During the Spirit and Place Festival this year, Health by Design sponsored a presentation by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) at the Indiana State Museum. UrbanIndy wrote an entry about the event, pointing out how the event fostered participation and collaboration.
Placemaking (@wikipedia) is about building plazas, city squares, and all kinds of pedestrian infrastructure that supports active streetlife. Placemaking is a great way for people to get involved in their community, because placemaking requires no special skills. Everyone knows what kind of spaces they enjoy, and there are no technical challenges such as fire safety or structural safety concerns that require specialized knowledge.
I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of good design, because landscape architects, civil engineers, traffic engineers, and architects must be involved for a successful project. But in general, the public can and should be active in setting goals and design objectives.
I decided to apply what I learned from PPS to my own experiences with my neighborhood. PPS strongly advocates for public involvement in placemaking, encouraging residents to communicate what they know about their places. It is up to the public to speak up about what works, what doesn’t work, and what they want their places to be like.
During the presentation, Ethan Kent (working for the Great Cities Initiative) asked all the participants to think about their local places. In particular, they ask people to use the power of ten to organize their ideas. So for my evaluation of Irvington (see earlier posts), I have come up with 10 ideas each category: 10 places that work, 10 places that fail, and the 10 best opportunities for change.
10 Irvington Places that Work:
These places are the reasons that people enjoy living in the neighborhood. They succeed on a basic level and inspire the residents to use the public space as a shared resource, building a community.
This rail-to-trail linear park is brand new, but is a great addition to the area. (See earlier posts for more information)
South Audubon Circle
This park in the middle of a traffic circle is one of the neighborhood’s most loved places. (See earlier traffic circle post for more information)
Washington St. Commercial Corridor
This stretch of East Washington Street is a functional and exciting commercial area, with a theater, local coffeeshop and Starbucks, library, old lodge building, several restaurants, and locally owned shops.
Michigan/New York Bike Lanes
The bike lanes make commuting on two wheels to downtown possible. (See earlier post) The intersection with Pleasant Run Trail and Ellenberger park makes for an interesting crossroads.
Some of the best historic homes in Indianapolis can be found in the neighborhood. They are scattered throughout, rewarding exploration of the area. (See earlier post) Many of the homes create a sense of history and community, turning the narrow streets and sidewalks into comfortable neighborhood places.
Twice a year, Irvington closes down a few blocks of E Wash St and has a party in the street. Thousands of people, local merchants, funnel cakes, kids, dogs, and a fish fry replace the internal combustion engines. (See Halloween post for more photos)
This place is at the nexus of pleasant run creek park and the bike lanes heading downtown.
It has a great blend of functions and greenery, making it a cherished place within the community. Ellenberger park is a great example of something unexpected that fits in. Just like Central Park in NYC, a good stretch of green can make a great place when supported by the community.
Audubon Court Apartments
Recently renovated and opened to residents, this old apartment building has a unique style and wonderful street presence along Washington Street. The front porches and interesting features make this a place rather than just an address.
Bona Thompson Library
This structure from the old Butler University campus hosts many events and serves as a communal place nestled in the quiet residential streets. It is where the residents learn about local history, hold forums for discussion, vote, and keep treasures.
Irvington Branch Library
This building represents the city’s commitment to the area. The library is one of the best and most useful buildings in the area, and it creates a place on its grounds that is used for all sorts of local gatherings and outdoor meetings. It’s also a good location to sit and watch people walking through the neighborhood.
10 Irvington Places that Fail:
This section features a list of places that fail to provide for the interconnected needs of humanity. Some of them were designed for specific clients and serve their owners well, but a key element is missing. Public spaces must responsibly accommodate many different users. These spaces have been designed, but the designers failed to put the buildings in the context of the neighborhood.
Old Pennsylvania Railroad Commercial Area
The loss of railroad commuters made businesses move to E Wash St during the early 20th century. Some of the old buildings are still here, but there was no effort to preserve the original storefront area and newer buildings make it look like a suburban development. (See earlier post)
Indy East Motel
In its final years of operation, this motel became a state-sponsored halfway home of sexual offenders, instigating a powerful reaction from local residents. The neighborhood fought a long battle to close this motel, knowing that a closed business would be more welcome than a haven for crime. The empty property is the legacy of a property owner who cared more for money than the welfare of his community. (see story on Indy.com)
Commercial Corridor east of Arlington
Just another photo showing the banal, repressive, and dangerous streetscape found in most communities in the US. Complete Streets anyone?
Dilapidated Apartment Buildings
When rents are low, the apartment buildings suffer from disinvestment and the residents are forced to live in substandard housing. There are several apartment buildings along E Wash St that have neglected the opportunity to create spaces, in contrast to the Audubon Court mentioned above.
Parking Lot for Plasma Center
This one place inspires more hostile feelings amongst residents than anywhere else in the area besides the old Indy East Motel. The original buildings were demolished (aside from one blighted corner building). The new building does not address the street, but the parking lot instead. Combined with the suburb-style pharmacy across the street, it feels out of place. I have no problem with the business, but the space it created is just plain weird.
