Indianapolis’ Canal Walk can be viewed as a success in some regards – the Canal itself is quite nice, there is new development along it where previously there were rundown buildings or weedy lots, and at times you’ll see a few people strolling along it. However, if viewed against the aspirations that were publicly set for it – that it would be another San Antonio Riverwalk – the Canal has clearly failed. There is very little retail development along the canal, the developments there have generated effectively no organic spin-offs, and the Canal is generally lightly patronized.
Why is this? And what can we learn from it?
For those who aren’t in Indianapolis, a little history is in order. In the early 1800’s, the state borrowed massively to fund an ambitious network of canals. Indiana’s timing was impeccable – impeccably bad – since rail was about to eclipse water as a form of transport. Also, the costs were radically underestimated. The end result was that after 13 miles of the Central Canal in Indianapolis were completed, the undertaking was abandoned and the state declared bankruptcy.
Today the Canal is owned by the Indianapolis Water Company, that which uses it to channel water to its filtration plant. On the north side, the canal is a recreational amenity with a popular trail that links Broad Ripple to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and beyond. Downtown, the grassy banked canal was replaced with a concrete channel and high quality side paths in an effort to create a riverwalk amenity that would spur redevelopment in an area that had seen better days. The Canal cut through the Indiana Avenue district, once a thriving black neighborhood. As with many such segregation era neighborhoods, most of Indiana Avenue was obliterated by urban renewal and industrial encroachment. But this area was in downtown and the city viewed it as prime property where redevelopment could be kick started with public investment. The vision was, to use a hackneyed phrase, to create a “live, work, play” area with a mix of residential, entertainment/commercial, and office space. The Canal itself would be a bustling recreational and entertainment zone, which would then generate spin-off development in surrounding areas.
Today, almost all of the land fronting the Canal has been filled in with buildings, but otherwise little of the vision was achieved. Why? It is a direct result of the type of uses and style of development that were implemented along the Canal, development that was, by design, incapable of producing the types of benefits the city wanted to see. I attribute the decision to default to this style to the maturity curve of downtown. At the time the Canal Walk was developed about 15 years ago, downtown was a very different place. It would not have supported robust urban development. Unfortunately, recent developments have largely continued the template established back then even as downtown and macro trends have changed dramatically.
Almost every block or super-block along the Canal was developed for a single, monolithic use, typically institutional. The uses are not well integrated and have not created synergies. What’s more, virtually all of them are very inward facing, and many of them are explicitly suburban in design. Developments along the Canal generally engage with the Canal proper in a decent way architecturally, if not functionally. And almost every development completely turns it back on the surrounding streets of West St. and Senate Ave. Given that West St. is a six lane mega-highway, perhaps that side is understandable. But the ignoring of Senate Ave is less justifiable.
Unfortunately, the IBJ article came out so quickly I didn’t have time to take a full photographic survey of the area, so will rely on narrative for much of this, but let’s take a virtual tour of the Canal and see what we find.
The Canal starts, or more properly ends, in White River State Park. It meanders through it, making an east-west cut under West St. in a much needed underpass, then turns north. Crossing under West St., we come to development. There north side of the Canal is a fire station. The south side, and extending around the bend where the Canal becomes north-south, is the Indiana Government Center.
The Indiana Government Center is a sprawling campus stretching between Capitol and West north of Washington St. It includes the State House and a number of auxiliary buildings. Other than a midrise tower, most of these are very short buildings. Two of them are parking garages with no commercial space that kill entire city blocks. Another is a low-rise superblock development called the Indiana Government Center South building. This campus creates a huge barrier between the Wholesale District and White River State Park, but that is for another day. The north end of the campus abuts the Canal. It has exactly the effect one would expect of a state office building. Other than people on lunch break who get to use the Canal as a sort of outdoor area for the state cafeteria, this frontage is dead. Of course, as a government owned building, this extensive “beachfront property” frontage generates no tax revenue.
When the state built a non-revenue producing parking garage along the Canal frontage, it did leave a narrow grass embankment where future development could go. The state issued an RFP to developers, but an organization called MCANA – an umbrella group of neighborhood organizations that is principally oriented towards outer township areas – wants to leave it empty. They are basically people who like to come downtown a handful of times per year to use that embankment to watch concerts across the Canal. The city shows every sign of having capitulated to them. While the economy precludes development at this time, the city and state have made no statements that they are currently supportive of development on the site.
The concerts take place at a building on the west side of the Canal north of Ohio St., which is the headquarters of the Indiana Historical Society, a non-profit organization. The IHS headquarters is a classic Indianapolis building that looks great if photographed from one particular direction, in this case the front of the building on Ohio, but otherwise seems to not care what people think about it. The rear of the building is taken up by a large surface parking lot clearly visible from the Canal, and a loading dock.
We’ve now come two blocks and have yet to find any tax paying property along this multi-million amenity. North of here, however, there are some private developments. Among these are a block taken up by a Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and a Residence Inn. These are exact replicas of their brethren you see lining every interstate highway in America, complete with a parking lot that takes up the majority of the land area.
