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Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Kansas City’s Crossroad’s Arts District

One of the cities that has really started to shine in terms of urban development but which has pretty much gone under the national radar is Kansas City. There is a huge amount of development going on in the city, ranging from the Sprint Center arena (a “build it and they will come facility”) to the cutting edge architecture of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, to the large mixed-use Power and Light District.

This last development is being put together by Cordish about of Baltimore. They’ve done several of these districts across the country. I’ve yet to be impressed by any of them. Everything I’ve seen shows them to be mega-cheeseball generic bar/retail districts. From what I have read of KC’s version, it will be no different. Yet of course it is getting huge city subsidies.

But I digress. There is a lengthy article on the Kansas City Star talking about a very different type of development. This is the Crossroads Arts District. Unlike the P&L District, this one is almost entirely local businesses. It also has primarily redeveloped historic architecture rather than building new. Included are 50 (!) art galleries and 70 bar/retail/entertainment establishments. Of course this district is not receiving the kind of subsidies that Cordish is.

It is refreshing to see that at least one part of Kansas City’s downtown development is being driven by local, unique businesses rather than a collection of generic chains. The latter may be nice for conventioneers who aren’t interested in exploring a place. But they aren’t what make a city great or unique. One Crossroads Arts District with worth 50 Cordish developments as far as making a real urban neighborhood thrive.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Economic Development
Cities: Kansas City

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

More Transportation Leadership from Missouri

It’s not often that I point to good things people are doing in an article that is ostensibly about trouble, but this time I can’t resist. According to this article, the Missouri Department of Transportation is facing problems with its $400-600 million plan to fix 80 percent of its substandard bridges by 2012.

What’s good about this?

First, Missouri has a plan. Most states don’t. Also, rolling the design, construction, and maintenance of fixes to these 800 bridges into one contract gets it done sooner and gets it done better. What’s more, these’s 25 years of maintenance included, which should incent the contractor to do it right.

Missouri has been taking the lead in these mega design/build contracts to get its major projects moving. Rather than dithering for decades, dribbling these projects out one by one, incurring major administrative overhead in the process, they have accelerated and streamlined their approach.

This is far from the only place this type of contracting is being done. It is also the case on the $535 million I-64 project that is completely redesigning and reconstructing that route through the city, with all new pavement and interchanges plus some added travel lanes in basically three years. (This also includes some Hyperfix type closures). They are also doing it on the $245 million Paseo bridge replacement in Kansas City. And probably elsewhere I’m not aware of. These are getting projects done faster and reducing the construction hassle costs to drivers.

The challenge with these projects is that they are huge and, as a relatively small state, it can be difficult to find contractors who are capable of bonding out these big jobs. This means there has to be be consortiums, which can be hard to assemble. The state requires at least two bids per project, and MoDOT has been having trouble finding two bidders in some cases. I’m suspect these consortiums also involve out of state companies, which must be giving MoDOT headaches with the local construction lobby. Plus with a limited number of bidders, the state is also vulnerable to game theory strategies, where two bidders tacitly collude to split the projects amongst themselves, or otherwise act as shill bidders. I’m not saying this has happened here, but it is certainly something to watch for. (Wasn’t it in Freakonomics where there was an example of how this happened in the spectrum bidding process?)

Obviously there are challenges. But it is rare that things that are worthwhile come easy. MoDOT should be congratulated for this type of innovative contracting.

Missouri is also doing more too. It is developing a plan to improve I-70 throughout the state. And it spends $1.2 billion per year on highways, which is more than other similar sized states I’m aware of. All of this is why, in those graphs I showed earlier, it is the Missouri cities that will have comparatively low congestion in 2030, while competitors in Indiana and Ohio suffer in gridlock.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Kansas City, St. Louis

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

City of Parks Taking Shape in Louisville

The city of Louiville revealed initial plans for 27 miles of trails and parks along Floyds Fork in Eastern Jefferson County, Kentucky. This stretch of land between Shelbyville and Bardstown Rd. will be the centerpiece of the City of Parks initiative. It includes an 1,100 acre park that will be the city’s largest. There is also a 450 acre park and a 420 acre park. Already 2,500 acres have been secured for use as part of this.

The timing is fortuitous for the city. I’ve long said that Jefferson County is looking at its last 10-15 years in the sun as the premier development area for the region. After that, the county will be largely full and the focus of development will move to the collar counties. This effort gives the city a huge amount of land to dedicate to park use prior to that buildout. What’s more, by dedicating it as parkland now, the city will not be tempted to develop it when they are throwing up huge office parks in Oldham County. The only thing that raises my eyebrows on this project is its location in the East End. Already the richest area in town, the city should be careful not to devote too much of its emphasis to this area at the expense of less affluent parts of the city.

