Tuesday, July 1st, 2008
The Indianapolis Business Journal ran a cover story this week about an initiative called HARMONI, the Historic Midtown Neighborhood Initiative. No, I can’t parse the acronym either. Their plan is to work to improve the infrastructure in Meridian-Kessler, Butler-Tarkington, and Broad Ripple. The focus is on Meridian St., and changing the feel of the road from that of a commuter highway to a more neighborhood serving street.
The complete vision is not provided in either the IBJ article or on the HARMONI web site. But there is still a lot to sink your teeth into. The goal is to “return this district to the walkable, bikeable, connected condition it was expertly designed to be nearly 100 years ago”. Phase I involves a series of improvements at high priority locations:
- Adding a median, sidewalks, and parkways to Meridian St. between 54th St. and the Canal.
- Adding landscaped sidewalks on both 56th St. and Westfield Blvd. from Meridian St. to Illinois St., linking Meridian St. to the commercial node there.
- Enhancements at the Canal bridge on Meridian St.
- A decorative crosswalk linking the Canal Towpath trail to Alice Carter Park across Westfield Blvd.
- Decorative sidewalks, parkways, lighting, and landscaping at the commercial strip at 39th St. and Illinois.
In effect, this plan will upgrade a stretch of Meridian north of where the sidewalks currently end, and improve connectivity to Bulter-Tarkington’s two commercial nodes. This plan would cost between $4.4 million and $7.4 million, with about $2 million coming from private sources. Of the private money, $300,000 is in hand. Obviously with that price range, many decisions are yet to be made. Future phases aren’t detailed, but the article notes that the group would like to restore rail transit service along the College Ave. or Keystone Ave. corridors. As the College Ave. corridor rail line is the Monon Trail, don’t look for a decoversion there any time soon.
Here are some renderings that were posted by HARMONI. First the commercial node at 39th St. and Illinois St.
I’m not sure to what extent these renderings are intended to be actual depictions vs. conceptual drawings, but I’ll point a few things out. On the plus side, note the separately marked Chicago-style bike lanes similar to the ones that will be put in on Michigan St. and New York St. on the east side. Also note the landscaped pedestrian blister that constricts the street at the crosswalk to slow traffic and shorten the crossing district. On the negative, the sidewalk looks too narrow – far to narrow for commercial frontage, and the power lines on the street have got to go. Pay attention to the antique street lamps, which I’ll address later.
Meridian St. at Westfield Blvd. with a median, sidewalk, etc.
What I’ll note about this is the use of some type of bollard to give extra definition to the crossing zones and additional pedestrian protection while waiting to cross. Very good. The cross-walk hatches appear to be themoplastic, however. The use of colored concrete as on the 38th St. streetscape would be much better. The intent is to lower the speed limit from 45 to 30 on this stretch of road. I don’t see this project materially reducing actual speeds at this location, however. Speed limits are supposed to be set based on the design speed of the road and the speed at which drivers actually drive (the 85th percentile rule, for example). This road exhibits the characteristics of a 45MPH design speed.
Here’s the treatment at the Meridian St. bridge over the Canal.
And the crosswalk on Westfield Blvd.
It looks to me like Westfield would be converted to a curb/gutter section here. That would be very nice indeed. I’d like to see the trail paved too. It is currently gravel. The big problem I note is that there is only the trail on one side of the road. There’s no sidewalk on the other side. That’s a design problem. It forces anyone walking to the park along Westfield to use the trail, then cross a busy street. This shouldn’t be necessary for people coming from south of Westfield Blvd.
What I like best about this plan is in how it strengthens neighborhood commercial nodes, and treats sidewalks as linkages between origins and destinations, making them functional transportation systems, not just leisure paths. That’s huge. Sidewalks are useless if they don’t go anywhere.
One day I might write up my own strategy for the city. One of the key parts of it is to recognize that unlike almost all other major cities, Indianapolis is almost completely lacking in major urban commercial streets. There is nothing like, for example, even what you see with north High St. in Columbus, Ohio. Rather, Indianapolis has more pocket nodes of commercial intersections, surrounded by more low intensity residential areas. My theme is something like “100 courthouse squares” (or Monument Circles perhaps), where these nodes become neighborhood focal points, with a network of excellent connections between the nodes and between the nodes and surrounding areas. Have something Cultural Trail like to link the nodes to each other and to major corridors such a Meridian St. or the Monon Trail and to parks and other destination points. Use a more standard sidewalk for neighborhood linkages.
