Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Replay: Neighborhood Redevelopment and the Downsides of Consolidation

This post is about the downsides of city-county consolidation. Actually, it might better be described as a discussion of some of the pros and cons of “big box” vs. “small box” municipal government. It is similar to business. It seems like every large business is either doing one of two things: centralizing or decentralizing. There’s a sort of cycle of reincarnation about this. Every model has its flaws, and people tend to gravitate towards the other side of the spectrum from time to time when the problems of the current mode manifest themselves in a particularly severe form. As a prologue to this, you might want to read my previous examination of city-county consolidation post, if you haven’t already.

I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region.

But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.

Redevelopment in Indianapolis

Indianapolis is a good example of this principle in action. It underwent a city-county consolidation in 1970. Four smaller municipalities were excluded from merger and so are known as “excluded cities”. So we get here both consolidated neighborhoods and some unconsolidated ones we can compare.

Since 1970, downtown Indianapolis has experienced a major resurgence. And Indy has emerged as what is in many ways the strongest performing Midwest metro area. I happen to believe its consolidation was instrumental in setting the stage for that. Many of its urban neighborhood have seen challenges, however. This includes many reasonably upscale areas, and I’d like to highlight two of them.

The first is an area centered around 71st and Binford Blvd on the northeast side. It was an established suburban area annexed under consolidation that started experiencing problems recently, notably with decay in its commercial developments, a common concern in aging suburbs. The population was also aging and not being renewed. This prompted a local woman to found a new neighborhood group called Binford Redevelopment and Growth (BRAG) to try to change the situation. BRAG wants more urban, mixed use development anchored by a transit stop on a future rail line, infrastructure upgrades to add basics like sidewalks that are missing in the area, and help redeveloping the commercial districts. They’ve had some successes, notably attracting investment in local strip centers, with a new Starbucks, CVS, and Kroger. But there has been little city investment.

The other is Midtown, an area encompassing the historically most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city. It includes the Meridian St. mansion district, Butler University, and Broad Ripple, the city’s main bar district. This area is loaded with gorgeous 1920’s era architecture and many independent shops and restaurants. But this area too started to experience problems, with vacant houses, some struggling commercial nodes, increasing crime, a property tax spike, and deteriorating infrastructure.

A group of neighbors here also formed a group called HARMONI designed to change this. They are also promoting neighborhood infrastructure investment, more urban development, etc. As part of this they purchased copies of Suburban Nation and distributed it to all regional elected officials. They even secured pledges of private funding for some infrastructure improvements. However, there has been little city investment in Midtown either.

But turn to the excluded cities and see a different pattern. Lawrence, the largest, inherited part of a closed military base. They created a commission to repurpose this into a new town center area. This included a multi-million dollar extension of 56th St, which involved building a bridge over a double-tracked rail line. That project also featured high quality streetscape treatments along its length. Former officers quarters on the base were renovated, and many other townhomes and other residences built. And there has been significant new commercial development as well, such that this area appears as nice and thriving as any edge suburb in the region.

As the name suggests, Speedway is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is also an older industrial suburb, with gridiron streets and its own Main St. The town really never leveraged the track outside of race days. The Main St. had businesses but was struggling, and the town was at best stagnant. However, the town council has taken on a major redevelopment program that will involve a major street reconfiguration and significant commercial oriented development designed to turn Speedway into a year round tourist destination and hub of motorsports themed businesses. It’s a $500 million plan, and while not much has happened yet, the town is getting ready to issue bonds to finance millions of dollars in road improvements.

A third of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove, is also improving its town center, and has already spent millions rebuilding its main gateway street, Emerson Ave.

So three of the four Indianapolis excluded cities have active town center renewal programs, while the two annexed neighborhoods, even though more upscale than the excluded cities in many ways, have seen little tangible city investment. Why is that?

The excluded cities have their own city governments. So they have elected officials whose sole focus is their own community. They’ve also got the legal powers, such a the ability to create their own tax increment financing districts, that let them control their own destiny without regards to a higher authority.

The annexed areas, by contrast, only have neighborhood groups. These groups have no power to do anything except lobby the main Indianapolis city government. This city government has to cover a huge area and is besieged with many groups wanting things. The mayor has an incredibly limited ability to deal with individual neighborhood issues. For example, he does a monthly “Mayor’s Night Out” in which he visits each township in turn, a different one each month, to answer citizen questions along with his senior staff. But there are nine townships, each one of which would rank among Indiana’s largest cities by itself. And that doesn’t even get to the neighborhood level.

