The City Market Building
The Indianapolis City Market building is a treasure of downtown. The original structure was built in 1886. Unfortunately, the latest incarnation of the City Market has been a financial failure. It did not manage to turn a profit and the city was spending a significant amount on subsidizing higher-than-expected utility costs. (It’s confusing to me why the city did not market this property and the business model more effectively – the building is on National Register but doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) The silver lining of this failure is that we now have an opportunity to study the building and see what can be done with it. It is my understanding that the city wants to:
- Set up the market as a self-sufficient enterprise; currently the city subsidizes utility costs
- Use the structure and property to draw people downtown
- Integrate with cultural trail and proposed Market Square Arena replacement
In order to facilitate these changes, the city issued an RFP last year and six proposals were announced in January. See the IBJ article for a full run-down of these options. I thought many of these presented some exciting new ideas for the downtown space. It will be interesting to see if the city chooses one of these as a winner, or just continues to operate the market as-is, or tries to combine ideas into a chimera-like blend of proposals.
A Sign of the Times for City Market
If the city chooses to operate this space as a market or a space for restaurants, they would be wise to read the critiques of the previous business model. American Dirt’s thorough diagnosis of the situation (part I and part II) laid bare many of the problems and proposed many of the solutions. I accept his work completely, but I also want to add some of my own thoughts.
My own opinion about the city market proposals is that the city can choose to do any of these proposals, or none, and it will result in failure. There are underlying infrastructural issues that the city has refused to address in the past few decades, and these will act as a significant detractor for people using the property.
The Indianapolis City Market must be supported by a change in the priorities of the city, its policies, and its infrastructure. In particular, the following issues must be addressed:
- Make pedestrians the priority of downtown planning
- End traffic management policies that have high cost and little benefit
- Make design and excellence an integral part of city products
- Don’t force tall buildings until market rates support them
- Update building codes to make downtown areas a haven for pedestrian streetlife
- Stop subsidizing free parking
To see how these issues can be addressed in the planning for the City Market renovation, I have made a site plan showing the different areas of the property and its surrounding infrastructure. With the rest of this entry, I have detailed specific actions that can help create a new future for the City Market property.
Aerial View of the East Market St Area
Aerial View of the City Market
The original city market building has stood up to the test of time well. The brick materials and arch windows matched nearby buildings, creating a style that set the area apart from the business area or the state capitol area. It was created as a way to host market activities indoors, not dissimilar from its most current incarnation. The best the city had to offer.
City Market Building from courthouse tower in 1888 (HABS
To be honest, this building was not well suited for its purpose. The building is long and tall. The interior aspect ratios, high windows, poor lighting, double-height cathedral ceiling, and entry vestibules make it seem very similar to sacred architecture. This building would be more effective as a church than a market.
The Cathedral of Independent Commerce
In its current configuration a mezzanine wraps all around the exterior walls and a central area in the middle is used for market vendors. This arrangement allows for most of the square footage to be used as leasable space, but it does not create a special relationship between the viewer and the space. In fact, this space forces a feeling of agoraphobia rather than a feeling of comfort and closeness. Contrast this with Circle Center Mall. It is a similar space, tall and long, but has overcome its spatial arrangement to create areas that encourage exploration, interaction, and commerce.
I think the upcoming work on the City Market will need to address whether this space should really be used as a market or if there is a higher and better use. In any case, this space will need to overcome the problems inherent in its configuration in order to be successful. Honestly, I don’t know of many churches that have been converted into street markets.
A view of the enclosed market space
Another issue that will need to be addressed in the renovation is the lack of quality workmanship in the city market. The previous renovations focused more on budget than on excellence. I got a close look at the building a few years ago when I was responsible for designing structural support for the mezzanine expansion. The original structure, including the walls and roof, is beautiful. There is some great handiwork preserved in them. Unfortunately, the members from 1970 and newer look out of place because there was no attention to detail. Exposed bolts, exposed welds, carrier angles, and all sorts of steelwork that should have been higher quality or hidden.
The poor attention to detail creates some aesthetic problems
I have never been happy with the mezzanine. Looking at all of the newer work, in addition to the doors, and the market vendors spaces, all these items just look cheap. The sad thing is they aren’t cheap. They probably were very expensive. If the city wants to preserve historic properties, then they need to fully invested in the process. The 1970′s were a different time, but any new work should meet the stricter requirements of Architecturally Exposed Structural Steel (AESS) at a minimum.
