Carmel, Indiana is an Indianapolis suburb just across the northern border into Hamilton County. It has long been one of the premier addresses in the region, and clearly the most upscale suburb. The person who used to run the Indianapolis office of my company once remarked that he’s never lived in another city where there was just one “rich suburb”. When you think of wealthy communities in Indiana, it is Carmel and only Carmel that comes to mind. And believe me, most people in the state know it. So this is a town that attracts a unique type of scrutiny beyond that of almost any other suburb in the country and certainly more than anyone else in Indiana. When Carmel does anything, the critics are ready to pounce and denounce. Interestingly, while Carmel does have some rich people in it, it actually has a diversity of income levels. Most homes there are not mansions. But the reputation remains.
Despite having this reputation, for a very long time there really wasn’t much different about Carmel versus most other Indiana towns. Except for some estate homes in western Clay Township – technically to this day still not even part of of the city of Carmel – it looked and functioned much the same as any newer suburban area in Indiana. There were a few things Carmel had done differently, such as putting an overlay zoning ordinance on Meridian St. to require high quality office development there, but for the most part it was like many places in Indiana. The first time I visited Carmel, I was actually shocked. I was expecting some fancy enclave and saw some generic older strip malls, seedy and decaying industrial areas, a tiny ghost town of a downtown, lots of two-lane country roads that had never been upgraded.
Then in the mid-90’s, new leadership came into office in Carmel, led by new Mayor Jim Brainard. Mayor Brainard had a big vision for Carmel and how it could be transformed from this rather standard suburb into one of America’s premier edge cities. (Whether Carmel is in fact an edge city is a topic of a future posting). This involved taking Carmel in a very different direction from a typical Indiana suburb. Given the resistance to change in most people, and for which Hoosiers particularly are known, this has been a challenging journey, with every move along the way subject to intense opposition. But he and the other people who’ve gathered around him to pursue this new vision have not wavered in their pursuit of it, and on the whole, the voters of Carmel have continued to back them up.
In one of his state of the city speeches, Mayor Brainard encouraged people to “get out into the world” and see what is being done in other places. That’s advice that all too seldom heeded in Indiana or in lots of other places. Progress tends to be judged against only local past and present, without any consideration of what is going on elsewhere. This can lead to a false and misleading belief that a city is forging ahead when it is in fact falling behind. It is all too easy to believe your own press and end up not recognizing how you stack up against competitors.
I suspect the mayor took his own advice, traveling to cities around the US and world and came to the same conclusion I did: despite its Indiana reputation, there was really nothing special about Carmel. It wouldn’t even have cracked the top 15 suburb list in Chicago, San Francisco, or lots of other places. Smartly, the mayor didn’t just do this for himself, he organized trips of other city leaders to see first hand what other premier suburbs across the country were doing. There’s a saying that “Without awareness, there is no choice”. If you aren’t aware of your own behaviors and how you really stand in the world, you aren’t really making a conscious choice about what you want to be.
Armed with that awareness, Carmel set forth a new vision that I would articulate as follows:
1. Embrace true, world class excellence. A lot of places talk about world-class without any understanding of what that really means. But Carmel is really trying to follow through.
2. Seek to be the best anywhere, not just the better than your own past. The new benchmark for Carmel is not Greenwood or Fishers. It’s not the old Carmel or the current Carmel. The benchmark for Carmel is the very best of what is being done in the world’s other great cities.
3. Create a distinctive community based on New Urbanist principles and traditional Indiana Main Street values. I will talk about this at some length.
4. Seek to be a true city, not just another suburb. That doesn’t mean trying to supplant or declare independence from Indianapolis, but it means having the ability to really live, work, and play in Carmel, and being a destination point for others.
5. Persevere on the journey. The Carmel transformation is going to be very long and very difficult. It takes a leaders committed to seeing it through to the end to make it happen.
So, how has this been put into practice? I’ll review some of the key accomplishments and changes that have occured.
First has been putting in place real infrastructure. Like so many growing suburbs, Carmel had an antiquated road network made up largely of unimproved arterials on a one mile grid. These were basically narrow, two-lane country roads, with drainage ditches and no sidewalks. Carmel has been on a veritable orgy of road building in the last decade trying to catch up with the transportation needs. The result is a community that, while still having congestion, is better off than many other area suburbs. Roads that have been built include:
- 96th St. widening from Keystone eastwards, including a new White River bridge.
- Hazeldell Parkway, a four lane boulevard running the entire length of the city on the eastern edge.
- 116th St. through central Carmel widened to four lanes
- Old Meridian being widened to four lanes
- Illinois St. being built as a new four lane collector/distributor road west of Meridian, and the similar Pennsylvania St. on the east side
- 146th St. being built as a four lane major arterial on the northern border of the city (a county project)
- The 126th St. / City Center Drive extension.
But these expansions are really not the most notable part of the change. What’s more important is the new standards of design quality that Carmel brought. When it built Hazeldell Parkway, Carmel didn’t just build a four lane road, it built a lavishly landscaped parkway, completely with multi-use trails on both sides. This really set the standard for road construction around the region. I truly believe that without the high quality projects done in Carmel, this type of construction would not have been adopted by other communities in the region the way it has.
What’s more, as part of the Hazeldell project, Carmel installed its first two roundabouts. These proved so successful that Carmel went on to built two-dozen more, and is now set to double them again. This has made Carmel a leader in roundabout construction nationally. Again, other area communities are now starting to adopt them, but Carmel has a huge lead. These roundabouts have proven to significantly reduce traffic congestion while being safer to boot.
As you can see in this picture, Carmel has also done extensive landscaping of its roundabout network. The focus is as much on quality as it is on capacity.
After Hazeldell, every town in Hamilton County is now building nice boulevards for their primary arterials. But Carmel has upped the game even further, building parkways for its secondary arterials and collector roads as well. Other towns are still relying on two-lane country roads for this.
Here’s one example from eastern Carmel. This is River Road. These new roads are as nice as any suburban collector roads anywhere. Clearly, there is still a long way to go, but Carmel has about $75 million in road projects already in the pipeline over the next four years to redo many miles of roadway.
The city is also engaging with INDOT to improve the state roads. It wants major design changes to the proposed US 31 freeway project to include underpasses instead of overpasses and roundabout interchanges instead of diamonds. The city also reached an agreement in principle with the state to take over Keystone Ave., which the city intends to convert to a limited access parkway with grade-separated roundabout interchanges, another new concept to Indiana. How this is different from other towns is easily shown by looking at the recently completed Michigan Rd. expansion. The Carmel, even though that section off roadway is not actually in the city limits, pressed the state to put sidewalks on both sides. Indianapolis let the state do whatever it wanted. The end result is that the sidewalks abruptly end south of 96th St. when the road crosses into Indianapolis, as shown in this picture.
The city has also upgraded its parks infrastructure. It formed a joint parks district with Clay Township to provide for a township-wide park system. In the last decade, Carmel went from about 60 acres of parkland to closer to 600. This includes the new $55 million Central Park on 111th St., a new community centerpiece.
Additionally, one of the first parks related items the city did in the Brainard era was to build the Monon Trail. This is a rails to trails conversion. Indianapolis already converted its section of the Monon into a highly successful trail. Extending this system to Carmel might have seemed like a no-brainer. But there was enormous resistance. Many property owners fought and fought it. Also, ownership of the needed parcels was split across about 250 property owners due to the way the Monon acquired the right of way in Hamilton County. This involved a very lengthy land acquisition process. But despite the opposition, the city stayed the course and now Monon is a community showpiece. The city continues to improve it by building overpasses and underpasses at major street crossings. Additional trails are in the works.
Utilities and city services have also been a focus. The city has long had top notch utilities. But one telling moment about Carmel was what happened when the Indianapolis Water Company was re-acquired by the city. IWC actually supplies water to many suburbs, which included part of Carmel. When the transaction happened, Carmel was the only town that wanted to get control of the water lines in their town. Mayor Brainard threatened to sue unless Indianapolis sold them to them, which they did. Now Carmel controls 100% of its own water supply. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for cities to get control of their own utilities, and only Carmel did it.
Perhaps the most controversial change has been city annexation policy. What is commonly known as “Carmel” is Clay Township is southwest Hamilton County. But the city of Carmel itself was only a small part of it. Previous generations of city leaders did not annex much territory, allowing development to occur outside the city limits. The city council has been on a mission to annex all of Clay Township. In a series of 50+ annexations, the city closed in most of the “doughnut holes” and brought the bulk of the township into the city limits. There are two large parcels remaining in southern Carmel, both of which are subject to current proceedings. The city has experienced significant setbacks in these cases as the courts have ruled against Carmel’s annexation. So the dream of annexing all of Clay Township may yet unravel. But even if it is does, a lot of work was completed.
Carmel also made an attempt to annex a significant amount of land in Washington Township, home to Westfield. Westfield was another town that had not annexed much territory, but allowed lots of subdivisions to be built in the middle of unincorporated territory. Much of the development was of fairly low quality and the Westfield-Washington zoning authority pretty much rubber stamped anything. Though Carmel’s annexation failed, this was a wake-up call to Westfield, which stepped up an annexed the entire area. Westfield is actually now the best positioned suburb in the area to control its own destiny because it has annexed all subdivisions in its area and so won’t have to fight the battles Carmel is going through. Westfield also decided to convert from a town to a city, and is getting serious about improving the quality of development there. The town council just adopted a new comprehensive plan and the town’s first ever thoroughfare plan. (Believe it or not, Westfield just relied on the county’s plan without having one of their own). While I did not approve of the Carmel “land grab”, that annexation battle is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to Westfield. It forced that town to grow up and get serious.
There’s a lot more to write about Carmel. Part Two, to be posted next week, will cover the embracing of New Urbanist principles and redevelopment of the city center. And Part Three discusses criticisms of the current approach.