I’m not much of a park person myself. As I like to tell people, I’m a fan of the great indoors. The restaurant, the museum, the cafe, the theater – these constitute my milieu. But I know that lots of other people do like them. I’m not aware of any other city in America that has as aggressive program of parks as Louisville. I’ve mentioned it before, but it is definitely worth mentioning again. This will be a nice advantage for the city, especially as many other cities have already missed their chance to do something similar.

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Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning
Cities: Louisville

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Followup on Gentrification

I had previously posted a commentary on gentrification. One of the comments that came in was a few weeks after the posting and I just now got around to noticing it. I thought it was worth re-publishing here.

From “BigSprinter”:

Since my initial brief comment I’ve meant to come back and post a more detailed reply, as I think there is definitely some good stuff here, and it definitely got me thinking.

First off–I applaud you for succinctly stating the hypocrisy inherent in many’s criticisms of gentrification. As I put it to folks here in Denver, what if Thornton (a largely white suburb) started restricting the number of blacks that could move in, would that be acceptable? Of course not, but I actually had a neighborhood association grant application come across my desk stating that our organization would know they’ve been effective “by the limited number of white faces in our neighborhood.” No kidding.

A couple other thoughts–First, about “love thy neighborhood but not thy neighbors”–I agree to a large extent. I live in urban Denver, and we have a couple neighbors that clearly moved into the city to just shorten their commute, and because they got a “cute” house–I think they likely would rather our ‘hood be just like the suburbs but close to town.

We, however, moved into the neighborhood as much for the eclectic mix of cultures as we did the architecture of our old Victorian. We got married in Mexico, have lived much of our lives in the desert southwest, and have a soft spot in our heart for much about the latin culture.

We actually despise a lot of things about the suburbs–the homogeneous homes, the lack of interaction with your neighbors, and the lack of diversity. For us, we were excited at the prospect of having African-American and Spanish-speaking neighbors to help us re-acquire our foreign-language abilities, and to keep us from becoming too sheltered in our thought processes, as I think can happen in the white-bread suburbs.

However, now that we’ve been in our neighborhood a while, certain things are causing our unconditional love to wear thin–The litter, drunks smashing bottles on our street, people urinating and defecating in public, having to park a block away from our house because the family next door has 10 people and five cars for their 900 square foot home, and the fact that our neighbors have their swamp cooler propped up on their front porch on two discarded car tires and a random amalgamation of scrap wood.

So for some, myself included, our love for the neighborhood starts out complete, and includes our neighbors, but after dealing with these issues over and over, it’s just human nature in my opinion to at some point wish more responsible, or ultimately, more affluent people moved in. Personally, I wish the more affluent incomers were African American or Hispanic to maintain the diversity, but that never seems to be the case.

Which brings me to my other point, relevant to your comment about why developers don’t redevelop with minorities wants and needs in mind–Personally, I don’t think it matters how you redevelop these neighhorhoods, the minorities won’t come back. I don’t know if it’s because African Americans and Hispanics associate these old neighborhoods with the poverty they used to embody, or if it’s actually a case of the “implicit bias” that Sampson and Raudenbush described in their studies rebuking the Broken Windows theory–where they claimed to have found that even minorities correlate the level of disorder in their environment with the percentage of residents that are black or Hispanic. I don’t know what the reason is, but again, it only seems to be young, affluent whites that are buying historic homes here in Denver and fixing them up. Most of the more affluent African Americans seem to be moving to Park Hill and Stapleton. And trust me–Our neighborhood is still on the affordable side of Denver gentrification, and there aren’t any conveniences in our neighborhood yet–We’re waiting for a Walgreens, Starbucks, ANYTHING other than a liquor store, so it’s not like the neighborhood has been so caucasian-ized that it’s beyond appeal to African Americans.

So to me, maintaining the diversity of these urban neighborhoods is a challenge for more reasons than just gentrification and displacement.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development
Cities: Denver

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Indianapolis Outer Loop

There’s an “outer beltway” of sorts taking shape in Indianapolis. It isn’t an outer freeway loop a la the ill-fated Indiana Commerce Connector proposal. Rather it is a series of interlinked crosstown roadways in the collar counties, anchored by the new terrain Ronald Reagan Parkway in Hendricks County, 146th St. in Hamilton County, and Mt. Comfort Rd. (600W) in Hancock County, that could eventually provide a high capacity surface arterial connection around town.