It should come as no surprise that progress is slow. For example, there’s a proposal in the Midtown area at 49th and College Ave. called (interestingly) “The Uptown”. This would replace an old gas station, another vacant commercial structure, and a few single family homes with a three story, multi-use building featuring 75 apartments and storefront retail. It is exactly what the neighborhood needs. It’s a rare example of approved upzoning for density in Indianapolis. And from an urban design standpoint it is the best designed structure Indianapolis has seen in the modern era. Here’s the present view of the site:

The project needs tax assistance to ever get built, but it is looking like it won’t as the project has been on hold for well over a year. If the Uptown were in one of the excluded cities or in an actual suburb, it is almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t get built. The local government would find a way to make it happen. But Indianapolis has higher priorities. For example, a major civic focus is a project on the near East Side in conjunction with hosting the Superbowl. That’s the sort of major event that consumes management time and attention in a large city.

This is not to criticize the mayor. In fact, people from both BRAG and HARMONI have told me the city is very willing to engage with them and that the mayor has been supportive. The problem is structural. No mayor could physically deal with the demand. It’s inherent in the very nature of a large, big box government. It seems likely to occur in any consolidated government or very large city without sub-city level authorities with real powers.

It was before my time, but reportedly Bill Hudnut, a previous mayor, saw this problem and wanted to create more neighborhood level structures in a system he called Minigov (versus “Unigov”, as the consolidated government is known). But that never happened.

Midtown vs. Bexley

Another interesting comparison is the Midtown area of Indianapolis with the suburb of Bexley in Columbus, Ohio. Bexley is more or less exactly the same as Midtown with the exception that it is a separate municipality, though one that is completely surrounded by the city of Columbus. American Dirt ran very interesting profile of Bexley you might want to check out.

Bexley remains a thriving city, especially in contrast with the surrounding areas of Columbus. Its streets largely have up to date infrastructure, including full sidewalks, which Columbus often doesn’t. It has maintained thriving commercial districts, and has had more intense urban infill as well, as this picture will attest:

Photo courtesy Jung Won Kim.

Why the difference vs. Midtown Indianapolis? Well, the fact that Bexley gets to have its own city school district while Midtown is part of the stigmatized Indianapolis Public Schools no doubt has something to do with it. This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area.

Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above.

But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved.

I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully.

So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.

The Chicago Ward System

So how do you deal with this? Chicago is a big box government that has solved the governance problem with a ward system. There are 50 city council members, who more or less are the gods of their ward as a result of a system called aldermanic privilege. This is where the alderman basically agree they will let each other do whatever they want as long as it is in their own ward. Various city agencies also more or less defer to the alderman on almost any decision to do anything. This results in a system where the mayor deals with the big issues of the city and major developments, while the aldermen deal with neighborhood issues.

The Chicago system has maintained many strong neighborhoods in the city, but it has its downsides. Aldermen have virtually unlimited authority in their wards, making it a sort of elected dictatorship. So it should come as no surprise that corruption has been rampant. In excess of 40 alderman have gone to jail for corruption in the last three decades, an astonishing rate. This also makes things like planning difficult, and creates a climate of great political uncertainty around development that contributes to a terrible business climate for small businesses.

The Chicago system is a de facto one, not based on a city charter or anything like that. It would be interesting to see how it developed. But it does show that you don’t necessarily need constitutional change to effect small box government inside of a big one.

Jane Jacobs and District Governance

Jane Jacobs saw this problem of big box government very clearly and dedicated an entire chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to it. (Chapter 21, Governing and Planning Districts). This is not one of the chapters that generally gets a lot of attention these days, and that’s a shame. She says:

The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities….which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities. New York is not unique in failing to match such profound changes in circumstances with appropriate functional changes in administrative and planning structure.

I can’t do this chapter justice here, but it is a must read. Her basic solution is that all city agencies – police, fire, planning, parks, etc) would be organized around districts (neighborhood groupings), with contiguous borders, with service delivery coordinated between them and with the input of the neighborhood. Chicago’s ward system is similar to this, with the notable exception of having a district dictator. That might be a cautionary tale about what this sort of thing can turn into.

Implication for Small Box Cities

To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.

On the downside, it seems almost inevitable that many of these unconsolidated suburbs will turn into complete failed cities, often left ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of beyond dysfunctional suburbs in Chicago just like this. I presume it is similar in places like Pittsburgh. I think it is notable that consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville don’t have any truly failed suburbs. Another benefit of the big box city.

Summing it Up

I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in.

Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development.

For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city & urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.

This post originally ran on February 28, 2009.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis

47 Responses to “Replay: Neighborhood Redevelopment and the Downsides of Consolidation”

  1. Chris says:

    Aaron, here is an update and a bit of clarification:

    (1) The city has invested about $1.5 million in funding (including planning grants)for the HARMONI led initiative to improve pedestrian connectivity on North Meridian Street in Meridian Kessler/Butler Tarkington, and phase I of that project has begun. Also, the City-County Council approved the HARMONI suggestion of lowering the speed limit on this street.

