Friday, December 29th, 2006

Project Review: Indianapolis 38th St. Reconstruction and Streetscape

The City of Indianapolis just completed a 3-year, $28.1 million project to completely reconstruct 38th St. from I-65 to Fall Creek Parkway. 38th St. is the principal cross-town arterial between downtown and 86th St., passing through many highly developed commercial and residential areas, as well as the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and other destinations. The typical cross-section is a four or six lane divided roadway. The project area is heavily used by commuters as an alternative to the interstate system for reaching downtown.

This section of 38th had deteriorating pavement and passed through some deteriorating neighborhoods. Basically a major highway passing through the center of the city, 38th was fairly hostile to its neighborhood, though the high volume of traffic had attracted some businesses such as Starbucks. When reconstructing the road, the city and the Maple Road Development Association decided to try to do something to enhance the road beyond just replacing the pavement. The end result was a major streetscape renovation including new sidewalks, median planters, decorative pedestrian crossings, wayfinder signage, and a design theme built around a maple leaf. (38th St. was originally known as Maple Road).

Now that the project is complete it’s possible to take a look back and see what was accomplished. I evaluate all projects based on a single standard: true excellence. The fact that a project is better than something it replaces is not good enough. Whether or not it is better than what is generally considered good elsewhere in the area is not a factor. Rather, for anyplace which aspires to be a great city, the standard is the best that is being done anywhere in the world. That’s the bar that needs to be set. Too often cities delude themselves, congratulating themselves for doing things that may be good by the historical standards of their town, but which would be nothing special elsewhere. The world is a competitive place. Cities and regions are in competition with one another. So just beating yourself isn’t good enough in this day – you have to beat everyone else too. Because other cities are striving hard to better themselves as well. The competition never stands still.

It’s been said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. That’s certainly true. In many cases, a less standard than perfection is all that is achievable, and you need to make realistic tradeoffs. But with this 38th St. project, the aspiration level was set high. And with a cost of $28.1 million, it certainly has a price tag for perfection. It’s one thing to do something middle of the road and save money doing it. It’s quite another to spend large sums of money that should buy a higher quality product and not get your money’s worth.

So did Indianapolis get it’s money’s worth? The results are mixed. There are some generally good things about the project, including a number of them that are worthy of adoption elsewhere in the city. But there are also some misses as well. Fortunately, with one major exception, most of the misses could be corrected later for a reasonable cost.

So what’s good?

1. The best element is the new median planters. These not only upgrade the road to add landscaping, they also bring two key needed features that have potentially wide applicability to the city as a whole. First, the design is very “formalistic”. That is, it is very architectural and has the clear appearance of human design. Most of Indy’s suburbs have decided they want a “naturalistic” look for their roads, as if they were passing through untouched virgin landscape. Hazeldell Parkway in Carmel is an example of this style. But Indianapolis is urban, and a more formalistic approach is in line with that. It’s this formal design that makes urban spaces such as Paris’ Jardin du Luxembourg so wonderful. It’s landscaped, but very obviously designed. Closer to home, Garfield Park provides a good example. Pulling off formal design of this type can be difficult. It is very easy to come across as sterile or artificial, making your design look too much like a suburban office park setting. But 38th is done right. This type of formal design approach to roadways and landscaping is something Indy should look to adopt city-wide, both as appropriate to its urban setting and to differentiate it from the direction the suburbs are going.

The other nice element is the maple leaf iconography. This provides a design signature to the corridor, but most importantly ties the roadway design to the place it is located and to the history of the area. Too much design, even good design, lacks a sense of place. This anchoring back to the history of Maple Road makes it clear that this road is on the north side of Indianapolis, not some other location. Adopting a design signature like this is something the city should adopt as general design principle. I would suggest taking these median planter designs and extending them throughout the city when roads are reconstructed. The Maple Leaf icon could be replaced with either a local specific icon or with the crossroads emblem from the city flag. This would produce a notable design signature so that when you saw one of these, even if you didn’t know exactly where you were, you would know you were in Indianapolis. One big problem with Indianapolis today is that it lacks these design cues that give a sense of place. Most roadways are identical to those elsewhere in Indiana and similar to those in other cities around the country. While Indianapolis should never lose sense that it is an Indiana city, it also needs to have its own uniqueness as well.

