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: