Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The Penalty of Leadership

This is the first in an occasional series of mediations on the nature of leadership.

In 1915, Cadillac, which had previously marketed its high quality as an automobile manufacturer, suffered quality problems on its 1915 V8 Touring model. Rival Packard was quick to jump on this and began attacking Caddy for its problems. Cadillac marketing man Theodore MacManus responded with a simple print ad called “The Penalty of Leadership”. This legendary piece, which never mentions Cadillac by name, was a huge success. Even 30 years later in 1945 it was voted the best ad of all time by the industry. As recently as 1998, Advertising Age ranked it 49th out of the top 100 all time ad campaigns. The text of this advertisement is reproduced below.


In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius. Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountback, long after the big would had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by. The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy – but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant. There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions – envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

What Business Are You In?

When you start or run a business, key questions you need to ask yourself are 1) who is my target customer? and 2) what product am I selling? A big part of this is understanding what customers and targets you are not going after. Modern management theory suggests that businesses should focus like a laser on their core competence and not try to be everything to everybody. The decline of the general purpose department store in favor of discounters or specialty retailers with a clearly defined target market and value proposition illustrate this perfectly.

Now cities can’t be exactly like a business. Businesses can just stop doing business with customers they don’t want. Cities need to serve their residents. But it is just as important for cities to understand what they are all about and what their sweet spot is for attracting residents and businesses. It is a competitive world out there with about 50 major metro areas in the US, to say nothing of all the hundreds of cities around the world, small towns and rural areas to compete with, etc.

Part of that is figuring out if you are in the commodity business or not. Commodities are more or less interchangeable products where prices are set mostly purely by supply and demand. In a commodity business, the only thing people care about is the price. So the low cost producer almost always has a huge profitability advantage. Wal-Mart figured out that laundry detergent and many of the other products they sold were commodities and that the only thing customers cared about is the price. So Wal-Mart set about creating an unparalleled scale and logistics operation to make them the low cost provider. Southwest Airlines figured out that they only thing people cared about with regards to an airline ticket was the price. Both of these companies went on to put the hurt on their competition.

Now most of the aspirational cities that I cover on this site sell what I consider to be a similar value proposition. It goes something like this. “Hey, we’ve got a lot of the benefits of a big city like pro sports teams without the attendant hassles of horrible traffic and sky-high taxes. What’s more, we’ve got pretty good schools and are a great place to raise a family. Our overall quality of life is pretty high.” That’s not a bad value proposition. If you’ve got a choice between living in suburban Chicago or suburban Cincinnati, Cincy has to look pretty darn appealing.

But there are two problems with this:

1. All of these cities are selling basically the same product.

2. Selling this product implies that you are NOT targeting young, single, educated, ambitious people.

The first is pretty obvious to someone who is not from one of these cities. The competition in the Midwest is not just between Chicago and Cincinnati, but rather between Chicago and Cincinnati/Columbus/Louisville/Indianapolis/Milwaukee/Kansas City/Nashville/Charlotte/insert your city here. Once you’ve established that there are some real advantages in terms of cost and quality of life in the suburbs of a smaller city vs. Chicago, you’ve got to pick which of these places are attractive.

I argue that fundamentally they are all pretty much the same. Now I have my favorites and do think there are some factors that differentiate them, but to someone who is a total outsider, I don’t think there is a clearly compelling “answer”. What’s more, few of those differentiators that do exist are real attractors to someone seeking a suburban, family friendly lifestyle anyway.

Now residents of these places would surely object, “But we’ve got X” or some such. But every town has their own version of X.

– Charlotte has the financial industry, Nashville has the music industry
– Cincinnati has the Ohio River, Milwaukee has Lake Michigan
– Indianapolis has the Indy 500, Louisville has the Kentucky Derby.

The list goes on. It’s difficult to argue that any of these places has a uniquely compelling collection of assets. What that means is that they are in the commodity business. That is one reason they are so affordable. When you are in the commodity business, price matters, so naturally they have low prices. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco can have high housing prices and taxes because people are willing to pay a premium to live there. But no one is going to pay a premium to live in Columbus, Ohio or any of these other cities. Price equals supply and and demand and there is a large supply of cities selling the same thing, so naturally housing prices, etc. are cheap.

That’s actually good if you are the buyer, at least initially. When you want to sell your house and find you haven’t made any money on it, things aren’t quite so good. Still, in the mean time you practically had a mansion for what your friend in Naperville, Illinois paid for a tiny vinyl house. But if you are the seller, remember that if price is what matters, and the low cost producer is king. This means if you let your housing prices or taxes go up, it puts you in a bad spot. Similarly if other cost measures like traffic congestion hit you, that also hurts. But with low taxes you can’t invest in roads. This vicious circle almost locks you into a tough corner to fight from. It’s seldom pleasant to work in a penny-pinching commodity business environment.