New median planters on 38th St. From the city’s web site. Note the maple leaf detail and formal design appearance.

2. Another positive is the decorative crosswalk paving. These pavers not only look nice – I particularly like the color – but they give a sense of permanence that mere paint doesn’t. This is a timeless design that would have looked good 50 years ago and will look good 50 years from now. They also fit in well with the formalistic design of the project. Again, this is what the Indianapolis should be doing at every intersection in the city for every construction project. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, it is yet another design cue that would provide a sense of place to the city. The street name emblazoned on the sidewalk is another nice touch.

Crosswalks at 38th and Washington Bvld. Note how the two crosswalks intersect in a curved area that echoes the curb and provides a subtle circle motif. The different textures on the street and on the sidewalk ramp provide visual and tactile cues to know when you potentially in traffic and not. And the concrete strip outlining the crosswalks adds definition. Excellent.

3. The new wayfinder signage is another highlight. They feature the maple motif and are also identical in design to the signs used downtown. Simliar to my suggestion for the medians, the city replaced the “quadrant” icon at the top with a maple leaf. This gives you the double-whammy of building an overall sense of place in Indianapolis, plus further identifying the neighborhood. My only complaint is that these signs are a bit too much like those I’ve seen elsewhere, but that’s a nitpick. See the link list before for a photo.

4. The project used concrete pavement, which should prove very durable. This is much better than full depth asphalt and shows that the city did not cheap out.

5. Doing a hyperfix approach for the White River bridge section was a great way to accelerate that construction and minimize user inconvenience during that phase.

So the good is in spots very, very good and offers a template of how Indianapolis can improve its transportation infrastructure and give a sense of place at the same time. Will the city take advantage of it? History suggests otherwise. Previous development is replete with examples of good design that were never extended city-wide. The city generally does a good job of taking care of its special places such as Monument Circle or this road. But the mark of a great city is not how it treats its special places – everyplace does those up right – but how it treats its ordinary spaces. Hopefully the elements from this project will not end up like others.

So if that’s the good, what’s not so good? A few things:

1. The project did not include full sidewalks. I was quite frankly suprised to see that while the city replaced the existing sidewalks, it did not add much additional coverage. There are still parts of the road where there is either only a sidewalk on one side or even no sidewalk at all. This includes prominent locations such as the IMA frontage. Basically the city punted completely on adding sidewalks west of Michigan Rd., despite the recently adopted regional pedestrian plan calling for them. This is a major disappointment, but one that can likely be corrected later by simply adding sidewalks for the missing segments. Also, the sidewalk width was Indianapolis standard, which is really too narrow for any type of real pedestrian district. I would have preferred to have seen them done wider, though this may have required some problematic right-of-way acquisition. Even most suburban arterials feature a wider multi-use path on one side. On roads like this I’d prefer a 10′ sidewalk width. Failing to fill in the sidewalks gaps was a big miss.

2. The stop light and street light designs are characterless. Originally the plans called for decorative boulevard style lighting (see link below for renderings), but these apparently got scrapped largely in favor of generic silver metal poles of the type one would expect to find on an interstate, not a city street. Also, the stop lights use a standard Indiana mast arm, albeit painted black. Admittedly, this is better than dangling the lights off wires, which is the normal standard operating procedures, but adds nothing to the formalistic design or sense of place. These are could-be-anywhere features.

Stop light and street light at 38th and Washington Blvd. Note the interstate like lighting pole and the fact that its height is out of scale to the neighborhood. The stop light mast arm is a standard Indiana design painted black. The stoplights themselves have been fully painted black instead of yellow, which is extremely rare in Indiana.

The really frustrating thing here is that the city already has spectacular designs for both stop light masts and street lights. These are the ones used around Circle Centre Mall in the Wholesale District downtown. The stop light masts are simply the best I’ve ever seen. They are clean, elegant, and timeless. In short, true classics.

