown Indianapolis development. Start with an area that has existing assets. Create small, mixed use plots for independent development where parking lots and asphalt currently exist.
Remove *all* parking requirements from the zoning code in urban areas. In fact, try to actively discourage on-site parking. Provide parking with city sponsored multi-level garages and treat it like part of the road infrastructure. Next, spend a hell of a lot of money on getting the message out, using hired guns for marketing. Connect the area with other downtown amenities. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, just keep it rolling.
Directly east from the circle is the most depressing sight of any downtown I have ever visited. A gravel parking lot. Several, actually. It has been this way for a while. Apparently infill projects that would convert this area into a usable downtown are not good enough. The city is angling for yet another mega-project that would give a nice symmetry with the west side.
Huge, low-profile, block-killing projects that prevent people from walking around. And if they are not walking, they are driving. That’s the wrong kind of development. Stop the insanity!
To the southeast is a discouraging blend of special-use structures, parking lots, and parking garages. I do enjoy seeing basketball games and concerts, but there should be some kind of balance between other uses.
Directly south of the circle is the only other part of downtown that was retained. This gives downtown another three blocks extension, and this is widely marketed by the city.In this case, the city only had to avoid bulldozing the original buildings to acquire this unique cultural district.
Past the South Meridian area the downtown region is absolutely destroyed by the parking lots south of the train tracks. In fact, if I was to characterize this part of Indianapolis, I can think of no better descriptor than asphaltic.
Indianapolis needs to rethink its urban land-use and construction policies in the downtown area. The zoning code has been reworked within the last decade, but the whole concept of mega-projects ruins natural growth possibilities and clearly kills the pedestrian scale of downtown. Indianapolis needs to follow through on the original plan of an urban square mile. Not just a small CBD area ringed by parking lots and mega-projects. Give the citizens a downtown big enough to justify Indianapolis.
There is no reason to invent a new urban form, all the city needs to do is specify three story (or higher) buildings with limited setbacks and waive all parking requirements. Then subdivide the city-owned blocks into manageable plots and make it easy to develop them. Instant walkable downtown! There, I fixed it. No subsidies required.
And now for some of my favorite annoyances: