Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Indy: Could Marion County Implode?

‘Catastrophes’ seem to hit suddenly, but in reality the way has been prepared for them. Unperceived forces gradually eat away at the supports necessary for favorable development until the system is finally unable to resist any longer and collapses.”

– Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure

Indianapolis is arguably the best performing large metro are in the Midwest. Its southern influence has long been noted, but one of the things that has come with this is a growth profile that is closer to the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt. Pro-sprawl, anti-transit writer Wendell Cox noted this in a recent column on the city, “Sunbelt Indianapolis“, which sings the city’s praises. In time where most of us are justly worried about our economic future, it is worth noting a few of the things that are going right in Indianapolis, and where it really distinguishes itself versus Midwest peers:

  • It is the fastest growing major metro in the Midwest, with an annual growth rate of 1.5%, exceeding the national average by 50%
  • It is the top city in the Midwest for net domestic in-migration. This is arguably the most telling stat for any city. Are people voting with their feet to move to it or move from it? The vast majority of the Midwest is experiencing net out migration. But Cox notes that just since 2000, 55,000 people have moved to the Indianapolis region, a 3.6% growth rate. Its next nearest regional competitor only grew by 1.2% in this category. Amazing if you think about it.
  • It is also leading the pack in international in-migration. Indy started from a very low base, with a nearly non-existent international population in 2000 or so, but is now outgrowing even Chicago on a percentage basis. One needs to only cruise around the city to see the exploding number of Asian, Indian, and Latino businesses that are changing the face of the city and pumping life into failing neighborhoods.
  • It has one of the best and healthiest downtowns of any city its size. Most regional cities would kill to have something like the Wholesale District, with its shopping, dining, and entertainment options. While downtown is far from standing on its own two feet and has lots of problems to be sure, it’s hard to name another city of its size that is doing this well.
  • It has a brand new airport terminal that is the best in the country and the most environmentally friendly in the world.
  • It has international brand recognition via the Indianapolis 500.
  • It has some of the most progressive suburban developments in America going on. Indy is the national leader in modern roundabouts. Its suburban parkways and trails are as good as any city. New urbanist developments are proposed everywhere and there are many town center projects in the works.
  • While it is taking a hit in the recession, Indy has been a jobs leader in the Midwest, no doubt part of its attraction to people moving there.
  • Part of this is its extremely low costs. Indianapolis is the lowest cost major housing market in America and should stay among the cheapest indefinitely thanks to pro-development policies and a surfeit of easily developable land.
  • Indy is catching up in areas where it has lagged, including bike culture and facilities, sustainable development, the arts, etc. In some cases, I don’t think people realize how good they have it. People on the coasts can only dream of having access to the quality artisanal agricultural products that Hoosiers do, for example.
  • It has favorable geography, being located in the center of the state, being the state capital, etc.

So there is definitely a lot to celebrate. While other cities see their major projects die, a fully funded convention center expansion is underway downtown, a new Nestle plant that will employ 400 just opened in Anderson, and the 1,200 employee Medco mail order center in Whitestown is ramping up this year. E-commerce marketing firm ExactTarget employs 400, is having a record year, and wants to go public. Compendium Blogware is hiring. So again, while there are definitely net job losses, there’s a lot of positive momentum too.

But there is a serious problem that could ultimate undo all of this. That problem is the rot destroying the foundations of Marion County. I’ve given the quote at the top of this post before, but it bears repeating. Many apparently well functioning systems have fatal flaws whose internal logic ultimately brings about collapse. We only have to look at what recently happening the housing and financial markets to see its veracity.

Marion County is facing a terrible challenge and a very simple question that defies a simple answer. Namely, Why here? Why choose to live in Marion County? Why choose to locate a business there? The problem is that for all the attractiveness of Indianapolis as a region, Indianapolis as a city is often a hard sell. Why move to Indianapolis when you can cross a simple border into the doughnut counties and have better schools, safer streets, lower taxes and usually better quality infrastructure? It’s a no brainer. Hence we’ve seen the same incredible out migration in Indy that has been seen in other places. While the region as a whole saw net in-migration of 55,000 people, Indianapolis proper saw a massive outflow of 46,500. I think it is fair to speculate that most of those were middle class residents, which only puts financial pressure on those who stay.

For all the good things about Indianapolis, the central county has a legion of problems:

  • A fiscal crisis rooted in years of basically deferring every problem into the future, failing to control costs, failure to plan to plan for various tax changes and the current recession that has, as Warren Buffett put it, let us see who’s been swimming naked. The only thing saving the city budget right now is its reliance on property taxes, which is a stable source of income, but of course that comes at the price of shifting the financial risk to taxpayers.
  • An eroding tax base. This is clearly biggest the problem of all. Cut costs till the cows come home, but if your tax base is shrinking, you are ultimately doomed. Three of the four largest townships in Marion County are showing declining assessed valuations. I’m always struck driving out to visit friends in Hendricks County how there appears to be almost no development in Wayne Township, but when you cross Raceway Rd., you immediately see the signs of boomtown. A trip down Rockville Rd. or 10th St. puts Marion County’s challenges into stark relief.
  • Declining township schools – just look at the graduation rates compared to the collar counties.
  • Huge unfunded infrastructure liabilities. Fixing the combined sewer overflow problem is a $3.5 billion matter itself. There is a $900+ million backlog of curbs and sidewalk repairs. The parks have $100 million in deferred maintenance. The suburbs have their challenges to be sure, but I’d argue they are in much better shape and are mostly addressing the problems they have today.
  • Large social service liabilities. As home to the regions largest numbers of low income people, Indianapolis provides a disproportionate share of social service spending
  • Large tax exempt property owners. It is a huge benefit to the city to have lots of government and non-profit institutions based there. The flip side is that these institutions pay no taxes, thus much of the prime land in central Marion County is actually off the tax rolls.
  • An antiquated government structure. Unigov was arguably no such thing. It did not consolidate schools, fire, police, or poor relief. Really, it only consolidated functions where consolidation would benefit infrastructure hungry suburban areas: planning, public works, and parks. Alas, political challenges make rationalization difficult here.

To be brief and blunt, Indianapolis is slowly declining demographically and economically. At some point, this could reach a tipping point or point of no return from which no recovery is possible, leading to the collapse of the system and the implosion of Marion County. By that I mean the irreversible and accelerating departure of people who have the means to leave, followed by a similar business decline, leaving behind an impoverished, dysfunctional central city. If that happens, overall regional growth will not sustain itself. And with Indianapolis accounting for 80% of the state’s economic growth, the state of Indiana itself may go down with it.

If you don’t believe this scenario can happen, just look at Cleveland or Detroit. The end result doesn’t have to be that bleak, but even one that doesn’t go into a true death spiral can have radically bad consequences. Cincinnati perhaps offers the best example. Once the leading city of the Midwest and even not long ago clearly the regional capital, Cincinnati is now virtually stagnated, with growth rates below the national average, net out migration, and an extremely low foreign born population. There’s probably only one stat you need to look at to understand what drove the divergent fortunes of Indianapolis and Cincinnati: core county population. Marion County is at its highest point ever. Hamilton County, Ohio is down 81,000 off of its peak and is still losing people. But Marion County shows signs of peaking, and if it hits an inflection point and starts declining as well, it is probably game over before too long.

I certainly don’t think this is a guaranteed outcome. But my best guess is that there’s a 1/4 to 1/3 chance it happens, and that is growing bigger by the day.

How can this be reversed? How can we put Marion County on the path to a truly sustainable future? That is, how can we make sure it is demographically, economically, and fiscally successful over the long term? That is the problem to fix. The challenges above are all just symptoms of a fundamental decline combined with years of neglect.

The mayor and various civic groups have people looking at various aspects of this. There’s a group studying transit, there’s an office of sustainability, there’s a new task force studying infrastructure. That’s all good. But again, all of these are merely symptoms. They don’t fix the real problem, which is the strategic positioning of Marion County. The real problem is that no matter what Marion County does, it is going to have higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools than the suburbs. So how do you get people to choose to buy your product when it has those characteristics? As the real estate price tags in much of the inner city show, even when you basically give land and houses away, you can’t attract a lot of residents. The suburban areas of Marion County have an even worse problem. They are selling an older, inferior version of the same basic product on offer in the collar counties, but with all the problems above I mentioned. Who is going to buy that used car when you can buy a new car with a warranty for cheaper? Not many, which is why those 46,500 people left, with many more surely to follow.

Mayor Ballard takes a lot of heat for not having a vision. I’ve defended him, however, saying that we absolutely need someone to focus on the blocking and tackling and facing head on the problems that have been ignored for way too long. It’s not going to be easy and there are no simple or painless solutions. Unfortunately, after decades of deferring problems, the bill is finally coming due and has to be paid.

And actually, Ballard does seem to have a vision. He said in his State of the City speech, “With an eye on the future, we are working now to make Indianapolis America’s Most Livable Big City – a community that is safe, prosperous, a coveted destination for the best and the brightest, and a sustainable landmark with strong neighborhoods and efficient local government.” He also talked about “attracting the highest and best jobs to Indianapolis by targeting high-growth industries and international business” and said, “We must be international in outlook and vision.”

“America’s Most Livable Big City” may not have the ring of a great vision, but from what I see we should not take an overly literalistic reading of the term “livable”. Rather, we should see the end state of a city that is safe, prosperous, attractive to the best and brightest, globally engaged, and internationally significant. Livability is just the mayor’s “code word” for where he’d like to see the city get. And that’s a pretty ambitious agenda if you ask me.

So how do we get there? That is where things get interesting. Most Midwest cities would kill to get there. Lots of strategies have been tried. But few places have gotten anywhere. It’s an incredibly hard problem, and one that won’t be solved in the short term. It’s also one that defies silver bullet solutions.

How does the mayor propose we get there? His program, from the state of the city speech, is pretty straightforward:

  • Public safety
  • Strengthening neighborhoods (few specifics given)
  • Luring new business
  • Improving schools
  • Sustainability
  • Efficient and rationalized government

Again, who could argue with this list? Clearly, all are items that need to be tackled. But they won’t solve the fundamental strategic dilemma. You want safe streets, strong neighborhoods, lots of new business, good schools, great alternative transportation facilities, and low taxes? Move to Hamilton County – problem solved. Anybody who wants them can get all of these things today, save perhaps sustainability, just by moving to the suburbs. And in fact, they can, right now, today, get a better version of all of them than is likely ever to be achieved by Indianapolis.