Stop light mast in downtown Indianapolis.

The street lights are not as clean a design, and are replicas of old gas lamp to boot, but they also give off a high tech appearance too, which makes them also seem like they could be from any time or era. This is an example of what I mentioned earlier, that great designs don’t get propagated beyond where they originated. Using the Wholesale District lights would have gone a long way towards blending with the overall design and building that sense of place. To the best of my knowledge, the city has only ever used them outside of downtown once, though, and that is by the Children’s Museum. These great designs, at a mimimum the stoplight mast, should be adopted as city-wide standards. Fortunately for 38th St., it should be possible to replace these lights and masts at a future date at a reasonable cost. It again strikes me as unlikely the city would do it, but the possibility is there if the desire ever arises.

3. The construction time line was just too long. Other than the hyperfix section, three years to reconstruct this route was crazy. In the future, a much more accelerated schedule should be used. The fact that this project took three years though is another reason why the city should expect a world class product when finished.

The real problem with this road, however, is existential. That is, this project took the notion of 38th St. as an automobile oriented cross-town thoroughfare and maintained it.

38th St. as a six lane, auto-oriented superhighway.

This project offered the opportunity to rethink 38th St. and its relationship to the neighborhoods it passes through. Today, 38th St. is a highway for commuters. The focus is moving traffic. The road does not really serve the neighborhood. In fact, the road actually divides the neighborhood in two. It’s no surprise that the neighborhoods north and south of 38th are very different in character given what a barrier the road is. There are a lot of neighborhood commercial structures on 38th and on adjacent streets like Illinois. Re-thinking the road into a neighborhood-serving instead of commuter-serving road would have offered the opportunity to bridge the barrier between north and south, and build a signature neighborhood commercial district. The current design is only suited to luring the types of tenants that have since located there, including a drive-thru Starbucks and drug stores that easily could be located in the suburbs.

How might the road have been designed? I would suggest that between Crown Hill Cemetary and Fall Creek Parkway, the road could have been reduced to two lanes in each direction. This would have allowed various alternative designs to be used, such as allowing on street parking, expanding the sidewalks and including bike lanes, or perhaps most ambitiously turning the outside lanes into something like the Downtown Cultural Trail.

It’s clear there are competing interests here and the decision to re-orient the street was not a slam dunk. Still, I have not seen evidence that this was evaluated in any serious way. Questioning the obvious and coming up with ambitious dreams of what could be are things world-class cities do every day. And they aren’t afraid to take big risks and purusing them. It’s something Indianapolis needs to learn how to do if it wants to reach the next level. A more radical makeover of 38th may not ultimately have been the right decision, but it’s a decision that deserved front and center evaluation. Of all the possible flaws in the project, this would be the most difficult to correct because of the high cost involved. Still, it is something that could be done without having to rip out and replace everything should the city ever decide to do so.

I would strongly advocate that the city find the money to replace the stop light masts and street lights, replacing them with the Wholesale District standards. The signal controllers, wiring, etc. could remain in place. The masts and lights could even by re-used elsewhere or sold to another city to defray the cost of doing this. Also, the sidewalks on both sides should be completely filled in through the project length. If these simple actions where taken, it would really go a long way towards making this a truly first rate project. As it is, the 38th St. project, while better than what it replaced, falls short of that goal.

Here are various links to project information:

City Project Fact Sheet (PDF – includes pictures of the boulevard light renderings and the wayfinder signs)
Construction Photos (includes some before and after pics)
Historic Maple Road Photos

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

The “Hotel Mundane”

What easier target for my first post than the selection of the Marriott Hotel proposal by the city of Indianapolis as its new downtown convention headquarters hotel. This had been a contest between a Browning Development led group pitching a 1000-room, 44-story Hotel Intercontinetal on the present site of Pan Am Plaza and a Whiteco group pitching an 800-room JW Marriott anchored hotel collection to replace the current Marriott Courtyard just west of West St. north of Victory Field.

The Intercontinental proposal. This is a 44-story skyscraper located in the core of downtown. While not a building of true architectural significance, it would have been a big step up for Indianapolis.