Most of these cities end up spending their precious funds on things like sports stadiums that don’t even do a lot to add to their fundmental value proposition. If you are trying to be a great place to raise a family with an easy quality of life, you’d best be investing in your roads to keep congestion low and making sure the schools stay solid. But those are seldom the priorities of local leaders. I can’t name any places out there that are really, unabashedly trying to actively create an environment that plays to the product they are selling.

Why is that? Well, I’d argue it’s because they have big city envy. They believe that they should be an urban playground kind of place like Chicago. They are also worried about losing their educated youth to places like Chicago. So what they do is try to emulate the bigger city environments they are most familiar with, which is that of the large 19th century metropolis. Plus, suburbia is generally viewed as declasse by the elite, and a leader who said he was going to concentrate on building the greatest, lowest congestion, nicest suburban environments around would probably earn strange looks.

I believe this effort is largely doomed to failure and in fact can cripple the very value proposition they do have. First, these smaller cities are not Chicago, Seattle, Boston, etc. and they never will be. Those cities are the way they are for historical reasons. They grew up in the pre-automobile era. Rolling back the clock to the 19th century is impossible. Given the choice between a real big city and a smaller city trying to act like a big city, people are going to choose the real big city every time. And focusing on surface elements like pro sports and rail transit really misses what it is that makes places like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to great to begin with.

What’s more, all of these cities are doing the same thing. You might think your downtown has seen lots of exciting development, new lofts, etc. And it has. But so has everyone else’s. All of these shiny new toys quickly become basics, the extremely expensive “ante” you’ve got to pay to stay in the game. So you’re already back into a commodity business, and one with a high cost base to boot.

I think there is a better way. There are one of two ways I think these cities could really start to distinguish themselves.

The first is to be unashamedly the best family friendly, low cost of living, easy quality of life, suburban oriented city in the world. Make a commitment to efficient and corruption free government. Focus on having the lowest congestion and best roads of all competitors. Build higher quality suburbs that nevertheless aren’t ritzy enclaves. Have very targeted investments in urban amenities. For example, decide that a good regional airport and pro-sports are good, but don’t focus on conventions or other tourist oriented industries.

I don’t see many cities wanting to sign up for this. And it is structurally impossible to begin with in most places because the central city is not a suburban environment and is going to continue to try to differentiate itself from its suburbs anyway. It’s also not sexy.

The other is to apply the economic law of comparative advantage and figure out how to build a differentiated city that is not based on the 19th century traditional urban model. Believe it or not there are good examples of small cities that have done this. Las Vegas decided to be a gambling mecca and has done well with that. Austin, Texas decided to be a very large college town and reject many suburban values altogether. Portland decided to it was going to try to make a radical transformation to really become a more traditional 19th century – complete with high costs and horrible traffic congestion I might add. Charleston, South Carolina (admittedly a significantly smaller place) decided to preserve its antebellum heritage.

The trick is that these cities have to find a way to be something unique based on what they are, not what they aren’t. That means letting go of Chicago envy and an inferiority complex towards larger urban areas, and having the confidence to go out into the world and make your own way, to find your own path. Who is your target market? What product are you going to sell to attract them?

It probably also implies that you are abandoning your existing value proposition. If you want to build a differentiated city that, for example, is attractive to bright, ambitious, educated young singles, then you need to start building a total environment that is going to cater to them. Part of doing that is to say good-bye to the idea of being a “great place to raise a family”. That doesn’t mean you have to kill off the suburbs any more than being a suburban family friendly oriented city means you can’t have a downtown. But it does mean that the environment and the marketing and the vision of the place is going to go in a different direction.

I believe that is also deeply difficult to do because it is so core to the current identity of the city. What’s more, the existing residents probably like things the way they are. The youngsters who moved off to Manhattan can’t vote in local elections. Plus it requires a lot of hard thought and a lot of creative, visionary leadership.

That last element is the key: leadership. Change is hard. It takes a great leader to not only set the agenda and vision for change, but also to deliver it. Sometimes leaders emerge in just the right place and time for something big to happen. Ultimately, for any of these cities to start moving down a either of the two paths I mention, it is probably going to take a unique leader to take them there.

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Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

Superbowl Divides Illinois Town

I’ve seen lots of stories about how various Indiana towns are split between Bears and Colts fans, but I didn’t expect to see this one about split team loyalties in Danville, Illinois [dead link]. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, though. Danville is about an hour or so from Indy straight down I-74. It’s a circuitous interstate route or surface highway trip from Chicago that clocks in about 2 1/2 hours – depending on how long you get stuck in traffic trying to leave Chicago. Indy is by far the more convenient city to get to. I believe the airport draws quite a few passengers from Danville.

