Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The Question Which Must Be Answered

As the Indianapolis mayoral debate focuses on taxes, crime, economic and downtown development, and other questions, it is worth noting again that the key question that must be answered has been out there a while, and neither the Republicans nor Democrats seem inclined to answer it. The question is: Why would anyone choose to live in suburban Marion County?

Clearly, the inner city of Indianapolis is stressed. There are definitely some strong neighborhoods such as Meridian-Kessler, but vast tracts of the “old Indianapolis” are very run down and in bad shape. Nevertheless, such areas hold the prospect of revival because they are built in an urban style. Urban living is not for everyone, but it will be for some people, and and I believe an increasing number. For those people, the central city is the only place they can shop, basically. We aren’t building new traditional urban areas anymore.

The real problem is suburban Marion County, which is seeing large net domestic outmigration, much of it to the collar counties. Much of this is built out in a similar style to the collar counties, and so there are plenty of good substitutes. Consider:

  • The school systems of Marion County, even in the townships, are generally far inferior to collar county districts and often are closer to IPS than they are to Carmel or Zionsville.
  • Taxes are higher
  • The infrastructure is older, and in much cases inferior and crumbling.
  • Indianapolis is experiencing a financial crisis.
  • The housing and commercial stock is largely older than the collar counties, and much of it is built on obsolete 1980’s or even earlier paradigms of the good life.

It should come as no surprise that, outside of select areas such as Keystone Crossing, a lot suburban areas are struggling, as we witness in news articles about the difficulties of redevelopment. The city of Indianapolis has to give people a reason to want to live there.

Now I’m not going to suggest that the new suburbs were wise when the old ones were stupid. When today’s new suburbs get built out, they are likely to experience the exact same problems. With suburban development, there is always a shiny new place on the fringe that you can move to, leaving your old decaying areas behind. This is a national conundrum and one nobody has solved adequately, but I believe that there has to be a solution.

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Columbus Inner Loop

The Columbus Dispatch has an interesting article today on the proposed construction to reconstruct I-70/I-71 through downtown. This is basically the south and west legs of the downtown inner freeway loop in Columbus, Ohio. I can tell you from personal experience that this segment of roadway is very confusing and features extensive congestion.

There were a few key telling stats. One was that there are 830 wrecks on that fairly corridor per year, making it Ohio’s most dangerous section of road. That’s over two accidents every single day. Reconstruction won’t start until 2011 and could take up to five years. That won’t be pleasant. Naturally I’d like to see that sped up, but this type of complex downtown construction which features many weaving ramps and lanes that must be untangled, plus various serious grade separations, will clearly take a while. The price tag is a whopping $800 million.

The article cites Indianapolis and Kansas City as places that also have two interstates crisscrossing downtown. You could also throw Atlanta in there in a certain sense. I haven’t driven Kansas City, but can tell you that Indianapolis and Atlanta have superior designs to Columbus. When building the original highways, ODOT bought into obsolete thinking about how most traffic would exit, not continue through interchanges, thus dropping through traffic on I-70 and I-70 to just one lane at times. Ouch.

While this project is welcome, the fact that Columbus will have to basically use its biggest pot of funding to fix a downtown freeway that shouldn’t be broken in the first place is bad news for the rest of the metro area.

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Indianapolis Cultural Trail

The first segment of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail is only a month away from opening. This project, a 7.5 mile, $50 million urban trail circling downtown and linking major cultural districts, is sui generis. There is nothing like it anywhere I’m aware of. I don’t expect it to stay that way for long as I look for many cities to imitate it. This trail involves creating a special biking trail, usually with separate pedestrian paths, special signage, lighting and public art. In several places lanes of the streets will actually be taken away to make room for it.

This is an absolutely amazing, first class project. It is perhaps the most exciting thing going on in Indy and is an example of something local that is truly world class. Any city would want to have this thing there. I don’t think it is any accident that this was conceived by the grass roots and wasn’t a top down initiative driven by the city’s elite and developers. Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation is surely no outsider, but he’s not one of the usual suspects you see driving major downtown projects. Perhaps most impressively, this project uses basically no local tax dollars. It is being funded almost entirely by private donations and federal transportation enhancement funds.