The Marriott proposal. This is a generic glass box, similar to the existing Marriott.

The Intercontinental proposal, which would have added a bit of flair to Indy’s skyline, received a significant amount of local press and was widely viewed as a shoe-in to win to be picked by Mayor Peterson’s 7-member selection panel. So when the Marriott proposal was picked, there was quite an outcry. But I was shocked to see just how violently the public reacted. The Indy Star’s feedback forums registered post counts into the hundreds, with virtually all of them opposed to the recommendation. I’ve never seen such unanimity of opinion on an issue, or such vitriol. The biggest complaints were that the city missed an opportunity to jazz up its skyline, and that the Marriott proposal is both bland and suburban in character.

I’m in 100% sympathy with the complainers. I believe that this is one of the handful of the worst downtown development decisions ever made in the history of the city. The list of reasons why this was a terrible decision is quite lengthy, and include:

1. The design of the Marriott proposal is exceptionally bland, even by the standards of Indianapolis. The city is attempting to spin this by saying that the Marriott plan is not set in stone and it will be a more interesting building, taller, more rooms, etc. But we’ve all seen this movie before. The city said the same thing when the Simon company proposed a very bland 15-story building on a city park. The end result was still an utterly undistinguished building. I expect nothing different here. The fact that the Marriott team is being allowed to so radically change its proposal after being awarded the deal also raises serious questions about whether this was ever a fair and open competition.

Compare the design of the Indianapolis JW Marriott to those in other cities around the world, and you wonder why Marriott Hotels would even allow their flagship brand to be associated with such an undistinguished building.

2. The Marriott proposal is clearly suburban in character. This is a “complex” of hotels including such interstate exit chains as the Courtyard by Marriott and the Fairfield Inn. Again, you wonder why Marriott would allow their flagship brand to be positioned in the same complex as much lower end properties.

3. The Marriott hotel is far from the core of downtown and is designed a self-contained complex. Unlike the Intercontinental proposal, this is an insular development that will not drive street level traffic.

4. The Marriott is inappropriately located next to the baseball stadium, where even from the developer’s own renderings it is a gigantic wall blocking the view to the north.

5. Nothing in the Marriott proposal has anything to do with Indianapolis. This is a “could be anywhere” hotel. Indeed, if the past is any judge, it is a soon be everywhere hotel. Whiteco was the backer of the previous downtown Marriott and after proving its commercial viability, took a short 100 mile drive down to Louisville and built a clone. There’s nothing stopping Whiteco from cloning this complex in competitor cities as well, except perhaps that few of them are likely to want it.

6. The justifications offered by the city were pathetic and again make the deal seem fishy. They cited an ability to guarantee a 2010 opening for the NCAA Final Four. Given that the city was already awarded the Final Four, this is a dubious rationale. It just does not strike me as the real reason.

At the end of the day, Whiteco is a billboard company from Merrilliville. Their DNA is thoroughly suburban. The JW Marriott hotel would have been a great addition to Keystone at the Crossing, but it is completely inappropriate to downtown Indianapolis.

It’s a competitive environment out there. People have choices in where they want to live. I’m not so sold on this whole notion of the “creative class” as the ticket to civic riches, but there’s certainly something there.

Indiana has been bleeding its college educated youth for years now. Local leaders always bemoan a “lack of jobs” as the reason people leave, as if jobs were the cause of the college educated fleeing rather than an effect. The reason the jobs jobs aren’t there is because the college educated left. They don’t want to live in Indiana. That’s the cold reality. Third rate architecture like the Marriott plays a big role in creating the civic climate of a place that’s just not inspirational and not attractive to people with big dreams and big plans of their own. If you are an ambitious 25 year old full of self-confidence and the desire to make something big for yourself, are you more likely to want to live in a city that shares your values, or in a place that settles for mediocrity? The impact of items like this cannot be overstated.

