Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Indy: Four Projects

As part of its “Insider’s Guide to Downtown Issue”, Indianapolis Monthly did a full page spread this month featuring Yours Truly discussing four major forthcoming projects: the JW Marriott complex, the convention center expansion, the Indy Cultural Trail, and the Superbowl.

While I thought the editors did a good job of capturing the essence of what we discussed, the format limited the space available to only a few sentences for each project. So I thought I’d give a more complete version here. No, this won’t be a famous Urbanophile “N Part In Depth Review”, but just a quick look at the good and bad of the projects, which Indianapolis is very fortunate to have funded and under construction in the current economy.

JW Marriott Hotel

The Good:

  • This complex will be an economic juggernaut. With 1,600 rooms in the main complex + another 600 in the existing Marriott, this own grouping can provide a Chicago or Atlanta sized block of rooms, putting the city in the running for business meetings it previously could not host. The main tower alone will have 1,000 rooms.
  • The 34 story main tower will add to the skyline significantly on the west side of downtown
  • The main tower is probably the most interesting of any downtown skyscraper. I like the arced shape, which again echoes the library expansion, the steel arches on I-465 at 71st and 86th St., and of course Monument Circle. This sort of acts as a bookend to that side of downtown.
  • It will bring major critical mass to what is down a relatively empty area.
  • Kudos to Dean White who was responsive to the desire for better architecture, and his willingness to iterate the design concept multiple times.

The Bad:

  • The secondary towers are very bland. They look like suburban interstate highway hotels and don’t blend with the main tower at all.
  • The complex is inward facing and does not engage well with the street at all. It is yet another downtown campus.
  • The facade is, well, blue. Very blue. During the day I think there’s a risk this will end up looking like a slightly more transparent version of the Gold Building. OTOH, at night, the transparency makes this look very nice.

Convention Center Expansion

The Good:

  • A solid, workmanlike, unpretentious building like many in Indianapolis.
  • The new entrance on Georgia St. will frame the street and be a nice focal point.
  • The new space will surely generate economic ROI

The Bad:

  • One word: boring.
  • The interior renderings show a very dull space. I sure hope that, at a minimum, they dramatically improve lighting, as well as spruce up the existing dowdy space.
  • With the airport project showing the way for how the architecture of major civic spaces can transform a person’s perception of a city, I can’t help but consider this a major opportunity lost for the city to create another signature design. Especially at the price tag, Indy deserved better. And I know that Ratio Architects has better in them, since they’ve done some great local work like the LEED Gold certified KIB building.

Indy Cultural Trail

The Good:

  • The Trail is everything Indianapolis should be looking to do. It is world class, innovative, looks right in the local context, is environmentally friendly, is helping to reposition the city for 21st century success, and should generate major economic benefits. This is a home run for the city.
  • Taking 18-36 feet of road away from cars and giving it to people.
  • Separate paths for bikes and pedestrians along much of the length.
  • High quality art work along the trail, much of it bespoke commissions.
  • Links disconnected subdistricts of downtown, and serves as the downtown hub of the greenway systems.
  • Significant upgrade of city infrastructure. About $20 million of the $55 million price tag is actually pure infrastructure improvement, including replacing aging sewer lines and such
  • Use of rain gardens for stormwater detention.
  • High density, low mast street lighting makes a dramatic impact on the city and creates a 24 hour space.
  • Financed with primarily private dollars, notably very generous contributions from Gene and Marilyn Glick, with some federal grants. No local tax dollars are involved beyond in kind contributions from the city
  • $3 million endowment to be established to maintain the Trail over time.
  • Private non-profit organization Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc. chartered to manage, maintain, and market the Trail over time.

The Bad:

  • The trail is overly festooned with logos and signage, but I guess that’s the price we pay for a privately financed civic amenity.
  • I wish the budget had been increased in order to replace the stop light mast arms with the versions used in the Wholesale District. This is a big gap in the project, IMO, since not only would that have been a huge upgrade, it would be helped establish those as a city standard.

Super Bowl 2012

The Good:

  • The renderings of the Super Bowl village on the streets were conceptual drawings for the sales cycle, so we shall see what the real ones look like. I do like the idea of covering the streets, and the potential for reuse of modular canopy units.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that the city will execute on this. Nobody hosts events like Indianapolis
  • Call me crazy, but I think there’s a possibility Indy could blow this thing out of the water and potentially be a semi-regular cold weather city host.
  • The East Side legacy project.
  • Mostly privately funded project.
  • I believe this will be a major coming out party for Indianapolis.

The Bad:

  • The current economy means that a lot of the spin-off development won’t happen. The Super Bowl would have been a major impetus to get some projects done, but without financing, many plans won’t happen, alas.
  • There’s a risk that preparing for what is, after all, only a two week event will suck up bandwidth that should be going to other critical issues.