    (2) More importantly, the City-County Council and the Metropolitan Development Commission recently approved the creation of the North Midtown Economic Development Area, a redevelopment district covering many of the commercial nodes in Butler-Tarkington, Meridian-Kessler and Broad Ripple. The new district will permit the city to utilize TIF financing for commercial redevelopment and infrastructure improvements in those neighborhoods.

    (3) BRAG has received city grants for various initiatives going back to the earlier Peterson administration. The area has not yet been designated a TIF, though there has been ongoing planning for a TIF district in the area.

    That said I agree with the main point of your article that it is harder for a neighborhood in a large city to get projects done compared to a separately incorporated small community that is in charge of its own affairs. However, tenacity does eventually pay off, and the neighborhoods you cite are beginning to see marked improvement, as well as much more substantial investment by the city.

  2. Yes, Chris. There have been some investments. You missed the big one which is the Broad Ripple garage. But until that moment, the three block Georgia St. project alone was more than had been invested in the Midtown area in the last 30 years most likely – and that for arguably the city’s premier neighborhood.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    Not exactly, Aaron. The BR village section of the canal (starting with removal of the parking deck), 38th Street boulevard constuction, construction of the Canal and Monon trails, plus the revitalizations (twice) of Glendale that included a huge new library, the fire station and library at 42nd & College, along with last year’s redo of BR Avenue all received significant money over the last 20 years.

    I know the Midtown folks, and lived there for 23 years, but the “we never get nuthin'” stuff rings a bit hollow. Mayor Goldsmith saw to a lot of investment there, and Mayor Peterson continued it. It has only been since Mayor Ballard, who grew up on the east side, that the favored quarter hasn’t been so favored.

    But your overall thesis is valid: other neighborhoods, such as Irvington, lack the clout to garner major city investment.

  4. Previous discussions brought up one aspect about consolidation that makes me quite fearful about it, but I do wonder if and how some of the consolidated cities have dealt with it. Namely, although consolidation brings an influx of of new taxes and services under a single umbrella, it also shifts the balance of power to decidedly suburban interests.

    To look at Cincinnati for example, the politics surrounding the streetcar project have been amazingly toxic. However, being a city project, it really doesn’t matter much that most of the opposition is coming from the surrounding suburbs. That said, if Cincinnati was merged with Hamilton County, such a streetcar project would be completely hopeless. Suburban preferences, already present in many of Cincinnati’s outer neighborhoods, would overwhelm urban ones by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 in a consolidated system.

    How have the consolidated cities been able to avoid or mitigate this problem? Lexington and Louisville would seem to be doing ok for the most part, but they don’t have such huge expanses of suburbs surrounding their core as other places. Indianapolis, for all its progressiveness in establishing UNIGOV, is quite out of control in its road building and anti-transit tendencies. Its zoning code is the worst kind of boilerplate Municode crap that’s straight out of the 1960s. There seems to be a lot of this boilerplate stuff going on there, which is almost always of a suburban pattern, just because it’s too difficult to deal with these systems in the fine-grained way that’s needed.

    All of these issues point to the notion that consolidation, in the quest for efficiency, sacrifices resiliency. Many of the situations mentioned in Aaron’s article show how the bureaucracy of a consolidated government can really hobble local communities in many ways. Can it be mitigated? Are there any places that have a ward-like system in a consolidated county? Is that much different than leaving all the municipalities separate, but bringing them all under a regional umbrella of some sort?

  5. Matthew Hall says:

    The cincinnati streetcar is a great example of a city pursuing its own agenda. Suburbanites attacked it with a religious fervor to prevent cincinnati building itself up to the point where the suburbs have to accept cincinnati as an economically important player in the region that they would have to deal with.

  6. Chris says:


    I think Chris Barnett brings up a good point. You are rather off with your idea of how much city investment has occurred in the Midtown neighborhood in the last 30 years. Also, I didn’t bring up the BR garage because I did not consider that a neighborhood led initiative, even though parking has been a major neighborhood concern for the past several years.

    If you are simply referring to city funded infrastructure projects, then the Midtown area has received several millions of dollars in investment over the past 30 years. The recent resurfacing of North Meridian Street (which was done in conjunction with the pedestrian connectivity project) cost over $12 million alone. Granted, the project extended farther north than just Midtown area, but it is one example of a major investment in the area.

    Has Midtown received the same level of city investment as Downtown? Certainly, not, no neighborhood in the city has, unless you count regional infrastructure projects such as I-465 or the new airport. But, I would definitely not consider Midtown to be a neglected neighborhood for city investment.