Washington Street as Urban Highway
Too many lanes, no accommodation of bicyclists, and no reason for being oversize. This road is way overdesigned for traffic. Seriously, how would any area ever accommodate street life with a high speed highway splitting it in two? The accelerating cars speeding down Wash St prevent any street conversations or even talking on the phone while enjoying a snack at Starbucks.
How many East-West highways are necessary on the East-side of Indy? We have I-70, Michigan/NY (1-way streets), E Wash St (US-40), and Brookville/English. WTF? Further east of Irvington they even added lanes to US40, now with 7 lanes of traffic and no median, crosswalks, or consistent signal spacings. The photo below was taken at 5PM, I don’t see why we needed this expansion in any case. If you ever needed evidence of no intelligent life on the planet, this would be it.
Excess Greenscaping, Parking Lots, and Low-Profile Buildings
The low price of real-estate during the second half of the 20th century invited sprawling architecture and parking lots in place of the historic and more energy efficient multiple story buildings located on the street front. It also meant that the local roads stopped feeling like contained places that comfort and support pedestrian life.
Asphalt Road Conditions
Another problem with the streets-as-places model in the neighborhood is the patchwork asphalt roads. On one hand it does slow traffic, but on the other hand it makes it appear that the neighborhood does not care for its own infrastructure. The city-dictated maintenance schedule is to blame, so locals have to live with a public eyesore on their doorstep for many years.
Sidewalks with Utility Poles
Why does this happen in the US?
Bell Telephone Building
The destruction of this beautiful building’s facade went beyond a mere loss of historic character. The loss of windows meant that the street lost its status as a watched and cared for place.
10 Best Opportunities for Change in Irvington:
This section is a compilation of my ideas for the neighborhood. They are not official, and I have never submitted them for consideration in any capacity. But the whole point of the exercise is brainstorming, so I hope they get people thinking about ways to improve Irvington, or even inspire people to think about their own local places.
The United States deserves better places, and starting locally is the best way to make that happen. Look around you and start thinking about placemaking and the opportunity we have to recreate our public spaces.
Washington Street Corridor Streetscape
This is a project that will be completed within 2 years. Placemaking is the main purpose, so it should be a great project for the neighborhood.
Extension of Pennsy Trail in Each Direction
Another planned project, but with unknown completion time. This one is important because it will add another reason to be in Irvington and also link many of the favorite places together.
Convert Bonna Street into Linear Market
Currently, Bonna Street is a narrow, non-continuous street paved with a combination of bricks, asphalt, and concrete. The adjoining green space is the future location of the Pennsy Trail extending to Ritter, but is being used as nothing more than a parking area right now.
I propose restoring the brick pavers, extending the Pennsy Trail, and using the street for temporary markets and festivals. This would encourage commercial activity to return to this area, adding additional storefronts to the Historic Irvington area.
New Plaza outside Irvington Branch Library
While the Irvington Branch Library is great as it currently stands, the front sidewalk area is not wide enough to support the impromptu community meetings. In fact, there is no outdoor plaza anywhere on E Wash St corridor that would help groups meet and greet. I have seen lots of activities like bike-rides, rain-barrel workshops, political rallies, and similar events in Irvington. Providing an open location, freely available to anyone that would accommodate 20-50 people would add a key place for the community.
Connecting all Schools Together with Bike/Walk Lanes
The many public, private, and charter schools within the neighborhood can be converted into special places by reducing the need for parking lots and drop-off areas.
Harvested Rainwater Sprinkler Park
Community swimming pools are expensive. They also require a lot of built infrastructure. And then there is the concern that pools may be a waste of potable water. In response to these concerns, I propose adding a Sprinkler Park at Brown’s Corner Park.
The concept is to make it an educational center that explains where recreational water comes from and how the pumps receive power. If no sun is shining and no rain has been falling, then the sprinkler park would not run. This would teach users that water and power are renewable resources, and it’s not just a matter of flipping a switch or turning a faucet.
Because the sprinkler park would have no standing water, it would not require lifeguards or attendants of any kind. The sprinklers would only operate during certain hours, and be freely available. No chain-link fences required.
Greenscaping and Bio-retention area for Irvington Square Mall
This parking lot has *way* too much paving and parking spaces. I have never seen the lots filled, which creates the impression of failed businesses. In reality, it’s just too much parking capacity. I propose adding some green elements that tie into the trail. Adding some storefronts along E Wash St would be a great idea too, but I don’t know if the property owners want to add even more square footage to this sprawling commercial area.
Brick Paving along Historic Streets
Brick street paving is a great way to restore historic authenticity to neighborhoods. It also slows down traffic significantly and forces through-traffic to other areas. Pavers also turn impermeable surfaces into permeable ones, reducing stormwater quantity and recharging aquifers. Irvington has more brick streets than any other neighborhood in Indianapolis, but we can always improve the situation by adding more.
