But across America suburbs old and new are looking at different paths, some based in New Urbanism, others in different approaches, to try to build a different product, one that will still be worth living and doing business in when the growth wave passes them over.
One of those places is Carmel, Indiana (pronounced like the Biblical Carmel). It’s a classic upscale, traditionally car-based suburb (meaning not a streetcar style suburb) of about 80,000 people north of Indianapolis, roughly similar to many other prestige business suburbs around the country like Naperville, IL; Mason or Dublin, OH; or Cool Springs, TN. They have one of the most ambitious agendas of suburban retrofit in the country, taking what was once a typical sprawling town in a more urban, dense, mixed use, walkable direction.
I wrote a three part series on Carmel in 2007 called “Leadership in Action” you may want to review. Most material in this post is new and does not repeat the previous installments.
Think of this as “Part Four: Progress Report” in which I’ll share some current initiatives of interest.
This original core of Carmel prior to its big growth phase was a mix of industrial and strip malls, most of which were in advanced states of dilapidation. This has been an area of focus as the city has tried to reinvent it as a true regional town center. One of the dead strip malls was acquired by the city and is being turned into the mixed use Carmel City Center project. Various townhomes and offices have already been built, but the core of the project is a large, mixed use retail/office/hotel/condo/greenspace/theater complex is that is nearing its grand opening. Here’s a picture of the main commercial structure:
Behind this building is a new $150 million, 1,600 seat concert hall called the Palladium.
The City Center complex will also house a new, separate $10 million home for the Indianapolis Civic Theater (the oldest community theater in the United States), and another 250 seat theater space. Carmel is betting a lot of chips on the arts, but we’ll have to see if a suburban city will ultimately be willing to present art of serious ambition vs. just safe crowd pleasers.
About half a mile north of City Center is Carmel’s original downtown, the Old Town area, now called the “Arts and Design District”. This newly opened building there is the Indiana Design Center, which will house several design-related firms.
Village of West Clay
On the west side of Carmel is a classic style New Urbanist master planned community called the Village of West Clay. Here’s a picture to give you a flavor of it:
Click over to my previous series for more new urbanist photos. But it’s time to move on to transportation. Carmel has made a big commitment to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness. One way it is doing this is by upgrading its old two-lane country style streets into parkways. Rather than bike lanes and sidewalks, however, Carmel is using its suburban ROW advantage to instead provide fully separated bike and pedestrian access through 8-10 foot wide sidepaths on both side of the street. Here’s an example on Towne Rd.
The multi-use sidepath has emerged as a sort of suburban standard in Indianapolis. Many of them have been installed, even in cases where the actual road hasn’t been upgraded.
Trail Grade Separations
The Monon Trail is a rail-trail that links Carmel and points north with downtown Indianapolis. Like many local projects, it was controversial when proposed – the city had to pursue over 250 condemnations to acquire the right of way due to the easement process the railroad had used to build and neighbor opposition – but that now no one can imagine life without. The picture at the top of this post is the Monon Trail at Main St. I said there aren’t that many four lane roads, but where the trail does cross one, the city grade separated it, usually via a tunnel, but in this case at Carmel Dr. with a bridge.
I mentioned roundabouts earlier. These modern roundabouts aren’t like old school traffic circles. Google them up to find out why they are safer and better than stop signs and signalized intersections. Carmel is the US leader in these, with over 65 already built. That represents about 5% of the entire US total, though as these become more popular that will no doubt go down.
But Carmel recently upped its game with roundabout interchanges. These are similar to a compressed diamond or SPUI, but instead of stoplights, they use a roundabout (or roundabout pair) to control traffic. Carmel didn’t invent these or even implement the first one in the US, but it is implementing the largest scale deployment to date as it wraps up work converting six signaled intersections on Keystone Ave. to roundabout interchanges. (Several more are to come on nearby US 31. Carmel has even consulted with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on a major roundabout interchange program there).
This was originally a state controlled four lane divided highway with a frankly rural design characteristic. INDOT wanted to widen it to six lanes but leave stop lights in place. Carmel had a better idea: give us the road the money you were going to spend on it, we’ll add zero lanes, but convert those stop lights to roundabout interchanges to make the road safer for traffic, provide a safer path for pedestrians and cyclists to cross over Keystone, and reduce the barrier created by the highway. Here’s a picture of the completed interchange at 126th St.
