Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Why It’s So Hard For Small Cities to Get Great Design

Why is it that so few small cities end up with truly world class design? Getting great design is tough for a small city, even one that wants to do it right. Consider the question of who to hire. There are two basic choices: a national firm or a local firm. Both have pitfalls.

Hiring a National Designer

National and international firms, either larger, institutional designers or boutiques, often feature world class or even world famous designers. It might seem that getting the best design is simply a matter of hiring the best talent, but this is not always the case.

The difficulty in hiring a national firm is whether or not that firm will bring its best work to a smaller city. If a firm has a particularly talented designer or powerful concept, is it likely to provide that to a second tier client? Or will it do its best work for more marquee clients, ones that already have powerful and positive brands that the firm hopes will reflect positively on it?

There is certainly a danger that a smaller city would receive a design that, while competent, is not top caliber. Often these designs appear stylish because they are reflective of current fashion, but will quickly become dated.

As an example, consider the recent rebranding undertaken by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was performed by the high profile New York design agency Pentagram. Graphic design is a good example because cost is not a quality driver. As Alex Rawsthorn noted in the New York Times, “A well-designed logo isn’t necessarily more expensive than a bad one, and promises to ‘earn’ much more over the years.”

With that, here’s the IMA’s new logo:

This is actually a good logo. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s not a great logo.

This is can be easily shown by comparing it to a recent advertisement that appeared in the Financial Times:

(Note that the salmon color of the newsprint is the standard color of the FT – itself representing a powerful branding choice – not the chosen background color of the ad.)

This is not exactly the same, of course, but is conceptually and stylistically quite similar, even incorporating a more subtle version of the word break. The IMA has not even finished rolling out its new logo, and it has already been commoditized.

Actually, it was commoditized before it was even delivered because it is just yet another logo “of the now”. This is discussed at length in the comments to a review posted at Brand New, where many other similar logos are referenced, right down to the split “A”. If you look at the 800+ votes cast in grading the design there, the general consensus was “fine”. So it’s not just my opinion that this logo is competent, but not distinctive.

This shows that even design savvy institutions like the IMA are not immune from getting trend driven work from top design firms. Because this was executed in a current fashion, it lacks staying power and will likely date quickly. In fact, in some regards it already looks tired.

The IMA certainly didn’t need to go to New York – or pay Pentagram prices – to get this.

Pentagram has designed visual identities for many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Arts and Design, and the Museum of Film and Television in Berlin. Notably all of these appear in their online portfolio – the IMA does not.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Pentagram receives significant branding benefits to itself from being able to list MoMA and the Whitney as its clients. The IMA as a client does not have nearly the same benefit to them. Thus Pentagram has a structural incentive to provide its best work to others who do, as would any similarly situated firm.

In my opinion, if you are anything other than a true A-list client who wants great design, you’re not likely to get it from the Pentagram Museum Identity Extruder™ .

I generally prefer the “don’t hate the player, hate the game approach,” but in this case much was made of the fact that Abbott Miller, the Pentagram partner who oversaw this project, is originally from Indiana. Brand New said, “[he’s] an Indiana native, for those looking for authenticity.” That’s a head-scratcher to me. There’s nothing authentically Indianapolis in that logo. It is clearly designed to send the message that “we’re in the club,” not express local character. I generally eschew that approach in favor of more local authenticity. However, art is a fundamentally international game, so going the way the IMA did is certainly a valid choice for a museum with aspirations. Notwithstanding, it isn’t clear to me what Miller being from Indiana has to do with it.

This made me curious, so I decided to look into the matter. I googled in vain looking for any instance in which Abbott Miller talked about how being from Indiana influenced or informed his work anywhere. Nothing. I sent off some probes into the creative community of Northwest Indiana, Abbott’s original home, trying to find out if he visited there, was active in the community, etc. Nobody had seen him. It appears like Miller skipped town as quickly as he could and never looked back. It doesn’t seem like Indiana played much role in his life or work after he left – until it was time to cash in, that is.

When Abbott Miller gets together with his buddies in Manhattan for a drink after work before heading off to Penn Station, and the topic of Indiana comes up, I can’t help but wonder what he has to say. I’d love to be a fly on that wall. Want to know what Abbott Miller really thinks of Indiana? Look at that logo. Message received.