As with most cities, the main roads around Indianapolis are radial in nature. That is, they lead to and from downtown. Crosstown routes are much less developed, particularly outside of Marion County. As the suburban areas develop and suburb to suburb commuting and travel flows start to take on greater significance, it is critical to develop good cross-town connectivity to avoid gridlock. In many places it is actually these crosstown connections that are the source of the worst congestion as two-lane country roads that aren’t through routes carry significant traffic that they were never designed to handle.

The collar counties and surrounding towns of Indianapolis have been busy upgrading many of these crosstown roads. And they’ve been informally collaborating on a few key routes to make sure that the main arterials they control link up to form a coordinated system. Once piece of this is a sort of surface beltway around much of Indianapolis. To date this has been largely a local initiative. The most intense development in these counties has been along the Marion County border, and the crosstown roads there are under local jurisdiction. The state roads, SR 267, SR 32, SR 9, etc., are further out, in the next ring of development. Those routes were the focus of the CISTMS study that I do still plan to write about. INDOT has been involved in this new route though, by building and upgrading interchanges with the interstate highway system.

Besides not being a freeway type road, there’s another important difference between this beltway and the Indiana Commerce Connector: this one is already being built. This posting will provide an update on the status of the various segments.

  • The current beltway actually starts out as a road called Ameriplex Parkway, which departs from Kentucky Ave (SR 67) in Decatur Township in southwest Marion County to serve the Ameriplex industrial park. It already exists as a four lane, median divided highway.
  • Ameriplex Parkway arcs to the northwest until it intersects with a recently constructed interchange at I-70 near the new airport terminal and changes names to Six Points Rd.
  • Six Points Rd. is already built as a four lane, median divided highway between I-70 and Stafford Rd. in Plainfield in Hendricks County, where it serves a large industrial and distribution area.
  • North of Stafford Rd., another four lane, median divided segment is nearly complete to Washington St. (US 40). It should be open completely this summer. As part of this segment, the roadway name changes to Ronald Reagan Parkway.
  • A new segment of Ronald Reagan Parkway, also to be four lanes, is under construction from Washington St. north to CR 200S., where it will serve yet another industrial park.
  • The two mile segment from CR 200S to Rockville Rd. (US 36) does not yet exist. The design is complete and the ROW is 80% acquired. This segment is estimated to cost $14 million to construct. It will also include a bridge over the CSX Avon Yard. Because of the bridge, I do not believe this is intended to be built as a four lane segment because I don’t think $14 million would cover it, but can’t state definitively.
  • From Rockville Rd. to CR 300N, the roadway exists as a two-lane segment on a four lane ROW. I’m not aware of any plans to expand it at this time.
  • From CR 300N to Crawfordsville Rd. (US 136), Ronald Reagan Parkway does not exist. This segment is currently under design. I do not know the proposed cross-section
  • The segment from Crawfordsville Rd. to 56th St. is slated to be constructed as part of a project to add an interchange at I-74. The interchange is under construction and the segment is scheduled to be open by the fall of 2008. I do not know the planned cross-section.
  • From 56th St., there is no specific route selected. Hendricks and Boone County are currently conducting an environmental assessment to identify a preferred route that would link Ronald Reagan Parkway to the existing I-65 interchange at SR 267. At this interchange the road swings from being a north-south route to being an east-west route.
  • I said that the Hamilton County segment is 146th St. However, the interchange of I-65 and SR 267 in Boone County is at 136th St. (CR 400S). Also, 146th St. passes through the town center of Whitestown, which cannot accomodate a widening. Hence the route is scheduled to follow 400S east to Kissel Rd (800E) and from there north to 146th St. (300S). The bulk of this road exists today as unimproved two-lane county roads.
  • The road then shoot across to the Hamilton County line along 146th. Between Michigan Rd. (US 421) and the county line, Boone County is planning a $3 million federal aid reconstruction project which I believe would leave this as a two-lane segment. Given that this roadway is already lined with housing developments, I think spending a large sum on reconstruction isn’t a good idea as the road should be four lanes east of Michigan Rd.
  • Crossing into Hamilton County, 146th is currently two-lanes for the four mile segment from the county line to Spring Mill Rd. This is currently in design for widening to four lanes. The estimated construction cost is about $30 million, but no funding has yet been identified.
  • The 8.5 mile segment from Spring Mill Rd. east to SR 37 is already a four lane, median divided parkway.
  • From SR 37 to the interchange of I-69 at Greenfield Ave (Exit 10), 146th St. is currently being constructed as a new terrain segment at between four and six lanes, median divided. This is about a $30 million project, which is scheduled to be completed this fall.
  • The interchange at I-69 is currently being upgraded and widened to accomodate a four lane road. It will also be this fall. At this point, the road goes from being east-west 146th St. to being north-south Olio Rd., with a very brief stint as Greenfield Ave. (formerly known as SR 238)
  • Olio Rd. is already five lanes from Greenfield Ave. to 113th St., about three miles.
  • Olio Rd. is currently being expanded to a four lane road to the south of 113th St. as part of a $7 million major bridge project over the Geist Reservoir.
  • The about 1.5 mile segment of Olio from the bridge to the county line has been designed as a four lane road, and the right of way is in place, but construction is awaiting funding. Meanwhile it exists as a two-lane road. The intersection of Olio and 104th St. will be re-aligned and widened next year, and Hamilton County may fund the segment from the bridge to 104th with local funds.
  • South of the Hancock County line (96th St), Olio Rd. changes names to CR 600W, generally called Mt. Comfort Rd. It exists as a two lane road through the town of McCordsville south to I-70 an beyond into Shelby County.
  • McCordsville is currently doing an alignment study on Mt. Comfort Rd. through the center of the town, but no decisions have been made.
  • INDOT is planning a $25 million upgrade of the I-70 interchange at Mt. Comfort Rd.
  • Hancock County plans to reconstruct, but leave as two-lane, Mt. Comfort Rd. south of the I-70 interchange.
  • Crossing the Shelby County line, Mt. Comfort Rd. becomes CR 700W.
  • Shortly thereafter, CR 700 jogs onto a jagged street called Pumpkinvine Rd., which leads to CR 950N.
  • Turning west on CR 950N brings the roadway to an east-west route again, where it shortly arrives at the town of Pleasant View and an interchange with I-74 southeast of Indianapolis.