Clearly, no city will be successful if its citizens fear to walk the streets. That’s a given. But when you look at lists like this, they don’t provide an positive reason for anyone to choose to live in a place. Plenty of places offer them today. If these are what you care about, moving is simply easier than staying to fight it out to make the city a better place. Again, that’s why we’ve seen 46,500 people leave in the last seven years. Lots of others would presumably do the same thing if they could afford to do so. The mayor’s program is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. It removes “knockout criteria”, but won’t fix the core problem of strategic appeal.

I’d suggest that that Mayor does indeed have a vision, but needs help figuring out how to get there. He’s got the basics, the blocking and tackling that clearly needs to be done, covered. But the really hard stuff, things that virtually no city has figured out yet, he needs help with. There’s no shame in this. The job of the chief executive is not to personally have the skills to do everything himself. Rather, it is to set direction and make sure everyone is working towards that goal. As a digression, my own management philosophy is that I’ve got two basic jobs as a leader: to build the team that can get job done, and to create an environment they can be successful in. In this case, the mayor needs to find the people who can help take that vision down to the next level so that it can be realized. Taking the drop from the 50,000 ft. level to the 5,000 ft. level is often the hardest journey to make. But that’s what the city needs to do.

As usual, I have some thoughts on the topic, so I will survey some of them and potentially periodically return to this topic in future posts. I know I’ve got readers in many cities who are probably sick of hearing about Indianapolis, but, as is often the case, many of the lessons and the “meta-problem” are applicable elsewhere. And since it is extremely unlikely Indianapolis will adopt any of my prescriptions, feel free to take these ideas for your city.

First, a few basic principles. One is that given the structural disadvantage Indianapolis has, trying to be directly competitive with suburban areas is a loser’s game and indeed Indianapolis is losing it. Thus, the key for Indianapolis is to create a differentiated environment that has an appeal in areas without direct competitors in the region, and preferably differentiates the city regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Two, the city has to strengthen its own hand without pulling the suburbs down or using beggar thy neighbor tactics. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, a great city needs great suburbs, and there can’t be a prosperous Indianapolis without a prosperous Indiana. All of the good things that happen in the suburbs and elsewhere in the state are a plus for Indianapolis the city. This region is not one of the top growth stories in America. To get there means every part of the region has to bring its A game. The policies that are pursued to build up the central city have to have a two-fold purpose: to build up the central city proper, and to continue to add to the rest of the region.

Three, while the city has struggles it needs to address, this does take place against a backdrop of regional strength. Indianapolis the region has been doing better than the rest of the Midwest. It is not a true national growth story – yet. However, while the bad news is that Marion County could implode, the good news is that if we turn the dials the right way and tune the engine a bit, the region as a whole could kick it up a notch. Whether or not you believe this would be a good thing or not depends on your own values, but I think it is certainly within the region’s grasp to get to a Nashville, Raleigh, Austin, Portland, Denver type growth curve, as well as significantly boosting the brand image.

Four, there are really two separate strategies that need to be pursued, one for the old city of Indianapolis, which has an older built form, and for the outlying areas of Marion County, which have a suburban form. Many of my suggestions focus on the former, though the latter is a arguably a harder problem.

Fifth, the focus of the strategy has to be on “choice” consumers. That is, the key group the city needs to figure out how to appeal to are those who have choices about where to live. This might sound harsh, and it is not intended to say we should, for example, neglect the poor. But helping the poor requires financial resources that comes from having a tax base supported by middle and upper class residents and businesses. If you don’t have that, you can’t afford to spend money on anyone. Hence the imperative. The city has to give people, especially those who don’t have some deep personal commitment to urban betterment (which, frankly, is most people) a reason to want to live in Indianapolis.

With that, here are a few specific strategies that should be considered.

1. Make the “Big Sort” work for you. Communities across America are sorting into like minded tribes. We have also seen the fragmentation of the great American common culture in favor of a multitude of niche cultures. In this case, the trend is our friend. The city needs to sharpen its strategic differentiation and figure out the market segments it can most successfully appeal to.

Part of this probably means ceding the social conservative base to the suburbs. I’m troubled by the Big Sort phenomenon and what it means for civic cohesion in the long term. It seems a matter of when, not if, Marion County will be solidly Democrat and the collar counties are already solid Republican. This type of sorting leads to hardening of positions, less tolerance for dissenters, and less ability to make common cause. In an era where regionalism is an imperative, this is doubly troubling. But the phenomenon seems a bit inevitable.

Indianapolis needs to figure out a diverse base of potential residents and businesses it can target that it can successfully craft an appeal to a) within the region itself and b) nationally among the cities its competes with.

How to do this? Example A might be sustainability and people who are about it. The mayor says he wants to be the most sustainable city in the Midwest in 10-15 years. Let’s take him at his word on this. How do you not just put forward a program office for sustainability, which is a great first step, but infuse this into every aspect of the city?

What are the implications for:

  • Internal agency practice
  • Zoning and building codes (Indy’s are completely obsolete)
  • Alignment of economic development strategies (e.g., requiring LEED certification as a condition for tax assistance)
  • Infrastructure and land use
  • Transportation policy and transit investments

The idea is to create a differentiated environment that appeals to groups who are likely to find themselves not feeling at home in the suburbs. This might in fact increase some out migration as people who don’t fit in with the new approach leave. But if you don’t try to take a stand on something and go for a generic, anything for anybody strategy, that’s the road to a slow civic death. The best designs and the best places are always somewhat polarizing. People love them or hate them.

I should note that sustainability as a paradigm might have appeal locally, but is unable to differentiate the city nationally, given that most places are already more advanced in this area and fighting hard. The city really would need to be tops in the Midwest to profit from this. But it is a start.

2. Invest in people, not just buildings. It never ceases to amaze me the unlimited sums of money city after city will invest in bricks and mortar projects, while they invest virtually nothing in people and talent beyond school spending. Lucas Oil Stadium and the convention center will cost over a billion dollars. But cities are about people, not buildings. Buildings don’t make a city great. People make a city great. And a great city with great people is what results in great buildings. Infrastructure is important and costly, but the most important part of a civic infrastructure is the people who live there.

There are all sorts of programs that could be done to invest in people and bring them to Indianapolis. Here are some examples, most of which would cost little money:

  • Create the urban alumni network I previously recommended.
  • Set up an ambassador network with key members of various groups to serve as guides and helpers when recruiting talent. I heard a story of a Latina professional who was being recruited to the city, but turned it down because she didn’t think there would be a social life for her here. But there have to be other professional Latinas in the city. What if the city had several of them on hot standby, waiting to show a prospective recruit around and see what the city really has to offer. As I’ve said before, Indianapolis is singularly unimpressive to people from bigger cities on a first visit – you have to be in the know to find out what is really available. So why not make that easier? You could do the same thing with virtually any ethnic group, LGBT, etc.
  • Leverage local immigrant communities as ambassadors to lure more immigrants from those same countries. We’ve got a decent sized local Sikh community. Why not see if you can help mobilize them and even provide some seed funding so that they can help scour the country and the world trying to bring more Sikh’s here?
  • Heck, run marketing campaigns in various countries trying to lure people, just like the state has those “Come on IN” billboards. International immigrants are a natural constituency for the core city. It is already doing a decent job of recruiting them, but there are always room for more people. One only has to drive around the city to see that large tracts of it would largely be dead zones without businesses if not for ethnically owned establishments. This is part of how you revitalize, particularly in the suburban areas. 38th and Lafayette Rd. gives the example.
  • Go out and just plain hire the top researchers in the world in the fields the city is targeting. Spend whatever you have to. This might cost a lot of money. But if you have $20 million for that terrible Washington St. interchange, you should have money for this.
  • Give fellowships to artists and others to get them into the city. Think about that Efroymsom fellowship, but with a twist. Go out and find like 10 young up and coming artists from around the world. Take say 4 from Europe, 3 from the Americas, and 3 from Asia. Bring them to Indy, then give them an apartment, studio space, and a $25K stipend to live on. Plug them into the local community. Then just tell them to hang out and do their work, only asking in return that they get out and get engaged in the local scene and leave something – an art work, a performance, an installation, etc – to remember them by when they leave.
  • Similar fellowships could be done in other areas. Think of the MacArthur Fellowship system, only the idea is to bring people to Indy for a limited period of time as part of the deal. By the way, Louisville pioneered an excellent approach to this for college interns called “Bulldogs in the Bluegrass” for Yale students that it looks like Yale is rolling out nationally.

If you get the right people, they will make things happen.

3. Great cities, places that are attractive to the educated, that are “coveted by the best and brightest”, are places where there is a robust intellectual and cultural life. This is where the city is positioned to shine. Nationally and locally, the central city is generally home to intellectual, artistic, and cultural pursuits. It is where the universities and research facilities are located, where the top high arts institutions are based, and where most practicing arts and culture people live.

Most cities recognize this and try to actively encourage the development of these spaces. But Indianapolis has been all but missing in action here. Arts and culture were not once mentioned in the Mayor’s 23-page State of the City address. Not once. I’ve tried to rigorously avoid politics on this blog and avoid criticizing any officials directly, but I’ve got to say the mayor is completely missing the boat on this issue.

I took the arts community to task for their reaction to budget cuts in the arts. There is no doubt that Indianapolis is among the stingiest cities in America when it comes to arts funding. Major arts institutions get almost zero funding from the city. Even the zoo is the only major zoo in America that receives zero tax support. Nevertheless, in this environment, everyone needs to step up and be part of the solution. So that arts budgets do need to be cut.

But that doesn’t mean you have to throw a pie in people’s faces. Frankly, Mayor Peterson never did much for the arts either. But you know what, he did one very important thing: he showed up. And he used the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office. The historic low levels of city support for arts and culture in Indy means the current mayor has an incredibly low hurdle to jump. That’s why his complete ignoring of the arts community, and cultural and intellectual endeavors, is mystifying. Even in dollars and cents terms, it’s like someone told me the other day – what other industry as large and arts and culture in Indianapolis could be facing economic catastrophe and the government not even care?

If you look around this city and look at the people who are actually spending their own money in the urban core, the people who aren’t getting paid tax dollars in order to build, you’ll see that a heckuva lot of them are artists, the culturally inclined, or other people who can’t get any respect in this town. Fountain Square has been transformed by the arts community. Much of Mass Ave. and the near north area was revitalized by gays, another group that can’t buy love from the city. You’d think that with an urban core blighted with thousands of abandoned houses and property the city can’t give away, the city would be rolling out the red carpet for those who want to move there. Instead, it seems to be doing its best to run everyone off to other cities where they are actually wanted.