I mention this because it is interesting to see how Colts fandom has expanded in the Peyton Manning era. Indiana was probably a Bears state before the Colts, with a few Cowboys, Redskins, 49ers, and Bengals fans thrown in. The memory of the ’85 Bears still runs deep in Indiana. So for the Colts, this is a huge game. They win, and they can start to solidify some of the loyalty in these outlying areas. Lose, and Bears fandom could make a comeback quickly.

What’s more, I think Danville fits the same mold of small, struggling, industrial city I mentioned earlier. Vermillion County, Illinois is also losing population. While economic cooperation across state lines is certainly more difficult, there’s no reason not to include Danville, Illinois in a more expansive view of the Central Indiana economic region. I should have mentioned it from the start.

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Topics: Economic Development, Regionalism
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

Indiana’s Small Cities Suffering

The city of Muncie, Indiana lost 700 jobs last year, the latest in string of years featuring job losses. This is just one of the many stories that taken together show how it is Indiana’s small cities that are really hurting. Many of these were dependent on auto-related manufacturing and were “company town” type of places. Lacking the more diverse job base of larger areas, they’ve born the brunt of offshoring. This is tellingly illustrated by looking at the population figures in the various types of regions in Indiana since the 2000 Census.

Area 2005 Population 2000 Population Change % Change
Indianapolis 1,588,480 1,474,128 114,352 8%
Other Large Metro Suburban 878,899 857,087 21,812 3%
Medium Metro 1,192,849 1,152,032 41,547 4%
Small Urban 922,914 928,932 (5,478) (1%)
Rural 1,688,831 1,669,576 19,255 1%

Other Large Metro Suburban are the Indiana counties outside Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
Medium Metro is Fort Wayne, South Bend/Elkhart, and Evansville
See below for Small Metros and full county details

Indianapolis is clearly the growth leader in the state. Interestingly, the medium sized metros, which had previously done some of their own wandering in the wilderness, seem to be coming on strong, even outpacing the suburban counties of larger out of state based metro areas. It’s the small cities that are witnessing outright population declines. A look at the specific counties I categorized shows this.

County (City) 2005 Population 2000 Population Change % Change
Tippecancoe (Lafayette) 153,875 148,955 4,920 3%
Bartholomew (Columbus) 73,540 71,435 2,105 3%
Monroe (Bloomington) 121,047 120,563 844 1%
Howard (Kokomo) 84,977 84,964 13 0%
Wayne (Richmond) 69,162 71,070 (1,905) (3%)
Delaware (Muncie) 116,362 118,769 (2,407) (2%)
Grant (Marion) 70,577 73,407 (2,846) (4%)
Madison (Anderson) 130,412 133,358 (2,946) (2%)
Vigo (Terre Haute) 102,593 105,848 (3,256) (3%)

In descending absolute population change order.

I find this chart very illuminating. Tippecanoe County and Monroe County seem to be hanging in there. These are both home to Big Ten universities, Purdue and Indiana respectively. Bartholomew County is the headquarters of the large diesel engine company Cummins. For those that don’t have Big Ten schools or a Fortune 1000 headquarters, the tale is much bleaker. The bottom five counties were the five largest absolute population loss counties in the state and all have seen major plant closures recently. Most notably Marion lost a staggering 8,000 jobs when Thomson Consumer Electronics moved a TV picture tube plant to Mexico.

Howard County is an interesting case. It has been relatively unscathed as the auto parts plants there have remained in business at more or less full strength, leading to some of the highest average wages in Indiana. Even so, the population has only managed to stagnate, potentially indicating either that the rest of the town’s economy is weak, or that people are not finding it an attractive place to live for other reasons. Kokomo is within easy commuting distance of the northern Indianapolis suburbs, so perhaps some people are choosing to live there instead. Nevertheless, Kokomo is very vulnerable. News reports suggest Daimler Chrysler may be selling off its transmission plant to a company that would relocate the line to China.

In Muncie they are taking solace in the fact that the job losses appear to be bottoming out. In Anderson, the last auto-related plant just closed. Conceivably these towns may start recovering simply because there are no more jobs to lose. Aggressive leaders like Kevin Smith in Anderson are being new ideas and fresh energy to some towns.

I don’t think, however, that simply holding on and trying to ride out the plant closing wave is a good long term strategy. These towns need to do something to change things. There is probably a combination of things that can be done. The leadership to change has to originate locally, as it has in Anderson. But outside assistance from the state is clearly warranted. Major Moves road improvements will help. And I believe the state should also target its economic development efforts and incentive programs to these places. And the local population base needs to do its part. Having a reputation as an anti-company, organized labor stronghold hurts them. The local workers, who are often very skilled and experienced, need to find a way to change that dynamic to compete against towns in the South.