There has been talk of a complete arc stretching around Indianapolis, but currently the route I traced, which covered the northern 2/3rd’s, is all that exists. A southern route may not mesh well with this.

As I said, this is not a formal or official route. What I described is the result of informal meetings between localities. More formal agreement occured where adjacent jurisdictions cooperated to coordinate their activities, such as in the Hendricks-Boone county example I gave. Or in the Ronald Reagan Corridor Master Plan that Hendricks County governments collaborated to create. I think this shows that local government in Central Indiana are doing a pretty good job of getting along and working together on matters of genuinely regional interest. INDOT has also been a partner in this.

The different segments of the road have very different existing and planned states. But that’s ok because the areas it passes through are in very different stages of development and different strategies are appropriate to each. For example, Boone County is still predominantly rural while Hamilton County has already experienced extensive urbanization in its southern reaches.

This type of circumferential corridor may not be built out for another 50 years. But future generations will thank those in the present who planned well and put into place critical infrastructure such as 146th St. to meet the transportation demands of the future.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

Project Reviews: 757 Mass Ave. and the Villagio in Indianapolis, Part One

Like most cities across the nation, Indianapolis has seen a mini-flurry of downtown condo construction, with some few thousand units having been built or being under construction. Today I review two of these, 757 Mass Ave. and the Villagio.

Project Size and Composition

Both of these projects are primarily residential, but include a retail component, with 757 Mass Ave. having 23 condominium units with underground parking in a 4-5 story structure and the Villagio having 64 units in a 9 story structure with an attached parking garage.

Project Location

Both are located along one of the original diagonal streets from Alexander Ralston’s plan of Indianapolis. 757 Mass Ave.’s address shows its home in the northeast quadrant of downtown at the Corner of Mass Ave and College Ave., just outside the Mile Square. The Villagio is located on Virgina Ave. and East St., again just outside the Mile Square in the southeast quadrant.

Both are on the edges of historic districts. 757 Mass Ave. is just inside the Chatham Arch historic district and the Villagio is just outside the Fletcher Place historic district. As we will see, this played a crucial role in the development of these structures.