Nobody had better insights into the character of the intellectual than Eric Hoffer. He noted that the key craving of the intellectual was to be taken seriously. The intellectual would rather be persecuted than ignored. I suspect that’s one reason that so many artists seem to go out of their way to gratuitously offend with their work. Rather than be ignored, they have to go out and create enemies, almost to justify their own existence to themselves.

This is what the city and the mayor need to do. Start showing respect for the arts community and others who are pouring their money and tons of sweat equity into the urban core. I’ll say that I don’t think public money is the answer to the arts in America. Even if the city radically increased its funding, that wouldn’t even make much of a dent in the budget of even one of the city’s flagship organizations. But you have to show up. Talk about the arts, culture, and the intellectual life in your speeches. Attend some events. Have a “Mayor’s Night Out” like event once a quarter or so where you listen to what young artists or the city’s top intellectuals have to say. Make sure it is important to you and people know it is important to you.

As for the community at large, the role of the intellectual life needs to be transformed. David Hoppe hit the nail on the head. In Indianapolis arts and culture are viewed as civic decoration, bling if you will, not as a vital part of a living city. Arts and culture are viewed as the accouterments of a big league city, not as important in their own right. Hence the low quality of much of the public art in town and other manifestations. The idea is that we needed to have this stuff, that it was a checklist item, hence we have it. But there is little concern about whether or not it is good. And under the rubric of “support your local artist” or “Buy Indypendent” there is no culture of self-critique or excellence.

Max Anderson of the IMA perhaps put it best, “Great cities do not become great because they are described as safe—they become great because they welcome and nourish creativity, in all its forms—economic, political, artistic, and architectural, and because they rise above a local definition to an inclusive one.” I’d probably like to extend that a bit. It’s more than just having creative people. It’s about being a center of important happenings in the intellectual and cultural world.

Look at all the cities we remember from history. They stand out for two reasons: they were imperial centers of great military conquests or great events, or they where centers of cultural and intellectual happenings. That is why we look even today to Athens and Jerusalem as the twin wellsprings of western culture. It is because of the important intellectuals and intellectual things that happened there.

It’s not just enough to have art. Every city has art. That provides no distinction. Rather, the city needs to carve out its niche for where it can be truly world leading in selected aspects of intellectual and cultural affairs. I actually believe this is possible. The IMA shows an example. Lacking a stock of local Russian billionaires to donate major artworks or huge financial warchest, it is looking to create a place on the international stage for itself in a few well-targeted areas such as conservation and the interaction of art and nature. The Indy Cultural Trail is attracting national attention for its re-conceptualization of the trail in an urban context. The Indianapolis Prize is sought after nationally. So there is plenty of opportunity out there to grab.

Again, it isn’t just about having cultural happenings or things to do. Pretty much every city has a thriving First Friday. That won’t attract people to Indy. Rather, the city needs to be seen as a place where important intellectual and cultural achievements can take place.

4. Focus on becoming a national aspirational city for African Americans. Marion County is 26% black. It has a robust black history and rich black cultural tradition. Indiana Black Expo is the largest ethnic or cultural festival of any kind in America. There are other major African American oriented events like the Circle City Classic. I’m also told that some of the leading African American poets in the country are based in Indy. Any solution for Marion County that does not include African Americans is a loser. I’ve written about this before in one of my very first blog posts, “Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis“.

I’ve long said that the way a community treats its black population is a huge indicator of civic success. Perhaps no other factor explains the decline of Cincinnati more than this. It probably explains a huge amount of the divergent fortunes of Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta. Speaking of Atlanta, look at how they’ve focused on becoming America’s premier center for African American life. It’s no accident that as this occurred, the city has also been exceptionally successful for whites as well.

Frankly, most cities ignore their black communities unless there is an acute problem such as rage at social conditions boiling over into protests. Clearly, people take care to make sure there is some level of minority representation in government and government contracting. But not much more than this.

I believe we need to move beyond the basic notion of inclusion to viewing the black community of Indianapolis as nothing less than an essential pillar of the city’s civic growth strategy. I’m not going to say I have the answers for how to do this. A lot of that would have to come from the black community itself. But I firmly believe this is a huge opportunity for the Midwest city that decides to start taking its black community seriously and treats it as a fundamental and vital part of its overall civic success strategy. Possibly one area to look is in the investing in people area, and really focus on luring top black intellectuals, artists, etc. to the city.

5. Figure out the lure to change the brand to make you more successful. One thing a buddy of mine suggested as a potential tag line was “Indianapolis: Help Wanted”. Now this as a true marketing tag line probably wouldn’t work, but it could capture the spirit of it. That goes something like this: “Hey, people. We’ve got a big, ambitious agenda here in Indianapolis. Our only problem is that we don’t have enough people to move us along as fast as we want. We’d love you to come here and help us make it happen, and to contribute your own ambitions to the pot.” A commenter in a previous branding thread talked about how Chicago marketed itself after the great fire. “Hey, great news. The city burned down. That means we need to rebuild, which means there’s lots of opportunity for work and to get rich.” Indianapolis didn’t burn down. But the old inner city and the old concept of the city have been vaporized as a success strategy. That means there is a wide open field and the city is a land of opportunity to create something new and fresh. I realize this is extremely rough, but should give you some sort of a feel.

6. Re-imagine the infrastructure of the city before you rebuild it. Indianapolis has deferred maintenance on its infrastructure so long that much of it requires complete replacement. In a way, this is a good thing. Because much of the infrastructure of Indianapolis is conceptually obsolete and needs to be completely rethought.

Nothing worries me more than that this infrastructure commission will look at the problem as purely financial. If you look at DPW reports on the state of the city’s infrastructure, you see lots of focus on dollars and cents and backlogs, but little about how the infrastructure itself needs to change.

The problem again at its core is a simple one. The city’s infrastructure was largely designed and built in the 50’s and 60’s for the needs of that era and a sleepy backwater state capital region of a million people. But today Indy is wide awake and is pushing a regional population of two million, and in 25-30 years it could be a major American city of nearly 3 million. That’s what the city needs an infrastructure built for, a major American city of the 21st century, not a sleepy state capital of the mid-20th.

The airport offers the best example here. The city could have just continued to patch up the old terminal. Frankly, there was no burning platform for this new terminal and it probably could have been deferred another 15 years. But the city went ahead an put in place the terminal it needed for that city of 3 million, and made it architecturally and environmentally the most advanced airport in the country, IMO. In the short term, there is no doubt going to be some pain to digest the $1.1 billion price tag. But 15-20 years from now, Indy is going to be thanking its lucky stars that local leaders were forward looking enough to put the infrastructure in place while it was still affordable to do so. Because with construction cost inflation being what it is, if Indy had waited until the last possible moment to build it, it would likely find out it couldn’t afford to. The key is, the city built the airport it needed, it built the airport for the future city, but it also rethought what it needed its airport to be and didn’t just go out and build some generic terminal similar to the last one, only bigger and newer. That last bit the absolutely critical component that makes it all work and the airport needs to be seen as the paradigm of what needs to be done for the rest of the infrastructure.

People say we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure, but we can’t afford not to. Why is the city facing a $3.5 billion bill to fix sewers? Because rather than just hold its nose and comply with the Clean Water Act 20 years ago, it fought and fought and delayed and delayed until now it can’t do so any longer. If it had simply done this along time ago, the bill would have been half or less the cost. St. Louis built a light rail line back when the feds would pick up 80% of the tab and when they could use an old bridge as the local match meaning they didn’t have to put up much of any local money. Today, because it delayed, Indianapolis will be paying nearly 100% of any major transit investments out of its own pockets. The price tag on projects like US 31 in Hamilton County and the northeast corridor shot through the roof as government spent 10-15 years admiring the problem rather than solving it. Thank goodness for Major Moves or these projects would simply never get done.

But again, beyond just spending the money, it is important to first think about what we need in the 21st century. Indy’s DPW actually builds worse roads in the city than they build in the suburbs. Compare say west 56th St. to Hazeldell Parkway and see the difference. This is what I mean by the city selling a worse product at a higher price point. The city is spending over $2 million on Broad Ripple Ave. on a project everyone knows is sub-par. The $20 million downtown interchange project may improve Market Street, but it has irredeemably marred Washington St. in the process.

The most pressing challenge for the city is to re-conceptualize the urban street network to be relevant to the 21st century, and start investing to get there. There is a $900+ million backlog of curbs and sidewalks. But sticking with the city’s current approach of just pouring a new thin 5′ strip of concrete directly next to the traffic lane, half of it blocked at various points with poles, is a waste of money. You don’t see many people walking the sidewalks that do exist in Indy, and unsafe conditions like this are a big part of the reason why.

The city needs to take a page from the Cultural Trail and learn how to incorporate its lessons into the design of the average street. Again, the city often does truly world class design at selected special locations. But the mark of a great city isn’t how it treats its special places – every town in America bricks up its Main St. – but how it treats its ordinary ones. Take a page from the Wholesale District and make the stop light mast arms used there the city standard. If a genie gave me one wish for changing urban design in Indianapolis, that would be what I would use it on. Read up on Complete Streets.

As for the state highway systems, INDOT cannot balance the budget on these projects by downgrading the quality. The design of our transportation infrastructure is of absolute paramount importance. INDOT has done a great job on the I-465 NW project and the I-465 west project. This is the standard that should be built to everywhere. And of course, it is critical to get I-465 and I-69 fixed. If the Major Moves program gets successfully implemented at this standard, it will be a huge step up for Indianapolis and the state will have largely taken care of the business it needed to take care of. Use the I-465 west leg project as the standard going forward so that you not only save money by standardization, but you start to create a unique design signature for the city.

I can’t even begin to do justice to the topic of infrastructure, which is much broader than this, in a single blog post. But the importance of getting it right cannot be overstated. Just rebuilding what we have would be money poured down the toilet.

7. The urban core requires land use change to promote proper urban form and modest densification. I’ve dinged Cincy a couple times in this post, but they have a collection of urban neighborhoods and assets unmatched in America. The problem of redeveloping the urban core of Indianapolis is that it is effectively an overgrown small town. The residential density of an Indianapolis street isn’t that far off from Corydon, Indiana, the first state capital.

This has to change. That doesn’t mean you Manhattanize the city. Far from it. I am not a supporter of high rises in Indianapolis, generally. But you could easily triple the residential population of Center Township without it being that evident to the casual viewer or fundamentally changing the built scale of the city. In 1950, Center Township had 337,000 people. Today it is 167,000 people – a greater than 50% drop comparable to some of America’s greatest urban collapses. Even if it becomes a desirable location again, significant built environment densification is required to achieve previous population levels because of the significant decline in household size.

If you want low density residential-only living, you can easily get it in the suburbs. So why rebuild the inner city in the same form? Rather, the city needs more density with additional mixed use development.