One idea for pursuing growth is to better integrate these cities into the relatively thriving Central Indiana economy. Now no one is going to mistake Indianapolis for Phoenix or Atlanta in terms of growth, but it is the top performer in Indiana. It also has a fairly good reputation as a place to do business. All of these small cities are conveniently located within an hour or less drive of Indianapolis. It seems to intuitively make sense that these cities would benefit from being more tightly associated with and linked to Indianapolis.

What’s more, Indianapolis could also benefit. Indy may be by far Indiana’s largest city, but it is a small city by big city standards. It is certainly a size category smaller even than places like St. Louis and Cleveland. As the city strives to achieve and maintain the population and economic heft to play in the game with other big cities, it would certainly be beneficial to be associated with a more expansive geographic area. Indianapolis is the 25th largest TV market in the nation for this very reason. So this has the position to be a win-win.

How to do it is the trick. With Indiana’s life sciences initiative and other programs, Indy is already becoming more linked with Bloomington and Lafayette as a sort of proto-research triangle. But those are the areas that need the least help. For others it is going to involve a lot of discussion, hard thinking, and trust building to start. Probably followed by a far more expansive regional view of economic development. Certain economic development organizations already cover a broader swath of territory. A more regional focus certainly would not be a substitute or replacement for local development efforts but could certainly help them.

A more expansive regional economic development approach isn’t the only thing that is needed. Broader cultural exchanges are good as well. I know some of this is already done, such as helping foreign nationals network with others from the same country to help build a desirable location for foreign investment. The Colts and Pacers can help build regional identity. The cultural institutions of Bloomington, the archicture of Columbus, etc. can be bigger regional draws. Area schools and universities could better collaborate. The state can build better highway connections linking these places. (In fact, many such projects are already on the books). In short, there are many, many ways to draw these small cities into a closer regional web.

A key challenge will of course be suspicion and lack of trust. Smaller cities are unlikely to want to be treated as satellites of Indianapolis. As the Indiana Commerce Corridor debate shows, Indianapolis can perceive that it is being treated as the golden goose from whom the state wants to redistribute prosperity. As I said, dialogue and trust building is likely to be first step here.

I think it is Indianapolis that is going to have to take the first concrete steps to make this happen. Perhaps Mayor Peterson could spend time helping to lure businesses to Muncie or other area cities whenever he can. When you are the big dog, everyone else is going to be afraid to make the first move. They want to see your intentions first. The example I like to give is the leadership shown by Mayor Goldsmith to build the 96th St. bridge over the White River. By virtue of Indiana’s laws, that road, despite running along the border, was Hamilton County’s responsibility. But the Mayor agreed to pay half on the bridge anyway. Then, when it was time to expand South County Line Rd., the mayor had the moral authority to ask Greenwood and Johnson County to help pay, even though it was Indy’s responsibility. If he hadn’t shown his willingness to move first on 96th St, they would have no doubt refused or at least believed they were being coerced. Similar leadership will need to be shown here.

The best upcoming test case is probably Anderson. Madison County is the next undeveloped frontier along the I-69 corridor, Indiana’s hottest suburban development zone. Fishers is already starting to build out to the border. If you get off I-69 at SR 13, you’ll see the subdivisions sprouting in cornfields in Madison County already. At one point, Madison County was even technically part of the Indianapolis MSA. With this proximity, the natural growth along the I-69 corridor, and the fact that there are no more plants to lose, Anderson and Madison County are in a prime position to take advantage of this trend. If the regional strategy doesn’t work in the case of Anderson, it probably won’t work elsewhere either. I would strongly suggest that Mayor Smith and the other leaders of Madison County attempt to figure out how to align themselves better with Indianapolis to capitalize on that region’s growth. Keep an eye on the population figures over the next decade to see how things turn out.


I use the county definitions below. These do not align with MSA definitions. I altered the boundaries because a lot of principally rural counties are included in MSA’s strictly because of commuting flows. Brown County being part of the Indianapolis MSA is a good example.

Indianapolis: Marion, Boone, Hamilton, Hancock, Shelby, Johnson, Morgan, Hendricks

Other Suburban: Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Clark, Floyd, Harrison, Dearborn, Switzerland, Ohio

Medium Metro: St. Joseph, Elkhart, Allen, Vanderburgh, Warrick

Small Urban areas as above. All other counties classified as rural.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Regionalism
Cities: Indianapolis

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis

A group of local black leaders in Indianapolis is seeking to extend Martin Luther King St. by renaming Michigan Rd. north of 38th St. after him. The section south of 38th has long been named for King. I do not support this renaming because Michigan Road is one of the three most historic road names in Indiana (the National Road and Lincoln Highway are the others), dating to the 1830’s. Indy is not London or Paris where there are historical sites on every corner. It needs to protect what it has.