Hiring a Local Designer

Back to the topic at hand, hiring a local designer has its own challenges. There are reasons to believe local designers should be better. They know a city better than anyone. They also have to live with the results of their work and the public reaction. They don’t have an international client base to fall back on if they ruin a local assignment. Everyone will know.

But on the other hand, if local designers can do the job, why don’t most small cities already have a world-class design? Indianapolis is not exactly dripping with good design, graphic or otherwise, despite local designers winning the majority of the contracts. If local designers have not produced what is needed before, why will they now? That’s the question that must be answered. Maybe in some ways local designers are too close to the city to effectively create something new and aspirational.

Also, the choice to go with a local designer is often made out of a desire to have a solution that is perceived as safe. That is, to go with a known quantity versus a newcomer. It expresses a lack of desire for change. It’s a vote for the status quo. And, most importantly, commissions to local firms are often driven by political considerations. That is, the person with the best connection to the decision maker has an inside track to winning the work. That may not be the best designer.

How To Do It Right

This starts to highlight the important role played by the client – that is, by the city – in creating a strong identity. Important considerations in selecting and engaging design firms include:

  1. There must be a top level commitment to creating a world-class design.
  2. Similarly, there must be a commitment to brand authenticity for the city, something that is true to the place. As I said before, it’s about “world class Indianapolis”, not “world class in Indianapolis”. There is a big difference between the two. Insert your city name here. (Again, for a field like art, however, I’m open to a more international approach).
  3. Scrutinize the results to ensure a design that will stand the test of time. In particular, independently verify that the design is not trend driven. While only time itself will really determine the staying power of a design, you can at least try.
  4. Commit to a forward-looking, aspirational design. Most people are rightly proud of their past and heritage. However, this often leads to design concepts rooted in the past and nostalgia. This is a design approach that locates the apex of a civilization in the past. Unless the city believes its best days are behind it, this approach should be avoided. You can be both forward looking and express your terroir.

One possible approach to achieving good results is to seek out a highly talented rising star designer from out of town, overseen by a local steering committee that includes top local designers who are paid for their participation. This allows your to source top talent from anywhere, but also seeks to find someone for whom the account will represent a major opportunity. This person or firm might even come from Europe or Japan. And local designers would both participate on the a professional basis and provide both local insights and quality assurance.

Hiring an up and coming designer is a bold choice not without risk. But it should be noted that some of the best designs have come from doing just this. Maya Lin was a student when her design was selected for the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, albeit in a blind competition. A first year architecture student recently won a design competition in New York City to design standard scaffolding to protect pedestrians in construction zones. Even the most established cities have often seen the wisdom turning to younger talent for the designs.

Of course, if you’ve got great young local talent, you can go that route too. In my experience, it is rare that such people ever get a prime commission, but it has been known to happen.

An alternative, perhaps most suitable to architectural commissions, it is to select a diverse shortlist first and pay them something to develop concepts. This makes it possible for more innovative and smaller firms to economically bid on projects.

I won’t claim to have solve the problem completely. But the keys are to bring the right attitude as the client, select a great designer, and make sure that designer has a structural incentive to provide you with their best work, which could mean they are young and hungry.

The Indianapolis City Flag

I said it was rare for young locals to get commissions. But I’ll give you one example where it did that paid off big time. The Indianapolis city flag was designed by Roger Gohl, a student at the Herron School of Art, in 1963:

This is what I mean by “world class Indianapolis”. It is probably the best piece of graphic design ever created for that city. This flag is better than that of a lot of countries. What’s great about this?

  • It’s top quality. This flag was ranked 8th out of 150 city flags by the North American Vexillological Association. Frankly, it is probably better than that taken as a pure graphic design object.
  • The design is a representation of the primary intersection of the city at Monument Circle, the physical and spiritual heart of the city. Even a child in Indianapolis would instantly recognize this and make the local connection. I haven’t studied the history, but I believe this flag was hugely influential in shaping the way locals think about downtown and especially its division into four “quads”. This design has been adapted for other uses as well, including downtown wayfinding, demonstrating its power.
  • It also symbolizes the city’s motto of being the “Crossroads of America”.
  • Red, white, and blue is perfect for a patriotic city with more war memorials than any in America outside Washington. The primacy given to blue makes it play nice with the Indiana state flag.
  • Its layout and use of primary colors and basic shapes give it a masculine and unpretentious character perfectly fitting the city.
  • The star symbol is often used as a map symbol for a capital city, and the star in the center of the flag (as Indy is in the center of the state), reminds us of its status as a capital city.
  • The cross symbology also has faint but not inappropriate religious feel, a good fit for a state like Indiana where commitment to God runs deep.
  • The design is crisp, clean, timeless and classic. It looks as fresh today as it did in 1963.

