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
- 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.