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 skyscrapercity.com

“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!!!?!?!?!?

INDY WILL NOT EVER BECOME THE WORLD CLASS CITY IT ASPIRES TO BE WITH ULTRA CONSERVATIVE, MIDDLE AGED MORONS RUNNING THINGS!

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

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