The first segment under construction is the east leg along Alabama St. Here are some pictures and comments.

This is the northern most section along Alabama. This is one section that features a shared bike/pedestrian segment. A few things to note. One is the use of hexagonal pavers. This is the one element of the trail I don’t like. They remind me of a bad 70’s design and I think they’ll date quickly. However, I like the detailing in the design they used. Note the contrasting colors on the edges and horizontal bands, plus the paved centerline. You’ll also note the plentiful street lighting using a signature light standard. The value of the close spacing on these standards cannot be overstated.

Speaking of lights, here is a closeup of one of the standards. I like it. It is simple, clean, modern, and masculine. It is also human scaled. Now I’ll admit it doesn’t scream “holy cow, that’s a super-cool design”. But I think it is very solid. Keep in mind, the trail designers could have used antique gas lamp replicas. Kudos to them for resisting the urge. The jury is out on how these will age, but I’m provisionally positive on that point. (See Jason’s take for a different point of view – and to take a poll on them).

Now I’ve been arguing that Indianapolis needs to develop a unique visual identity. By including yet another light standard design, this project doesn’t advance the ball on that front. However, the Wholesale District lights I like so much are definitely too overwhelming for the trail. It is probably good for the city to have both a signature “mainline” street light and a signature smaller scale street light. This trail light could conceivably be that smaller standard. Or it could just remain a marker for the trail itself. That’s a debate worth having.

A circular landing, trailhead or whatever you want to call it where the trail intersects Mass Ave. I like the use of the circle motif, the interior crossing arcs, and the use of square pavers. The larger stone outer circle provides definition. Very attractive.

Here we see a segment where the trail includes both a traditional pedestrian sidewalk section as well as a biking path. The pedestrian-only sections use larger light blue square and rectangular pavers that I think are one of the nicest attributes of the trail. As you can see, this fronts the building directly, so it really is just a sidewalk, making the trail proper a bike only path.

Here’s one last shot, showing everything together. Note how the arcs in the landing provide visual cues to the biking section of the trail. As Borat might say, very nice.

I can’t wait to see the rest of this thing built out. Even though technically under construction, I already see people biking on it. I am predicting this is a grand slam home run for the city. It is already paying positive dividends in press attention, which I expect to increase after it is operational. Everyone associated with this project is to be congratulated. Now the only things to do is finish it, and make sure that the development along it helps the trail realize its potential as an urban development tool and linkage between the downtown subdistricts. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Thoughts From a Trip to Bloomington

So this weekend was Homecoming my alma mater, old IU. I’m not a big fan of college football and it had probably been five years since I set foot in Bloomington. But as several old college friends applied various degrees of arm twisting, I decided to make the drive down SR 37.

That itself is a bit different for me. My usual route to Bloomington is via SR 67. But I wanted to check out the future I-69 route. My trip showed me why I normally go the other way. Although it was 7:30pm, it took me about 15-20 minutes to get through Martinsville. There were extremely lengthy delays at multiple stoplights. Clearly, this is some of the worst traffic anywhere in Indiana. I’m an I-69 skeptic, but no study – even the ones done back in the day before I-69 became overly politicized – ever disputed the need to upgrade SR 37 from Martinsville to Indianapolis. Indeed, I’d rank the upgrading of SR 37 in the vicinity of Martinsville is one of the absolute top priorities in the state.

When Ohio upgrades a route like SR 37, which they are doing to the southeast part of the state, for example, they actually start not at one end but rather by building or upgrading bypasses of towns along they way. This gets a lot of bang for the buck quickly. Indeed, that’s what INDOT is doing with US 31 by upgrading three targeted high congestion segments quickly, then looking to fill in the gaps later. In fact, if INDOT freewayed US 31 to 236th St., then built an interchange at SR 28 in Tipton County, then when these projects were done the road would be almost as good as a freeway from Indy to South Bend. Similarly, INDOT could give huge benefits to the “future I-69” route quickly by upgrading the Martinsville bypass. Instead, it is planning to start with a new terrain segment from Evansville to Crane. Again, transportation need isn’t the logic here. Rather, I’d suspect the real goal of this segment is to start construction on the new terrain route as quickly as possible in order to make that route a fait accompli. The logic is likely that once that route starts construction, it would be almost impossible to abandon the I-69 concept. By contrast, a Martinsville bypass has independent utility, and thus doesn’t bias the outcome. $700 million to build a route with extremely light forecasted traffic versus nothing to upgrade an extremely congested segment elsewhere. This just goes to show how the politicizaton of I-69 has affected the transportation planning process.