This introduces us to another feature of the Canal that will recur again and again. Namely, large private parking lots that are verboten to the general public. Ironically, while there is a large amount of parking directly along the Canal, it can be surprisingly difficult for a visitor to actually find a place to park. We also see a development that wants to seal itself off from the city around it. You can access the site as a pedestrian from the outside, but not easily, as this picture shows.
These hotels received a ten year tax abatement plus a generous land deal.
There are a couple of apartment complexes along the Canal in this area too. These are among the earliest developments and curiously among the best. While one can quibble with the architectural style, they make some attempt for good urban engagement with the surrounding streets by maintaining a continuous streetwall, first floor windows, hidden interior parking, etc. Here is one of them, the Canal Square apartments, seen on its Canal frontage:
The newer residential developments are actually less successful, showing that in some regards the quality of development along the Canal actually declined over time. Paradigmatic of this is a townhome development called Watermark. Watermark consisted of a series of detached townhouses and some condo buildings along the Canal. Notably, the parking garages face the street on Senate Ave., not that we have to look at them since the development is enclosed in an opaque perimeter fence:
This is literally a small gated subdivision downtown. It is hermetically sealed against all outside intrusions when the gate is closed. This shows precisely why the Canal has never generated material spin-off development. When the buildings along it are designed to be entirely self-contained, self-sufficient islands walled off from anything around them, why would anyone expect anything different. These buildings are designed specifically so that nothing outside can affect them, and hence ensure that they can affect nothing outside. Save, of course, rendering Senate Ave. even more bleak.
This is Exhibit A in what I mean by the maturity curve of downtown. It is easy to complain about this development, but 15 years ago or so when it was built, downtown was a very different place and the country was a very different place. The current vogue for city living was yet to take hold. Downtown Indy had few residents and this area looked – and still looks – to the casual visitor such a prospective home buyer rather sketchy. A lot of the development from this era was built to look suburban in order to attract the suburban home buyer with a familiar product, and was designed to give off the impression of security.
Even so, this development struggled and I don’t know if even to this day every unit has been sold. As it turns out, when you given someone the choice between a real suburban environment – complete with good schools, low taxes, and safe streets – and a downtown development masquerading as a suburb, people choose the real thing most of the time.
Across the street from this is an apartment complex beamed into downtown as if directly from some nearby suburb. Called the Gardens of Canal Court, it consists of several buildings set in a jumble around winding streets with mostly surface parking. Here’s a picture:
One feature of this I don’t have a picture of is some detached garages that do exist for it that whose backsides face West St. West St. is the principal entryway into downtown from the northwest, and these garage backsides are among the first thing any visitor sees when arriving in downtown Indy from that gateway. When the design was originally proposed, this was decried in an Indianapolis Star column by Steve Mannheimer to no avail.
The frontage along the Canal is nicer in some respects:
But if you look closely, these buildings, though they have small patios along the Canal, don’t have any direct access to it. The buildings are completely fenced/walled in. Again, this was probably done for reasons of privacy/security, but I can’t help but make an analogy to a city street. Would someone build apartments this walled off from the street? No. This is typical of Canal development, however, and demonstrates again the hermetically sealed nature of most such developments. Also, you can see the dearth of users of the Canal here. Clearly, I took this picture in season where the leaves are not on the trees, so weather is likely cool, but from what I’ve seen even in perfect weather there are rarely that many people on the Canal unless there is a special event of some sort.
One new residential development bucks the trend. That is the under construction Cosmopolitan on the Canal at Michigan St. This is a multi-use building that is primarily apartments but also has some commercial space both at Canal level, and on the corner of Michigan and Senate. Set across the street from Mo-Joe’s coffee, this could create a bona fide commercial node at Senate/Michigan. It is going to provide something that is oddly missing from the Canal at present: a public restroom. The building also engages reasonably well with the neighborhood on all sides. Had the Canal been lined with Cosmopolitans right from the start, things might be vastly different today. Senate might have become a more inviting street with a mix of interesting residential and retail, generating spin-off development to the east.
Unfortunately, this building burned to the ground in an arson fire set by a homeless person. It is currently being rebuilt. My only picture is from the construction period pre-fire, but it gives you a feel for the structure:
North of this residential zone, the Canal turns commercial again and is surrounded mostly by low rise offices. One of the earliest of these was a building originally known as the Technology Transfer Center, and which is still used as some sort of Indiana University research building. The following picture will give you an indication of how buildings in this section of the Canal engage with it. The TTC is the building in the background:
The TTC has a large parking lot that is again off limits to anyone who is not an employee or visitor the to the building. To enforce this, they used to padlock the empty lot shut after hours, preventing anyone who wanted to visit the Canal from parking there. Today they make due with a menacing sign:
That’s the TTC in the background. This building is directly in front of the USS Indianapolis Memorial, one of the key attractions of the Canal. Good luck finding a parking spot. The now on the market lots are north of this.
