Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

Future of the Market Square Arena Site

The Indy Star invited readers to share their views on what should be done with the former site of Market Square arena. Yours truly was quoted in the resulting article. I wanted to include here my full suggestions for the site, which are more guiding principles for development than a concrete proposal.

This site is one of the most critical in all of downtown, so it is essential to get it right. Right now downtown has two main all day activity centers: the Wholesale District and Mass Ave. This site sites between them. Along with the City-County Building and a few other parcels, it forms a black hole or dead zone between those two districts. Whatever goes on this site needs to be capable of bridging those two districts with all day street life.

Clearly, the Star editorial board’s idea of a park would not do that. Before I outline what would, I’d like to share some thoughts on one proposal for the area that several people submitted, namely a new jail and criminal courts complex. Talk about the ultimate dead zone in downtown. A jail would actually repel investment, much as the existing facilities do. But I think there is a way to get creative with the jail that could turn it from a liability into an asset.

I told someone who was thinking about transit for Indianapolis to ask the question, “What would a first class transit system let you do as a city that you can’t do today?” One clear thing that comes to mind for me is that it lets the city move the jail and criminal courts out of downtown. Imagine building a new jail and courts complex somewhere say on the West Side, in a redeveloped industrial area long the existing rail tracks that are the logical routing for any possibly light rail line to the airport. This lets you redevelop a brownfield, and use the jail as an economic development tool in a struggling area, just as states are now using prisons. What’s more, this area has some degree of proximity, but not too much proximity, to the Washington St. commercial strip, which is increasingly a thriving Latino commercial district. Thus that district can gain additional patronage from employees and visitors to the jails or courts. Also, the jail buildings are moved out of downtown where they currently inhibit development. And, you are starting the process of moving government functions out of the City-County Building as a prelude to redeveloping that parcel, which is legacy of urban renewal, a civic redevelopment strategy now widely considered a failure. Next you move some functions into office space as part of a mixed use complex on the MSA site, potentially move the mayor and executive staff back to the old City Hall, and now you are close to having the CCB empty and ready for redevelopment.

By the way, this exact setup is what exists today in Chicago. While there is a major high rise court building on a plaza next to the classical city hall a la Indianapolis, the Cook County Jail (America’s largest, incidentially) is at 26th and California on the near southwest side. This also happens to be adjacent to the thriving Latino commercial district on 26th.

If you are going to do transit, this is the sort of type of leveraging of it that you ought to look to be doing. Move the jail and criminal courts out of downtown, start the process of decommissioning the CCB, and launch an economic redevelopment effort on the West Side or a similar locale.

Now, back to the idea I sent the Star:

I don’t have a specific proposal, but think there are key principles that must be followed in any redevelopment of the site:

  1. First do no harm
  2. Mixed uses and mixed users
  3. Medium to high densities
  4. Respect the street grid
  5. 360 degree structures
  6. No dead zones
  7. LEED certification and quality architecture as a requirement for any taxpayer money or abatements
  8. Include a destination component
  9. Cast a wide net

The MSA is a key linkage between downtown’s two main all day activity centers: the Wholesale District and Mass Ave. The City-County Building, parking lots and other single use structures create a “black hole” between them that the MSA project must be used to bridge. Any solution which perpetuates this and fills in this site with a building that generates no street life during large stretches of the day would be actively harmful and should not be built or allowed.

Instead, seek to include mixed uses, such as a combination of office space, residential, convenience and destination retail, and potentially other items such as hotels, government offices, or cultural venues. These uses need to complement each other in terms of drawing diverse user bases, and staggering their busy periods throughout the day to create at least 18 hour coverage of street activity. One possible “destination” type attraction would a museum, just a relocated Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Additionally, given the size of the black hole to be filled, medium to high densities are clearly warranted. However, this does not necessarily imply a high rise. High rises function poorly in Indianapolis because the auto-dependent nature of downtown means a huge parking garage must be included, which often leads to single tall buildings set on pedestals a la the AUL Tower or Indiana National Building, which are poor urban designs and only create additional dead zones. Midrise is perfectly acceptable. Midrise construction also maintains harmony with the building scales to the east on Market and Washington.

Any buildings should respect and engage with the street. They should be built to the sidewalk and feature a primary entrance from the sidewalk, not be interior facing, set at odd angles, or significantly set back. Long, monolithic or non-transparent, or semi-permeable facades should not be allowed. The Target proposal, for example, was a bad one in this respect. There should be a density of multiple uses that engage with the sidewalk, and transparency and interest along the façade. This street respect and engagement should be evident on all street frontage, not just one favored block. Buildings in Indy are famous for looking good and engaging with the street on only one side. Service facilities such as docks or garage entrances can be provided for via the inclusion of alleys.

If the items above are followed, this will tend to prohibit the perpetuation of dead zones. It would be good if the buildings exhibited green designs and LEED certification in line with the city’s sustainability strategy. Also, the city should prefer high quality architecture. These should be required if the developers request city assistance in whatever form, whether it be free or discounted land, tax abatements, or TIF subsidies. The city has a right to expect this in return for public moneys, which can be used to shape the project in ways that benefit the public.

Note that the market should drive the actual use and the city should not be prescriptive as to the content of the development. There is nothing in this proposal that is prescriptive in terms of architectural style, building use, etc. Rather, my suggestions are parameters that the city should include in its RFP for the site. Proposals that deviate significantly from them should be rejected, even if that means leaving the site vacant for some time. The city will be living with whatever is built there for at least 30 years, so it is imperative that it take the “first do no harm” approach and not just accept anything that comes along in order to show signs of “progress”.


A message board poster known as thehoss257 put together a very interesting rendering of a potential large traffic circle in the area, echoing Monument Circle and bookending Market St. in the way that the old arena used to. I’m intrigued by the form of the design.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development
Cities: Indianapolis

2 Responses to “Future of the Market Square Arena Site”

  1. Josh says:

    I love the idea of bookending Market Street as the State House does. It really could clarify the scale of that space. The beauty of Meridian is the extent of the viewshed to the north and the terminus at the rail overpass south. Bookending Market would give meaning to the fourth leg of that space.

    HOWEVER, it must have something vertical; it could be interesting to have the market site span the street again, maybe with an outdoor terrace to view the monument and statehouse from? It is the best view in the city, even from street level.

  2. CoryWilson says:

    I am glad to see you post Matt Hostetler’s ideas concerning another traffic circle at East St and College Ave. It amazes me that the “Circle City” has not had someone come up with this idea sooner.

    Recently, I am sure you have seen some of my posts concerning the need to improve the streetscape along Washington Street from the new interchange to New Jersey St. It amazes me that the City has not embarked on this to coincide with the completion of the new interchange. This is Indy’s new front door and to be blunt, at that door our “house” looks like it could use some serious TLC.

    The MSA site, if ever redeveloped, will be key to making a lasting, good first impression. There should be ABSOLUTELY no off-street parking along Washington, no grass; rathe rbuilding builtg to the sidewalk, at LEAST 3 stories in height and contain either reatil or some other professional service that has direct access to the sidewalks along Washington so that people will actuall be out on the sidewalk.

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