Bloomington is of course one of the most wonderful towns in Indiana. IU is one of the best college campuses I’ve ever been to. Downtown, likely because of the university, is still thriving. Indeed, there has been a lot of development downtown, including a number of higher density structures that I’m sure were not without controversy. (Indeed, one of my old WFIU colleagues that I visited there briefly was pretty down on them). There are plenty of places to eat, hear live music, etc.

Of course, not all is well in Bloomington. Outside of the core campus area and downtown, it is similar to most other Indiana towns. Bloomington is not that different from, say, Anderson in that it was a town whose economy apart from the university was heavily based on manufacturing, with companies like RCA, GE, and Otis Elevator employing thousands. Most of those jobs are now gone. On the plus side, Bloomington does have a home grown life sciences company, the Cook Group.

I’ve long thought that Indiana could benefit from better linking Bloomington, Indianapolis, and Lafayette. Indeed, both Purdue and IU have beefed up their Indianapolis operations. And Purdue has been a leader in helping spawn tech related business in Lafayette. And of course loyal readers know that I advocate generally much tighter linkages between Indiana’s smaller manufacturing cities and Indianapolis.

Ironically, while the best synergies are likely to be between Bloomington and Indy, I expect this to be the one that is least likely to happen, apart from a few university related items. It was very clear to me as a student there that Bloomington, or at least the folks affiliated with the greater university community, regard Indiana with barely disguised contempt. They view themselves as right thinking progressive sophisticates surrounded by a sea of retrograde Hoosiers. Perhaps that’s hyperbole, but I think it is fair to say that one big difference between Indy and Bloomington is that while Indy sees itself as the cultural capital of Indiana, Bloomington sees itself as the cultural oasis of Indiana.

One particular manifestation of this is extreme local suspicion and hostility towards everything to do with Indy. Local leaders railed against radio stations like WTTS reorienting its marketing towards Indy. I remember Bloomington Hospital trying to proactively take steps to maintain local ownership and figure out how to keep any Indianapolis based medical groups out. Perhaps most tellingly, while public transit is a standard plank in the progressive platform, you see surprisingly little clamoring for rail transit to Indy, even though there would be potentially large benefits from linking Bloomington directly to the Airport via rail. (Talk about a congestion reliever from SR 37 – this is a potential game changer). When Bloomington’s airport lost commuter passenger service, this was viewed as a sort of plot.

This sort of attitude was still on display this weekend. It’s not something that is necessarily overt, but you see it in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, I stayed at the Union, and in the lobby of the hotel there you can buy a USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Chicago Tribune in addition to the local paper, but you can’t buy an Indianapolis Star. And while this might be somewhat expected because it is a college town, there are far fewer Colts signs around than in other Indiana towns.

For its part, Indy treats Bloomington like most other places in Indiana – it basically pretends that Bloomington doesn’t exist.

It’s too bad this situation exists because the two cities have a lot to offer each other. For example, why can’t the city organize and publicize day trips to Bloomington as part of its marketing to tourists? There are a lot of people who come to Indy on business or a convention who might be interested in visiting Bloomington (or taking an architectural tour in Columbus, or any other regional areas). Run scheduled bus service daily. Heck, maybe this exists already, but if it does, it isn’t well marketed because I don’t know about it.

There’s a lot of Bloomington appeal for locals too. I am a major league fan of opera. One of Indy’s major weaknesses IMO is the lack of a first class opera company. Now few if any cities of Indy’s size have anything better than a solid regional company like the Indianapolis Opera as the financial realities of staging opera are staggering. But IU has very good student productions. The School of Music is simply amazing in the quality of what is produced. As as student, I recall that any given day you could go see great music for free at Recital Hall.