    I agree with you that there is much too be desired with the Indianapolis zoning code, but I don’t necessarily think the zoning rules are necessarily a result of city-county consolidation. Indianapolis always historically known as a “city of homes,” and while the old city was certainly much more densely built up, it never had the density of St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, etc. What it did have was one of the finest public transit systems in the nation until about WWII. Moreover, I do not think (a generally corrupt) Chicago-style ward system would necessarily offer a good solution. Chicago is a wonderful city, but it certainly has its share of rundown and even downright devastated neighborhoods, and I am not sure the ward system been much help to some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. In addition, while Indianapolis may often favor suburban-style zoning (especially in the neighborhoods that were in fact suburbs prior to city-county consolidation), the zoning code and development plans have been revised and updated multiple times over the past several decades. The city has a Regional Center Plan and other design guidelines, and it is not as if nothing has changed since the 1960’s. In addition, many neighborhoods, including Broad Ripple and Meridian Kessler in the Midtown area, have participated in long-range development planning over the past several years, and the city is in the process of enacting form-based zoning in many of these neighborhoods. Finally, while I realize Aaron does not necessarily approve of historic district designation (I believe he prefers landmarking of specific buildings), Indianapolis has established several historic districts, since the early 1960s, and these historic district designations impose rather comprehensive and detailed building and design guidelines for anything constructed in those protected neighborhoods.

  7. James says:

    If you are against the ward system of governance, what sort of city government do you favor? As a counterpoint to Chicago, the city of Detroit is one of the only large cities in America without a ward system. Councilmen are elected in a general ballot with the top 50 (I think there are 50 seats, please correct me if I’m wrong) vote getters winning seats.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    Indianapolis-Marion County has 25 council districts for ~900,000 people, plus four at-large councilors we all share. Chicago, with 3x the population, would need 80 aldermen to have the same citizen/representative ratio.

    Yet even with such small districts Indy lacks the tradition of ward bosses, patronage jobs, and aldermanic privilege. (We have two-party government, which helps.) Our council corruption is also bipartisan.

    Indy is midway between the “parliamentary” style council described above (if an accurate reflection of Detroit’s system) and Chicago’s ward politics.

  9. John Morris says:

    Great piece that brings up a lot of doubts I have about this concept as a cure all.

    I wonder if there’s some ground between city/county consolidation, that brings in often totally anti urban interests. Many place might benefit from just selective government mergers.

    In the case of Pittsburgh, one has a number of surrounding old streetcar suburb communities like MT Oliver, Dormont, MT Lebanon, Edgewood that seem like good candidates for symbiotic mergers. A few like MT Lebo are pretty wealthy but are suffering from very dramatic property tax pressures. Others like Wilkinsburg offer great development potential.

    Of course in the case of Pittsburgh, a huge problem is the valid perception that the city dominates and destroys. The ghost of Allegheny City looms large.

  10. John Morris says:


    “I agree with you that there is much too be desired with the Indianapolis zoning code, but I don’t necessarily think the zoning rules are necessarily a result of city-county consolidation.”

    I don’t know much about Indy but I don’t think that’s the right question. Would forces have emerged for denser development patterns without consolidation, faster?

    A good example would be NYC’s bedroom bouroughs like Queens and Brooklyn which allowed vast amounts of post industrial real estate lie under developed becase they had Manhattan’s tax base to lean on.

    It’s no surprise why waterfront development started in Jersey City and Hoboken which had to earn their own way.

  11. Chris says:


    Who knows what would have happened without city-county consolidation, except that almost certainly downtown Indianapolis would have continued its pre-consolidation decades long decline. Also, the city would be significantly smaller than it is today. Nonetheless, I think there are circumstances that tend to support the conclusion that it is unlikely forces would have emerged in the old city to encourage denser development absent consolidation–answering your question in the negative.

    Your reference to Manhattan and its boroughs is not necessarily a good comparison to Indianapolis. Even the highest priced real estate in Indianapolis provides nothing comparable to Manhattan to provide a supporting tax base. Also, the transfer of wealth that has generally occurred in Indianapolis has not been to older city neighborhoods from wealthier former suburbs consolidated into the city (which I suppose would discourage densification as in your Manhattan/boroughs example), instead wealth has been transferred from all of the city neighborhoods to downtown Indianapolis, where most development in the past 40+ years has received massive taxpayer subsidies. Moreover, since the public school systems were NOT consolidated in Indianapolis, older city neighborhoods that fall within the urban IPS district (the city school district of the pre-consolidated city) have been under a continued strain to provide the tax base to fund public schools. (Also, until recently, the police force was not a consolidated system, and so older city neighborhoods had the added strain of having to pay twice from their limited tax base to fund both the county sheriff’s force and the separate city police force. Additionally, only in the last few years has fire service begun to be consolidated, and this was another service that old-city neighborhoods had to fund out of their own property tax base). Also, large portions of the older city, and downtown in particular, are occupied by the state or tax-exempt entities, which pay no taxes over to Indianapolis. What this means is that the older neighborhoods in consolidated Indianapolis have long had a strong incentive to grow their tax base (with some of this pressure being alleviated only very recently through additional consolidation of services), but these neighborhoods didn’t see much dense development because they either were very poor and not very desirable locations for development, or even though they were “neighborhoods of choice,” their tax adverse and generally NIMBY-type residents preferred lousy city services over paying higher taxes and/or increasing the density of their predominately low-density single-family neighborhoods.