This is a design that would hold its own with any city flag in the world. (It’s better than New York City’s flag).

This is what small cities should aspire to achieve in design. Again, this was designed by a student. It’s an example of why I think small cities might best be suited to try to pair up with young designers. Find the good ones before they become famous – and certainly before they make partner at Pentagram.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

22 Responses to “Why It’s So Hard For Small Cities to Get Great Design”

  1. DaveOf Richmond says:

    “Even the most established cities have often seen the wisdom turning to younger talent for the designs.”

    In both of the young talent cases you cite, they were the result of design competitions. Why aren’t design competitions a part of your solution? Are they expensive? Only appropriate for large projects?

  2. Sure. Hold competitions. I’m in favor of it.

    I did suggest actually selecting some people and funding them to create proposals as a sort of competition. Depending on how they are structured, competitions can cost a lot of money for people to enter. I know multiple firms who elected not to bid on the St. Louis arch ground competition because it would involve too much investment on their part for too little potential reward. You need to pay people for proposing at some point, or you’ll only get large firms to be able to enter.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Competitions, or other avenues for unsolicited material, should work very well. That’s how books get published – literary agencies read slush piles of hundreds to find the one book they can turn into a bestseller.

    However, I’m not sure the world-class design is always the best. Some globally recognizable symbols are surprisingly simple – think the New York City Subway’s rollsigns, or the London Underground’s logo and schematic map.

  4. KintheMiddle says:

    The tastemakers are a good start, but the patrons are culpable. Let’s keep looking to the IMA. Look at the IMA now (at least in the last 5 years)… they have stepped up and celebrated design much more than ever before. Still… there are plenty of other institutions that could align themselves better with this cause… While European examples like the dutch are way beyond our attainable desires for good design (en masse) here, we can still find better examples right here in the middle, such as Minneapolis. They’ve had some very informed patrons running parallel to the fact that the Walker radiates excellent design throughout the city, AND they have excellent local design talent. Or, how about Columbus in it’s day: informed patron, excellent design (albeit imported)? Where are the Indianapolis Medici? Watching the game?

  5. Philip says:

    Fascinating blog article about design for institutions like the IMA.

    However, if you’ll indulge another off-topic comment, I’m also very eagerly awaiting your reaction to the Free Press’s multiple pieces today on the future of Detroit.

  6. Chris Worden says:

    I enjoyed this article.

    With all due respect to the folks at the IMA who signed off on this, that design is terrible. Maybe because I’m not an artist (though I am an IMA and iMOCA fan), I can’t grasp its “ingenious, artistic nuances.” Please tell me how much it cost to turn our city green and chop it in half…because I suspect I’m in the wrong field!

    Also, whether it’s “hating the player” or “hating the game,” I don’t know how Pentagram can say it didn’t “bite” the design for the Museum of Modern Art. Look at the word cut on that design!

    We paid for something that wasn’t even conceptually original.

    Mmm mm mmmmmm.

  7. Donna says:

    Wow, Aaron, tell us what you *really* think of using “I come from Indiana” by a New Yorker to get a local job! Kidding – I mean I’m not kidding at all. I’m very pleased to hear you state so boldly this critique of Pentagram’s IMA logo, and I agree with you completely. The logo looks dated already, and has a “good enough for the Midwest” attitude about it. You have often accused Hoosiers of being happy with “good enough” – apparently outsiders have the same attitude towards us.

    On competitions: as an architect I have very mixed feelings about them. No designer should give away their ideas for free – our ideas are what we have to sell to survive. But paid competitions are one option, as that way the designer gets paid for schematic ideas. Schematic ideas means the nuts and bolts of implementation still have to be worked out, which is an area in which some design firms – not necessarily the ones who came up with the idea – shine. If an institution is doing a paid competition, however, that means it will be by invitation only, which naturally has pros and cons.