But the people advocating this name change have a very valid point. The current Martin Luther King St. clearly is not much of an honor to the man, passing through distressed neighborhoods and decaying industrial districts. I believe this can and should change. Rather than just renaming a different section of road, and one that is already experiencing its own problems at that, I propose that the current MLK St. be completely transformed into America’s premier black heritage corridor as part of a bigger, bolder plan to make Indianapolis one of America’s premier black cities, one mentioned in the same breath at Atlanta and Washington, DC.

This might sound crazy. To pick a great word from the title of a recent bestseller, even audacious. But I believe it takes that sort of big vision to rally people behind a cause. And what’s more, I believe the potential is there in the local black community to achieve it. The black community of Indianapolis, and unfortunately far too many other of our cities, is a huge untapped resource, one that doesn’t get the attention that say new stadiums does. But for the city that starts taking its black community seriously, and engages with it not just around modest goals but no less than in making that community a major force pushing the city forward, I believe there are huge competitive advantages to be reaped. In that regard, this proposal applies equally to any city. So feel free to take the idea!

I don’t have time to outline a complete plan for this transformation. In fact, I don’t have one. But I do have an idea on how to kick start it. And that is the transformation of today’s MLK corridor. I actually think previous generations of city leaders did a very good job of selecting a street to name after King. It starts basically at Indiana Ave., the historic center of the black community in the city. Key historic institutions like Madame Walker Theater

and Crispus Attucks High School are located along the street.

The north end of the corridor is anchored by Crown Hill Cemetery, where many prominent blacks as well as whites were buried (you can already take a tour of their grave sites) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has a very well-respective African art collection. So as you can see this corridor already has plenty of assets. So what would it take to turn this existing strong collection into America’s premier black heritage corridor? I don’t profess to have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Add another major black cultural insitution near the center of the corridor, say at the I-65/30th St. area for easy access. The African American Museum going into White River State Park would have been a good candidate, but at this point it is probably better to leave it in the park because that’s a prominent downtown location and it wouldn’t be smart to put all the cultural eggs in one basket along this corridor.
  • If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m no fan of the Circle Truss proposal. The idea is good, the execution flawed. Among other reasons, this is because it shows no respect for the black heritage of the area. I would scrap that design and replace it with something new that is 1) world class and 2) reflects the black historic character of the area. This also has the added benefit of turning the gateway into a two-fer. You get a gateway into downtown and also a gateway going the other direction into this corridor.
  • Another major gateway area at I-65/30th St. would be great.

And of course something needs to be done about the street itself, which is exceptionally dreary today. I recently did a survey and the pictures below will amply show what I’m talking about. Click for full sized images.

The above pictures are of the south end of the corridor north of 10th St. As you can see, there are lots of fairly seedy looking industrial areas and vacant lots, as well as the typical Indianapolis streetscape dominating power lines. North a bit the character changes to become more residential on side streets, with suburban style strip development.

Believe it or not, this grassy area you are looking at in the foreground is actually a lawn/drainage facility for a post office. The actual building is set so far back off the street I couldn’t even get it in the picture. Even in the hard core suburbs it would be difficult to find such an inefficient use of land. Off further to the left are residential streets with older homes, many of which are in need of repair, plus some old school neighborhood commercial spots. The famous Pa and Ma’s Barbeque is in one of these, though not directly near this picture. Some residential is on MLK itself. Still further north there is more of the same, but the east side of the street is taken up with Crown Hill Cemetery.

So how then to improve the street? I would propose that the entire length of MLK be reconstructed as a boulevard style roadway. There are two ways one could go here. One would be to narrow the street to two lanes, which given the light traffic would be no problems, or the other is to widen it into a grand European style boulevard. There are pros and cons to each. The extreme south end which is just a continuation of West St. might have a different type treatment than the rest. I would incorporate the good ideas from the 38th St. reconstruction, and tweak them with an African American twist. Some elements to include would be:

  • All new pavement and drainage, of course. I would suggest using the reconstruction period for sewer and water work as well.
  • There is probably environmental contamination that would need cleanup
  • The power lines have got to go. I’m under no illusions that Indy can get rid of them off every street, but if this is going to be America’s premier black heritage corridor, they clearly have to go. The substation near 18th should be relocated to facilitate this.
  • Use the formalistic design elements from 38th St., as well as adopting the wayfinding signage and crosswalk treatment.
  • Extra wide sidewalks of 10-12 feet on both sides.
  • On street parking allowed.
  • Extensive and decorative street lighting.

I’ve advocated adopting the street lights and stop light masts from the Circle Centre area citywide. These could also be used here, but potentially adusted to put a black heritage stamp on them. A few ideas, and these are just brainstorming ideas, on how to put that stamp on the corridor include:

  • Instead of green on the stop light and street light mast arms, use African influenced colors. And don’t be afraid to be bold in adding designs as well. They don’t need to be solid.
  • Find some African grasses or other plants that could survive here and use them in the median planters.
  • Replace the maple leaf design from the 38th St. medians with the Indiana Black Expo logo.
  • Commission public art works – which must be world class – from the best black artists locally, around the country, and around the world to make the street one long linear gallery.
  • Additional historical markers

This is just to give a flavor. Obviously a huge amount of thought would need to be put into this.