I also noted that there is a gap that needs to be filled. Namely the streets around Lucas Oil Stadium need major streetscape upgrades. The concrete plaza around the stadium is also quite weak. These are clear evidence of the budget challenges on the project because the city did it right with Conseco Fieldhouse where it extend the Wholesale District streetscape concept. In addition to doing this around LOS, the power lines need to be buried. Part of this should include a power-line free South St.

For those who prefer the print edition, the feature is on page 63 of the August issue. Thanks to Indy Monthly for the feature, and for doing such a fair job of representing what I said in distilled form.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis

15 Responses to “Indy: Four Projects”

  1. Randy Simes says:

    I like the exterior appearance of the convention center expansion. It features lots of glass and has a great entrance that will activate the street there in a way more similar to a prominent museum than a normal convention center.

    The cultural trail is also cool, but the rest gets a giant blah from me.

  2. Rob E says:

    Like Randy, I love the exterior of the new Convention Center, but it's disappointing, like you said, that the interior didn't follow the lead of the new airport. I'm enjoying watching the JW go up, and I think it will be a great blue reflective arc in the West that will look amazing at different times of the day. Thanks for summarizing all of these projects…I'm a big fan of your blog.

  3. thundermutt says:

    Well-said (and on your blog, well-written as usual).

    One not-so-nit to pick:

    "Links disconnected subdistricts of downtown, and serves as the downtown hub of the greenway systems."

    Yes, the Cultural Trail will link downtown very well. Aside from its link with the southern end of the Monon, it lacks the real connections to take its place as "hub" of the Indy trail system.

    Theoretically, someday, maybe the Upper Canal Trail will connect to the Downtown Canal, but it doesn't now. The Cultural Trail comes tantalizingly close to The White River Trail/Promenade/Old Washington St. Bridge (one block within WRSP) and Fall Creek Trail (two blocks on Indiana) but doesn't quite touch them with real junctions. Finally, there is no connection to the eastside trails (Pleasant Run and Pennsy) apart from the Michigan/NY bike lanes.

    Downtown gem? Yes. Major civic asset? Yes. Trail hub? No.

  4. Ablerock says:

    The JW Marriott complex is most disappointing because it completely disregards White River State Park, the museums, and Victory Field. Decades of planning and beautification have been poured into that area, with arguably some of the most adventurous, solid architecture in Indy, only to see it marred by two of the ugliest buildings and the poorest pedestrian environment built in any city. The main tower is striking and a welcome addition to the skyline, and economically this will certainly be a success, but those facts do little to mask the severe damage that has been done to the street-level urban fabric of that area. What could've been a wonderful thriving connection to WRSP has been destroyed and in fact, a huge, hostile, anti-pedestrian barrier between the center of downtown and our westside amenities has been erected instead.

  5. indyjrob says:

    Ablerock…I would argue that museums like the Eiteljorg, Indiana State Museum and NCAA Hall of Champions currently struggle to get visitors in the door and that the addition of a major hotel that exposes people to these institutions is a big win. I think a lot of people never make the walk over there, but if they're directly across the street hopefully they'll get an itch to explore.

    One the other projects…the center is a lost opportunity. It will serve it's purpose and be a step up from what we have, but I would have loved to see more green initiatives integrated as that's becoming increasing important in the conventions market. Plus, it's simply the right thing to do. We also missed the boat on any truly interesting architectural design. I guess that what happens when you couple it with a stadium that deems the most attention.

    Cultural Trail…love it. The best part is that it's ours and nobody else will have one. No longer are we trailing behind and just trying to keep up. We're setting the bar and that's extremely exciting.

    Super Bowl…It will be an incredible event and I hope that we blow it out of the water as we traditionally do when these types of opportunities come our way. Urb, I certainly hope your hunch comes to fruition. Great post as usual.


  6. Alon Levy says:

    I'll give one major disadvantage of all projects: they're monoliths. This is especially true for the first one, which is inward-facing, but all four are a waste of money.

    In Berkeley, there's someone who made the news last year for tinkering with his hybrid car to make it all-electric. His design was too expensive to be readily mass produced, but it was a step in the right direction. Giving grants to such innovators brings development; the first city whose residents manage to form a company capable of mass producing electric cars will be sure to become a major industrial center. Building megaprojects just makes you a place where said city's executives like to travel to.

  7. JG says:

    I echo to those disappointed with JW Marriot. In fact the Indianapolis megaprojects have destroyed the possibility of any pedestrian urban experience between White River State Park and the CBD. A mere kilometer between the two but with little incentive to take a stroll down Washington or Maryland.

    The JW Marriot, the Indiana Convention Center, and the Indiana Government center have all contributed to this. Insulated designs like the JW do not contribute to city exploration or positive impact on downtown businesses.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, two of the projects can legitimately be called monoliths. The Cultural Trail certainly is not. It is basically a redesign of eight miles of streets to incorporate the latest thinking on multi-modal and environmentally friendly design. The Super Bowl isn't even really a project, it's an event, though clearly the value of hosting it for the community is open to debate.