As part of this, it is imperative to put a halt to the Mayberryization of the inner city. Let’s take one of the city’s premier points of pride: Fall Creek Place. This is very successful in a sense. It filled in a large tract of vacant and decayed housing while preserving a lot of the buildings that were there and above all supporting a mixed income development. All good. But FCP is basically very low density residential subdivision. There are a few townhouses, but extremely few. And there is only one active commercial district, much of whose success (e.g., the Goose) is predicated on commuter traffic from people who don’t live in the neighborhood. King Park CDC is trying to subsidize some development at 22nd and Delaware, but so far to no avail.

The reason that it is so difficult to have businesses is that the residential density is simply too low. FCP should have been built at the triple the density, which it easily could have done by putting tasteful infill condos/apartments at corner lots, building lots of doubles, carriage houses, etc. and permitting additional townhomes. It could have also looked at narrowing lot sizes a bit. Doing this would not have changed the visual scale of the development all that much, but it would have added a lot of people to support businesses.

Also, the FCP development apparently comes with significant architectural restrictions reminiscent of a new edge subdivision that makes any type of creative or modern architecture verboten. Combined with the low density and almost entire single family home consistency, this basically makes FCP a new urbanist subdivision not that much different from say the Village of West Clay, only plopped down in the inner city. It simply does not have either the density or form to function as an urban neighborhood.

Alas, much of the development that has occurred in the city has been of this variety. Almost all redevelopment has been low density, single family homes. And because of this the residential base that has been attracted has been people who want to find a slice of Mayberry. Thus these residents oppose anything and everything other than single family homes. Even in the core of downtown, city hearings resemble nothing so much as suburban planning meetings. People oppose density at every turn, forcing repeated downscaling.

A great example is the 500 Walnut proposal, which was originally for 16 units but was scaled back to 9 after neighborhood protests. That might not seem like much, but it is a 44% density reduction. What’s more, given the speculative real estate premiums built into downtown, this renders many condos and such unafforable. It is tough to find a non-single family lot in the center city for under a million dollars. When you reduce the density significantly, each remaining unit has to carry more land cost, which requires more upscale units, which destroys affordability. That’s why condos in downtown Indy cost as much or more than they do in Chicago. And why so many of them are empty right now.

Even a single family lot near say 22nd and College will set you back $75K or so the last time I checked. Building a double versus a single family on that lot saves $37K per unit – a huge savings for someone without a high income.

Ultimately, as any suburban town council member will tell you, you can’t support a city tax base on single family homes alone. But that is pretty much what Indianapolis is trying to do with its redevelopment policies. And we wonder why there is a tax crisis.

Beyond the simple matter of economics, the preferences of today’s younger generation for urban living is not going to be satisified by small town residential life that just happens to be inside the boundaries of a big city. You can’t have a walkable neighborhood if there is not, in fact, anything to walk to.

Again, the idea is not to build Manhattan or Chicago. My proposal would be something called “100 Monument Circles” or some such. That is, we need to identify areas – much like 56th/Illinois, 52nd/College, and 38th/Illinois – that can be neighborhood commerical hubs. For many places there there is vacant land, I do suggest building a large circle like Monument Circle, with a park/fountain/plaza/sculpture etc in the middle and mixed use buildings around the edge. This creates a sort of courthouse square effect, rolling with the small town feel. Within a quarter mile of this, there would be lots of apartments, townhomes, etc. in addition to single family to produce a significant enough residential density to support some type of neighborhood convenience retail. You then link these trails with something like the Cultural Trail (maybe not as intense or expensive to build), which creates the paths between your nodes and leads back to the downtown Cultural Trail loop.

At a minimum, the city needs to replace its comprehensive plan and zoning code, which basically require suburban development in the inner city. Because almost everything requires a variance in the current scheme, this encourages wild west behavior. Better to set a bar for what is expected and expect people to bring it. And it much encourage proper urban form in the central city. If Nashville, Tennessee can get this right, I see no reason Indy can’t. As part of this, there should be no such thing as pure single family zoning in the old city. Rather, any place you can build a single family home it should also be legal to build a double and/or a carriage house/granny flat. This could double or triple the effective dwelling unit density with almost no impact to the visual scale of development.

And of course you can support thing all through better transit. Actually, it is probably the other way around. If you don’t change land use to create a more dense urban core and walkable, mixed use nodes, any money invested in transit is a waste.

Again, I could write another novel on this topic alone, but this should give you a flavor.

8. Become the shared cultural space for Indiana. You already see this a bit. But Indianapolis should try to be the central market place and consumption point for all of Indiana’s artisanal products and also the focus on statewide cultural activities. The recent very successful brewers winter festival, where every brewery in the state was represented in the Fairgrounds, is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Again, I’ve written about this before, so won’t elaborate much here.

9. Design matters. I’m still saving up my post on this topic for a rainy day, but Indianapolis absolutely must make step change improvement in its quality of urban space, the physical appearance of the city, and its overall quality level of architecture and design.

I’m not sold on the starchitect trend. Going and hiring Frank Gehry to plop yet another Bilbao clone in the city would be a mistake. So often these buildings are totally contextless and monuments to the self-indulgence of the architect rather than a reflection of the character of the city in which they are located. But the other extreme isn’t good either.

Major public buildings need to be architecturally significant. IPS just undertook a greater than one billion dollar school building plan that has not, as near as I can tell, resulted in one significant building. But take a drive 45 minutes south to Columbus and see the difference. I doubt Columbus is spending much more on its schools than Indianapolis. But they do value their architecture. This is a huge opportunity lost for the city, along with so many other civic structures.

I’m not sure how else to change the culture here, but the city can definitely take the lead. There are tons of talented designers in the city. I’m sure there would be many who would be willing to design, for free, first class products for the city. How about redoing the police car design? Or creating a great standard font for the city? Or a great letterhead? Or a better corporate seal? These sorts of details seem not worth anyone’s bother, but they are actually critically important in shaping an overall impression of a place. And the cost of changing them is very low to boot.

10. Regionalism. I talked about the Big Sort and the challenge it poses for civic cohesion. That’s why the city needs to make sure it is actively embracing regionalism and regional solutions. Outside of Indiana, no one perceives any of the individual jurisdictions separately. Central Indiana is one economic unit. And it needs to act like it. Creating trust and a sense that everyone is in it together is important. This is not just about getting suburbanites to pay to prop up the center city. It’s about the center city doing what it can to help the suburbs and outlying areas as well. Since again, everyone needs to be bringing their A game to have an overall successful region. As with other items, I’ve written about this before.

11. Separate service levels from efficiency. This is another one of my favorite topics. But low cost is relative to a sevice level you are buying. You need to first figure out what you generally want to buy that fits you budget, then try to negotiate the best deal you can.

I happen to think Indianapolis spends both too much and too little. Given the level of public services provided today, I think it is reasonable for someone to ask why the budget is so high. And I can clearly sympathize with not wanting to pour more money down a rat hole. But given that the city will never be able to compete with the suburbs in a race to the bottom on costs, there needs to be a recalibration of service levels. Indy can’t do everything at high service levels. It needs to pick and choose. But it has to pick something. Because selling an inferior version of public services with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools only leads to disaster. On the other hand, it’s possible people might be willing to pay more to get something they can’t get elsewhere. There’s no guarantee, but the other approach seems like a proven loser given that there is no prima facie reason to think it will work and 46,500 already voted with their feet this decade alone on what they thought of it. The examples of successful major cities around the country show that it is possible to get people to pay a premium price to live in the city – if you are selling a product people want to buy and is worthy of the price. Indy can’t be New York or San Francisco. But it has to be able to put out a product people are willing to pay to get.

Clearly, it isn’t possible to launch a major program in a recession. But this too shall pass and the city has to be ready to do something different. Not just the same thing a little cheaper, but something different. The real problem that needs to be solved is to turn around the demographic and tax base declines. If the tax base is increasing, you can spend more and pay less per capita to boot. But right now the city is in a vicious circle, with declining leading to more decline. If the city can’t reverse that decline, ultimately nothing it does on any other front will matter.

12. Innovative funding. I think there’s an opportunity for Indy to carve out an innovative niche in the use of public-private partnerships to finance a lot of this. The Cultural Trail is a great example. Tax dollars via Transportation Enhancement funds are going into it, but this is leveraging private donations to create a big piece of public infrastructure. And there will be an endowment to maintain it so that we don’t have to worry about the deferred maintenance problem.

Another example: the sustainability office. The city is creating a foundation to accept donations and grants to help fund programs. There was recently a six figure contribution towards bike lanes. And the aiport also established a foundation to pay for more art work and for programming in the civic plaza.

This could be the model of the future – if the community is willing to step up and continue to support these efforts. Not everything might even require large scale funding. The city is $100 million behind on parks. It is also debating what to do with small parks. But what if the city kicked in some money and a foundation kicked in some money to fix up some of these parks. Then the neighbors could both raise funds to pay for maintenance, as well as donate labor or in-kind services to take care of it. The funds could be deposited with CICF for administration. By raising endowments for maintenance over the long term – potentially with private contracting thrown in to boot – these parks could effectively get off the city’s books other than major capital refresh.

These are just some ideas. There are a lot more, but this is already possibly my longest blog post in history – and that’s saying something. And I couldn’t even do justice to these ideas. But hopefully they give you a flavor of where the city needs to be looking. Maybe these aren’t the right ideas. But somebody needs to come up with something. Because right now many of the trend lines for Marion County are going the wrong direction. If not arrested and reversed, these might indeed lead to a place I’m sure the community very much doesn’t want to go.

Thanks for reading and discussion is welcome as always.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Civic Branding, Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

41 Responses to “Indy: Could Marion County Implode?”

  1. thundermutt says:

    There is much to comment on here, but from 50,000 feet one answer to your question is simple.

    Look to the previous post about Boomers: they don’t have to worry about schools, they are more likely to be arts patrons (and less likely than their parents to be offended by the avant-garde), they are more likely to eat out downtown than the GenXers with children at home in the burbs. Further, some of the best health care in the state is within the urban core.

    Like YESTERDAY, the city needs to be selling aging boomers on moving here. And by “here”, I mean Center Township…to those “100 Monument Circles” connected by trails and transit.

    Indy needs a 20-year strategy to attract and retain boomers while persuading their kids (now teens and twenty-somethings starting families) to come here too.