    Fantastic post, all around. I look forward to more comments.

  8. joe says:

    There is no GOD. And I am sure there was no intention of the cross symbology. It is not appropriate, and NOT a good fit for Indiana.

  9. Chris says:

    Joe, you took one small comment by Aaron and got VERY sidetracked by it.

    First, whether one believes in God or not, there IS most certainly such a thing as religious symbolism and it permeates our culture. One does not need to subscribe to the tenets of any organized religion to recognize and appreciate that religious beliefs and values are part of our heritage. Second, the cross symbolism aside, the Indianapolis flag is one of the best examples of graphic design, period, and this was Aaron’s point. Nevertheless, the vague religious allusion is certainly fitting for the City of Indianapolis (it is the city flag, not the state flag). Indianapolis and Indiana are known for (or at least for having a history of) residents who possess a strong Christian faith.

    Personally, I am not a religious person, but I am in touch with reality. The reality is that many (though certainly not all) people in the city and state historically have identified with the Christian faith, and there is nothing wrong with recognizing that fact. No one is arguing for a state organized religion or condoning discrimination against people of different faiths or for those who do not subscribe to any religious or spiritual beliefs.

    Finally, I think the new IMA logo is rather banal and unappealing. The IMA gets so many things right that I am disappointed that they settled for this uninspired bit of work on their new logo.

  10. Thanks for the comments.

    Alon, I don’t think complexity is important to being world class. The London designs you mentioned are incredibly powerful.

    Chris, I won’t claim that the cross design was intentional, but it is noticeable. I’m not sure if there is a saint’s flag with that design, but it has the shape of St. George’s Cross with the color pattern of St. Andrew’s Cross. I think this at least slightly calls to mind the Union Flag, one of the most iconic in existence.

  11. Travis says:

    Based on the work I see from Visual Communications majors I guarantee the IMA could have received a much better logo than they have now. Nothing about the logo they received from the firm relates to either the museum or the city. I personally couldn’t even consider this as being “fine.” The IMA should really hold higher standards and not let the big city firm just throw some fancy font they downloaded from and an “A” that was cut in half.

  12. Everett Keyser says:

    I like to think of myself as a world-class designer and one problem I’ve found with being in a small city (Detroit) is that there are not enough local clients that want world-class work and that understand what it entails. It usually means a design that you are slightly uncomfortable with at first, but one that has room to grow and take on meanings assigned to it by those outside the process. Usually, studios and firms in small cities that do world-class work look for it elsewhere and not at home. Business development staff and connections are often located in other cities since there is very little demand for it locally.

    Having a good design is also not the final step in being known for good design. Proper design stewardship (sticking with a design despite trends) goes a long ways to the making of a good logo. The Wrigleys and Tropicana logo debacles began because a logo was updated/repaced with an eye towards trends that were contemporary at the time. The old logos and brands were definitely dated and could use an update, but not the complete overhaul that they received. The Coke brand seems to me to have more integrity than the Pepsi brand because Coke has stuck by their logo for decades, while Pepsi seems to change every season. The Indianapolis flag is great, in part, because the city has stuck with it (I’m also a bit jealous; it is more modern that Detroit’s flag). It is also a great design, which makes it easier to keep around; a little chicken-or-the-egg conundrum that is a signature of good design.

    IMA deserves a better identity. The previous design was dated, but it had good bones and really just needed an update. I’m still puzzled by the decision to scrap it. The contributors on Under Consideration nailed the critique of the new IMA design: weak logo, decent identity. Indianapolis is unmistakeably in Indiana; there is no need for wordplay to point that out. The rest of the system has such a conspicuous affinity with MoMA, that I wonder if it is derivative because the client requested as much. If I were at Pentagram, I wouldn’t put it on the website either.

    Wheelhouse Detroit has a great logo idea that is supremely rooted in Detroit and is a great example of getting the “World-Classs Detroit” concept right, but utterly fails in its execution. An idea that only a local could come up with, it references the plan of the city which matches up almost perfectly with a bicycle wheel and spokes. A great idea that is clouded over by poor typography and clunky design.