You could go on and on finding ways for these places to be linked, but I doubt it would ever happen. Indy could care less, and Bloomington would rather chop off its right arm than do anything that might be perceived as benefitting Indianapolis. That’s too bad, and this sort of mutual suspicion is one reason that Indiana has been a laggard economically. I think there is a much greater potential for cooperation between Indianapolis and Lafayette.

The trip back I did not repeat my SR 37 mistake but rather stuck to the tried and true SR 67 route. I know there is a project on the books to upgrade the SR 39 connector between the two roads in Martinsville to four lanes, which should boost the appeal of this route even further.

I didn’t have the world’s smoothest trip back, however. When I got to Mooresville, I started hitting stoplights – lots of stoplights. I’m not sure how INDOT managed this, but I managed to hit every single stoplight between the south end of Mooresville and Camby Rd. The first light I didn’t get stopped at was Ameriplex Parkway. This must have been something like 8-10 lights. And most of them turned red just as the cars from the previous light got there. This is an almost unequaled accomplishment in the realm of stop light anti-synchronization.

On the plus side, I did notice that a number of minor intersection improvements have been done involving repaving and extending turn lanes. This might not seem like a lot but I believe these types of low cost projects can have a big return, so great job on this.

We’ll see how long it is before I next visit Bloomington, and what if anything changes between now and then.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Impressions of Dallas

I recently made my first trip ever to Dallas that did not involve transiting in DFW. I was in town for a convention at the Dallas Convention Center. Given that I knew nothing about the city, this was a great opportunity to look at it purely through the lens of the casual visitor. Cities spend lots of dough to lure conventioneers to town, so it is always nice to know what they might see.

What I’m saying is not intended to be reflective of Dallas as a whole. I hear it has very nice neighborhoods, upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, etc. But based on my convention experience, Dallas is possibly the single most disappointing city I’ve ever visited.

It starts with a long, dreary, and very expensive cab ride from the airport to downtown Dallas. As if your wallet doesn’t take enough of a beating, you drive past miles and miles of sprawl hell, auto dealers, strip centers, distribution centers, fast food restaurants, etc. lining both sides of the road into town. It seems like traditional urbanity drops off very rapidly outside of downtown Dallas, only a mere mile or two from the core, replaced by older sprawl. I expect this in smaller Midwestern burgs, but not in a metro area of almost 6 million. On the plus side, this drive takes you past Texas Stadium (unimpressive unless you are a Cowboys fan) and the new American Airlines basketball arena. I thought the arena was extremely nice and the highlight of the trip. It had a retro-20’s look that was reminiscent of an old London train shed done up in red brick – and I mean that as a compliment.

Downtown is full of drab, generic skyscrapers, many lit up with neon. The hotels I saw were likewise very generic. The Convention Center itself was not easily walkable from hotels, and so it took shuttles to get there. The building is a typical hulking concrete structure. Although near the similarly uninspiring Dallas city hall, the area around it appeared to be an urban wasteland. I’ve never seen such a desolate and deserted area in such a high profile downtown area before. What’s more, it was a 4-5 block walk from there to the core of downtown.

I actually made that walk, and once you get into the center of downtown proper, there is good density, pedestrians – albeit still a shockingly small number, and even a few older buildings, though I didn’t see any truly spectacular structures. A light rail line, called DART, runs through downtown, but the station I saw was deserted, as was the train that I saw stop there. I did see a few restaurants and a Starbucks, but nothing that looked like a major entertainment district. Admittedly, I did not have a guidebook, and I didn’t have time to walk up and down every block searching for interesting things – especially not over a mile from the convention center.

Given the size and affluence of the metro area, and the good things I know from talking to others that it has, I was very surprised to see the poor face it presents to people attending conventions there. This is the only time many people will ever see the city. It’s the first and last impression many folks will ever have of Dallas.