757 Mass Ave’s location is in one of the more premier and established downtown districts. Prior to this building, it housed a structure with the Abbey Coffeehouse. Mass Ave is probably the premier commercial corridor downtown, home to many cultural destinations, stores, and restaurants. The Villagio exists in what is presently a bit of a no-man’s land between the core of downtown and Fountain Square. Fletcher Place is predominantly residential, with the only real attraction in the area being the Dunaway’s restaurant. The implication of this is that the land value of the757 Mass Ave. lot was probably much higher than that of the Villagio lot. Again, I believe this has a big affect on the design.

Project Orientation

Both buildings are on triangular lots, but of a critically different orientation. 757 Mass Ave’s corner is oriented facing away from downtown. The historic district in the area also makes it unlikely that any tall buildings will be built to obstruct the view of downtown from the roof. The Villagio’s corner is oriented towards downtown, with what is currently one of the best views of the city. That is a key asset of the lot. Again, this has implications.

757 Mass Ave.

Here is a picture of 757 Mass Ave. as seen from Mass Ave. With this and all images in my blog, you can click the image for a full sized view.

As you can see, this is a typical urban style brick building with limestone trim featuring ground level storefronts and residential units on upper floors. You’ll notice immediately a couple of things. First is that this building is taller than those surrounding it. The other is that the elevation along Mass Ave is shorter than that along the other street (which is College Ave).

As for the scaling, I think this shows that downtown Indianapolis, at least this area, is starting to come to life and there is a growing desire to put these prime blocks to better use through densification. The land along Mass Ave is too valuable to put up a lot of low-rise buildings these days. However, because it is in a historic district, the neighborhood association will not allow heights that are dramatically out of scale. Hence the height limit on Mass Ave. proper, with a higher stop stepped back on other streets or in the interior of the structure. This is also very dramatically going to be the case with the forthcoming 3 Mass building, which will be up to 10 stories with a stepbacked upper floors.

Here’s a closer view of the Mass Ave. frontage.

You can see the nice floor to ceiling glass storefronts on the ground level. I also think leaving the sidewalk open under the building, while still addressing the intersection with a rounded corner was a very nice touch. This will give an expanded pedestrian way, a refuge from the rain, and make it easy to get around from Mass to College without shearing off the entire building. Again, I like the strong, triangular corner that is softened just enough with the rounded edging. I also like the horizontal symmetry of the building, whose differing center section with an almost keystone like subtle arch at the top gives the building a kind of classical elegance without excessive reliance on decoration.

The principal downside here is that the upper floors are pretty much a blank vertical wall. This doesn’t show up too bad right now because there are a lot of empty lots and shorter buildings around, but if there were too many of these in a row, you’d quickly see the concrete canyon effect. It would have been better to make the upper floors “permeable” with balconies recessed into the structure, which would have also enabled the residents to be participants in the street life, of which Mass Ave is still in significant need. Here’s my attempt at a photo to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Where you really see this building stand out is when you consider it from the opposite angle. Here’s a shot showing the rear of the building from College Ave.

Why is this so good? Most importantly, you can see that the building is 100% brick on all sides and also has some degree of architectural interest, including street level interest, on all sides. All too often in Indianapolis buildings are designed to look good when seen from one side or if seen from a certain angle. But they often are terrible from the other sides. Heck, this isn’t limited to Indianapolis. Chicago, for example, is famous for its zillions of concrete block condo buildings with only a brick facade. This, on the other hand, is a true 360 degree building.

Oh, can you can see that they do have recessed decks on the rear of the building. Imagine that as a blank brick wall and you’ll see the difference.

What’s more, this photo illustrates that 757 Mass Ave. has 100% enclosed parking under the building and on the ground floor. There are no surface lots. This is common in bigger cities but rare in Indianapolis. This allows for far more intense use of land, which should help bring more 24 hour street life to the area. What’s more, a parking lot is a vacant lot. It is just a barrier, a black hole in the urban fabric that makes it difficult for a pedestrian to stroll from one location to the next. Not only is there just plain nothing there, increasing the distance while adding nothing, parking lots aren’t that inviting anyway.

Storefronts were clearly mandated on Mass Ave, but it would have been easy to just leave the College Ave. street level facade as a blank wall. Indeed, all too many other developments downtown have done just this. But 757 Mass Ave. does not. Instead, it wraps around the storefront windows part of the way down College. And for the portion of the building that is enclosed parking, they put in oversized, decorative ventilation covers. Here’s a picture.

I’m not going to say this is totally ideal, but it is light years beyond what has been typical for Indianapolis.

By the way, the Indy Cultural Trail will run directly next to this building along College Ave.