  12. Joe says:


    Speedway has completed the complete overhaul of Main Street. It includes street parking, wide sidewalks and even a bike track. They have installed great streetscape elements from lights to planters, bike racks to street clocks. Dallara, the chasis manufacturer for the Indycar series, has completed their US headquarters on Main St and a local racing team plans to relocate their headquarters into a new building next to Dallara. There are a few more buildings with tenants in the works, though the specific info hasn’t been released. Speedway cleared many old industrial buildings to make way for these developments.

  13. John Morris says:


    As you said, one can’t know but by spreading the tax base and control over a wide area, one has little reason to understand and focus on money making development.

    Most likely, the results of no consolidation would have been a mixed bag.

    In the case of Pittsburgh, the city’s small area dominated by non tax paying non profits, should have created strong forces for rational development. Sadly, this didn’t happen. Most people still don’t connect the lack of dense development with high property taxes.

  14. Chris says:

    John, I suppose one could look to the pre-consolidation trends to get a clue as to what would have happened without city-county consolidation.

    Indianapolis had been experiencing rapid surbanization for a very long time. Indianapolis had eventually annexed many of the original “street-car suburbs” of the 19th century by the 1920’s, but the automobile allowed the affluent to escape even farther away to tony communities that were incorporated into separate municipalities, specifically to avoid paying city taxes. The city annexations of the following decades leading up to city-county consolidation occurred at a slower rate and generally involved Indianapolis annexing farmland, which was developed into suburban-style housing for the working class and middle-class. The city’s robust public transportation system had begun to decline by the 1930s and was pretty much dismantled by the end of WWII. After WWII, downtown began a rapid decline, and many of the older city neighborhoods had also begun to deteriorate. A national tour guide published in 1949, described Indianapolis as a boring and depressed place and one of the filthiest towns in the nation. Although annexation allowed the city to grow in population until the early 1960’s, the city eventually hit a wall of resistance from residents outside the city, and/or it bumped up against already incorporated municipalities. By the mid-1960s, downtown Indianapolis was almost completely dead, and one UPI headline famously described how the city recruited members of the Jaycee’s to shoot at pigeons to disburse the huge flocks that would others occupy the desolate downtown. City-county consolidation allowed Indianapolis to absorb the affluent unincorporated county areas and even most of the existing incorporated towns, including the wealthy communities (only four larger municipalities were excluded from the consolidation, and none were particularly affluent). This new tax base did contribute somewhat to the city as a whole, and combined with the large population boost helped to greatly raise the clout and prestige of the city. But, as I previously mentioned, the new tax base was primarily used to subsidize massive downtown redevelopment, not subsidize the older city neighborhoods.

    Post-consolidation trends also suggest there would have been a continuation of the pre-consolidation development trends. After city-county consolidation, suburbanization continued at a rapid pace, and the wealthy and even a large portion of the middle-class migrated to the surrounding counties, outside the boundaries of the new consolidated city. The motivations for moving to the suburbs were cheaper housing, lower taxes, less crime, better public schools, and sadly, for many years, so-called “white flight.” (Today, many Indianapolis suburbs have become increasingly ethnically diverse, as many minorities have also migrated to suburbia, but originally they were not very diverse places). Indianapolis has continued to grow in population, but recent growth has been mostly attributable to immigration, in particular Hispanic immigrants settling in the city and raising families.

    But, again, no one can know for sure what would have happened without consolidation. As for the future, a pattern over the last several years of fairly dense urban in-fill and redevelopment in the affluent suburb of Carmel seems to have begun something of a trend in development throughout the metropolitan region, including the consolidated city.

  15. John Morris says:

    But the question applies to all the communities, not just Indy itself. Would Carmel have been able to try what it has if it was part of a single mega government entity?

  16. James says:


    So what you are saying is that the wards in Indy are smaller, and this is preferable to larger wards like Chicago, which seem to be about 50% larger? And that the advantage is fewer patronage jobs? Is this an accurate assessment of your thesis?

    I’m not really seeing a good argument for Indy’s system here.