I found it very interesting that so many of the comments on the message boards came from former Hoosiers who now live away. It’s interesting to see how many of them still follow events back home, and their sense of betrayal shows that there is a still a powerful emotional connection with those who have left. Trying to put the best spin on things, I’d take solace in that at least. These are the people who can be convinced to come back if you give them a reason to. Alas, this hotel is not that. A couple of quotes from Indy alumni:

“Absolutely one of the worst decisions made in the history of planning & development in the city. This is an outrage of bad politics, bad location, poor design, and worst of all… weak, unimaginative city leaders. I do not live in Indy anymore and I am now outraged. I left years ago to attend school on the West Coast and stayed. After giving some thought of returning some day due to signs of emerging progressive and interesting developments, this decision alone has altered any of those previous thoughts.” – A poster from

“I am so dissapointed in this decision. We finally have the opportubity to dramatically change the skyline with a beautiful (and MOST ARCHITECTURALLY UNIQUE)skyscraper and these old fogies pick THIS!!!?!?!?!?


I dont live there anymore but decisions like this one PISS me off!” – A poster from the Indy Star

These are typical of the remarks. Again, in search of a silver lining here, it is great news to see the citizenry thinking and arguing passionately about architecture and design in Indianapolis. It is traditionally been totally off the radar there. There was a smattering of complaints about the Simon headquarters. But this is a true gusher. To its credit, the Indy Star actually has joined the bandwagon, christening the Marriott as the “Hotel Mundane”. The Star publisher wrote an article which cited the great projects cities like Louisville are doing. And many letters to the editor have been published.

One thing the Star has exposed is how the very architecture professionals you would expect to be the champions of quality design are actually no such thing. For example, John Coddington, who is the head of the architecture school at Ball State, had this to say, “One doesn’t necessarily have to have good architecture. It just needs to be distinctive architecture.” It boggles the mind. If I were a Ball State architecture student, I’d consider a transfer pronto. Steve Mannheimer, former Star architecture critic and someone I once admired as a voice crying in the wilderness for good design, basically took a pass on criticizing it as well.

Lest anyone think I believe the Intercontinental design was a smash hit, let me just clarify that I do not so think. But I do think it was a decent design that was in an excellent location and was far, far superior to the Marriott.

Ultimately, I consider this hotel selection a microcosm of everything that is right and wrong with Indianapolis. What’s right is a city that is now at a stage in its growth cycle where it can think bigger about thousand room hotels and taking the next step in its development. What’s wrong is a city with leaders that do not aspire to greatness and do not understand the world their city is competing in. They’ve spent way too much time reading and believing their own press about how wonderful Indy is. Call it one step forward, but two very big steps back.

To give a flavor of public opinion, here are some sample comments from various message boards:

“Once again, small-town vision results in a small-town choice. Just like the Airport, the Stadium and most other major projects in Indy, this has no architectural value and keeps Indy where I guess it belongs–second tier.”

“I have been a resident of the city my entire life, and I’ve always been proud of the progress the city has made in revitalizing downtown. This project negates every inch of progress made.”

“Not only is it ugly, but it is located in the absolute wrong location. This project will not add to the street presence or the core of downtown. By building it in a no-mans-land west of West Street, the people in this building will not be as inclinded to walk down Illinois Street to eat, shop, or stroll. Instead, they will stay inside of this little suburban complex and only venture out to the Convention Center via an enclosed skybridge.”

“Someone needs to explain to these guys the value of good architecture. That is one ugly building that everyone is going to look at for years to come at Victory Field and White River State Park.”

“It’s a constant challenge to recruit international talent to re-locate to Indy and this decision is somewhat symbolic of our struggle. Indy doesn’t have the best brand; a boxy, boring-Marriott village protruding out of centerfield probably won’t help. This is great . . . we now have a Marriott, a Marriott and another Marriott. If we’re lucky, maybe we can get a water park in the lobby. Love my town, got to go . . . I’m off to eat a cheeseburger and smoke a cigarette. All kidding aside, this is just disappointing and another reason we’re just an average Midwestern town.”

