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.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Talent Attraction
Cities: Indianapolis

8 Responses to “The Question Which Must Be Answered”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    Indianapolis has a lot of work to do IMO. You’re right on all counts–the infrastructure is crumbling. The old suburbs are not walkable (IMO less so than Carmel even), yet nothing has been done about it and as far as I can tell will not be. To make the older suburbs attractive, I think Indianapolis needs to do the following:

    Upgrade the streetscape. Curbing, lighting, gutters and storm sewers are all necessary. Include either sidewalks or asphalt paths on both sides of the street. For residential streets, curbs, gutters and storm sewers are a must, and some lighting would be nice. Indianapolis should take a page out of Carmel’s book and “boulevardize” the thru streets, but with a different cross-section aesthetic. Instead of medians, Indianapolis should use a similar cross-section as exists on Washington Blvd. or Central Avenue in the Meridian-Kessler area. This would allow street parking. In areas where insufficient ROW exist, use a 4 lane cross-section and allow parking on only one side of the street.

    Allow mixed-use development and increase commercial development within the large residential areas. This makes the community more walkable and attractive. Even a simple commercial node at an intersection would be nice. 75th St. between College and Westfield would be a perfect spot for this. The future extension of Township Line Rd. between Westlane and 79th St. would too. Many of the (often-vacant) strip malls along Michigan Rd. should be redeveloped into medium-density mixed-use communities. Greenbriar strip mall should too.

  2. Kevin says:

    Good question. Public schools are about the only reason I can see for anyone moving to a suburb (ok, maybe crime too, but that will catch up over time I feel. Some of the roughest parts of town are outside of 465 on the east side). So you take schools of the equation and what do you have left? Cheaply built stuff that doesn’t have a very bright future, IMO.

  3. Jim says:

    I bought in Washington Twp. when I moved here 13 years ago because it was affordable. I just bought again in Washington Twp. for essentially the same reason. I don’t believe I could live in B’burg or Zionsville or Fishers for this, taxes included. Of course, in B’burg or Zionsville I’d have streetlights, city water, and city sewer, too. And in those burbs I’ll bet I’d get my street plowed on snowy days. And I might even find the roads friendly to my bicycle.

    However, I have been very happy with the Washington Twp. schools, having seen one son graduate from North Central and all three of my children attend Crooked Creek School, which does impressive work.

  4. John M says:

    Lots of good questions, and an interesting perspective. I live in Irvington and plan to raise my family there (using Catholic schools, so I certainly realize the public schools are a major issue). Even if the time came that Irvington declined badly, or we had a special needs child who needed a good public school district, I wouldn’t have any desire to move out of Marion County. Part of it is because I just viscerally hate the way we do growth in this country, particularly in flat, cheap central Indiana, and I don’t like the suburban mentality. Another issue is the commute. I work downtown and because of my profession, I probably always will. I can be at my desk with a cup of coffee 20 minutes after I walk out my back door, including parking, elevator time, and the like. I could manage a commute to Lawrence or Washington Township, but on the rare occasions that I’m in the NE corridor during rush hour, I’m just incredulous that so many people want to do that every single day. I have 60 minutes a day, either for work or family (ok, Internet) that I wouldn’t have if I lived in Hamilton County, Center Grove, Avon, or wherever.

    I realize, of course, that you are talking about the old suburban neighborhoods, not the urban neighborhoods like Irvington. And it seems to me that it’s a mixed bag. Yes, the houses built in, say, 1977 aren’t as spacious as the ones built in 2007 (although they are better constructed in many respects). Still, and maybe it’s just me, but I would rather live in a 2500 square foot house with a big yard and mature trees than in a 3200 square house with a postage stamp lot and saplings.

    I also think you overstate the deficiency of the township schools. The main difference between schools like Washington Twp, Lawrence Township, Franklin Twp, and Warren Township on one hand, and Carmel and Zionsville on the other hand, is socioeconomic diversity. I don’t think a school can be reduced to the sum of its SAT scores. Most of the township schools have offerings on par (if not better than the suburban schools in some cases) in terms of AP classes, fine arts, Intl baccalaureate programs, and the like. I think the main issue with those schools is that many of the parents who move to places like Carmel and Zionsville don’t like that diversity. That’s not to say that they are racist, but just that there isn’t a comfort level for them in those communities. It’s the classic white flight scenario, but I would strenuously dispute your characterization of the township schools.

    Really, I don’t have an answer. The only way to change it would be to make it more difficult to develop land in the outlying counties. I haven’t thought through it enough to consider whether I am comfortbable with government playing that role. On one hand, certainly, people should be allowed to live where they want to live. On the other hand, our “abandon one ring, build another” growth pattern has social, economic, and environmental costs. It’s really not efficient to do it that way. I think at the very least we need to be conscious of the costs and ensure that those costs are being borne by those who incur them, but I’m woefully short on specifics.

    I realize that’s more of a stick than a carrot. I’m not sure, if people would rather live in new developments, that there is a good carrot. The ideas noted by your first commenter are good, but they take money. In a city with old streets, sidewalks, and sewers, it’s tough to take on expenses that “fancy things up” to attract well-heeled homeowners while the poor and working class trip over heaving and cracked sidewalks. Still, in the long view, it’s something we need to consider. But if it’s a simple equation of tax burden, property value, square footage and SAT scores, I don’t know that Marion County is ever going to attract the folks who prioritize those things.

  5. David says:

    I definitely agree with john m that you are overstating the disparity between township schools and donut county schools. I went through the Washington Township school system, and graduated from North Central a couple years ago. If I had to choose where to send my child, I would pick Wash Twp over Carmel or HSE any day. I think a lot of people who move to Carmel would take one look at NCHS, see that it’s about 40% black, and say no way. It is consistently ranked as one of the best, if not the best, public high school in the state.

  6. Donovan says:

    A look on Google Earth shows how much more dense suburban housing today is than it was back in, say, the 1980s. One way to improve suburban Marion County would be to tear down older neighborhoods, and replace them with denser, more urban housing (since you are in the city, not the suburbs). Street lights, sidewalks, and updated sewerss are necessary, as well as NO NATIONAL CHAIN stores in these neighborhoods (it would be great if stores were city/state owned, or even regional chains).

    For the people who are concerned about SAT scores and all of that, why doesnt Washingtown Township (or whatever township) should build a flagship school, and Indianapolis’ smartest students could attend that school (although that may be a bad idea, since all the smart kids would go to that school, leaving the other schools to go downhill).

    The schools really aren’t that bad. They’re diverse, and as others have stated, NCHS is probably the best in the city.

    One thing I find a problem with, is the fact that people don’t support property taxes. 55% may seem like a lot, but think about it – with road construction costs increasing, as well as no decent public transportation, it has to start somewhere. More taxes means more money for mass transit, road resurfacings, etc.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments and good suggestions everyone.

    I think it is clear that one thing Marion County can’t do is just continue to build generic suburban development that looks pretty much like elsewhere – that’s a losing strategy because even if everything else were equal, Marion County would still have higher taxes.

    Regarding schools, North Central is a very good school, but is probably the only township high school you’d put in the same league with the top collar county schools. Many of the rest of them have terrible graduation rates. I’m not saying they don’t have good programs, but given a choice between a school that graduates 90% and one that graduates far less, you’re going to pick the 90% every time, other things being equal.

  8. Jim says:

    One of these days, parents might realize that their influence on their children has much more to do with whether they graduate than whether they live in Carmel or Wayne Twp.

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