On the whole, this is architecturally perhaps the most successful infill structure in downtown Indianapolis in recent years. I think it represents a template for the type of building elements the city should be expecting developers to incorporate. The company that erected it, Beilouny, is also developing a property around the corner that appears to have many similar good qualities.

When you look at the prices in the building, however, you start to see the challenge. The typical apartment in 757 Mass Ave. is $600-$800,000. This is far, far above what people are used to paying in Indianapolis. Indeed, the penthouse units sold for well over $1 million. These are very spacious apartments with nice finishes, but that’s a price point that is not likely to attract a lot of Indy buyers. One of the penthouse owners in this building is Michael Andretti, the Indy race car driver, and I believe that many if not most of the buyers fit into the same category, that is, people who are buying these as pied à terres, not as primary residences. In fact, I speculate this is true of a lot of downtown condos in general, which, if they are not priced out of the affordability range of young professionals in Indianapolis, are priced higher than what they are willing to pay. Condos that sit empty much of the time don’t do nearly as much for adding life to a neigborhood as primary residences do.

To encourage full time occupants may require bringing the price down, but that also could mean sacrificing on a lot of the qualities that make the building itself nice, such as 360 degree brick. There is certainly a trade off that has to be made between architectural quality and affordability. The challenge for Indianapolis developers and architects is how to find a good balance where quality can be brough to the market at an affordable price while at the same time building something that is in a true Indianapolis vernacular. That’s not an easy task, but it is the one that must be accomplished.

This review will continue in a subsequent posting, when I take a more in depth look at the Villagio.

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Indianapolis Needs a New MPO Structure

Every metro area is required by federal law to have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which produces documents that are required to obtain federal funding for transportation projects.

I saw this article about how Shelby County has decided not to provide any funding to the Indianapolis MPO. This result isn’t surprising in itself. Shelby County has long been one of the most insular anywhere in Indiana, which is one of the reasons I attribute for its anemic growth rate despite having phenomenal infrastructure. (To be consistent with their own principles, Shelby County should probably give back all the Major Moves money they’ve been allocated to the Toll Road counties).

The fact that the MPO has to go around hat in hand begging for donations is the real highlight of the story. The Indianapolis MPO has an interesting structure. It has a regional governance council, but effectively operates as a department of the city of Indianapolis, which pays its bills. Because the Indianapolis MPO covers the absolute minimum amount of territory allowed by law, and because the vast bulk of this was in Indianapolis, this made sense historically. But today Indianapolis is in a financial crisis and can’t afford to cover the MPO’s bills. What’s more, the surrounding areas now make up a much greater percentage of the region’s people and traffic. The structure of the MPO hasn’t kept pace. This has led to the MPO going around to various jurisdictions in the region begging for funds as noted above. To their credit, the vast majority of these have anted up. Moving forward though, a better structure needs to be put in place.

It is clear that there is a burning platform for change. The changing population distribution of the region, the city’s financial crunch, and dissatisfaction with the current approach are driving change. Hamilton County, for example, is considering setting up its own county MPO after the 2010 Census when its population exceeds the threshold allowing it to do so. (This would still require the Governor’s approval). It also seems that the MPO is putting everything except essential services in the deep freeze. It hasn’t published a short term transportation plan in quite a while, with no projects shown for 2009 or 2010, but is instead functioning just by amending things in as they come up. The long range plan needs updating, but the update project appears to have died on the vine. Presumably funding is the problem.

I believe fragmentation is the wrong approach. It compromises on building a truly integrated transportation system that spans the region. For example, a proposed transit system would serve Marion and Hamilton County. Improvements to I-465 and I-69 span both counties as well. And starving the MPO of funds short changes the region and the public.

The right answer is to reconstitute a proper regional MPO. This is what is done in most places. This secures both the funding source, and sets up a governance and administration model that is independent of the city. The existing staff, which is actually quite good, could transfer to become the core of the newly constituted agency.

I believe this should also be a truly regional agency, planning for the entire nine county region except Shelby County, which is likely to remain predominantly rural. (A small portion of Shelby County probably has to be included by law, but the MPO should petition to leave it out). Anderson and Madison County today have their own MPO, but this should be merged into the new agency. The Indianapolis and Anderson urbanized areas have effectively merged, and it is highly likely that Madison County will be added back to the MSA after the next census. In fact, it should be part of the MSA now but only is not because they specifically petitioned to be removed.