  2. CindyinIndy says:

    I read the whole post; unusual for me because as you say, you are verbose. :-) But, my thought was to write a comment around appealing to the “preference of today’s younger generation”. There is one comment here from Thundermutt and it is exactly the point I was planning to make. I sell real estate and the demographic of what is moving downtown is a boomer. I know you write a lot about the arts, it seems to be your passion. But, while that may be missing or not as big as it should be; it is the schools that drive families to their home choice locations. Families will always move to where says to go which is Hamilton County. The appeal for downtown Indy needs to be specific in its demographic pull for boomers as Thundermutt has indicated.
    Another answer might be having you run for some public office; you at least have some solid ideas.

  3. thundermutt says:

    Okay, now the second comment, from about 5,000 feet.

    Something that works in general is the whole “Central Recreation District”. How do I know? Actual credentialed experts:

    For Modern Urban Growth, Don’t Forget the Ballpark and River Walk
    Published: December 10, 2008 in Knowledge@Wharton

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major cities across America created massive Beaux Arts public spaces — from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to the fabled White City of the Chicago World Exposition in 1893 — as part of a City Beautiful movement aimed at putting a clean and positive face on the nation’s rush toward urbanization.

    At the end of the 20th century, with those same cities under siege from a rapid loss of manufacturing jobs and suburban flight, urban planners again looked to salvage cities by improving civic spaces, but now with a more commercial bent toward attractions like new ballparks, aquariums or shop-lined river walks.

    But can these new urban amenities — targeted toward an era of consumerism and leisure — actually stop the loss of population in America’s central cities while attracting new residents with higher education and more attractive job prospects? Wharton real estate professor Albert Saiz and Gerald A. Carlino of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia sought to quantify the advantages of a city’s leisure opportunities in a paper titled, “Beautiful City: Leisure Amenities and Urban Growth.”

    They discovered that American cities with consumer leisure opportunities that appealed to visitors were also able to attract additional new residents over the course of the 1990s, the decade they examined. On average, cities offering more leisure advantages — like an attractive waterfront or museums — gained an additional 2% in population over less attractive counterparts during this 10-year period; some “beautiful cities” like Boston and New York that didn’t have the ability to add housing to meet increased demand instead saw a sharp increase in housing prices and rents.

    Cities with increased leisure activities “are growing faster than they would have otherwise,” Saiz says. The survey showed that leisure amenities in particular were helping to stabilize cities that don’t necessarily have the advantages of great weather, immigration or low taxes that some booming Sunbelt cities — such as Atlanta or Phoenix — offer. “A city like Philadelphia with so many low indicators in the 1970s, such as a low level of education, would have declined even further were it not an attractive city with its beautiful architecture and its access to the zoo, culture, theatres and restaurants. It seems to be true from the data that these cities are perceived as attractive.”
    Saiz and Carlino collected and analyzed data on the number of leisure visits to the leading metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, in the United States, and determined that the 1990s growth rate increased by 2 percentage points in cities where the number of leisure visits had doubled. The researchers took into account the number of jobs directly related to tourism, and showed that these do not provide the explanation for why “attractive cities” are growing faster. This is perhaps not surprising since employment in the travel and tourism industry accounts for a very small share of total employment for the typical metropolitan area (3.3% in 1990). In addition, they discovered that increased leisure amenities also helped to forecast out-of-sample growth for American cities from 2000 to 2006. Finally, the report found a correlation between the amounts of money local governments invested in recreation projects and related amenities, and their relative attractiveness for leisure visitors.

    According to Saiz, while the goal of the report was to quantify the importance of leisure amenities in urban growth since 1990 and not to look at specific policy remedies, the study does provide city officials with evidence that spending public dollars on leisure and cultural activities may offer more long-range benefit than traditional economic development focused on job creation. “It does raise the question of whether it makes sense to subsidize industries,” Saiz says. “For the last 50 years, we have been trying to bring businesses to cities, but maybe it makes more sense to get people in there — and the businesses will follow them.”

    Indeed, underlying the statistics that Saiz and Carlino obtained is a revealing saga of the changing nature of American cities over the last century. Saiz became interested in the concept of leisure amenities as engines of urban development with an earlier co-authored research paper that studied the role of consumer-oriented activity in powering cities and their growth — in contrast to more traditional notions that urban areas are focusing on the production of goods and related services.

    City beautification and the provision of leisure amenities as local public policy are certainly not new ideas, as the streets of Istanbul, Paris, Rome or Vienna attest today. In America, the City Beautiful movement flourished primarily in the 1890s and 1900s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution when new factories led to rapid urbanization as well as squalor, crime and other growing pains. Large public parks with classical-style edifices — such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — were motivated by a progressive impulse to bring order to cities both through the architecture itself but also through instilling a sense of civic pride. The original City Beautiful movement died out with the arrival of the Great Depression as the 1920s came to a crashing end.

    But Saiz says he and Carlino wanted to study a modern trend that arose after the long era of urban decay peaked in the 1970s. He notes that urban planners have been seeking to develop leisure activities — usually through public-private partnerships — that would bring people back to the decimated urban core. For example, Saiz pointed to Camden, N.J., where waterfront projects have included a minor-league baseball stadium, an aquarium and a concert center, and to Oklahoma City, where voters approved a sales tax to finance $300-plus million to build a downtown canal and entertainment center. Explains Saiz: “It’s all because cities want to attract skilled labor, and skilled labor is attracted by a beautiful environment.”

    Over the course of a century, Saiz notes, there has been a fundamental change in the factors that have drawn people to live in cities. Since the earliest days of America, the primary motivation for the growth of regions of the country has been the pursuit of job opportunities, from tobacco growing in the 1700s to coal mining in the 1800s and eventually to factories which promoted urban growth. But, he says, the rise of computer technology and the Internet and the increasing globalization of the economy has freed many people — especially highly-educated higher wage earners — to relocate based on reasons of lifestyle, such as access to restaurants and the arts rather than to be close to a workplace. Carlino and Saiz’s paper notes that increased desire for consumption coincided with the doubling of real per capita income in the United States from 1959 to 2005.

    “The paradigm has changed,” Saiz says. “Of course people still follow jobs,” but urban growth is increasingly driven by other factors such as climate and proximity to an attractive waterfront. “People are richer now than they were in the mid-20th century, and so there’s a focus on ways to make the city more attractive for living and enjoying and for families and leisure.”

    In seeking to develop a methodology to establish the importance of leisure amenities, Saiz and Carlino selected the number of leisure tourist visits in an MSA, since tourists are drawn by many of the same factors — architecture, outdoor recreation and culture — that also attract permanent residents. The researchers noted that the tourism statistics would prove a more objective standard than typical quality-of-life evaluations. The results showed that leisure visits to a city were the third most important predictor of its growth during the 1990s, trailing immigration levels and a low-tax structure.

    In addition, the researchers found that the so-called “beautiful cities” tended to attract more highly-educated people. But another critical discovery was that urban population growth was not uniform by neighborhood and that the core downtown areas — or central business districts (CBDs) — often were not the sections of the city that experienced the greatest growth in population or earning power. Saiz and Carlino created a new term to describe the urban sectors that are growing because of their leisure amenities: Central recreation districts, or CRDs. These CRDs (which the researchers determined by using each city’s main tourism office as a central mapping point, and by calculating the distance of each neighborhood to historic places and its accessibility to recreational amenities) offered the prime leisure and recreational characteristics of a “beautiful city.”

    Link to full paper:

    So there’s some empirical support for “being the best Indianapolis we can be”, and something to explain why Indianapolis grows in spite of winters and a lack of mountains, beaches, and lakes. We build our own beachfront.

    Will this paradigm hold up outside a decade of unparallelled economic growth? In other words, this paper explains the past; will it predict the future too?

  4. Anonymous says:

    The foundation of the success Indianapolis has had in the last couple decades in downtown revitalization is Richard Lugar’s idea of Unigov. Lugar realized that economic vitality moves when people with money move to the suburbs. Unigov redrew the city boundaries to include more of the people in the community with money. Without Unigov, Indianapolis would be like Detroit or Cleveland. Since then there has been a constant flow of population to homes outside Marion County, hence the danger that the Urbanophile speaks of in the essay above. To restore the balance, Indianapolis must be reorganized to include the non rural parts of Hamilton, Boone, Johnson and Hendricks counties. The city governments of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Brownsburg, Westfield, Greenwood, Zionsville must be dissolved and their offices annexed into the Indianapolis city government.

    Carmel delenda est.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    The urban pattern of the world city success story (e.g. Chicago) is one of dramatically uneven economic development. There are the people who don’t have the means to get out of Marion County. They live in the neighborhoods that globalization leaves behind. The neighborhoods that successfully embrace globalization are typically young, single, foreign born, and/or partners without children. Thus, bad public schools aren’t really of concern. Those that do worry about such things and want to live in the city, can afford to send their kids to private schools.

    Does Indianapolis embrace the Chicago way or is there another option?

  6. SpeedBlue47 says:

    Another thoughtful post, though maybe a blog post to each specific point might do the entirety of your ideas better justice. But again, this blog is really one of the few on the web that is as accessible and at the same time intellectually engaging as what you have here Aron.

    My thoughts on most of your points are probably well documented throughout the comments sections of the relevant posts, but I have to reiterate that I love many of your branding ideas. I just believe that civil society really needs to take the lead here, as opposed to government officials.

    For instance, it might be best to form sort sort of non-profit organization to promote this “100 Monument Circles” idea to developers, businesses owners, land owners, investors, and other stake holders in the relevant areas. At the same time, draw on the resources of the interested parties to inform the public about your intent and use the sentiment of the public to convince City Council members to follow policy prescriptions that would enable the execution of such a plan. The organization could transition from a promotion function to a planning forum to a maintenance and governance foundation as the plan were put into place. I believe that a body of voluntary actors that can help break down conventional restrictions outside of a formal government body can have much more success than a body of people within the government itself ever could.

    I appreciate your homage to alternative funding options, and I believe that this will play a huge role in not only returning the city to solvency, but allow it to ascend into prosperity. I believe that once equity and capital markets return to solid ground(assuming of course this happens), the city and region should look at leveraging its major assets toward raising the capital needed to completing the large projects on its agenda. Some ideas:

    – Lease or Sale of IND(Large short term potential gain, and sizable long term gain by putting this large tract of land on the tax rolls)
    – Lease of I-70/I-465/I-65 in Marion County(This could take many forms, and could be a Indiana Tollway type deal or something completely different)
    – Reorganization and/or privatization of IndyGo bus system(This could be an outright sale of the system with certain performance standards built into the purchase agreement, or a liquidation of assets combined with sale of “curb rights” to private operators).
    – Devolving of park maintenance and/or operation to local HOAs or community foundations.
    – Devolving of neighborhood street maintenance in a similar manner as above
    – “Sale” or adoption of major street mileage for beautification

    There are problem a hundred other minor alternatives toward financing public services and major municipal capital projects, but the one that really intrigues me the most is Land Value Taxation. If the city created “split-rate” districts around urban nodes that have a high level of municipal investment, it may help to increase density and make such nodes work while at the same time minimize the penalty for homeowners and developers making improvements to their real property.