A few other things that could be done from a cultural perspective:

  • Better connecting the institutions I mentioned above to the street and the corridor itself.
  • Integrated, coordinated marketing and branding of the corridor and these institutions.
  • Additional funding to help beef up things like the Attucks museum, etc.
  • Potentially make the area a focus for various community festivals and the like.

The nice thing is that the corridor is already stacked with cultural items. Those are the hardest to put in place. Reconstructing roads is just a matter of money and concrete.

Beyond that, a focus needs to be put on building a mixed use, medium to high density, live-work-play environment along the street. Obviously this means a lot of rehabbed residential on the side streets, but also a lot of new residential/commercial spaces along the street itself. I think a big part of building a major corridor like this is building street life and higher densities along the street itself are key to this. Care should be taken to avoid leaving major gaps in the street fabric (such as, alas, the post office above), which create a black hole that must be crossed. High quality architectural design should be a key consideration here. A big focus could be luring the headquarters of black owned businesses to anchor the street.

This is a corridor that is also prime for improved transit. Everyone knows what a joke IndyGo is. But with the right densities in this corridor, and the right institutions in place, this is a potentially great corridor to link downtown with MLK corridor itself, the IMA, and the major industrial job centers on the northwest side. Interestingly, the Directions transit study showed that a northwest line would have the highest number of boardings. But it doesn’t take a zillion dollar investment in light rail to make this work. Bus service would do just fine, with newer equipment and 10-15 minute headways. (Longer than 15 minute headways makes bus service dramatically less useful because you just can’t show up but are tethered to a schedule). Even in a place like Chicago, which has a large and well-patronized elevated train system, the buses actually carry more people.

A few other considerations:

  • The corridor should ideally target a mixture of income levels. This has been done elsewhere. Professionals and the like are a key to the area, but over gentrification would be bad.
  • The target should actually be to build a mixed race neighborhood. Believe it or not this can be done, as places like Oak Park and Evanston, Illinois have proven. This would be a corridor focused on black heritage for sure, but not another segregated Indiana Ave. Rather, it would be something for the whole city.
  • Figuring out how to incorporate more elements with statewide and national appeal would be good. I think a lot of what I’ve talked about is of primarily local interest.

Clearly, this is just a preliminary sketch drawn by someone who is neither black or nor as familiar with the black heritage of the city as he should be. Think of it as the proverbial business plan on the back of a napkin. Pretty much any of the details could be changed, but I think the idea, both for the corridor and the community at large, is sound. Yes, the cost of doing something like this for the MLK corridor would be high. But ultimately the payoff for unleashing the potential of the black community is so much higher. And the very real costs, both in human and financial terms, of doing nothing, is far higher still.

Friday, January 12th, 2007

Kansas City’s Edifice Complex

One of the trends firmly entrenched in the urban development and arts world today is to spend a staggeringly large sum of money to hire a star architect to design a new building for local institutions. Cities and donors have long had an “edifice complex” so I suppose this isn’t surprising per se, but the scale of some of these investments is interesting. It also highlights how architecture as a discipline seems to be a thriving. Indeed, most of these projects are primarily about the architecture and building more so than the contents. Perhaps nothing shows better the success of architecture as a field today as the willingness of communities to invest huge amounts into it – often in stark contrast to the actual on the field product that the buildings are ostensibly designed to host.

This well-illustrated by the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. This multi-purpose facility will cost $365 million and will house the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Ballet. Of course it has a “statement” design as a deliberate attempt to put the building – and Kansas City – on the map.

But when you contrast the cost of the facility with the annual budget of the institutions that will be housed there, some troubling questions arise. The Kansas City Symphony has a budget of around $9.1 million. This puts it well below the top tier of US orchestras. Peer cities such as Indianapolis and Cincinnati spend about three times this amount. Other peer cities come in at double this amount. The Kansas City Ballet budget is around $4.5 million and the opera’s budget is $3.3 million.

Add these together and you get $16.9 million per year as the three major tenants combined operating budgets. Compare that to the $365 million cost of the building, and you begin to wonder. The principal amount of the building cost would pay for the entire operating budget of its three tenants for 21 years. More to the point, a $365 million endowment that earned 5% per year in income would generate over $18 million annually – enough to fund the three organizations in perpetuity, with change left over for other things.

It’s clear that the people of Kansas City value having a nice building over having world class performing arts. Of course buildings are always going to be popular civic investments. But the sheer scale of this price tag versus the relatively small budgets of the organizations contained therein raises serious questions about the priorities of the people in Kansas City (and by extension, the residents of other cities with similar projects underway) – and illustrates just how far below architecture classical music and ballet really stand.