The TTC canal basin with the USS Indianapolis Memorial used to be the north end of the renovated Canal, but it was extended north another couple blocks, principally so that Clarian Health, the largest hospital chain in the region, could build a series of three buildings around it. One of these is Fairbanks Hall:
As you can see, we continue with the suburban theme. This is a photo that could easily have been taken in north suburban Carmel, with a low rise office building flanking a detention pond. I’m imagining a “fountain” spraying water up in the air in the middle of it. This illustrates what the Canal has in effect become, namely an office park amenity. This office park, however, is owned by a non-profit institution.
And that is the best view of the building. As with most suburban office buildings, this one is indifferent to the streets around it. Here’s the 10th St. frontage:
10th St. here is also a one-way, high speed arterial with no parking, similar to many suburban circulator roads. Here’s the view along West St., again a principal entryway into downtown.
The north end of the Canal is anchored by another suburban style building, this one, however, has the very urban feature of an integrated stop on the Clarian People Mover, an elevated rail system ferrying people between their various facilities:
Clarian admirably built this with their own money. However, since they used public right of ways to do it, the city required that they make the system accessible and free to the general public. But they didn’t say Clarian had to make it easy for the public to use it.. Look again at the picture. Superficially, it looks like an urban metro station, but the glass in front is merely a window. There are no doors along the street in order to enter the station, which can only be accessed from inside the building.
The fake metro entrance perhaps epitomizes what has happened along the Canal Walk. It’s Potemkin development. In some respects it is almost literally like the set of a Western, something not designed to stand up to real scrutiny. Look at it from the Canal, and it’s like a bustling main street – minus the bustle. But behind the propped up facades….
It also illustrates the truth of the Jane Jacobs quote above. Throwing money at problems isn’t always the answer. The Canal Walk itself cost millions to build. But it is lined with insular, suburban style development that by definition cannot generate self-sustaining urban life or spin-offs. Also, probing behind the commercial developments, we see that they are largely either public sector, quasi-public sector, or non-profit, making it questionable how much commercial tax revenue the city is actually generating from what is there. The Canal, likely because of its proximity to to IUPUI and the fact that most of its residential developments are apartments not condos, has attracted a lot of people to live downtown. That’s a real plus. But they do not have the same access to groceries or other easy neighborhood conveniences they can pleasantly walk to like those who live along Mass Ave.
Was it ever realistic to expect that the Canal Walk could go from unattractive wasteland to thriving mixed use district in one swoop? Perhaps not. When the dial is completely turned to one side, you can’t easily turn it all the way to the other side. Perhaps instead we need to look at this, in homage to thundermutt, as a type of Hoosier version of the Japanese kaizen ethic of continuous improvement. Each iteration should be better than the last and we continue to get better over time. Clearly, the Canal is better than what was there before by a long shot.
There’s something to this, but it has serious weaknesses. It creates a benchmark of success based only on existing conditions. In this logic, if something is better than what was there before, it must be good. However, was the result as good as we could have achieved under the circumstances? We could be better than the past while still vastly under-performing versus our potential.
Also, while a purely continuous improvement view of the world might work great in a world with one city, the world we live in, alas, is a competitive place. Indianapolis isn’t just in competition with its own past, but with other cities all around the world. It is in a fierce war for people and businesses. Is the product it is putting on the field matching up well against the competition? That’s the true challenge.
I’d like to propose two aspirations by which we can evaluate development. These applies to any city as well as they do to Indianapolis:
Continuously improve at a rate greater than the cities you compete with, and aspire to compete with, are improving.
Implicit in this is that we are actively looking at the world around us and what the competition is doing, Midwest cities do a poor job of this at present.
Is Indianapolis meeting these standards? Speaking as someone who tries to look at what is going on in many cities and also to visit and see first hand what is going on in them, I’d have to say that, when it comes to downtown development, it is not. The quality of development in Indianapolis is often lower than you see in competitor cities. And while Indianapolis still has a Midwest-leading downtown in my view, and one of the strongest of any city its size, with some very unique and successful assets such as the Wholesale District, the reality is that the gap between Indy and Midwest peer city downtowns is narrowing, not widening. Partially this is natural. Incremental improvements generally become more difficult to achieve over time. Indy has to keep elevating its game with new ideas while other cities can, to some extent, merely replicate what Indy has already done, a much easier task. And the gap Indy needs to bridge between it and aspirational competitors like Denver is significant, though I think Indy’s downtown can definitely hold its own against Minneapolis, especially when factoring in the size difference in metro areas. I would say that to meet the criteria I laid out, Indianapolis needs to embrace the marketing tag line it has created for itself and raise the game for downtown. These two on-the-market parcels on the Canal Walk would be a good place to start.
You may also enjoy this story on the Canal Walk from a fantastic new Indianapolis blog American Dirt called “Where the Canal Walk first went wrong“. DIG-B is also a great source of information and photos about the canal. I borrowed some of these pictures from those blogs and hopefully the authors won’t mind.