  9. hharrington says:

    I was recently in Indy to cover the Black Expo and I got to see some of what you were talking about. Interesting. I was struck by how disconnected things are in Indy. The NCAA stuff is right near downtown, but doesn't seem to be a part of downtown. The Convention Center is nice and the addition looks good. I know people complain about how bland it is on the inside, but that's par for the course for a convention center.
    Even Lucas Oil stadium doesn't seem to be connected to downtown.

    I like Indy. I think indy has one of the most vibrant downtowns of any mid sized midwestern city. I would love to see Indy find a way to connect it's downtown with it's surrounding neighborhoods and cultural attractions better.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I agree that the cluster of destinations west of downtown feel disconnected. I think it's because the environments are very suburban in scale and character (big parking lots out front, wide streets). The core area east of the capitol is more classically urban.

    Downtown would probably have benefited more in the long run if these destinations had not been clustered, but instead split and used as anchors in the neighborhoods around the downtown (ala Jane Jacobs).

    I think the new library does this for area north of the downtown core. As a civic center, the area has always been attractive and dignified, but largely bereft of street level activity. The library has created energy and activated nearby streets.

  11. thundermutt says:

    Okay, now in defense of the Cultural Trail: it links every one of the places and institutions mentioned in the above posts. The North leg runs right past the Library. LOS will be connected with a leg on Capitol which will run right past the Convention Center.

    When/if it is built on Washington St. to WRSP, that takes away JG's argument about the Marriott "ruining" the ped experience or causing disconnection.

  12. Crocodileguy says:

    thundermutt, regardless of how many pedestrian trails you place in an area, it is the design of the buildings that make or break the pedestrian experience. No one wants to walk along a blank wall, or one lined with truck bays. No one likes to walk along a parking lot, or an empty park.

    Buildings that do not address the street kill the pedestrian experience, as no one wants to walk along emptiness.

  13. indyjrob says:

    In defense of the JW…the north side of the property will feature an open art park area with seating and sculptures that will by inviting to pedestrians. The main tower, while not designed by a renowned architect, will be one of the more interesting pieces of our skyline. I think it will be quite attractive. The cluster of attractions is a necessity in our city as we're not a place where cabs are always present to move visitors around downtown. The WRSP cluster allows people to go to one area and experience a wealth of attractions along with the canal. It makes a ton of sense is one of our major strengths.

    In terms of things not being connected…I'm not sure I follow. Perhaps he is referencing that they're not aesthetically connected? Our downtown core is highly walkable and is literally one of the most connected downtown's in the country (via skywalks).

    Thundermutt…thank for pointing out how the CT will provide a pedestrian/bicycle connection between all of the assets we're discussing. Plus, it will go beyond a sidewalk to add visual interest to the areas it passes through.

  14. JG says:

    Indyjrob: I did mean somewhat "aesthetically" but even more so in "feeling" if you follow. If you walk along Washington street westward from Meridian, is there much reason to go past Capitol? Unless of course you ARE already going to the museums. It would be nice to have more commerical and residential density along West St right across from WRSP. Those west legs of Washington and Maryland should carry a little more around the clock usage and street life. A well positioned city park is literally across the street from a lot of residential and office space. WRSP has 0% adjacent residential or commerical. (Still I do love the park…)

    Now I am happy this area is not a blighted mess (like Capitol and Illinois Streets north of New York) – the parking lots there continue to be an embarrassment.

  15. The Urbanophile says:


    I must very strongly disagree with you on one point. Indy's downtown is not pedestrian friendly. In fact, it is clearly one of the worst downtowns for walking, which is one reason you see so few pedestrians. Pedestrian friendliness is both a function of street design, the type of development along the street, and the origins and destinations of people. For the most part, Indy fails on all of these.

    Imagine walking from the Wholesale District to the Indiana State Museum on a Saturday. You have to walk past a blank wall of a convention center and a dead state government campus along a street that is practically eight lanes wide. You cross a six lane mega-highway at West St., then have to walk across a large parking area to access the museum and/or detour out of your way from a straight line perspective.

    The fact that you reference skywalks as a plus only reinforces the point. It's axiomatic that skywalks repudiate the streets they pass over as well as draining life off the street. Many cities have been tearing down skywalks for this very reason. Indy is not Minneapolis, where the temps are ridiculous in the winter and surrogate street frontage (i.e., retail, has grown up on the skywalk level).

    The Indy skywalk network admirably shuttles conventioneers to and from their hotels and the mall. But it is a hermetically sealed environment that does everything possible to segregate visitors from the broader city itself. It's a trade-off that the city has not even consciously evaluated. The skywalks do everything in their power to make sure a visitor never has any unscripted contact with the actual Indianapolis. In that aspect, they are a big disappointment.

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