My favorite neighborhood with brick streets (aside from Irvington) is German Village in Columbus, Ohio. (see photo) Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA is another great example. (see photo)
Transit Center and Landbanking
Indianapolis is moving towards a regional transit system. It may be 20 years off, but Irvington should start planning for a neighborhood transit center now. It is likely that the B&O lines will be used to run a rail system or a streetcar along E Wash St will be used. (See MPO RTS Study Map here) Either way, the neighborhood should begin thinking about how to accommodate mass transit and for a regional transit system.
In the meantime, a local transit center can be established near the main commercial corridor. Some people think they are just expensive bus stops, but they are much more than that. They are not a waste of money, they are a visible commitment to public transit in the city. Such buildings would be the best possible marketing tool for IndyGo – a stable and sure place for passengers to gather with clearly posted schedules. One great recent example is the Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit (see Arch Tracker page).
The neighborhood must be ready to propose a viable solution that will fit into the larger transit system plan. That will guarantee the neighborhood an important position on the transit line and allow Irvington to help develop the solution.
24hr Communal Television Plaza for Public Viewing
This is probably my most radical proposal. Instead of prohibiting gatherings and preventing loiterers, I would try to encourage it. Set up a plaza for free public use, one with a large television (or several televisions). Instead of people watching 5 hours of television at home every day (Nielsen average for US viewers), people could watch their shows or sports events in a communal setting. This has been very successful for large events like the Olympics or World Cup Soccer, so why not apply the lesson to public spaces year-round?
Public safety is often a concern in these places, but statistics prove that these places are safer than less traveled ones. People are generally civil and obey regulations when other people are around. The spaces that need additional regulations and monitoring are the places that nobody visits. We must not be afraid to let people come together freely, because that is the essence of community.
Investments in infrastructure are a big topic right now. Infrastructure investments create local jobs, they can lower the cost of doing business for the private sector, and they can provide quality of life improvements like clean water and sewage treatment plants. Currently, there is loud debate on all sides of the issue. For the sake of this entry, let us assume that all debaters have honest intentions.
The tools of the debate are well-known by now. Proponents argue on the side of benefits, detractors argue the costs of the work. Both sides have merit, so we compromise and ask for a “cost-benefit analysis” (CBA) to break down the project into facts and figures rather than emotions and promises.
The CBA is a great tool. It is widely used in business and government agencies to compare different alternatives. Key assumptions made in the CBA are:
- Anything can be represented in present day cost, even human life and welfare
- Doing nothing means that present trends will continue
- Potential costs and benefits can be given a real value
A cost-benefit analysis is the kind of thing that engineers love, because it can provide an answer to a difficult question. Engineers sometimes go further and claim that the CBA can prove which option is the right course of action. I don’t trust the CBA analysis that much. There are plenty of ways to skew the results intentionally or introduce bias unintentionally.
A recent example of the CBA being used in debate is the national High-Speed Rail (HSR) network proposals. The analysis was taken up by Edward Glaeser of Harvard/NYT in his set of articles “Is High-Speed Rail a Good Public Investment?” but his conclusions were called into question in the Infrastructurist article “Why Edward Glaeser Got it Wrong: Re-Running the Numbers on High-Speed Rail.” Both articles show the process is very sensitive to initial assumptions and uncertainties.
But the reason I write this is not to point out the difficulties in using this type of analysis, it is to say that it should not be used at all. Government should not be run as a for-profit businesses. Basing decisions solely on cost-benefit analyses, opportunity costs, and return on investment projections means that the cities are rewarding companies and wealthy property owners exclusively.
The amount of wealth generated after infrastructure improvements in a nice part of town will be much higher than the same infrastructure improvements in a below average part of town. The strict use of CBA ensures that poor neighborhoods get bulldozed for suburban highway access, workers ride inexpensive buses rather than rail systems, and pedestrians are only allowed in shopping districts. Should this type of thinking dictate our infrastructure investments?
If the only measure of a project’s worth is how much investment will be generated, then civic governments will fail to provide infrastructure to their citizens equitably. Cities need to remember that they have a duty, enshrined in our founding principles, that all are created equal and all deserve equal treatment.
There have been many transit projects, brownsfield and pollution cleanup projects, and neighborhood development plans derailed by short-sighted opposition. Some people refer to projects that don’t pay for themselves as unacceptable welfare programs, but engineers have always had an ethical responsibility to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” Why are we allowed to abdicate this responsibility when the ROI doesn’t look good?
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.
This small plot of land is only a remant of the city that was (area of interest in blue)
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.
Monument Circle is extraordinary
Traffic is managed within the circle by civic goodwill instead of traffic signals
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.
The east side of downtown has too much green and too many mega-projects
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.
This streetscape is fronted by buildings set back from (or on top of) the sidewalk
Can this even be classified as a sidewalk? Or did the street grow?