    Lastly, Anon 1:47pm brought up something intriguing which I have mentioned before: extending Unigov to its logical next step. But I am really not totally convinced that there would be huge cost savings in doing this, and if not executed appropriately could lead to a watering-down of the strategic advantage of the collar-county cities. Maybe something not as monolithic as Unigov could be created, maybe a sort of midwestern METRO(The Portland area metropolitan council of governments). It is my opinion that devolution of public services to the neighborhood level while consolidating the city services organizations as competing contractors for neighborhood associations would provide a higher level of service than any municipality could offer. I also believe that there is serious issues in the public school/school district paradigm in education. A region wide reformation of the education system and an institution of a region-wide voucher system could make Indianapolis a leader and innovator in one of the most visible aspects of modern city livability.

    So, by rousing civil society to take action in regards to the future image of the city, pressing for alternatives in city financing, leading the way for changes in municipal tax and land use policy, and innovating in public services, specifically education reform, the City of Indianapolis, Marion County, and whole Central Indiana region could save itself from suffering the fate of a Detroit and more mirror the success of an Atlanta or Dallas.

  7. Jeffrey C says:

    Peterson can be faulted for many things, but he understood the mayor’s public voice/image responsibility, particularly for the Arts. He was honored by Americans for the Arts for whhat he did as a champion:

    Ballard may indeed have a broader notion of “livability”, but he doesn’t champion it publicly, he doesn’t speak up enough about/for the possibilities of what’s happening in Indy, so we have no energy coming from our top elected public official. His focus on infrastructure will ultimately serve him well, but much more needs to happen much more quickly downtown. In my 15 years of living here I have never seen such deplorable condition of so many city streets. Filling potholes is not going to be enough; major repaving is required on block after block after block.

    You may be right about more density, but you also have to be more considerate of people who have invested in their neighborhoods and want to preserve a reasonable degree of community. I’m one of the gays who spent lots of money to renovate a home in Chatham Arch and saw 500 Walnut as too much living on too little lot. Look at the crappy hodgepodge of overpriced condos sitting in Lockerbie right now where every available piece of land is being filled in with bizarre configurations of housing at lofty prices that are neither attractive nor sustainable.

  8. JG says:

    A few have commented on extending Indianapolis government into a metro region government. I would like to see Carmel, Greenwood, Avon, and other small towns and cities maintain their separate identity and governments; however, a council to better coordinate civic and urban duties should be established. Along those lines, does anyone have a comment on issuing a limited metro tax for those outside Marion county for use on Marion county infrastructure? The rationale is that many outside Marion greatly benefit from a strong urban core to the region, whether they work in Marion county or not. As folks leave the city, the problem of a shrinking tax base worsens in a dangerous spiral. Urbanophile proposed some good ideas to prevent this. I am cautious about suggesting increased taxes, however I have thought of this tax idea, and would like to read others’ comments.

  9. thundermutt says:

    JG, I have championed that very notion on the Indianapolis development blogs (IBJ, Urbanophile, SSC, and others) for some time. It is the fair and right thing to do.

    For example, Hamilton County can keep their current 1% county income tax. But those residents should pay an additional tax of (say) 1/3 of the Marion County rate if they commute to work in Marion County, so that there is far less tax arbitrage advantage to locating either side of 96th Street.

    It is entirely unreasonable for commuters to take advantage of the massive infrastructure that supports them, at the sole expense of Indianapolis taxpayers. This includes arterial streets, snowplows, sewers and sewer treatment, water systems, solid waste collection and incineration, parks, police, fire, and ambulance protection, and all the non-taxable government and non-profit facilities that support the whole region. All of these civic assets benefit commuters while they are commuting and working in Indianapolis proper and enjoying the many amenities on weekends and after hours.

  10. thundermutt says:

    Speedblue, those nonprofit civic benefit organizations do exist.

    We call them “community development corporations”. For example, much of the revitalization of Fountain Square has been accomplished under the auspices of SEND (Southeast Neighborhod Development).

    They’re working on making the immediate area of “the fountain” (and the terminus of the Cultural Trail) much more of a “Circle-like” destination.

    If you don’t get hung up on labels and funding streams, what you want is actually happening. Civic organizations can take “ownership” of important civic assets without having the deed or a 99-year lease, even if they’re spending general tax revenues reallocated to them. (I agree with you on local self-determination but am not nearly so dogmatic about its form and structure.)

  11. Alon Levy says:

    There is a real danger in trying to build a city by attracting transplants from elsewhere: branch factories, recent migrants from other US cities, etc. This mode of development is extremely bubble-prone, and can create mirages like Dubai, which is in the process of complete disintegration now. Meanwhile, New York and Houston, the homes of the finance and oil companies that opened branch offices in Dubai, are both doing fairly well.

    In reality, developing from scratch is almost impossible. Most global cities today developed together with their countries; recent examples include Buenos Aires, Milan, and Seoul. Seoul didn’t develop by having a special urban development strategy – it developed because it was the largest and most important city in South Korea, so its economy swelled as the country industrialized. The exceptions tend to come from four realms:

    1. Ports. In the 19th century, having a good port made some cities. The port was one of the major reasons New York eclipsed Philly and Boston. (The other is that Philly and Boston were centers of agitation for independence, so after independence, British investors felt safer investing in New York.)

    2. Trade centers. This is an annex to ports. Cities built as centers of free trade, like pre-communist Shanghai, and Singapore and Hong Kong, can become rich very quickly, even if they’re not very good ports, as Shanghai wasn’t. Today, this powers financial centers like New York, London, and Tokyo, but all three were primate cities long before they became financial centers.

    3. Natural resources. The nearest major city to a natural resource can swell. Examples include San Francisco did during the gold rush, LA during California’s oil boom, and Houston and Calgary now. This is exceedingly rare in countries that don’t have economies independent of resource extraction, though – Riyadh never did turn its oil riches into development.

    4. Government centers. Being the national capital helps development, as the examples of Beijing, Washington, and Delhi show. But none is developing much faster than the other major cities in its country. And capitals of smaller governments, such as Ottawa and Canberra, can remain provincial for decades. Even Washington was unimportant until the New Deal.

  12. cwk says:

    So many good ideas both in the post and the comments. But what troubles me is how to get the city government to listen. The zoning problem strikes me as particularly pernicious, given I’ve seen it mentioned in two different books on this subject. But where’s the political will? Do we need some sort of grassroots citizen’s group?

    Oh, on the park maintenance issue we’re already doing a bit of a head start on a public/private partnership. KIB does all sorts of this kind of work around the city in conjunction with community groups as it is.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Lots of great info in this post. I would recommend soliciting the indigenous "creative class" that already lives, works and invests in Indy. There is tremendous pent-up creativity that can be put in service to the urgent needs for the Metro area.

    One example of something that's being done well is the Envision Broad RIpple process. A collaboration between the Broad RIpple Village Assn., Green Broad RIpple & HARMONI, the process includes planners from DMD who are working with citizens to create design guidelines and standards for the growth and development of the Village. It takes a Village to make Indy a destination city.

    The next Envision Broad Ripple meeting will continue work on design guidelines for the Broad Ripple Avenue area.

    The first task will be to review the results of the Visual Image Survey (VIS) that the community completed at the December EBR meeting. The ratings have been compiled, and the next task is to identify the specific characteristics of the survey images to get a better understanding of the topics that should be dealt with in the design guidelines.

    This session will also include a model building exercise led by DMD planners Bob WIlch & Kathleen Blackham. This exercise is designed to encourage community participants to begin to make decisions regarding issues of building and site design. A base model of the area has been created.

    Participants will be encouraged to think of areas of the community that are likely to change in the next 10-20 years, and then think about what type of new development is desirable on these sites

    They will express their ideas by constructing models of the new buildings with building blocks.

    What we've seen over the course of the past year is that when citizens are given the tools and the opportunity to think creatively about their community they bring their best to the table. It's lively and encouraging and deserves to be emulated throughout the Metro area. NOTE: unlike the fabulous GINI process, EBR is a total grassroots phenomena, funded by the sponsoring groups.

    Perhaps some of your readers would like to attend:
    Envision Broad Ripple 10
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009
    5:30 PM
    Indianapolis Art Center
    Ruth Lilly Library
    820 East 67th Street

  14. AR says:

    Good post. It’s amazing how things can change in a generation.

    My parents grew up in the old city limits and moved to the far northeast side in the mid 80’s to raise their family. I now live near Broad Ripple, have a family and will be looking to move to a bigger house in a few years.

    While I am proud of my city and want to stay in Marion County, my decision will probably come down to money and education. Many other young families will be faced with similar decisions over the next 10-20 years.

    We need to keep the public schools in Marion County a realistic option for families and keep the suburban neighborhoods of the 70’s and 80’s occupied as the boomers downsize.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    On another note, Ed Glaeser has a paper showing that a proliferation of small business, as opposed to big business, increases city growth.

  16. thundermutt says:

    AR: may I suggest that you learn all you can about the magnet, charter, and private options available inside the IPS boundaries before writing them off and giving up on the city.

    There are no “easy”, default choices in IPS territory (unlike the donut counties). But there are most definitely some VERY GOOD choices that would allow you to stay inside 465.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    AR: there’s some research showing that which school you go to has very little influence on how much you learn.

    For example, it’s well-known that low-income people in the US, who go to poorer schools, advance less than high-income people, who go to richer schools. However, researchers who tested students both at the beginning and at the end of each academic year found that the achievement gap only opens during the summer recess. During the school year, low- and high-income students advance to the same extent. The difference turns out to be not how good the school is, but how many books there are at home, how much the parents intellectually stimulate their children, etc.

  18. The Urbanophile says:

    Thank you everyone for the comments – and for being so well behaved while I was away.

    thunder, the boomer thing is right on. I don’t think anyone has truly targeted or figured out how to serve them heading into the 60+ years.

    Cindy – thanks for the kind words and expanding on this point. Good insights from someone close to the action.

  19. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 1:47 – Definitely Unigov saved Indy from the problems that hit elsewhere. But, as you note, it is out of gas. Unigov also had problems in that one of its aims was political domination by township voters, the ramifications of which are still with us.