This plan goes right along with that thinking. It leverages the existing sidewalks on Meridian, fills them in to the north, then creates linkages to the 56th St. and Illinois St. commercial district. The Westfield Blvd. and 56th St. linkages connect the node to the Meridian St. spine, and the Westfield Blvd upgrade is the start of a linkage between that node and Broad Ripple. Looking at extending this further, I see other spurs going off Meridian to the 49th St. and Pennsylvania St. district, as well as the various commercial nodes along College Ave.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Obviously I like this plan a lot. The city could build it as-is and I would happily raise my glass and drink a toast to it. But since this is Yours Truly, I naturally have a few suggestions to make. The current proposal is good, but frankly not distinctive. The renderings are nearly identical to many other such plans across the country. There’s nothing here that screams “Indianapolis”. While it is workmanlike job, it is not the type of project that would befit a world class city. World class cities think harder and dig deeper. So in that light, let me throw out a few suggestions that I believe could improve this project at modest cost. Hopefully they at least stimulate thinking.
I don’t want to read too much into a few lines of text, but it appears that the fundamental design vision behind the project is one of nostalgia. The IBJ article talks about it, noting, “Nostalgia may be one way to sell the effort.” The HARMONI web site says, regarding 38th and Illinois, “Nostalgic lampposts, street signs, brick crosswalks and plantings will celebrate the area’s history.” Remember those antique street lamps I highlighted? This type of design is prevalent throughout the project. Merriam-Webster defines nostaliga as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”. In the design, this is implemented through things like Victorian gas lamp posts.
I believe that nostalgia is the wrong approach, and the specific design elements such as gas lamps the wrong way to implement it. Why? There are three basic reasons.
1. Nostalgia, as the definition implies, is a state of looking backwards, of longing for the good old days. It is an emotion that very much says our best days are behind us, and that we’ll never have it so good again. I could not disagree more. This might be true of most of the Midwest, but it isn’t true of Indianapolis. As I noted before, one of the most distinguishing features of Indy is that its best days are head of it. Indianapolis is a bigger, more important, more influential place in the world today than it has ever been in the past. And it seems likely to only grow moreso in the future, with good leadership and a bit of good look. While cities like St. Louis talk about what they used to be, Indianapolis is still a rising star. It’s a city on the way up. A design that reflects this outlook, that is more forward thinking and optimistic, while still being rooted in the fabric of the neighborhood would be much preferred.
This is not to say that we should fail to consider the history or character of the region. That’s where all too many modernist designers fall down. They are all too willing to ignore the present and past in self-indulgence or a utopian zeal for blowing away the old to build an idealized future. The history of Meridian-Kessler, Butler-Tarkington, and Broad Ripple is a rich one. It is one to be celebrated and built on for the future – but not to be encased in amber. I believe this history can be tapped without engaging in retro-nostalgia, however. And I’ll show you how.
2. The traditional implementation of a nostalgia based architecture, as best exemplified by the antique gas lamp posts, is excessively Victorian and feminine. This might make it a good fit for Paris or even a small town, but it’s a bad choice for a Midwestern metropolis like Indianapolis. Think about the Midwest, Indiana, Indianapolis. What comes to mind? Tractors in the fields, fast cars and fumes, lunchpails and smokestacks, fierce competition on the sporting field, airplane engines, big rigs, a researcher’s white lab coat, war memorials, etc. What do most of these things have in common? They evoke powerful, masculine images. The Midwest was the land where people with strong backs, strong morals, big dreams, and an incredible work ethic tamed the prairie, fed America, built its cars and appliances, etc. If you are going to be nostalgic, that’s the image to shoot for, an unpretentious solidity. Frilly decorations just don’t fit.
3. The typical antique gas lamp design is also very undistinctive. As I noted before, these were could-be-anywhere renderings. There is nothing about them that makes someone sit up and take notice that they are in Indianapolis, except perhaps the Canal bridge treatment. One antique gas lamp replica looks much the same as the next. It is probably the most common street light design in America. You can order them straight out of a catalog, most likely.
There are four challenges I’d put out to the designers:
- Create a design that unique to the city, rooted in its unique history and context. This is where we anchor to the rich traditions of the neighborhood.