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.
Walking East from the Circle rewards visitors with this charming site, but then…
…nothing but parking lots and suburban apartments to thrill our visitors
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.
The Star might find a connection to the city if they physically connect to it
A permit-only parking lot – not a preferred use for this location
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.
The enduring efforts on Mass Ave have led to this latest infill project
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!
This part of town is shameful
Is the CCB part of the problem or part of the solution?
Judging from this sign prohibiting walking on the sidewalk, I’m guessing that the CCB needs to rethink its policies on pedestrians
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.
The Broadbent building along Washington Street was a wise renovation
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.
Lucas Oil Field is a great stadium, but the Colts only play 10 home games
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.
A parking lot visible from Washington Street, how can the owner justify this when tax rates should be astronomical? Good question…
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.
Good urban design
And now for some of my favorite annoyances:
Please Indy, demolish more historic buildings – I prefer spectacular concrete UFOs
This is why people like Urbanophile
want better looking lightposts
, because these don’t even look good at 70MPH
This pathetic sign wouldn’t be necessary if the original building design had included storefronts
The 10th Street corridor is one of Indianapolis’ best preserved commercial areas from the early 1900′s – 1950′s. This area developed as a commercial district serving the east Indianapolis neighborhoods like Woodruff Place, Cottage Home, and Pogue’s Run Trail. Urban Indy had a good post about the area last year. These different neighborhoods are mostly a part of the collective Near Eastside Community Organization (NESCO).
The 10th Street Civic Association is the main street organization which represents the economic development arm of the neighborhood. The neighborhood has been anointed as a favorite for restoration because of its size, proximity to downtown, and historic assets. They have a long wish-list of projects to tackle in the next few years, and have already started knocking out their punch-list.
A popular building type along 10th is the storefront with residential apartments above
Traveling along 10th street offers an opportunity to experience the urban fabric of Indianapolis as it once existed. The great part about this neighborhood is its unbroken character, there are very few locations where the main street feel is lost to suburban style developments. Admittedly, one of the reasons for this is that it has not seen much investment in the past few decades. But it has great potential as a solid residential and commercial tax base for the city of Indianapolis. It has not (yet) been split by an interstate, bulldozed to prepare way for enormous city-county initiatives, nor abused for heavy industrial use. In truth it is a jewel of a neighborhood.
Another storefront building, this one is in great condition with a bus stop in front
The city of Indianapolis stands to gain a huge amount of tax revenue if this area can begin attracting a broad cross-section of residents. Most importantly, the residents in the area can rebuild their urban neighborhood once investment capital begins flowing back into the corridor.
Single story shops with a front door on the sidewalk
The streets have limited parking options, and there are no destination stores for shopping experiences. Many of the operating businesses focus on the needs of the residents and so do not draw visitors from all over the city. The area has an eclectic mix of residents that befits its urban character, and unfortunately this means that many Indiana natives do not feel comfortable here. I think this says more about Indiana natives than the neighborhood, because Indiana seems to have confused pedestrians with criminals.
More mixed use buildings, these are awaiting renovation
However, the neighborhood appears to be winning some major battles. Apart from the blessing of a Superbowl practice facility, the neighborhood has been steadily acquiring grant money to put its plans into actions. The strategy for the area has been carefully worked out, and there will be a lot of effort on keeping the existing walkable infrastructure in place even when new buildings are being built.
The latest July 15th Presentation (WARNING: must view with IE, not Firefox) by Storrow Kinsella is the culmination of nearly a decade of serious urban planning. The volume of materials generated by this study filled a gymnasium during the final meeting. Every contributing property in the area has been documented by architects and a plan for restoration listed. Utilities, zoning, infrastructure, walkability, transit options, and just about anything you can imagine has been closely studied and converted into giant maps, digital overlays, or reduced to meaningful statistics. Neighborhood preferences for investments in place-making, public structures, and land-use policies have been taken into account. The plan is clearly laid out, the first steps have been taken, and everyone in the neighborhood is excited about the progress so far.
As mentioned above, this area will see the construction of the new Superbowl 2012 practice facility (which will be donated to Arsenal Tech High School afterwards). Several local buildings are getting a facelift or even major structural renovations. Many structures are now sporting scaffolds, the equivalent of cranes in historic neighborhoods. Much of the current work is sponsored by public or non-profit groups in the hopes that private development will soon follow.
E. 10th Street had the first building in Indianapolis with a green roof. As of right now, two commercial buildings have a green roof which may be a higher concentration than anywhere else in the city. The John H. Boner center (roof) and the Moonblock building (roof) both have Live Roof systems and were established as proof that the new technology of green design could mesh easily with traditional historic preservation and economic development.