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

“Circle Truss” Selected for New Indy Gateway

The Indy Gateways group looking at creating new gateway structures at strategic locations in the city has selected the Circle Truss design as the preferred option for their first project, a gateway at West St. and I-65 downtown. This would be a 280 foot circular steel structure costing $10 million, all from private sources. It would straddle the expressway ramps, would have the Clarian people mover passing lengthwise through its base, and is a potential catalyst for an extension of the Canal north to 16th St. The structure would include LED lighting that would allow it to be illuminated in different colors at night.

The Circle Truss at night and site plan.

A set of more detailed renderings, including the potential Canal extension, are available on the Indy Gateways website.

The IBJ story linked above was titled, “In Indianapolis will Circle Truss become our Arch?” Is the Circle Truss likely to be a true icon of Indianapolis? In a word, No, at least not in the positive context that the group promoting it hopes. While the Circle Truss isn’t a bad design, it’s not a particularly good one either. Something so large, and in such a prominent site, has to be not just adequate, it needs to be top notch, otherwise it ends up detracting not adding to the built environment. I’m afraid that if built as currently proposed, this will end up joining the lengthy list of local projects where large amounts of money were spent to finance an undistinguished project. And this one is far more visible.

Gateways are one of the fashion items of the moment in urban design. Everybody has to have one. So the Indy Gateways needs to be seen in the context of following a trend, not setting one. Even so, their plan is pretty ambitious. There is a long list of key locations and corridors that they have identified for potential new gateway locations. These for the most part are highly visible areas of the city which today have significant aesthetic deficiencies. Sprucing these up would do wonders to improve the appearance of Indianapolis. Plus I was very pleased to see that the gateways group did not focus solely on downtown, but includes key neighborhood corridors around the city such as West Washington St. and South Meridian St.

So what went wrong with this one? The gateways group failed, as most of these other bland projects failed, by insisting on hiring a local designer regardless of whether the result was any good. Cities across the world are building signature buildings and structures that are truly world class. I mentioned the Museum Plaza project in Louisville as an example in a previous post. Minneapolis is being totally remade with several cutting edge designs in the works. Pretty much any significant public structure in an aspiring city today had its design selected either as a result of an international competition or in partnership with an internationally renowned architect. Heck, even mass merchants like Target are partnering with the likes of Michael Graves to create low-priced but high-quality design housewares. This trend has almost completely bypassed Indianapolis. There seems to be a nearly 100% committment to hiring local firms, a fact that is often touted by the organization sponsoring the project. Again, it’s laudable to do this if you are getting value for the money. But Indy clearly has not. With rare exceptions, these local firms and designers have churned out one undistinguished design after another. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are actively bad, but it does mean designs that are neither world class nor inspiring.

The Indy Gateway partnership is firmly anchored in this trend. Their RFQ for the project specified a local firm. No out of towners need reply. Spared even the possibility of competiting against anyone other than the usual suspects, all five of the submitted designs were weak and uninspiring.

Indianapolis didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time, city leaders wanted to build a highly visible gateway as an icon for the city. Rather than putting out a local-only RFP, they invited ten of Americas top architectural firms, including both local and out-of-town firms, to bid. They also placed advertisements in newspapers in places like England, France, Germany, and Italy soliciting designs. In the end, the city picked an architect from Germany named Bruno Schmitz, one who had never had anything built in the US before. The result, as you probably already guessed, was the stupendous Soldiers and Sailors Monument that is now the symbol of the city.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is a true world-class icon, one that passes my “Paris test”. That is, if you teleported this to Paris, would it still be considered a great and tourist-worthy attraction? The answer here is clearly Yes.

Much closer to our present day, the original plan for White River State Park had as its centerpiece the 750-foot Indiana Tower, designed by renowed architect Cesar Pelli.

This was never built.

While the Indiana Tower is not my favorite structure, it was far, far above the Circle Truss. It’s too bad that the Indy Gateways group never looked at dusting off Pelli’s plans, because that building would still be an asset to Indianapolis today. Now the Indiana Tower was not a conflict free structure itself. Many people argued about it, saying it looked like a corn cobb. (No doubt many of those same people have gone to Chicago and oohed and ahhed over the explicitly corn cobb shaped Marina City). But good architecture does get people arguing. Of course, I guess that’s what I’m doing here by arguing against the Circle Truss. History could show me to be like one of those who criticized the music of Beethoven, but I’m willing to lay may wager on the table of fate.