  17. I think there’s a difference between electing city councilors by district, and what is meant by a ward system here. In this case, it is where city councilors are not just elected by district, but also exercise significant powers as the “ward mayor” or boss. In Indianapolis city council members don’t have nearly the control in their district that Chicago aldermen do in their ward.

  18. Chris says:

    John, I guess the more important question to ask is would Indianapolis have been better off without city-county consolidation, and I think most people would answer that question with a resounding no. It would certainly be a much smaller, poorer, and politically weaker community, and it would most probably have an abandoned and decaying downtown.

    That said, I don’t think my conclusion at all contradicts Aaron’s point that local government consolidation often leads to an erosion of neighborhood political clout and may result in the diversion of city resources and infrastructure investment from the neighborhoods to the central downtown and/or other publicly subsidized mega-development projects.

    I suppose rather than debating whether or not denser urban development would have been more or less likely to have been built in unconsolidated city (as if dense redevelopment were the only benchmark of a successful city), I think it would be more helpful to envision how urban consolidation could be implemented or revised (where already implemented) to preserve all the benefits of government consolidation while avoiding the downsides. Aaron mentioned the Chicago ward system, and I posted that I was not impressed with that highly partisan and often corrupt political system. Perhaps, the original “MiniGov” structure proposed with the original Unigov consolidation bill for Indianapolis would have offered a solution. In fact, a modified “Minigov” proposal was enacted into state law for the consolidated city of Indianapolis; however, it was never implemented at the local level, mainly because the new City-County Council members feared it would undermine their authority, and after a few years the idea was eventually abandoned.

  19. Chris says:

    James, I should clarify that I am not Chris Barnett (the “other Chris”) who I think you are responding to.

    Indianapolis does not have wards. It has electoral districts, and each district elects its own City-County Councilor; however, the districts are not municipal entities and they do not provide any services. There are also four at-large Council members who are elected by city-wide votes. The Chicago ward system is is generlly divided along neighborhood boundaries, and there are no at-large members. Though in theory the ward system may not seem very different form the district system, in practice it is markedly different. In the Chicago system, each ward is operated like its own little fiefdom and each alderman even receives his or her own ward budget to allocate as the alderman sees fit. Also, no project is approved in a ward without the approval of that ward’s alderman. Moreover, city services are generally organized and along ward boundaries. The Indianapolis government operates in a much different fashion. While there is a certain amount of deference granted to councilor’s with respect to their district, they do not act as the final word for their districts, and the council as a whole can and sometimes does make decisions that go against what a particular councilor may want for his district. Also, the districts are not granted their own little slush funds, unlike the Chicago wards. In addition, city services are generally provided on a citywide basis, and they are not organized along district lines. The overlying township system (which breaks the county up into smaller areas) does provide more localized services, with some townships primarily administrating “poor relief,” a supplemental assistance program to the county administered welfare, while other townships offer a much broader range of services including schools and fire protection. However, the township system is a legacy system of local government that predates city-county consolidation.

  20. John Morris says:

    One thought I have is some evolution of the Business Improvement District concept. Right now, I think if one has a BID, it’s really another tax on top of all the other city taxes.

    Suppose there were some smaller tax districts where the people who paid in had lower city taxes.

    Honestly, I’m not sure there is a good solution. Socialising costs tends to separate cause and effect, in a way that takes away the need to compare inputs and outputs.

  21. John Morris says:


    It’s hard for me to fully respond since I just don’t know Indy or it’s history well.

    Here is my theory.

    Logically, combining a modest sized city with a larger county would in most cases radically increase the power of suburban and rural interests.

    No doubt, a lot of money has gone into “saving” or “helping” Indy’s downtown but my guess is that this is real dumb money.

    The big things, I know about Indy’s downtown developments sound overwhelmingly, anti urban investments. Huge Football Stadiums, a big Basketball arena; a giant convention center; a mega museum, mega hotels and no doubt huge parking garages.

    Very little if any of this is the stuff one would do if one was looking to create a viable mixed use district–unless, one was clueless. The sum total, is exactly the kind of thing one would expect voters in the suburbs to support.

    Many “investments” like Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and the parking garages are subtractions from the city.

    I think Aaron showed in a post that the area in and near Indy’s downtown has had a dramatic population loss.

  22. John Morris says:

    OK, an exageration. Some of these components like a convention center, museum or basketball area might be part of a real urbanist downtown.

  23. Chris Barnett says:

    John, there really isn’t anything wrong with Indy’s “Regional Center” model for its downtown. Every large city has a convention center, baseball and football stadia, and a basketball arena. The most successful integration of all these facilities in a downtown is in Indy: the convention center sits squarely between the three, and is attached to the indoor football stadium.