- Create a design that says “Indianapolis”. That’s not to say that it has to be a race car or something. Too facile or obvious a design can be worse than something generic. But a design that is consistent with the brand image (e.g., appropriately masculine) that can be imbued with the city’s own unique identity is a must.
- Create a design that is forward looking and optimistic about the future.
- It needs to develop or further a unique design identity for the city. As I have said before, so often a great design is made in one special place and never used again. Examples are the Warehouse District streetscapes, the brick along Market St., the 38th St. streetscape, and the I-465 NW fast track project. Making every design a one-off is like a company doing a different logo for every ad they run. It only confuses things. What is needed is a consistent and clear branding for the city, and a consistent design language is a big part of that.
Those of you who’ve been reading my blog can probably predict what I’ll say next. (For a refresher course, read my first Pecha Kucha presentation). I’m a big believer that transportation facility design is possibly the greatest branding opportunity a city has. As I stated elsewhere, our interstates and arterials are our new Main Streets, our new public square. They are increasingly the venues that shape our impression of a place. What impression is your city leaving?
I believe there are already great examples of local design in place that could be re-purposed for this project. They meet all of the criteria. They are rooted in the local environment, masculine in tone, forward looking, unique to the city, and further its design identity.
The first design is the stoplight mast arms used in the Warehouse District.
This is one of my favorite designs, of anything, in the city. It is simple, clean, elegant, masculine, classic. Note the timeless quality about it. This would fit in with the Meridian St. historic district, but also in front of a modern 21st century building. It fits the Indianapolis brand image perfectly. (I believe this was locally designed and is unique to the city, but can’t say for certain). The quickest way to improve the look of the Meridian St. corridor would be to replace the INDOT mast arms with these.
The second is the streetlight design used in the Warehouse District.
This one is actually a real historic gas lamp replica from Indianapolis. But despite it being an old design, it also has a futuristic, almost science fiction quality about it. I had no idea it was a replica until I saw one in an old photo one time. Again, this is perfect. Now I’ll admit this appears to be an expensive design. So it might not be something that is that feasible to deploy on a wide scale. Perhaps a simplified, more cheaply constructable version would be a high value add item for the designers to create for this project. Plus, this version is also suitable only for major streets like Meridian St. because of its large scale design.
This points again to where the designers for HARMONI have an opportunity to really advance the ball for the city. Refine the large scale design to make it cheaper to build. Then complement the large scale design with something more human scaled and suited to smaller streets and walking zones. Say something the size of one of those Victorian gas lamp posts, but with a design that meets all the criteria and is in the spirit of the Warehouse District designs. The Cultural Trail lights are a good entry, don’t quite cut it. Their overtly modern design is not timeless, plus they are production models from a catalog.
I can’t give the answer, but can suggest a place to turn. Many of the great Tudor revival houses in the area were built in the 1920’s I believe. This was the go-go Jazz Age, as optimistic and forward looking an era as ever existed in America. It was also the Art Deco area, featuring such wonderful buildings as the Chrysler Building in New York. To me the Art Deco era was a forward thinking, almost futuristic period, a reaction against the Victorian and excessive curlycues of Art Nouveau. Much of it features clean lines, powerful masculine shapes, and exudes optimism. Looking for inspiration in the Jazz Age and Art Deco designs would be a great way of taking a cue from an actual appropriate historic time period. Don’t just copy, mind you, or replicate the past. But use something of the past to speak to the present and the future. Just a thought.
Moving on, the median designs from 38th St.
These medians are great. Replace that Maple Leaf with a Meridian St. design (say a rendering of a globe with a meridian line through it) or other contextually appropriate imagery and you are there. As I said in my review, I love the classical formalism of this approach which is very appropriate to an urban setting (vs. a rural or small town one). It reminds me in a sort of strange way of someplace like the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Lush, green, stately, but clearly designed and urban. It would be perfect here.
And here the 38th St. crosswalk treatments.
The color scheme might not be appropriate for the HARMONI area, but change that and adapt the design and you are most of the way there. This is a very strong design element. The soft curb design might be something to reconsider, as it is a bit auto-centered. But what I like about it is how the designers used that to their advantage, in creating a soft arc motif that echoes the Circle without beating us over the head with it. (And there’s the edging around it like piping, the variety of textures, the grid pattern, etc all adding interest and thoughful detail – there’s a lot to like here).
There seem like plenty of places in the area someone might want directions to, making this an excellent area for wayfinders. And where better to look than the already nice downtown signs.