This type of structure is what is used in Cincinnati (where the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) council of government actually does transportation planning for three states) and in Louisville (where the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agenda (KIPDA) does planning in two states). If these two famously fragmented metros that are well known for a lack of regional cooperation can create integrated, multi-county and indeed multi-state transportation planning agencies, it seems to me that the much more unified Indianapolis region could do the same. Obviously it would take a lot of negotiation to do, but it is the right move to make.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

A Tale of Two Marriotts

Some years back, in conjunction with an expansion of the convention center in Indianapolis, local leaders decided they needed another downtown hotel. This was partially to serve as an additional convention headquarters to allow for mutiple overlapping conventions, but also was intended to add a property in the 800-1000 room range to have something larger than the 560 room Westin. A competition was announced, city subsidies promised, and proposals put forward. These included an expansion of the Westin and Omni Severin Hotels. But the winning proposal was a Marriott Hotel by REI Investments and Whiteco, the Merrillville billboard conglomerate. This Marriott was about the same size as the Westin at 560 rooms, a bit of a surprise. But the strength of the Marriott brand and the heft of the developers was considered a plus. If this sounds strangely similar to the most recent hotel selection, you are right – this was the original Hotel Mundane, complete with generic architecture. Here is a photo. As always, click the photo for a full sized version.

This is a generic hotel box, of the type one would expect to find at Keystone Crossing – and a heavily subsidized one at that.

After the hotel proved to be a success, REI and Whiteco figured that they had a proven product they could market elsewhere, including to Indy’s competitor cities. So they made the 100 mile trip south to Louisville, where they found another city expanding a convention center and looking to built a new hotel. They collected another hefty round of subsidies and erected this building:

Indeed, these hotels are for all practical purposed identical. In effect, Indianapolis subsidized the creation of a template that could be marketed to their competitors. Of course, as bad as the design is, perhaps suckering other cities into building a copy is the best competitive move Indy could have made.

These hotels serve neither city well. The architecture is undistinguished, generic, and suburban in character. Having the same hotel in two cities only a 100 miles apart isn’t good for either place.

This hotel development I think also points out the worst trends of development in both cities. For Indianapolis, it is yet another bland, uninspiring, unambitious architectural product. Given the near perfect track record of producing structures like this, one can only conclude that this type of architecture is a deliberate civic policy. For Louisville, it shows that city’s dreadful habit of downtown development via imitation. Louisville is a city which has shown flashes of architectural brilliance, such as the Museum Plaza proposal, but too often they’ve fallen back on importing designs from elsewhere. Indy builds a downtown minor league stadium, we’ll build one too. Indy builds a Marriott Hotel, we’ll build a Marriott Hotel. Indy builds Conseco Fieldhouse, we’ll build an arena that looks suspiciously like it.

I believe to achieve their potential, both cities need to break themselves of these habits. Indy needs to seriously upgrade its urban design ambition level, not necessarily with avant guard a la Louisville, but certainly something better than extruded corporatecture product. Louisville needs to stop mindlessly copying. No, not every idea can or should be 100% original. But just importing ideas as is isn’t a good idea either. Fortunately for Louisville, in recent years the quantity of this sort of thing seems to be trending down, which is a good thing.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis, Louisville

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Suburban Downtown Booms

Last month a developer put forth a proposal for a 523 foot skyscraper in downtown Evanston, Illinois that would be the tallest building the Chicago suburbs. Heck, it would be one of the tallest buildings in a lot of big city downtowns. Now another developer is coming up with a proposal for a 421 footer right next to it.

This really illustrates the turnaround in suburban downtowns in the last decade or so, and the plans these suburban communites have made in Chicago and elsewhere to truly become self-standing cities, with not just residences and stores, but their own employment bases, downtowns, arts groups, and entertainment activities.

Chicago is ground zero for this because it has a lot of larger, established suburbs with big, historic downtowns that grew up along the rail lines. Evanston is a city in its own right, not just a cornfield suburb like you find out on the fringes. Towns like Arlington Heights, La Grange, and Naperville bring significant financial heft to their downtown development efforts. These communities are fighting a fiece battle to keep themselves relevant as even newer communities spring out of nowhere on the edge of the spawl. Older suburbs that were experiencing big declines like Elmhurst are now highly sought after – and pricey – locations for yuppies coming out of the city with young children.

What are we seeing in these downtowns? A few trends:

- Significant densification. A lot of the development going into suburban downtowns is more dense that what you see in a lot of city neighborhoods. In fact, you often find more willingness to change in these suburban downtowns than you do in the city, where every new development faces significant opposition. Evanston has a skyline. In places like Arlington Heights there are 8+ story condo towers everywhere.