On the plus side, the road geek in me loves the freeways in Texas. They’ve got very wide highways and impressive interchanges. As I flew under a four level stack heading back to the airport, it really drove home to me how unambitious the plans of INDOT and other midwestern transportation agencies are. They’d be well served to hire some people from Texas who have actual experience in big city road building to design and run their major urban projects.

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Cleveland Tries to Strangle Own Suburbs

Cleveland is taking a novel approach towards urban redevelopment. It is trying to strangle its own suburbs by denying them transportation funds unless they pay “ransom” back to the city and Cuyahoga County. The logic seems to be that if you don’t build infrastructure in the burbs, then people and businesses can’t or won’t move there.

The proximate cause of this is the proposed new interchange in Avon on I-90, which is outside of Cuyahoga County. The town wants a new interchange to open land to development, and has even gotten the developer to agree to pay to build it. Sounds like a no-brainer. But Cleveland and Cuyahoga County cried foul, saying that this would only siphon businesses and people out of the central city. They demanded a tax sharing deal or they would use their voting block on the regional MPO, which needs to approve the project, to block the interchange.

This sad episode indicates all to clearly to me why Cleveland is one of the all time stories of decline in the United States. When you are reduced to try to choking your siblings in order to grab at table scraps, you know you are in trouble.

The problem with Cleveland and Cuyahoga County is that it is selling a product nobody wants to buy. In the past, when Cleveland was booming, they didn’t think anything of all the people and business they hoovered up from other places. But like all too many businesses that couldn’t adapt, Cleveland did not change with the times and is now suffering.

Now Cleveland is not unique, but many cities have gone through this. And many of them have come up standing tall. I have always said that a strong city needs strong suburbs and vice versa. The two are not at odds. Lots of other cities, even in the Midwest, have figured this out. This includes places like Columbus, Ohio and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Interestingly, Minneapolis does have regional tax sharing, but it was done in a much more collaborative way and isn’t a one way tax on suburbs to the central city coffers. It goes without saying that Chicago, Boston, NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and many others also have a thriving city with thriving suburbs.

Cleveland’s problem is a lack of leadership and will, plain and simple. Like many Midwestern burgs, it is set in its ways and is highly resistant to change. That’s the choice that the citizens can make, but it comes with consequences.

If you think Cleveland’s problems are difficult, NYC almost went bankrupt in the 1970’s and was called the Rotten Apple. Crime was out of control, even in central Manhattan. The city was called “ungovernable”. Yet Rudy Giuliani showed that a strong leader could come in an make a radical change. If it would work for NYC, it can certainly work for Cleveland.

It now appears that some sort of compromise has been reached in Cleveland. Avon will limit tax breaks to companies that are merely relocating from elsewhere in the metro area, and will also share tax revenue from any such businesses.

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Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Cleveland

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Sprint Center Opens in Kansas City

The Sprint Center in Kansas City is now open to the public. The KC Star has extensive coverage, including a lengthy retrospective on the journey to building the arena.

I saw some photos of the interior of this, which was very unimpressive. However, the exterior, with its mirrored panels, is very nice indeed. In fact, I’d say Kansas City has done a far better job than most places in its arena design. This is particularly interesting since it came from the institutional HOK, which, while a local company, was hardly noted for forward thinking designs.

One thing city leaders did before just handing the work to the local boys was the at least explore the option, how seriously I’m not sure, to hire Frank Gehry to design it. He even made a pitch for it to a local selection committee, though it is clear from the article that either Gehry was never a serious candidate or else wasn’t used to having to actually compete for commissions. Nevertheless, the threat of out of town competition from a prominent architect forced HOK to up its game, coming with a modern and attractive design. This can be a lesson to other cities. The local boys can indeed to better, and what’s needed to bring it out is a little competition.

I actually think KC can count itself fortunate that it did not award the deal to Gehry, who would almost certainly have just built yet another Bilbao clone.

Whatever anyone might say about hosting the Big 12 tournement, the real reason for this arena is to lure an NHL and/or NBA team. If it doesn’t, I’m sure it will be viewed as a failure in many quarters. The interesting thing is, this goes to show that you can’t just promise to have an arena now to lure a team, you already have to have one built. That’s quite a risk to take on indeed.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Kansas City

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