  13. John Sterr says:

    These last two articles are good. I am very impressed with what some organizations are doing in the way of addressing modern and sustaniable design, neighborhood revitalization, and affordable housing in other cities, such as the work of Kansas University in Kansas City, Kansas, and the work of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. The former has a program for architects that works hands on in developing forward thinking modern designs in the urban core of the city. Simimlary the CACC has held design competitions for sustainable/modern/affordable designs in its urban core. With the amount of vacant lots and abandoned homes Indy has, and the organizational resources and commitment to the community that our educational instiutions have, specifically the urban studies/planning program of Ball State, engineering and consturction programs at IUPUI, along with Herron Art School, it seems like some hands on initiative or partnership amongst them could produce some tangible results. Their efforts could at the bare minimum push the city forward in its planning and how they look at problems while preparing future designers and planners to be creative in approaching urban challanges. It may also have an effect on future professionals that Indy is concerned about these issues and attract young talent to these schools and our city.

  14. John, I’m glad you liked the recent posts.

    One of the challenges with contemporary architecture is that every zone that experiences redevelopment in Indianapolis is immediately slapped with a historic district designation or otherwise subjected to architectural restrictions (Fall Creek Place). Most of the really cool modern architecture has sprung up in fringe zones like the Martindale on the Monon area (which has multiple cool homes) without these restrictions. The Ragsdale House in Fountain Square was also built outside the limits of the historic zone.

    I can’t remember, but is the new contemporary home that just got built in Cottage Home yours? I know the development restrictions where were less intense, and someone managed to get a contemporary structure approved.

    In any case, adventurous architecture in Indy will likely continue to be restricted to “edgy” areas to avoid historic districts (at least until the district boundaries get expanded).

  15. John Sterr says:

    Urbanophile – The modern home on 9th street is not mine. I like this home and would like to see more modern homes built in Cottage Home. Just because we are a conservation district does not mean this cannot happen.

    There is no such thing as a neighborhood that is “immediately slapped” with historic district status. In the case of Cottage Home it took three years or so to become a conservation district. It was a designation the neighborhood sought, approved, and implemented. First a grass roots effort to reach out to property owners began. In order to proceed you need a majority of property owners to approve moving forward. Once this was achieved our neighborhood association put together a committee of neighbors to work with IHPC on developing our plan. This took about 18 months and involved neighbors from every part of the neighborhood as well as business owners. Meetings were open to the public and the committee had many members on it that did not vote to become a conservation district. This process was certainly not a fast one.

    I was on our conservation committee and I have to say it was a great experience. There were many things I disagreed with. In the end though I am proud of what we accomplished and view it as an asset to our neighborhood not a detriment. Everyone has their own reasoning why they like or dislike our conservation district status. For me it came down to our 300 empty lots and getting the best possible development for them. It put the neighborhood at the table to advocate for good development in design, materials, and sense of place. Up until that time the Dorman Street condos on Dorman and Michigan was the only residential development in a long time and leaves a lot to be desired. The developer also proposed something at the time that he did not build, building what is there instead. The neighborhood was not respected in the process. I see our conservation district status as respect.

    I have always said that if we want development and care about the kind of development we are seeking that we as a neighborhood should also be actively seeking it. This takes effort and time that not many of us have. I am also a minority in this way of thinking. As CEOs for Cities states to be innovative we need to start asking different questions and involve a wide range of partners to tackle the challenges ahead of us. My challenge then for this topic would be for developers to understand what a neighborhood values and their vision for their neighborhood, and then try and develop projects that deliver that along with their own ideas. This way the neighborhood can be an active part in the project’s success and advocate for it. Historic and conservation districts ultimately want to preserve the structures that exist and want development that enhances their sense of place. Modern can be built to achieve this. For example the homes in the 1600 block of New Jersey in the Herron-Morton historic district or the 6 purple bricked town homes in the 1300 block of Central Avenue in the Old Northside historic district. So in my view for the most part, modern architecture in these zones has the common attribute of quality. Historic districts need to use the tools of their districts to get quality development, not to exclude it.