    Jim, good question. Indy tries to appear to be replication that model. It is clearly an immigrant magnet. The big problem with pursuing the Chicago model is that Indy’s scale of development means it basically can’t create the “urban playground” type of neighborhood. If a successful version of this model arose in Indy, it would certainly look different.

    I for one hope there is another way, since Chicago has left way too many people behind mired poverty. The very low cost of living in Indianapolis gives me hope that, if the city is ultimately successful, the majority of its residents will be able to share in that success.

  20. The Urbanophile says:

    JG, thunder, a commuter tax is a non-starter and even if doable, I would not support it. NYC can get away with it because there is no place like Manhattan. But a commuter tax is only going to run even more business out of Marion County. Indeed, we already see that a huge chunk of new jobs are already in the collar counties. I think a commuter tax makes Marion County an even less attractive business location.

    OTOH, regional taxes to support regional amenities that happened to be located in Marion County – a la the Lucas Oil Stadium deal – is a possibility. Northwest Indiana has a Regional Development Authority similar to the LOS situation that is supposed to be for region wide assets. Perhaps something like that could be used for things like transit, or for major cross-suburban initiatives. Of course, carving up the money in such a situation is fraught with difficulty. The idea has to be about binding the region together, not creating further divisions or resentments. Thus treading carefully is certainly warranted.

  21. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, I don’t think you can sustain a city based purely on a “growth” model like Phoenix has been doing. However, any city requires net in-migration to be healthy. Among other things, it is critical to have a constant flow of new ideas from the outside world, and to have people from elsewhere who aren’t conditioned from birth and by habit to the way things are done. Having a significant population of non-natives is practically a prerequisite for civic change. That’s true anywhere, not just in Indy. If you stop attracting newcomers, your town will quickly calcify. So think there needs to be a mix of natives, boomerangers, and total newcomers (domestic and international).

    As for the industrial base, I totally agree with your take on the need for an indigenous economy and small businesses. There is no question a robust SME sector of local businesses is worth any number of branch plants. I’ve said before that one reason all these industrial cities died is that they depended too much on outsiders for their economic life.

    Interesting insights on what makes a city boom. I don’t think we need Indianapolis to explode like some cities. It will never equate to large primate mega-cities like Seoul or Paris. But it can achieve economic and demographic success of its own type over the long run I think.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Interesting comments regarding schools…think that part of the equation is “How proud are you (ie student, family etc) in the school. This might resonate more with HS.” Am from Louisville, what if the pride that alumni feel from Trinity, St. X, Sacred Heart etc were emulated in the other high schools…and that pride was reflected in the netowrking opps that those mentioned schools do afford?” Louisville is not immune to this as it exists just as strong in Cinci (and other places)

  23. The Urbanophile says:

    cwk, KIB is doing great work.

    The grass roots are super important. Stay tuned to a future post about why I think a grass roots tsunami is building through the Midwest. This is really going to have a positive impact in the next few years I think.

    However, what is desperately needed more than anything is a political champion for some of these policies. Carmel changed because Mayor Brainard championed the changes and had the political power to get them through. Governor Daniels has been an amazing champion of many progressive policies at the state levels (DST, government consolidation, major moves, etc).

    Who is the political champion locally for, say, a formed based zoning ordinance or “smart code”? Or for re-imagining our infrastructure and Complete Streets?

    There have been many great and influential advocates among people who matter locally. Brian Payne willed the Cultural Trail into being, for example.

    But for whatever reason, most advocates for any of the types of policies we might be discussing here have chosen not to pursue them through means of politics. What we really need is the emergence of political champions for these policies who are able to convince the rest of their fellows and the citizens of the city to follow.

  24. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 9:44, I can appreciate what groups like you are mentioning can do. They play a critical role in getting neighborhoods united behind things. I’ve spoken highly of the HARMONI initiative on here before and really like the ideas behind what they are doing.

    However, neighborhood groups almost invariably represent a conservative element interested in “preserving the character of the neighborhood” rather than asking about the changes that need to occur to create a real successful neighborhood over the long term.

    Typically, these sorts of visioning exercises also ignore the vital strategic questioning I suggest in my post here, and proceed directly to talking about things like bike lanes or other amenities that are great, but miss the most important questions. It’s like proceeding directly to picking light fixtures when you haven’t even decided on a floor plan or an overall interior design scheme yet.

    Plus, keep in mind that few people in Indianapolis, which includes its indigenous creative class, have any real personal experience with actual successful urban neighborhoods because mostly those have been non-existent in Indianapolis for some time. Outside of the Broad Ripple/MK/BT area, it’s hard to name any. What’s more, even fewer people have really studied what makes urban neighborhoods function.

    I don’t want to sound pessimistic and definitely encourage what you are doing, but please try to take an expansive view, one that is forward looking, have the courage to think about change not just preservation, and think hard about the mechanics and assumptions that underlie various proposals of what should be done.

    I likely won’t be able to attend your meetings, but if you ever interested in bouncing ideas off me or getting my input on things, I am happy to send you my thoughts as I can gratis. Just email me.

  25. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeffery C,

    I think we need diversity downtown, and that includes diversity of opinion. If you are ever interested in debating some of these things over say beers at MacNiven’s, let me know.

    People like you are the natural constituency for the future we need to build for the city. It is vitally important that you are able to be convinced to support a more dense development in the core of downtown. Perhaps nothing so much as this will determine if Indy’s urban core succeeds or fails.

    You can’t have a walkable neighborhood if there is nothing to walk to. And you cannot finance a city on the backs of nothing but single family homes.

    You mention the conditions of the streets. Let’s think about a typical 35′ ft. lot with a single family home on it. How much revenue will that home, even rehabbed, generate in taxes? Now how much does it cost to pour 35 linear feet of new sidewalk, to replace the old sewer and water lines, repave the street, fix up the alley in back, add and keep the street lights on, pick up the garbage, run a street sweeper down it every few weeks, plow it in the winter, etc? And this says nothing about paying for police, fire, parks, and schools.

    You mention the pothole filled streets. This is a direct artifact of the development structure of the city. A town of nothing but low density single family homes will not even support maintaining what we do have, much less bringing it up to a good state of repair.

    Even just replacing that single family home with a double and a carriage house reduces the per household expense by 2/3 with very little marginal cost unless there are additional kids to educate. The cost efficiency of density is what lets you afford to pave the streets.

    Also, again, without more dense development, commercial development is an almost non-starter. The only thing that be supported with the build environment of the near north side is regional shopping centers people drive to – i.e., strip malls. We can’t expect stores or businesses that are dependent on anything other than outside patrons to ever locate downtown until there are locations with sufficient density to warrant it.

    And Chatham Arch/Mass Ave. does not provide a template for the rest of the city. The streets there are in better shape than the rest of the city because it is one of the handful of places the city has decided to spend any money. But this is only possible because of disinvestment elsewhere. Also, the stores and restaurants rely on outsiders to sustain themselves, such as theater goers, lunch visits from office workers, or just plain people driving in from the burbs. But few places can sustain a commercial district based on that alone. Even today, go out on Mass Ave at say 2pm and see how many people you see on the sidewalk. The streets are nearly deserted most of the time when I’m there.

    Again, I don’t think we need to try to Boston-ize Indy. But modest densification is a key imperative. Without it, the city cannot even begin to think about making investments because it will never be able to achieve the ROI necessary to justify it.

    As for proposals from various developers, I do acknowledge that the city’s terrible zoning rules encourage wild west behavior. Developers come with outright terrible projects because they want to come to the table with room to negotiate. If, instead, we had good planning and zoning rules that set a clear expectation about what developers should bring to the table, then we’d be in a much better position to ask them to bring it.

    I completely understand how people who moved into neighborhoods when they were the ghetto and invested their money and sweat into making it something nice want to protect what they have and have a fierce sense of pride and ownership there. But cities are living, evolving, changing things. If we don’t have the courage to let changes that we might not personally like happen, then we ultimately limit what we can achieve.

    Again, I am glad you have your own opinions on things, but I hope you’ll come around on this one because nothing is as critical to the future of the urban core as this matter.

  26. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, I think it’s necessary to take a very broad view of “regional assets”. Once you do, a regional tax structure (including a small commuter tax) begins to make sense.

    Regional assets are not only things like the three stadia and the Convention Center. They include things like White River State Park (zoo and museums), The Children’s Museum, Ivy Tech, IUPUI, the Clarian regional medical-center hospitals, and the State Government complex.

    Every one of those is property-tax-exempt, as well as a leading employer. Many are staffed by people who commute in from the collar counties, so even then, Marion County doesn’t get a full 1.65% county income tax on the big payrolls in the county.

    Instituting a commuter tax will neither drive those institutions out of the county nor their employees. (Add Lilly, unlikely to move because of its TIF-district obligations, to that mix and you have four of Marion County’s top 5 employers.)

    Fair is fair.

  27. Alon Levy says:

    It’s true that Indianapolis isn’t Seoul. But the same primate city model of development works on a smaller scale. For example, Jaffa was the first city in Palestine to industrialize, so when Tel Aviv cannibalized it in the 1920s, it was larger than both Haifa and Jerusalem. Subsequently Tel Aviv has grown together with Israel, even though the capital has always been Jerusalem and the centers of heavy industry are Haifa and Ashdod.

    I think you’re overstating my point about newcomers. Successful cities have a lot of newcomers, but are not dominated by them. They are also good at retaining the newcomers. The main contrast is between mature immigrant cities like New York, Toronto, Singapore, and London, where immigrants come because they can succeed more than in their home countries, and mirage fests like Kuwait City and Dubai, where immigrants sustain the rich but relatively uneducated native rentier class.

    You’re right about native small business. I’d add just one thing: it’s important that employment come mostly from small business in diverse industries. No city should aspire to look like Detroit, which collapsed because it was dominated by only three corporations, all in the same industry. It’s far better to look like the Bay Area, which has separate clusters for finance and tourism in SF, heavy industry in the East Bay, and software and technology in Silicon Valley.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Jeffery C. You need to listen to the Urbanophile on issues of desification. Downtown Indy, although making some progress (unfortunately at a slow rate, is not very livable yet because of the lack of: services, walkability, sense of security, sense of community. This is definitely due to the low density, monotonous residential neighborhood development that is plagueing the inner core. Do you not think Indy has enough suburbs!?!? Please, my friend. You have to know that the 500 Walnut project will increase your property value much more than a worthless piece of greenspace filled with a worthless monument or sculpture. I say worthless because nobody uses these spaces—mainly because low density, homogenous development doesn’t equate to a relative # of people. Chatham Arch has Mass Ave. as a core commercial strip but it would be a true urban neighborhood if you found a bakery/bar/laundry across the street or off the corner of your residence. All I can say, anybody who suffers from NIMBY syndrome is a complete suburbanite…..move to FISHERS!!!