“Bad Idea – This will in no way make any college grads want to stick around in a 2nd tier, middle of the road, boring city. As a recent grad (2004) this makes me want to move to Chicago. City leaders are making a poor choice. “

“We taxpayers are expected to PAY to have this eyesore put up! If our tax money is going to be used, it should at least go to a facility which adds to the beauty of the surrounding environment, not detracts from it. I cannot believe that so much public and private money has been invested to improve and beautify downtown, only to have this blemish added to it!”

“Absolutely one of the worst decisions made in the history of planning & development in the city. This is an outrage of bad politics, bad location, poor design, and worst of all… weak, unimaginative city leaders. The location of this bland, weak, suburban complex of hotels located far from the city core will do very little to help create a vital and rich dense urban fabric where it is needed most – in the center of the mile square. It’s not only about banal design and lack of height. Why can’t Indy grow and develop in similar fashion to great emerging cities such as Austin, Portland and Charlotte? What about smart planning / mass transit, sustainable growth all withing walking distance of already well established venues and attractions? What a waste. This is not for the CITIZENS but for car oriented out-of-towners who can also play in the waterpark with kids. That’s a nice and necessary thing, but it could have so much more. What a waste of space, placemaking, and possibilites of greatness for the heart of the city in so many other related areas of commerce as well as showmanship. Shame on you leaders. Go read a book a sensible design. Yet again, another terrible missed opportunity for the city.”

“The proposed Marriot hotel is an eyesore, and it is in a the wrong location. It will be a big, ugly building looming over what is right now a very attractive public park which took years of work and hundreds of millions of tax dollars to develop into the wonderful public space it is. It will cut the park off from the rest of the city, and ruin the view from Victory Field.

Moreover, it will cost the taxpayers of Marion County $55 million! If public funds are going to be used to subsidize a private development, then the development should at least contribute to the community, not detract from it”

“There are far too many “dumb” decisions that have been made/continue to be made downtown. For every example of getting it right, we have made two for getting it wrong. It’s as if the City leaders threw their hands in the air and gave up on development south of South Street. Too often developers cry to whomever will listen in an effort to gettheir way all while using the threat of taking the development elsewhere. Well, in 1984 that may have been a justifiable response, but in 2006, if a developer is looking at downtown Indy, they want in downtown Indy.”

“Indianapolis doesn’t have an ocean or mountains to off-set our boring and homogenous skyline. We have to rely on the built environment to make a “first impression.””

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Welcome to the Urbanophile

Welcome, and thank you for reading. Camus claimed that whether or not to commit suicide was the question of philosophy. Well, for blogs, the question is, “Why create yet another blog?” So I feel compelled to offer this apology.

This blog is going to be something I’ve seen no where else: a no-hold’s barred, spare no illusions look at aspiring cities, focused on the smaller cities of the Midwest and Indiana. You’ll find my ofttimes contrarian take on urban planning, economic development, transportation, what it means to be “world class”, and how places measure up against that standard. But beyond that you’ll get unique data and analysis you won’t find anywhere else.

I’ve often said the measure of a newspaper column is, having seen the title and the author, whether or not you even need to read it. So often there’s no point. You already know what the person in question is going to say and there’s nothing new to be gained. I’m going to strive to be judged by that standard. Over time, you will no doubt come to know my opinions and principles, which will allow you to predict my opinion on a subject. But I hope you’ll always find the posts worth reading because there is something in there you didn’t know and didn’t expect.

My goal is no less than to change to course of history. Or failing that, to at least cause people with an open mind to at least think and ponder on points of view they may not have considered before.

Barring blatantly inappropriate posts, I plan to leave comments wide open, so please post away. I expect and indeed hope for violent disagreement in many areas. That’s ok. But please try to lay off any personal attacks. I myself plan to live by this rule. I’m going to be hard hitting, but I’m going to try not to criticize individuals. I’ll certainly criticize decisions, statements, and actions taken by individuals, but so often people who do things that are, well, stupid, aren’t doing it out of maliciousness or even stupidity. But they lack awareness and are trapped in a system that doesn’t let them do what otherwise they might. So I’m going to try to “not hate the player, hate the game”. But I may not always stick to this as there are a handful of people I think have wrought so much harm, they deserve to be named and shamed.

Comments Off on Welcome to the Urbanophile

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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