The John H. Boner Community Center is the headquarters of several civic organizations
A stylized bus stop, large sidewalk presence, and green roof help create a unique area
The MoonBlock building has a green roof and has been fully renovated
Another recent development is the Pogue’s Run Grocer (Indy Food Coop). This locally owned grocer should provide residents with a great choice of quality food. I am quite looking forward to the opening this fall. I was able to volunteer for some of the demolition work, so I got to meet some of the people who will be running it as well as seeing the building they will be using as a storefront. Needless to say, it has a lot of potential and is sited in a great location.
The new Pogue’s Run Grocer location
A community owned, not-for-profit grocery store (i.e. a co-op
Salvaged wood from our demolition efforts
Homemade food from the Coop volunteers
Other historic assets include the Rivoli Theater and American Legion building. The theater has an interesting history, and I am hoping that the neighborhood can soon support a new use for it.
The historic Rivoli Theater
The signage needs some TLC, but is in good shape overall
The facade is absolutely authentic
The American Legion Building would make a great owner-occupied space. Old mixed use spaces like this are rare, especially one with a great look. IIRC The Ball State study recommended opening up the old storefront windows. It could be a great neighborhood resource.
The American Legion lodge building
The glazed windows on the upper floor are still in good condition, but the aluminum door and bricked over storefront windows should be replaced with more appropriate materials
The old Emerson Theater now regularly hosts independent bands, which seems to attract a young crowd. Before a show there is plenty of activity on the sidewalks.
The Emerson Theater with a young and enthusiastic crowd waiting for the doors to open
I took this photo because I liked the way the urban setting makes my car more hip
Texas Transportation Institute report on Urban Mobility ranks the major US cities in terms of rush hour problems, measuring lost time, lost money, and excess pollution generated.
I thought it would be interesting to contrast Indianapolis vs. Portland, two cities which have vastly different transportation strategies. A typical complaint in Indianapolis is the lack of a public transportation system. A typical complaint (or at least based on comments from internet forums) is that Portland’s strategies focusing on alternative transportation methods only work because the highways are so underdeveloped that people have no choice but to get out of their car.
Admittedly, the cities are not very similar. But looking at urban population, the comparison is not unjustified. Portland’s policies on urban growth boundaries increase the density of the city, but this comparison is just for fun so I’m not going to look too closely at how to adjust the numbers to account for differences in the two cities.So let us consult the ultimate arbiter, statistics. The cities have the following breakdown:
Portland (2007 report here)
urban population: 1,800,000 (24th)
density: 3333 /sq.mi.
metro population: 2,159,000
lost time rank: 20
lost money rank: 24
excess pollution rank: 24
Indianapolis (2007 report here)
urban population: 1,070,000 (38th)
density: 2098 /sq.mi.
metro population: 1,715,000
lost time rank: 34
lost money rank: 29
excess pollution rank: 30
Looking at the lost time ranking, you can see that both Indianapolis and Portland have slightly worse congestion than their city sizes would suggest. But obviously, both Portland and Indianapolis have been equally successful in their attempts to limit the effect of traffic congestion. Portland has invested heavily in alternative transportation infrastructure, while Indianapolis has expanded their highway system.
However, when you look at lost money and excess pollution generated, Portland seems to fare better than Indianapolis. Portland’s ranking is on par with its size, whereas Indianapolis is generating much more pollution than its size should allow.
As we move closer to putting a price on CO2 emissions, I think the costs incurred by gasoline will continue to rise. Indianapolis’ rankings will fall even further, meaning the city is becoming less efficient and less competitive for future jobs and employers.
The skyline of downtown Indianapolis
Tall buildings are a source of civic pride. They represent technical ability and economic power. Modern cities are defined by their skyline. Young engineers dream of adding their own touch to the cityscape. Tall building construction occurs in phases, and the most recent phase has probably died with the deepening recession. It may be 5 years or 5 decades before the next tall building trend. Tall building designers are a specialized group and are typically well positioned ahead of the start of the next trend. Unfortunately, this means that most engineers will have more experience with a skyline matrix than any actual famous tall buildings.
Construction of the newest Indianapolis hotel tower
For some reason people blame architects and engineers for the lack of tall buildings in their city. Certainly, architects and engineers have become more comfortable with taller buildings as time has passed, and taller heights are easier to achieve. New structural systems, new materials, and new ways to prevent swaying action has led to consistently taller buildings over time.
Throughout the twentieth century US engineers and architects led the way, but now the world is outperforming the US in terms of tall building construction. In fact, the number of foreign tall buildings built in the past decade is staggering. US construction continues along a slow trend but the rest of the world significantly outpaced the US in speed and total numbers of skyscrapers.
I can honestly say it is not our fault that the US is not building skyscrapers as fast. The design expertise for most of these tall buildings has come from US designers, so there is no doubt that the US is still leading the way in technical design. But there is still a feeling that the US is losing some sort of race to assert itself in the international economy.
In reality architects and engineers in the US have no influence over developers and their decisions to build new skyscrapers. No, the demise of US domination over tall buildings has been due to continued suburbanization. The American Dream has killed our cities.