- Housing. Most of these places are encouraging the construction of new, high density condos, hoping to attract younger professionals and couples who might otherwise opt for the city. These are typically walk to the train/Starbucks/Walgreens/grocery store type places that appeal to people seeking a different lifestyle from the traditional suburban one.

- Restaurtants. High end eateries, often branches of upscale city restaurants, and usually not chains, have turned a lot of suburban downtowns into dining destinations. A good example is Main St. in Carmel, Indiana, which has a branch of Bazbeaux Pizza, Muldoons, Bub’s, and other places to eat.

- Fancy boutiques. These aren’t the cutting edge places you’ll find in city neighborhoods, but the focus has been to reinvigorate suburban downtowns as upscale shopping destinations as opposed to traditional Main St. type retail locations.

- Arts facilities. Arlington Heights built a major theater. Skokie did as well, albeit not in a true downtown location. The goal is to become a regional entertainment destination. The bulk of these again are not putting up world class or ground breaking programming, but if you looked at the suburbs a decade ago, there might not have been anything.

- Transit. Most of the Chicago towns already had direct downtown commuter rail service, and this is being leveraged as a key asset.

For people who don’t work in the city, which is the vast bulk of suburban residents, these new downtown go a long way towards making the suburbs a more self-contained type of place. It is no longer necessary to go to the city to have a good meal, for example. This trend will continue to put pressure on cities to elevate their game. This isn’t a problem for Chicago, with its world class downtown and neighborhoods. But it could be for smaller places. In this case, I think competition is good. A world class city needs world class suburbs. These types of developments are going a long way towards improving the attractiveness of suburban communities, which can only increase the attractiveness of the entire metro area in the long term.

I think this trend of suburbs coming into their own as full service cities will be an interesting one to watch. We’ve already seen the rise of the edge city as an employment and shopping mall location. Now we’re witnessing the rise of the suburban downtown. We’ll see what the next stop is.

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Topics: Economic Development, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: Chicago
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Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Orchestra Illustrates Cleveland’s Dilemma

I’ve said since my very first post on this blog that I intend to judge everything by a single standard: true excellence. I’ve encouraged people to shoot for excellence because of its motivational power. Or, at least, if you choose a lower target, be sure that you are doing so explicitly, with a full awareness of the choice that is being made.

If there is anything in the cities I cover in this blog that truly reaches world class status, it is the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the handful of the best anywhere in the world. It is clearly a huge asset to the city, a point of civic pride, and something that really puts Cleveland on the map. When you think of Cleveland, what comes first to mind is the river catching on fire and the orchestra. For people overseas, the Cleveland Orchestra is probably the only thing they know about the city. I am very pleased to own re-issues of old George Szell recordings with the orchestra, which are of excellent quality at extremely reasonable prices.

This month’s Cleveland Magazine carries a disturbing article about the state of the Cleveland Orchestra. The facts aren’t pretty. The orchestra is running a deficit of nearly $6 million per year. (Contrast that with the Louisville Orchestra, whose entire budget is only $7 million per year). It has been running these deficits for years, covering them from special donations and by dipping into its underpowered $123 million endowment. The orchestra had considered a plan a couple of years ago to forfeit its world class status, downgrading to a regional orchestra. A group of local leaders stepped up and agreed to write checks to keep the things steady while they tried to figure out a long term plan to balance the books. This has included trying to make tours break even instead of lose money, and implementing residencies in other cities. This has the affect of making the Cleveland Orchestra less of a local institution, but there may not be any other choice.

There aren’t any obvious solutions to Cleveland’s problems. The finanacial picture for orchestras across the country is pretty grim. Cleveland is supporting a world class orchestra from a much smaller civic base than Chicago or Boston, to say nothing of the lavishly state sponsored orchestras of Europe. Cleveland is already above average in per capita attendance and donations. The only thing that strikes me as a weak spot is its endowment, which sounds large, but probably isn’t relative to the budget.

The root of this is likely the economic decline of the Cleveland region itself. A recent article noted that Ohio bled jobs from 2000 to 2005, and the Cleveland area was particularly hard it, losing 102,000 jobs and also suffering declines in the number of business establishments. I said my blog focused on aspirational cities, those looking to take the leap to the next level. But clearly Cleveland is a declining city, and its decline threatens precious national treasures like the Cleveland Orchestra. Ultimately saving the orchestra requires saving the city. That is going to prove to be a tough task.

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