    Let’s all hope the Urbanophile becomes the next mayor of Indianapolis to get this potentially great city out of her idealistic past.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Urbanophile. What city structure would you reccommend to move Indianapolis forward when it comes to development standards, densification of downtown, and creating unique & diverse LIVABLE neighborhoods for the Central city core? What would promote treating infrastructure improvements beyond the norm to make Indianapolis a distinguished place? Thanks again for your insight.

  30. JG says:

    Thank you urbanophile and thumbermutt for commenting on the idea of a Indianapolis METRO REGION TAX to benefit mostly MARION county infrastructure. I would like to correct my proposal based on UP’s comments. A commuter tax is a bad idea for reasons you mentioned – driving business from MARION county. Philadelphia has this issue with their Pay-Roll taxes. I would suggest a slight income tax increase on ALL citizens in the surrounding 8 countines. Collectively they benefit from a strong central urban core – though I certainly understand objections from someone living on the rural periphery of the “metro” area to my proposal. I hope this would not drive business out of MARION or the METRO REGION but make it more liveable (and workable.) Any thoughts?

  31. Anonymous says:

    The folks’ hometown, Corydon, was mentioned, so I just had to post. It’s true: Indy’s densification is not much better than Corydon’s. How could we improve on Indy’s density?

    First, what do we normally find when we speak of dense cities? OLD, mostly landlocked areas (Paris, London), or metros with natural geographic barriers (Chicago—a lake; SF: a peninsula; NYC—two rivers and a bay—an island). Indy doesn’t fall in these categories.

    We could wait 137 years for Indy to catch up to the London of…. 240 years ago. There is another way.

    Let’s dig a Circular Ditch outside of I-465 that is 3.5 miles wide and 6o feet deep. And then line it with concrete. This way, the people who commute from the collar counties into Indy would be so bored with seeing 7 miles of concrete everyday that they would Fahrvergnugen their asses back to living inside the beltway.

    This would be like the Commerce Connector except closer in and maybe affect some existing commerce around Castleton Mall. That and people could only drive around in a circle going nowhere. It’d be just like that drag race in the Movie Grease (L.A. River).

    Moreover, it is a ‘stimulus’ plan that Keynes himself would approve. Moving a bunch of earth, pouring a bunch of concrete. (He proposed digging and refilling holes to create jobs.)

    To prevent encroaching development inside the Circular Ditch we could protect it and deem it a National Park. National Parkway. National Driveway.

    Taxes in the way of 1) a regional income/ sales tax 2) raising the state or federal gas tax or 3)** or a new mileage tax are just too soft an instrument to create density. We need this Ditch to create Density.

    After this Circular Ditch plan is implemented people nationwide will we be taken by the boldness of Indianapolitans and they will come up with a clever nickname for Indy like the Circle City. Let’s contact our leaders. Ditch, Mitch! Ditch, Mitch!


    [MASS wants a mileage tax that would be suspended inside Boston’s Rte 128 (famous for being a biotech center) beltway.]

    [ U.S.A…. doesn’t want one.]

  32. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 1:18 – thanks for the kind words.

    anon 1:29 – I’m not sure what you mean by “city structure”. I think to really answer your question would require another novel of a blog post, which I don’t have time for at the moment. I think the apparatus of city government is probably fine as is – though preferably with greater consolidation. The real key to change urban policy. That just takes leadership along with people who have enough insight to help formulate the details.

    As I said, I may return to some of these points in the future. So stay tune for further thoughts on what the street of the future might look like, etc.

  33. thundermutt says:

    JG, Philadelphia’s city income tax for residents was over 4% 30 years ago, and its commuter tax was around 2-3% last time I checked. THAT is what drove jobs and people out to the suburbs over a long period of time, the combination of high city and commuter taxes.

    Half a percent on the Indianapolis collar counties’ commuters won’t have that same kind of negative effect.

    Incidentally, Philadelphia has had Unigov forever (unified city and county government), but they did it right and unified schools, police, fire, everything.

    I suspect, however, that they have an even bigger problem than Indianapolis with “regional assets” that are property-tax exempt: two large universities and many smaller ones, multiple large nonprofit medical centers, art and other museums, Independence National Park, the old Navy Yard (now privatized), airport, stadia, two huge city parks, train stations, convention center, downtown federal courthouse, etc.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Yes, Urbanophile, I’m thinking city government when mentioning ‘city structure.’ I guess you answered my question when it comes to changing urban policy in Indianapolis: it takes leadership. That’s why this city needs a forward thinking individual with an emphasis on urban design to make our landlocked, fragmented city a desirable place to live: beyond the fact of it’s affordability. I’m just wondering if we’ll see it before 10 years or not. I’ve invested here for a while and am considering leaving for a bit until this city changes it’s conservative ways. Something needs to change in order for the inner core to trump the surrounding suburbs for once. Personally, beyond leadership, I think only constant gas prices of $5+ will make many people react differently. All I know is Indy can’t afford to grow out anymore. Time for it to start growing up…physically.

  35. Richard Layman says:

    1. I am a piker compared to you in terms of long posts.

    2. I kinda agree but I think you focus on regionalism and “strong suburbs” too much, although granted I don’t know Indianapolis.

    3. The point is that besides improving schools so that the center city can continue to appeal to broad categories of choice consumers,

    4. The major point is to focus on the core advantages of the city and to continue to strengthen them. I think we agree that is density, urban rather than suburban design, mixed use complete place communities, etc.

    5. But the defining element is transit and the core advantage of not having to be dependent on automobility. I don’t know how the hell to do it but rebuilding a fixed rail transit system better positions center cities for the future.

    Because remember the point isn’t to make the city appealing to all market segments (cf. your point about Fall Creek), but for those segments that value what the city has to offer.

    If we can agree that up to 60% of the housing market is interested in urban places (Leinberger’s # from research at Brookings), then while you’re right that it is important to have strong suburbs, we have to remember that we best focus on what is under our control, and that is the city.

    Speaking of branding, I saw an incredible presentation on branding at the Main Street conference on Weds. If I can get the presentation, I’ll send it to you.

  36. The Urbanophile says:

    Richard, thanks for the contribution. I’m not sold on rail transit for Indianapolis, but I agree with everything else you said.

    If you do get that Main Street branding presentation, I’d love to see it.

  37. Anonymous says:

    Rail transit would work fabulously in Indy. It works well in Charlotte- and Austin is opening a 32 mile commuter rail line this year.

    Speedblue- putting tolls on Indy’s freeways is one of the worst ideas in the history of mankind. You want perpetual gridlock- put tolls on previously free roads.

    ANd privatizing the bus system would be a failure as well. The best bus systems in the country are run by effective and well funded GOVERNMENT agencies. Privatization will result in much higher fares and service reduction because all a business wants to do is make money, it is not concerned with providing anything of social value- which is what mass transit is.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Anon: 9:26

    When you say working ‘fabulously’…just how is that defined? How much did the Charlotte or Austin system cost the taxpayers? How much revenue is created (direct and indirect) to provide an ROI to the taxpayers on their investment? I am not being negative as would sincerely like to see more of this type of transit developed, but, what is the cost? Is it worth it?

  39. Anonymous says:

    By now these comments might be forgotten by our obliging host.

    My absurdist screed above (7:58) now seems to me the rantings of a cocktail party bore.

    But Anon 9:26, I’ll endeavor to add to Speedblue’s insights. Please keep in mind that they more or less come from an ideological framework that I find consonant with what I see in Speedblue’s proposals.


    Any movement toward a privatization of public transit (let’s start with buses, which nearly all major cities have) would best include a coupled movement to re-negotiate taxicab “licenses.” That way private companies can span both the taxi and autobus sectors of transit and more efficiently allocate resources for different trip capacities. And maybe because of this grand bargain companies would be enticed into providing these services.

    I propose that if satisfactory service were provided through multiple firms this would increase the ridership and thereby decrease the fares. We did have this in the past…


    Tolls on interstates can be illustrated by an anecdote. I remember when my college first had no limits to the amount of papers that could be printed. What do you think happened?

    People were printing reams of things, haphazardly printing anything, even things they weren’t going to use, not concerned about the cost or that people would have to wait forever for their print job to finally get printed.

    After the school instituted a print allowance–how “congested” do you think the printing queue was? This just illustrates a basic principle of: pay for what you use, and only what you use, at the instant that you use it. kinda like what toll roads do. They are immediately practical on our fastest speed roads–our interstates.

    There might be some undetermined amount of people who would instead take surface streets instead of a tolled road–let them. Let them also become more intimate with the potholes and question what various city taxes actually buy.

    With a dynamic system of congestion tolling they will have a greater awareness of congestion as it relates to pricing and arrange their trips on interstates at cheaper times.

    Your concern might be with the traditional way of slowing to a tollbooth but the technology has advanced.


    The consensus here seems to be for a “commuter tax.” Or some sort of regional governmental structure. I now invite everyone to look to this history of our self-government in the Anglo-American tradition.

    Before there was a Parliament/Congress [regional govt], before there was a sales tax/The TARRIFF [gas taxes; “mileage tax”], before an income tax [commuter tax] there was something called the Magna Carta.

    Yes, it was initially ignored and violated. But the key advancement is that it put forth limits on the Sovereign.

    What we have now is Corporate Chieftains playing the roles of Kings and pitting suburbs, exurbs, next-county-overs against the core city and one another in landing major employment bricks and mortar.

    A major tool in this arsenal to attract the jobs are tax abatements. This does _not_ make for a level playing field. Competition based on attributes or benefits should be the rule.

    …Before jumping ahead to regional govts( let’s see how portland and twin cities’ experiments play out)..

    ..Before a regional/commuter tax ( here, hypothetically settled on a _lower_ rate than prevailing elsewhere) which, once instituted, can always be raised…

    …what would a modest magna carta or treaty look like?

    …would it have some sort of abatement lottery among suburbs and core city as a first step? perhaps moving next to an agreed framework for phasing out over time certain classes of abatements.

    There are other regional issues that could start with just this type of piecemeal treaty process between the component parts of a region.

  40. thundermutt says:

    Photo evidence of Detroit’s implosion:

  41. thundermutt says:

    anon 8:22,

    Commuter taxes have long been used in the US. They have also long been abused. The key is to avoid abuse while using them wisely.

    Finally, a thought: recent social-economic research suggests that people (in general, and in particular, in aggregate) simply are not rational decision-makers.

    The whole Ayn Rand-Adam Smith-libertarian argument rests upon a foundation of “people as rational decision-makers”. Take away the foundation, and the argument falls.

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