Local market forces determine the height and size of buildings much more than any conscious design decisions. Iconic towers are even more rare than simple tall buildings, because there is a premium on design and construction for a truly unique building no matter what size it is. Developers are not willing to risk such a huge investment unless there is a clear chance for profit. For an in-depth study on this issue, consult The Economics of Super-Tall Towers (full text PDF available) published by CTBUH.
Basically, there are two considerations for developers:
- How much additional square footage is profitable in the current market?
- How big is my plot of land?
To get the height of their new building, they take the total square footage they want to end up with and divide it by the size of their plot.
Smaller plots are difficult for two reasons. The building must be taller for the same square footage, and the slenderness ratio makes the structural system more expensive. Developers are very happy with smaller buildings. They are less expensive, the elevators take up a much smaller percentage of the floor plate area, and they are not terrorist targets (easy to insure).
Companies are reluctant to sponsor construction of a new building these days. Especially with an on-going recession and plenty of leasable space available at inexpensive rates, very few are willing to risk the wrath of shareholders for the headaches of owning an iconic building.
All of this means that there must be a great, compelling reason to build tall. Here in Indianapolis, people desperately want the skyline to fill out. However, there are so many empty parking lots that developers will require a lot more demand before they are willing to take a risk on the premium costs of tall buildings.
Taking Indianapolis as an example, building more tall buildings may not be in our best interest. First, let us assume there is sufficient demand for more leasable floor space. For a tall building in a downtown so centered around car commuting, each tower must have a large parking garage next to it (or under it). In addition to the space lost to the garage (and any existing buildings that are cleared to build it), the road system must be expanded to accommodate the new commuters. Instead of densifying the downtown area it is now spreading out, losing nearby businesses in order to accommodate transportation of workers.
Basically, tall buildings are most appropriate in a dense, urban environment. If the downtown relies on car commuters, it cannot achieve the density necessary for successful tall buildings. Ignoring this caveat, certain communities have achieved tall building construction in a suburban area, but the buildings are out of context and at their base are nothing more than an attempt to draw attention and proclaim relevance as something they are not.
This type of environment is an entirely new invention. Drivers leave from their garage at home and drive directly to their garage at work. The need for roads and garages spaces the buildings apart so far that no infill development occurs. It is not an urban environment, it is a suburban environment with a sense of inadequacy. And I suppose if that is what people want, they can have it. But it is just as authentic as the EIFS clad southwest style grocery store sitting behind the hundred acre parking lot.
In order for a skyscraper to contribute to a dense urban environment and really make a difference in the local economy, a few items have to happen:
- all existing buildings must be leased at profitable rates (Indianapolis is not there yet)
- all existing surface lots must be converted to income producing leasable spaces, typically of a low rise density (Indy is at least one decade from this step)
- a public transportation system must be in place that can collect and distribute people from around the city to a single point (Indy is probably three decades from this)
If these requirements are not met, then asking for more tall buildings is just asking for a failed development. You can’t even give away a tall building downtown right now. There is just no demand to fill it.
So, if you are a fan of urban spaces and want to see more investment in your skyline, here is a simple recipe:
Don’t just take up space, take up space in the central core. Without a strong demand for leasable space, no additional supply will be built.
Look for work options downtown. Petition your office decision makers to locate in the central core. Once again, this increases demand and makes it an easy decision for the city and developers to move forward on their plans.
Use public transit options
Without public transit, cars will need to be parked and moved around. This dramatically reduces density, and makes tall buildings less viable. Pedestrian options are reduced as well.
Support local business
The businesses most likely to lease space in that shiny new building are local ones.
Support infrastructure initiatives
Expect to pay higher taxes. The extra costs associated with the urban core are manifold, including security for tourists and commuters, reconfiguring water & electric services, and caring for indigents. Don’t be upset about it, because this is the cost of society. For when someone isn’t paying their share, the rest of us must pay it for them.
New civilizations are built on the ashes of old, and so cities ever grow higher by adding layers. Peel back some of the growth rings and experience a slice of life as it once was.
The old rail lines in front of Audubon Court in Irvington, East of downtown Indianapolis
Downtown Indianapolis during the days of the streetcars
Earlier last week, Indianapolis used the asphalt eaters to strip down East Washington Street in preparation for finish work on the new interchange with I-69/I-70. By good luck, I happened to be driving through and took some photos of the old street car lines that were exposed.
The bad part is that I had to take the photos at night, so please excuse my poor photographs. It was covered up by the next day, so there was no opportunity to come back in daylight.
DIG-B also covered this in an earlier post, but I wanted to share the experience once again. See Urbanophile’s post for a full description and aerial image of the interchange.
This shot has several exposed rails and the original brick infill
A close-up view of the rail and brick
Here’s a modern take on the streetcar scene by Circles and Squares, downtown business interests want the old streetcars back in some fashion or another. I know in some sense it is sad that these old bits of history have been covered up, but the bright side is that they are well protected for the time being.