The Circle Truss also has all the hallmarks of a “design by committee” approach. It may not have actually been designed by a committee, but it seems to have been designed to impress them. The circle motif echoes Indianapolis, for example, which is a good thing, but I think is a bit facile this case. It seems designed more to tick off checkboxes on an eval form than to inspire. Of course, that’s almost what the Indy Gateway group asked for. The phrase “world class” did not appear in the RFP. What was most pandering in the design was the inclusion of Rotary iconography. Rotary International is sponsoring the Indy Gateways initiative, and it never hurts to flatter the vanity of the people running the show. I am a big believer in Rotary’s mission, but the inclusion of branding architecture into the design is unconscionable and needs to be removed in the final product. To be clear, this was put in by the submitter, not Rotary.

One critical failure of this design was not linking the design of this gateway to the black community in Indianapolis. This is the area where West St. becomes Martin Luther King St. It’s also home to many of the key historical landmarks of black Indianapolis, including Indiana Avenue, the Walker Theater, and Crispus Attucks high school. This gateway and associated park expansion has nothing at all to do with black Indianapolis and in fact its scale will tend to overwhelm the existing black historic character of the district. For that reason if no other the city should consider rejecting this proposal. (Just the thought of that giant Rotary International-esque roundabout design at 12th and MLK right next to Crispus Attucks gives me the shivers).

Several members of the local black community recently suggested extending the name Martin Luther King St. all the way to the Boone County Line. Now I object to this because it would wipe out the historic Michigan Road name. But I am in agreement with the idea that MLK St. today does not do proper honor to King. It’s a depressing roadway, going through seedy industrial districts and distressed neighborhoods. This gateway project is a possible way to address that. I’ve long thought that Indianapolis should attempt to redevelop MLK St. as the city’s premier black oriented throughfare, celebrating the black heritage of the city and state. I plan to develop this idea in more detail in a subsequent posting, but suffice it to say that many of the elements are already in place, such as the MLK name, the institutions I mentioned earlier, the fact that it passes through a largely black residential district, and the availability of land for redevelopment. Adding a major gateway to one end of this corridor could really serve to anchor and announce it. Thus I believe a gateway for this location should be both world-class and firmly anchored in the city’s black heritage.

I consider the Circle Truss proper an unsalvageable design. What the Indy Gateways group was trying to accomplish was a good thing. I truly believe there were the highest motives involved. But the execution here was lacking.

Still, not all is bad. While the Truss itself is weak, the site plan is actually very nice. This includes a signifcantly improved interchange, roundabouts on MLK at 12th and 16th, a Canal extension north to 16th St., and significant new landscaping. This plan could easily be modified to include the black heritage design I suggested, and could be coupled with the development of a high density, mixed use, urban in character commercial and residential district along the west side of MLK. A better link to Crispus Attucks High and raising the profile of the museum there should be included as well. Campusification of the area should be avoided. The site plan aspect of the Circle Truss proposal is a very good one that should be retained.

On a more fundamental level, it’s worth asking why it is we need gateways in the first place. The Indy Gateways site defines a gateway as “landmark, streetscape or other area that a visitor or resident first sees when entering the city, a neighborhood, a cultural district, downtown or other attractions or destinations”. They go on to say, “the concept or theme of the gateway is critically important. The gateway concept should draw on the assets of the area being ‘announced’ by the gateway”. In other words, a gateway is used to mark a boundary, to let people know you are entering an area, and it should somehow speak to the sense of place of what it marks.

Now ask yourself, if I really have a special place with its own identity, why does it take a gateway to let me know I’ve arrived there? That’s the question that’s all too often not even asked, much less answered. Iconic architecture is great and should be encouraged. But this is no substitute for real place making.

Think about it, is there anything different when you cross the boundary line between Fishers and Noblesville? Can you even tell where that dividing line is? Drive along County Line Road and see if you can really tell the difference between Indianapolis on the north and Greenwood on the south. All too often our cities and towns look all too much alike, a phenomenon christened “Generica”. In that regard a gateway is treating the symptom, not the disease. I believe that gateways ought to be the icing on the cake, not the main meal. The Indy Gateways group is stepping up to provide that, but now the city needs to follow through and make sure there’s substance underneath.

If you haven’t done it lately, go up to Hamilton County and drive south from Westfield into Carmel on Oak Ridge, Spring Mill, or Ditch Rd. The minute you hit the Carmel city limits, the character of the street changes radically. You’ve got the residential parkway, the recognizable new style street signs, and the Carmel signature design roundabouts. You know you’ve just entered Carmel and don’t need those “Carmel Welcomes You” signs to tell you that. Similarly if you drive into Chicago from Park Ridge along Northwest Highway, from Evergreen Park along 95th, or from Evanston on Western Ave/Asbury St, there is no Welcome to Chicago sign, but you feel the transition like a bucket of cold water in the face. The Evanston transition may be the best because both sides of the border have their own unique feel.

That’s the real sense of place the city needs to be striving to achieve. And I believe it is doable.

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.

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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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