    I’d agree that initially, Indy city-county consolidation was a sneaky way for “suburban” Republicans allied with “city” Republicans to obtain and maintain control of the combined entity for decades. (The first Democratic Unigov mayor was elected in 1999, and the council still bounces back and forth.)

    For half that period, the mayor was Bill Hudnut, lately of ULI. Hudnut is pretty far from today’s model of a slash-and-burn fiscal hawk Republican, though. It was he who presided over many of the vast investments in downtown infrastructure.

  24. If you haven’t read the critique of consolidation written by Savitch and Vogel at the University of Louisville, I recommend checking it out. It’s called “Suburbs Without a City”:

  25. Consolidation was before all of our times most likely, but I was told by someone who would know that in fact, the government functions that were “consolidated” in Unigov were in fact already consolidated. Unigov was really more about control of them. Parks and such apparently were already county wide, but run under some type of independent, non-elected board structure. I can’t 100% vouch for this since I wasn’t there, but that’s what I heard.

  26. John Morris says:

    “Chris Barnett says”

    “John, there really isn’t anything wrong with Indy’s “Regional Center” model for its downtown. Every large city has a convention center, baseball and football stadia, and a basketball arena. The most successful integration of all these facilities in a downtown is in Indy: the convention center sits squarely between the three, and is attached to the indoor football stadium.”

    I clearly recall Aaron’s talk, where he states that Indy’s core Center Township, has undergone a dramatic population loss. This doesn’t exactly provide evidence of a lot of success.

    Nice, everything is attatched so you never have to set foot on the street.

  27. Chris Barnett says:

    John, you’ve taken the Center Township population change out of context in a discussion about “downtown”.

    The context of Aaron’s remarks was that the consolidation and Census vagaries make it very difficult to compare Indy to other core cities. He used Center Township as a proxy for “core city”, not “downtown”.

    Center Township, Indianapolis, is about 6×8 miles, and downtown is only about 15% of that land area. The actual “right downtown” population has increased over the past three decades, and continues to do so. It’s the hottest new-apartment-construction area in the metro.

    Pretty much every mid-sized Midwestern city (and some of the big ones, too) has had a bombed-out collar made up of its oldest surviving single-family neighborhoods, the first ring out from downtown. That first ring in Indy is the rest of Center Township outside of downtown.

    In cities like Columbus and Indianapolis, the barriers to further suburbanization are extremely low. For most of the automotive era, “new housing” has meant “new houses in suburban subdivisions” and not “townhomes and single-family infill”. Detroit is probably the extreme example.

    Consolidation did not bring this problem. I think those of us who know Indy and its history are saying that it may or may not have offered a solution. Certainly the favored quarter remained favored under Unigov.

    It was Bill Hudnut who famously said “you can’t be a suburb of nowhere”.

  28. John Morris says:

    So has all this massive tax subsidized investment helped fill the bombed out collar?

    You get what you design for. Are these the assets someone living in those neighborhoods would mostly benefit from? Is there easier, day to day convenience? Are there a wider selection of grocery stores? Is it easy to walk to work or meet lots of different people at all hours of the day?

    The investment seems designed to create a fake/safe place to impress very occasional guests and a symbolic city for suburbanites to visit once in a while.

    I might be exagerating a bit, but it sure looks like some huge investments were made.

    Pittsburgh also has seen similar “investments”. Funny how most of the higher growth areas of the city like Lawrenceville, The South Side etc… are so far away from them.

    Carmel’s basic focus on high density mixed use design is just the type of thing one would be doing if one wanted a real revival.

  29. James says:


    Thank you for the clarification. Strange that power is decentralized in Chicago, known for its strong mayors.

  30. MetroCard says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to compare Indy to places like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, in terms of a physical core city-to-core city comparison. While the metros may be similar in terms of size, and quantifiable aspects such as economic development can be compared, you have completely different city dynamics at play.

    Given the size, location, and age of the city, there is a notable lack of “soul” in the inner city areas of Indianapolis. Indianapolis may actually be the largest American city in the Midwest and/or Northeast without a distinct culture of its own. There may have been culture originally, but whatever was there was definitely lost over time. The built environment represents an inherent lack of aesthetic appeal as thousands of dilapidated, single-story, clapboard shacks line the first ring of neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown before quickly transitioning to ranch houses.

    In fact, the lack of culture in Indianapolis is so pervasive that the highly overrated Broad Ripple Village (which is essentially a strip of bars with a handful of independent retail establishments nearby) is celebrated in that city as if it were the end-all, be-all to urban living, and yet, if it were in a city like St. Louis or Pittsburgh, it would probably not even crack the top five neighborhoods–let alone New York City.