One specific complaint that the city has about the main building is that it is expensive to heat. I think one reason for this is that the city tried to cut corners when the 2007 renovation was done. They reused the old HVAC equipment rather than spending the money to upgrade to newer equipment and systems. As can be seen in the photo below, the work required a new slab so why did they not just put in a radiant heating system at the same time? Combined with a geo-tied heat pump, the city could be saving many tens of thousands of dollars over the design life.
An ideal time to install radiant heating system (Feb 2007)
If the City Market is going to be the “best of Indy” then we need to make sure everything in it is saying the right thing about our city. Design excellence, product excellence, and operational excellence. Now and forever.
Historically insensitive ducting, exposed speaker wires fastened to the steel with zip-ties
If my criticisms of the main space include poor spatial arrangement and poor lighting, then my criticisms of the wing spaces are *dreadful* spatial arrangement and *dreadful* lighting. The catacombs below the market building probably have more charm than these spaces.
I have no problem mixing modern and historic architecture, and certainly I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid for the Louvre or the Indianapolis Central Library proved that it can be a good idea. But central to this idea of mixing old and new is that the old and the new must both be able to stand on their own as successful works of architecture.
I can’t believe they built two of these
Here’s a quick rundown on why I hate these wings:
- Too much unfiltered light
- Traditional buildings have 25% transparency on the southern face
- The wings boast 100% transparency; too hot in summer, too cold in winter
- No windows on east, west, and north Faces
- Nothing to offset the blinding effect from the south
- Difficult to accommodate lack of natural light, too many fluorescent make-up lights
- Nothing to look at
- Is the CCB worthy of that much attention?
- Why is there a gravel parking lot across the street?
- People watching is only interesting when there are people to watch
If someone proposed to tear down these wings, I would not object. If people want them to stay, as some sort of historic preservation effort, then I would not object to that either. I suppose they do kind of mirror the modern style of the Death Star, er CCB. But don’t expect them to contribute to a sort of dynamic, shoppers paradise kind of downtown area. Because these buildings are horrible.
The main concept that I wish to communicate about this area is that pedestrian plazas should not be parking lots. Please Indianapolis, make pedestrians the priority of downtown planning. With our new priority in place, we realize that it was a horrible idea to run vehicular traffic through a plaza. Glad we got that settled.
The conversation pit and skewed parking lanes eliminate pedestrian usage
Now, lets address the other problems with this space. The conversation pit sucks. I appreciate that some mid-century modern visionaries tried to make these work in expensive homes. But to use this in a public space? I can’t imagine that random strangers looking for a place to sit for a few minutes would choose a space that:
- Forces them to look at other people
- Forces other people to look at them
- Forces people to gather in a small area rather than spreading out, filling in as others join the area
- Prevents any use of the space other than talking in a group
- Discourages use by any disabled, elderly, or people with strollers
- Conversation Pit? Next to police car parking, an urban highway, and a county court?
This space can be so much better. Turn it into a real plaza, one that has a real chance at attracting pedestrians, and drawing their attention away from each other towards a central or distributed feature (think Columbus Circle). Integrate into the pedestrian plans, make this the eastern pedestrian gateway for the cultural trail towards the Circle.
How many plazas does an area surrounded by parking lots really need? Counting the east and west City Market plazas, and adding the 1/2 block CCB plaza, we have lots of wasted space. This is the equivalent of throwing away tax revenue. I think some of these spaces need to return to profitable use. But lets assume the city wants to keep its own building surrounded by empty plazas, parking lots, and urban highways. How can the west plaza area be rebuilt to take advantage of its location and encourage pedestrian traffic?
Tables, chairs, and benches have been installed to give the impression of streetlife
I think that this area should be rebuilt along market street to provide frontage area for businesses. The area currently used for tables and chairs can be retained (at a new elevation) as patio seating if desired. The new building could incorporate the random arch retained from an earlier demolition. This new building would continue the streetfront shopping experience from the western blocks and provide a space for restaurants, brewery/restaurants, or fast-food eateries. Putting the seating out back but keeping the space open to Delaware St would preserve the opportunity for people-watching. I would always recommend street level dining as an option but traffic would need to be calmed for this to be effective.
Why tear down a building if you can’t replace it with something useful?
My final recommendation for the plaza space (and this applies to city market plazas and the CCB plaza) is to remove those ugly brick planters. They are a disaster as far as placemaking is concerned. They contribute nothing to the area and take up useful real estate. They divide rather than integrate. They look cheap. And they are ugly.