The “bridge to nowhere” is a classic concept in transportation structures. Even taking a minor role in the 2008 presidential election debate, the bridge to nowhere always faces opposition from those not expecting to benefit. For some reason, people view these bridges as an excuse for the government to reward construction firms that have acquired political favor.
The Atlanta Downtown Connector gives residents a chance to catch up with each other on a daily basis
What people should realize, however, is that everyone benefits when these bridges are built way out in the Middle of Nowhere, USA. For the past half century, citizens have been held ransom to the whims of people like Robert Moses (“cities are for traffic”), whereby neighborhood have been demolished for the purpose of moving machines. Even historically significant neighborhoods, such as Martin Luther King Jr’s neighborhood, have been cut in two by highway plotters.
the city planner at work
Here in Indianapolis, the “Crossroads of America”, we have sacrificed much of our downtown area to ease access to our tall building and parking garages. Imagine all of the historic neighborhoods that could have been saved if only we had convinced the heavy-handed and delusional city leaders to focus their attentions on building a bridge worthy of the Circle City somewhere else, maybe just outside the city limits for example.
an aptly named local establishment
This is the great benefit of bridges to nowhere: they are built away from cities. The discredited theory of Urban Renewal sponsored by megalomaniacal politicians is no longer necessary! Elected officials have finally discovered how to subsidize their friends without ruining our neighborhoods. In fact, Brasilia may be the most progressive historic preservation project ever undertaken.
Now the NYT has an article complaining about rural development receiving all the ARRA attention. Don’t complain, celebrate! At least nobody is threatening eminent domain for a new shopping mall in your neighborhood.
The Urban Planning Scholar Series hosted a Complete Streets (also wikipedia entry) training session on June 29-30th in Indianapolis. The event was split into two parts: 1) the traditional 2 hour lecture, and 2) a full 1.5 day workshop on winning complete street policies in your local jurisdictions. Because AARP sponsored the event, admission was free. I only attended the first session, because work was slow in the office, but not that slow.
The lecture was given by Randy Neufeld, a complete streets strategic management consultant, who focused on the basics of complete streets and why it benefits so many people. He also discussed what the complete streets program is not attempting to do:
- put a prescriptive design manual in place
- put bike lanes on every street
- reduce traffic capacity
One concept of complete streets is that an optimized traffic system that considers only automobiles is actually not optimized at all. It forces everyone to drive, even for small trips. This results in more cars on the roadway thus increasing travel times. By designing the roadways for all users (especially those who don’t drive cars) the traffic load is reduced and other users of the road including pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit users have full access.
Perhaps the best argument I heard during the lecture was that Complete Streets policies encourage economic activity. Pedestrians and bicyclists can now access stores and shops that they would not have felt safe traveling to without the new policies. Also, because fewer parking spaces are necessary, the policies encourage denser development with less wasted space.
Complete street policies are based around the idea that there is no prescriptive solution that works in all situations. The street designers are tasked with a new policy that “ensures that transportation agencies routinely design and operate the entire right of way to enable safe access for all users”. For more examples go the the Complete Streets Flickr page.
One important item addressed by the complete streets policy is that of access to public transit options. I have often seen cities invest in buses with the capacity to handle disabled transit users. However, if the bus stops are not set up correctly, the system has failed. Just outside my office where I work there is a pitiful bus stop without a curb cut and with no sidewalks nearby. In combination with the narrow road and steep slopes on each side of the road the safety for pedestrians is reduced significantly. It is virtually impossible to use this road with a wheelchair.
A world class bus stop for our world class city
Not an inviting streetscape for pedestrians
This area provides a huge amount of jobs, but the message it sends is that only cars are welcome. Even when I attempt to cross the narrow street for lunch it is a risky procedure. There are absolutely no provisions for people in this commercial park. This is exactly the kind of thing that complete street policies are trying to avoid. It will be quite expensive to retrofit this area, but it could have been provided at little cost in the beginning. I imagine the city and the property owners will resist upgrades in this area for as long as possible, contributing to pedestrian risk and economic segregation.
On a weekend in the middle of June, I was scheduled to attend a friend’s wedding on Long Island. I decided this would be an excellent opportunity for a short trip to NYC. My sister works at an architectural firm in Manhattan, so I had a place to stay and a good guide to the city.
My initial reaction upon arrival was one of joy, as our plane was delayed until late in the night and my sister greeted me and my wife at the door with New York style pizza and a place to sleep. Thus began a great journey to the cosmopolitan mecca of the US.
The ubiquitous brownstone front entry is a fixture of New York residential areas
Manhattan is made of wide avenues and narrow streets, historic masonry and steel skycrapers
My observations focused on the built environment, whereas my wife was much more interested in social studies. This is where New York excels, I was able to photograph and study buildings, infrastructure, transportation options, etc. while we walked to and from different neighborhoods shopping for trendy clothes and exploring exotic dining options.