    Conservation districts can leverage their status or not. Recently Cottage Home approached Habitat for Humanity about one of the lots we own. Cottage Home wants to maintain our economic diversity and thought this was a good way to go. I had reservations because of the organization’s poor designs and quite frankly their intransigence while executing their projects in other neighborhoods. Through discussion and approval of the development by our neighborhood association it was agreed that HfH would go through a design process with the neighborhood before construction. However the design process amounted to them using their stock design and changing a few details like putting in “historic” looking attic vents and using corrugated metal for the porch roof. The proportions of their stock design are horrible and they do not have back doors, and no windows on one side. When these issues were initially raised we got the response from HfH that this is what they do and to ask anything else of them would be a burden. They basically were trying to shine a turd for us because we were a conservation district. Instead of forcing their hand, our neighborhood association gave way. They did not want a confrontation. I was the only no vote. No because the design was poor and they did not live up to their initial commitment. We could have gotten much better. (Doing research on HfH chapters in other cities revealed progress in building multi-story homes, utilizing green features, and looking to add design as an element to their projects. The Indy chapter is sorely lacking in these areas.) How great would it have been for Cottage Home and other neighborhoods to be able to give our lot to a multi-disciplinary design team focused on educating and problem solving in the area of urban design, affordability, and sustainability?

    Also, one of our most historic buildings was demolished last year. IHPC deemed it non-contributing because the outside was remuddled with T1-11 siding. However it was one of the few remaining wood framed commercial buildings in the city left. It used to be a veneer company. The diagonally laid cherry hardwood floors, exposed old growth support columns and beams, and exposed rafters would have made a great space for condos. The drying kilns on the first floor were brick additions that would have made great parking in the rear of the building. The owner did not have the vision for this kind of repurposing and he and his construction partner are marketing the property now as a build to suit location. I was the only one to speak at the IHPC hearing against this demolition. The neighborhood did not want to have a confrontation over it. I was against this because there was no development proposed for this site. Who knows what the future holds and it was premature in my eyes why demolition was necessary before plans were made for its replacement. Now we have a new vacant lot and a potentially missed opportunity. I would have been fine with demoing this building if the new development was worth it. I will be advocating for the most quality development that we can get now for this site. However the “modern” office building this owner built next to this lot in question does not give me hope for anything worthwhile. The owner is a good neighbor and allowed the neighborhood salvage rights to the property. Three homes now have “new” distressed cherry hardwoods and our park project has old growth columns and beams for use in our park shelter/stage/storage project.

    So in practice I do not think these historic zones operate exactly the way people who would criticize them think they do. They work for the neighborhoods that felt it necessary to pursue their designations. I do think that Martindale-Brightwood can also benefit from their non-district status as well and encourage additional modern development projects. There is a lot of land over there for this purpose and should be seen as an asset to leverage. Again a multi-disciplinary design team could really find a niche in this area. The vacant lots along Alvord in the upper teens provide a unique opportunity. They are lots with the Monon trail behind them. How cool would it be to develop affordable, green, design forward homes or condos that not only orient themselves toward the street but also to the trail where people watching and bike access could be enjoyed?

    Let’s break out of the mold that historic/conservation districts are opposed to modern and start asking different questions like how to design affordable/modern/sustainable homes that address the needs of the 21 century and contribute to our sense of place. How developers and neighborhoods can work together for the mutual benefit of each other.

  16. Jeffrey C says:

    “every zone that experiences redevelopment in Indianapolis is immediately slapped with a historic district designation or otherwise subjected to architectural restrictions”

    Immediately slapped? Come ‘on. The neighborhoods with the historic distinction downtown often request it themselves, completing the rather lengthy process to receive the very restrictions you lament. It’s not as if someone in the city goes into work in the morning, pulls a sticker out of a drawer, and slaps it on a random place on the city map.

    And the IMA new identify is indeed lame, but it should be no surprise that the museum reached out to an NYC firm or that it is derivative of MOMA given the museum director’s pedigree.

  17. Jeffrey, that’s my point exactly. When a critical mass of new, more upscale neighbors move into a place, they request a historic district. I’m not aware that the city has ever made a final answer of “No” to any of these requests. Meanwhile, about a year ago, I read that Monument Circle is not a historic district, and that the genuinely historic Illinois Building was in danger of demolition because it wasn’t protected. (I believe this has subsequently been changed).

    I’ll be the first to say that the quality of development in downtown Indy is low and often not appropriate. In fact, I’ve visited a lot of similar sized cities and I’d rank the quality of Indy’s downtown development in neighborhoods dead last. The question is, why is that? Is it a lack of protections or neighborhood involvement, or are there other forces at work?