Hopefully this area will be developed as urban town-homes in the near future. This will bring in new pedestrian traffic. Of course, the city and the developer could always ruin this opportunity by enforcing the rules of the parking requirements. The development codes in US cities must have been developed by some weird urban designers with a fetish for car fenders. Totally not needed in downtown areas. (see The High Cost of Free Parking if interested in reading more)
Alabama St and Market St intersection, now a gravel parking lot
To be honest, I don’t know where CBD lines are drawn and what parking requirements are set for this area. Let me be clear about this, though. Any requirement greater than zero (0) cars is a mistake. Just remember, neighbors don’t complain about density, they complain about more cars. No additional cars means no remonstrators at the next hearing.
The former Market Square Arena stood here, which came and went before I moved to Indianapolis. Finding a developer for this plot of land has been difficult, since at least 2001. The discussions I have seen regarding this project have been worrisome to me. They seem to focus on how tall to make this building, how many car parking spots they can shoehorn onto the project, and how much tax abatement will be gifted to the project.
The replacement for Market Square Arena presents a great opportunity
If we review the original list of priorities above, we can see that these discussions are heading in the wrong way. Indianapolis does not need another empty skyscraper, and we don’t need any more parking spots. We probably don’t need another tax subsidized construction project, but I think that is dependent on the particular project so I’ll hold my tongue for now. I think creating a project that benefits the entire downtown region would be worth some subsidizing, but not a new enclave that just provides a gated community downtown.
If the city is going to subsidize construction and operation for a few years, then the citizens deserve input into what goes in here. I recommend a 3-4 story structure built out to the property lines, with no parking whatsoever aside from on-street parking. All bottom floor streetfront space must be small, leasable spaces. Upper floors can be mega-stores, restaurants, residential, or whatever the market will support.
While we are on the subject of parking, maybe the city of Indianapolis needs to re-evaluate its theory on parking space availability. I have no sympathy for the laments of developers who refuse to build unless they have a dedicated parking facility. You won’t find a single urban parking expert who thinks that downtown Indianapolis is lacking parking spaces.
Delaware, Market, and Alabama Streets
Here we come to the main problem with the City Market. Vehicular traffic has been given so many advantages compared with pedestrian traffic in downtown Indianapolis that modern citizens don’t even know what we have given up. The streets in cities used to be filled with people instead of cars. A few months back Infrastructurist posted a video of San Francisco in 1905 from a Market Street streetcar, it is a perfect model of what cities can become when vehicles are regulated properly. The video is below:
Many of the proposals for the City Market, and certainly my own thoughts and ideas, suggest that the city address the transportation infrastructure problems surrounding the building site if the overall project is to be successful. The best way to begin the transformation from vehicular oriented to pedestrian oriented is to roll back the traffic management schemes that increase vehicle speed.
Both Delaware and Alabama are one-way streets. This is unnecessary. It allows the cars to speed through the area. This is the most dense neighborhood in the state, so it is beyond my ability to understand why the city wants quicker traffic in this area. Elimination of the one-way street infrastructure will create psychological friction between the travel directions and slow down traffic. A small decrease in vehicular speed leads to a large increase in pedestrian safety.
The one-way streets also limit economic activity from tourists and convenience shopping. Both elements are key to any City Market proposal. By allowing people to drive by the structure from any direction they are maximizing visibility and the chance to make a sale.
Another important infrastructural issue is connectivity. To take advantage of the City Market’s location, the city should create a portal or gateway element between the new cultural trail and the circle. It doesn’t have to be expensive or voluminous, maybe just LED signs or something visual.
The bike hub proposal is a good idea, in my opinion, and would be a great way to engage a significant portion of citizens who choose a different form of transportation. If the bike hub proposal doesn’t win this time around, I would love to see it used for the plaza just south of the CCB. That area is in desperate need of a makeover.
The final infrastructural issue that needs to be addressed is public transit. The new CITI plan has been released and would use Washington Street as a light-rail corridor. This proximity to a heavily traveled corridor would mean many potential customers (without cars or a need to park them). If the city doesn’t begin taking this into consideration then a real chance at greatness could be lost.
The city should take this opportunity to think about what the City Market will be used for in 20 years, and while downtown should continue growing eastward the City Market will always remain the most significant historic property in the area. Maybe acting as a gateway or centerpiece of a special district would be a good use, similar to the old Armory in the Pearl District of Portland.
I still believe that any of the proposals for a new use of the City Market building would be a good step forward, as most investments in historic assets tend to pay off in the long run. The City of Indianapolis will be well served by these ideas. However, none of these ideas alone will be sufficient to stave off financial ruin after the initial Wow! factor wears off.
The City must take the initiative to look at the real causes of urban malaise in Central Indiana. The policies governing pedestrian rights, vehicular traffic management, and lack of connectivity are all infrastructural issues that have simple but far and long-reaching consequences. If we get the policies right, the future of our urban core will be shining brightly once again.