The other interchanges are similar enough to provide a common design feel but different enough to provide interest. Here’s a shot of the 106th St. interchange, showing both the difference in color and the coloring on the tilted cutouts that are only visible from certain angles – sure to surprise and delight.
Risks and Conclusion
Again, if you want to read more, see my previous three part series. On the whole, I’m very impressed with what Carmel is trying to do in terms of new urbanism, pedestrian and bicycle design, and trying to build an environment with long term staying power.
Also, this is a regional amenity. Clearly, a nice suburb is no substitute for a vibrant urban core. But a great city needs great suburbs. In the ever more competitive world we live in today, every part of a region needs to know its role on the team and bring its A-game. And let’s face it, not all people are going to want to live in the city. Some people, whether that be corporate executives who want estate style living or many families or others, will always prefer a suburban environment. So having a suburb like Carmel that is on the leading edge of practice in many ways is a competitive asset for the whole region. Frankly, there is a risk that as places like Carmel grow too successful, they will suck up too much life out of the city. It does worry me. But I think that means we need to work harder to bring the city up, not that we should cut the suburbs down.
Not all has been positive. A vocal minority hates the direction the city has gone under Mayor Jim Brainard, and while they have as yet proven a minority, they’ve grown in strength and there are more battles over these projects than there were a few years back. The city council is more aggressive these days, and being a checks and balances kind of guy, I think that’s probably healthy.
The current economy, particularly against the backdrop of a state like Indiana, also has a lot of people questioning the spending levels. And there have been some embarrassing financial screwups. The Keystone project was originally estimated to be done with only the money from the state, but costs were higher than anticipated – though still far less than what INDOT could have done the project for. Carmel had to bond about $20 million to finish it – not a minor amount. A community recreation facility called the Monon Center was supposed to be self-supporting but is requiring tax subsidies. Dittos for the operations of the Palladium.
Carmel’s amenity led strategy has paid off in terms of millions of square feet of Class A office and other commercial space. It has the fourth lowest tax rate of any city in the state – one that hasn’t gone up in over a decade – and the second most affluent resident base, so clearly financing is not an absolute constraint. But Hoosiers are by nature tight fisted with the public purse, and questions have, rightly in my view, been asked about some of these overruns.
But perhaps the best verdict on Carmel was rendered by the über-spending hawk Gov. Mitch Daniels. He personally built a home in Carmel shortly after getting elected governor and after the transformation plan was well over way. Daniels voted with his feet – that’s the ultimate endorsement. If Mitch Daniels is ok enough with the spending to live there, I’m guessing the rest of the community probably will be too.
The other storm cloud on the horizon is schools. The state took over all school operations funding as part of a property tax reform program. But in the last budget the state implemented a funding formula that gave upscale Indianapolis suburbs the least amount of money in the entire state. Carmel’s highly regarded school district received the fourth lowest per pupil funds of any district in the entire state. That’s hardly a recipe for economic development. As no doubt the legislature intended, Carmel and other municipalities had to implement special local tax referendums to keep from implementing draconian cuts. In effect, the state outsourced the painful and messy business of raising taxes to these local governments. It was a de facto geographically targeted tax increase to help the state balance its budget. A collection of these suburbs is presently suing the state over the matter. Regardless of how it ends up, this is an ominous sign for a state that is ostensibly hanging its hat on new economy businesses, when these places are where it is centered in the state, where the labor force that powers it lives, in a region that supplies 80% of the state’s economic growth and a significant slug of surplus state taxes.
Another risk is that the region takes the wrong lesson from Carmel and writes off what it has accomplished as merely being for rich people. While “the nicest stuff for the people with the most money” is the easy default strategy for the upscale suburb, there are many lessons around a civic strategy anchored in a vision of how to differentiate and position a community for the long term future that are more broadly applicable. That doesn’t mean cloning Carmel. Again, every town needs to know its role on the team. Not everyone can be the quarterback. Not everybody is a linebacker. Not everybody is a center. Different towns need to find their niche and play their role as good as it can be played. One positive sign: the old industrial suburb of Speedway is leveraging many of the same techniques in an attempt to create a more year-round motorsports destination. But that will have to be the subject of a future post, perhaps.
More on the Suburbs
Building Suburbs That Last
- Part One: Strategy
- Part Two: New Urbanism and Parcelization
- Part Three: The Mother of All Impact Fees
- Part Four: Supporting Home Based Businesses