The avenues facilitate transportation
I can say this about the transportation system of NYC: it works. On our trip, it worked beautifully. We did not need to rent a car, we were able to find public transportation to all of our destinations (even on our excursion to the middle of nowhere in Long Island). Walking within Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens was easy and accommodated by the street layouts. Just don’t expect to go anywhere slowly, you’ll get pushed into the gutter by the kind but delightfully no-nonsense commuters.
An approaching subway train
Interestingly, the transportation system was also my biggest complaint. There were two many cars and not enough pedestrian right-of-ways. Barring Columbus Circle (which was probably my favorite place of the city) and Central Park, there was not many places where cars did not rule the road. Broadway / Times Square was recently pedestrianized (and see NY Post article also) but it’s too soon to tell if this will be a sign of things to come or just a one-off event. Of course, this is what got me thinking about cars as a public transportation option. According to the sources I have read, NYC is trying to phase out parking spaces, excess width on roadways, and generally reverting to a pedestrian oriented city. I think they are making some good steps, but a place like NYC really needs to create extraordinary spaces of a similar quality to Columbus Circle (see ASLA 2006 Awards) in order to stand out. I did not have a chance to see the High Line (also see Friends of the High Line), but it’s first on my list when I return.
The Columbus Circle as seen from Time Warner building
The splashing water provides white noise to block out sounds of traffic
The circle offers an area of refuge and an urban collector for pedestrian traffic between the park and the city
Central Park has a huge amount of development along each side
And seriously, the loss of Penn Station is acutely felt by the city. I traveled through the station the same day that the Infrastructurist published his post on station demolition (and follow-up). The new structure is entirely unsatisfactory. I’m glad that people are still incensed by the demolition. Some idiotic New Yorker left his legacy of demolition on the city, that’s for sure. The best summary is the quote from Vincent Scully comparing the experience of the old station to the new: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
The original Penn Station and its position in the city
Interior of Penn Station
The new Penn Station is underground, served only by street access
The new station interior is an overcrowded, depressing affair
On the other hand, Grand Central Station was nice. I was impressed by the structure and its continued use. Of course, the streets surrounded the station more than any other made you feel the oppressive impact that the wide streets and fast cars were having on the city. Another great opportunity for pedestrian-only space, IMHO.
Grand Central Station exterior
The nearby traffic structures and second-class pedestrian access to Grand Central Station make the experience unimpressive
We had horrible weather, set a record for rain received on the day we were there. I would not want to be swimming in the Hudson later that weekend (one of my sister’s friends was preparing for a charity triathlon, yikes!). Obviously the CSO system is something that NYC must work on. And they are. But it’s not as easy as just adding an independent pipe system, the amount of sub-surface utilities in that place is unbelievable. Basically there is no room for more right-of-ways. They have a legacy system of CSO’s and they are going to have to be very creative in their solutions.
The structures of New York City are certainly world famous. I spent a lot of time with a craned neck looking up into the clouds at the tops of skyscrapers.
The Empire State Building with its spire finally peaking through the rain clouds
The best structure in NYC, the Chrysler Building
The GM / RCA building of the Rockefeller Center
The skyscrapers didn’t impress me too much. Like every tall building I know, you have to be far away to appreciate them. Or at least that was my thoughts until I saw the new Hearst Tower. I really loved this building. If you get a chance, walk inside and check out the lobby. The security guards can actually tell you some interesting facts, don’t be afraid to ask.
The unique diagrid structural system catches attention from every angle
The base of the tower, originally built to support a great tower (it took 80 years)
The important thing about the Hearst Tower is that is a great example of how modern architecture can still impress in a way that is so different but equally perfect to the old skyscrapers. The first LEED certified tall building in the city, and it kept the historic facade of the old structure. Perfection – architecturally, structurally, and socially.
random picture #1: when one awning just isn’t enough (east side of Central park)
random picture #2: cast iron columns with built-in beam seats on the capital (Brooklyn Industries clothing store)
Our journey to Brooklyn was prompted by a quest for corn. As I’m currently living in a city surrounded by corn on every side (Indianapolis), I was skeptical that the corn would be worth it. I was wrong, it was fabulous. And the restaurant, Havana Outpost, is worth a stop on anyone’s journey. Catfish burritos, nothing more to say. This little place has a small enclosed seating area with local beers on tap, but their outdoor areas are a showcase of doing things the right way. Solar electric panels, rain water collection (used for watering an urban garden and water for the bathrooms), and human-powered cocktail mixers make this place an absolute success.
The Havana Outpost lamp and nearby solar panel
The exterior dining area – note the solar panels on the left, water collection system in the center, and the stationary truck where all the food is prepared
you can prepare a frozen cocktail on the human powered blender (too much rain on our visit, bike was put away for safe-keeping)
a bona fide rain water collection system proves that environmental solutions don’t have to be expensive or fancy, just effective