    The reality is that all of the following:

    – The types of developers attracted to downtown
    – The types of projects they propose
    – The low quality of much of what ultimately gets built
    – The poor state of the infrastructure
    – The tax crisis the city just went through
    – Public policy
    – The planning and zoning process (including historic districts)
    – Neighborhood engagement and preferences

    are all a part of an integrated system. All of these things are linked together in a single dynamic system.

    I’ll leave you with one quote to ponder from someone I know who developed billions of dollars worth of real estate: “In general, political risk is the only risk in real estate development, if you know what you’re doing.”

  18. Laura Musall says:

    Thought this news release might be of interest considering the topic, and an example of a small city that’s embraced design.

    Columbus to be honored by nation’s architects, host Town Talk

    First time AIA Presidential Citation has been awarded to an Indiana city

    The City of Columbus will have yet another award to add to its long list of architecture acclaim. On Friday, George Miller, FAIA, president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) will present Mayor Fred Armstrong with a Presidential Citation.

    It’s the first time an Indiana city ever has received the honor, according to the AIA.

    Miller, a managing partner of the world-famous firm Pei Cobb Freed in New York, also will host a Town Talk at 7 p.m. Friday in the sanctuary of the St. Peters Lutheran Church, 719 Fifth St., one of several Columbus buildings honored for its design.

    No other American city has received more awards and recognition for its pantheon of modernist architects and architecture. Miller will talk about one of the most famous: I.M.Pei’s design of Cleo Rogers Library (1969), Pei’s urban design concept that created the civic plaza in front of the library and the and the incorporation of Henry Moore’s sculpture, “Large Arch” (1971).

    Mostly, the Town Talk will be an open dialogue about the impact architecture has on a community.

    “The fact that President Miller has decided to present his first presidential citation to the citizens of Columbus reinforces just how unique this city is in terms of its half-century commitment to good planning and design,” said Tony Costello, FAIA, a Muncie architect who will moderate the Town Talk, and is organizing the events.

    It will be the first of several Town Talks held throughout the country during National Architecture Week, April 11-17. The talks are designed to engage citizens in discussions about the impact good design has on a community’s quality of life.

    “The Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives is proud to be able to host AIA President George Miller. Sponsoring this Town Talk event fits our organization’s mission of not only preserving the heritage of Columbus’ architecture, but also promoting its unique place in Post-World War II American architectural history,” said Rhonda Bolner, President of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives (CIAA), which is sponsoring the events. “His decision to also present a presidential citation to the citizens of our great city was a wonderful surprise and one that really will mark his visit here in 2010.”

  19. JG says:

    JOHN: I am familiar with the conservation district charter – I think it is a good idea though not without issues. My question is how successful has it been in converting those 300 vacant lots into new development? What is the neighborhood doing to promote development? What’s the process for amendment and review of the charter?

    I find the conservation district designation a smart alternative to the historic designation for the reason it is less restrictive.

  20. John Sterr says:

    JG – Thanks for your interest in Cottage Home. There has not been much development until recently because Cottage Home has been on a flood plain designation for a long time. To build in a flood plain you need to basically build “on stilts”. The flood plain was lifted last year and now we are getting proposals for home builds. What are we doing to promote development? First we have planned for it in that we would have designated what we would like to see and where in terms of commercial development. But as someone said previously property rights pretty much trump all else. We cannot force anyone to build or not build but hopefully be able to guide developments a bit. Cottage Home did pursue the HfH development however on the lot we own. We are also developing a 5 lot park where we have our community gardens, bee hives, and community space which will feature a shelter/stage, kids playground, and rain gardens. Ammeding our conservation district plan requires us to go through the entire process again, which is unlikely. What about our plan would you change? What do you think needs amendment?

  21. JG says:

    JOHN: Your neighborhood rocks. My questions were more rhetorical. The conservation district designation is VERY important to protect investment (both existing and future) against real estate market forces with short term, selfish goals in mind. Naturally Step 2 involves attracting the right developers and investors for those 300 lots.

    Does the neighborhood assoc actively recruit appropriate high quality development, etc? Does the neighborhood have the power to grant zoning variance for high quality, but more modern design structures?

    I have seen the park idea – they’re great. Can’t wait to see it done. I truely think Cottage Home is making the difference in the areas south, east, and north that are starting revitalization.

  22. flavius says:

    Who could argue with the North American Vexillological Association?

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