Note that these were already re-purposed and adapted for the 38th St. corridor, with a slightly different color scheme and icon. There it was a sort of reddish gold color like a leaf changing colors in the fall and the quadrant design was replaced with a maple leaf. So this shows how that wayfinder design is on its way to establishing itself as a standard. (It is also one of the few instances of reuse of that nature). It also shows how a base design that says “Indianapolis” can be adapted to put a neighborhood brand image on top of it. The HARMONI designers could do the same thing here. Replace the quadrant design with meridian line iconography, replace “Northeast Quad” with “Meridian St.”, etc. That is good for Meridian St. itself. For the various neighborhoods – M-K, Broad Ripple – I would create a neighborhood specific version. See how quickly this design could become an icon for the city? It won’t be perfect since very similar designs are in use elsewhere, but not everything has to be totally unique. As more standards are established, it is the combination that forms the brand image.
While I’m recycling my ideas from my Pecha Kucha presentation, I’ll also throw out my street sign design.
What better way to represent the city than with the city flag? This could be used as the base case design. But for streets like Illinois St., were the street is named after something, the city flag could be replaced with an appropriate design or rendering for that specific street. In the case of Illinois St., for example, the Illinois state flag could be used. For Capitol Ave., use an artists rendering of the Indiana State House. For Meridian St., use the meridian line imagery. Also for Meridian St. an auxiliary street sign in say brown with an Indiana state flag could denote this as historic US 31.
What I like about these suggestions is that, except for my street sign design, these are all things that are here today, right now, in Indianapolis, mostly designed by local designers. The city has plenty of first rate and even world class designs. But they are not leveraged to their fullest extent. The HARMONI initiative, which has a lot of people behind it who’ve shown elsewhere that that really get it, is a perfect opportunity to pull these together into a coherent package and articulate a vision for creating a unique design signature, not just for this neighborhood, but for the city. What’s more, this would take an overall design that, in its current nostalgia concept, is a very solid winner to be happy with, and turn it into a world class home run.
I don’t believe this would cost a huge amount of money. Obviously the dollars are in flux as the large range indicates. No doubt, using these designs costs more than what is probably an out of the catalog Victorian gas lamp post replica. But the money has been found elsewhere for other projects. And if the city standardizes on these, then the unit cost will drop dramatically with volume. All of the tooling to create them should already exist thanks to the previous projects that leveraged them. Some, such as the street signs, can be done in house by the city with its existing capability.
This area is arguably the premier neighborhood in the city. If there is anywhere to go world class, this is it. Again, the existing HARMONI concept is actually very good. The whole idea behind it is one I completely endorse. I just believe there are ways to dig deeper, think harder, and come up with something truly stunning.
Lastly, there is one other area of the concept I think should be changed. That is the umbrella neighborhood name of “Midtown”. This area is not Midtown. Logically, Midtown is the area from 16th St. to Fall Creek or 38th St. If you want a good name for this, I would suggest “Uptown”. Not only does that fit with the upscale nature of the neighborhood, it also is the northernmost region of the old city. This makes it geographically better as well. It doesn’t work with the HARMONI acronym, but then, this isn’t a strict acronym to begin with.
In closing, I’ve often noticed the deficiencies this plan is aiming to address. The ending of the sidewalks on Meridian, the lack of linkages to places like Broad Ripple and 56th/Illinois. The depressing streetscape on Illinois St. by the Melody Inn. It looks like a lot of other people not only noticed them, they decided to do something about them. The infrastructure of Indianapolis is sorely lacking in many respects. But simply replacing pothole ridden streets with fresh blacktop, or replacing crumbling sidewalks won’t fix the problem, no matter how much money the city throws at it. Spending a $1 billion or whatever the estimates are to rebuild the streets as is would miss the whole point. The street system of most of Indianapolis is conceptually obsolete. It needs to be completely reimagined before it is rebuilt. What I think is by far the best thing about the HARMONI initiative is that the people involved are doing just that. This isn’t just about smooth pavement. It’s about using a new conception and vision for the transportation network to remake the neighborhood. It is perhaps a shame that the neighbors are forced to raise millions in private funding to make it happen. But it is good to see that they are bringing the city along with them. Hopefully this comes to fruition, and the lessons it teaches rub off on the power that be in the city so that this becomes the new standard approach to rebuilding the city’s crumbling streets.