    It could be argued that the Indianapolis model represents the worst of both worlds in terms of city-county consolidation: an inherently decentralized, suburban municipality with all of the problems that come with blighted inner cities (and none of the urban amenities, of course). What made Indy’s merger controversial, and, ultimately, problematic, was the fact that the schools remained separate, thereby decimating IPS and making the central city even less attractive in the process.

    I believe that places like Oklahoma City would better represent a basis for comparison for Indianapolis: another mid-sized, suburban city with weak neighborhoods. Oklahoma City is actually mimicking the very things Indianapolis did to propel itself from obscurity in the 1980s: installing a canal, attracting pro sports, luring conventions, and so on. It puts things like neighborhood investment campaigns in perspective; in cities with weak neighborhoods, of course the downtown is going to receive the vast majority of development initiatives–there aren’t any significant neighborhood assets to begin with!

    So, if I had to summarize, I would make the following observations: for civic-minded cities with strong neighborhoods, city-county consolidation is not a good idea. But, for cities that are relatively suburban already, consolidation actually would be a viable alternative.

    By the way, the American concept of suburbs is outdated and flawed. All it does is insert political tension that, ultimately, distorts community focus. This is where the lion’s share of urban planning challenges come from. I don’t know what the ideal solution would be, but perhaps an intermediate, metropolitan authority focusing solely on regional cooperation contiguous with an entire urbanized area might be a start.

  31. Chris says:


    I think your observations about Indianapolis are rather exaggerated. It is true the city does not have the density of some other large Midwestern metro areas (though, all the ones you mention are in fact both larger, older, and were historically always more dense than Indianapolis). Also, the city certainly has some rundown areas, as in any city. And, yes, there are some areas of boring ranch houses, but to say this sums up the whole city outside of downtown is really silly. Also, while I agree Broad Ripple is overrated, there are definitely other far more interesting and more urban neighborhoods, such as Fountain Square that provide a good place to go to enjoy local art, live music, theater, dining, and nightlife. Broad Ripple is popular among a limited group of people because it has several bars that cater to the nearby college students at Butler University and also a certain segment of the 20-something post-college crowd–added to that are some restaurants and nice little shops that draw some older folks. But, it is safe to say most people in Indianapolis do not frequent Broad Ripple, and it is mainly promoted (or “celebrated” to use your language) by the city’s convention marketing arm to out-of-town conventioneers as a relatively close and tame alternative to exploring downtown or other city neighborhoods.

    Also, it is incorrect to say Indianapolis lacks all the amenities of a big city. While I agree it must do something about its public transit system, it does offer many of the same amenities I have enjoyed in several cities I have visited and/or lived in within the U.S. and in other countries. Indianapolis has one of the largest general art museums in the country, certainly not on par with the Met or the Chicago Art Institute, but still very highly acclaimed and with an interesting collection. It also has one of the best symphonies in the country. Its opera company is also quite excellent. Also, Indianapolis has a very accessible theater scene with many excellent local theater companies. There is also several good dance troops, a robust live music scene, lots of art galleries, etc.

    In any event, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so if you can point out any single-story shacks or ranch houses in this neighborhood (and there are no showy mansions included to skew the results) that runs about 4-5 miles north of downtown, then I will gladly donate $50 to a charity of your choice:

    Of course, Meridian-Kessler is neither the densest nor the most interesting neighborhood in the city, but I think it demonstrates nicely that the whole town does not fall off into ranch houses a couple of miles outside of downtown.

    That said I think this whole discussion has got rather far afield from Aaron’s point in his article: How can metropolitan government consolidation be implemented so as to achieve the benefits of a larger tax base and cohesive development and transportation policy while retaining local political and cultural focus on neighborhoods?

    Rather than wasting time trading opinions, which by their nature cannot be proved or disproved, as to whether Indianapolis would have had a better built-environment with or without city-county consolidation or whether it is or is not a “soulful” city, it would seem more useful to discuss alternative ways of implementing government consolidation that could be applied in other communities.

  32. John Morris says:


    The question many communities should ask is if they should do this in the first place. This is one of the mythic one shot cure alls sold to many cities, so it’s good to see the pros and cons. The discussion has not gone off topic.

  33. Chris says:


    I am not sure what the “Huh?” is about???

    How are posts about whether or not Indianapolis is supposedly “soulful” or not relevant to discussion about the usefulness of city-county consolidation? Honestly, how is this helpful, especially when the implication is that the city was supposedly never “soulful” (whatever that is supposed to me) even pre-consolidation?

    Also, while there has been much opining about whether or Indianapolis may or may not have had more dense in-fill development with or without consolidation, I have not seen any empirical evidence posted to support either side. Also, the anecdotal evidence, if one can even use the term “evidence,” has largely been cherry-picked to support one position or another and largely presented out-of-context.

    Moreover, there has not been any evidence, or even any argument made, as to why dense urban in-fill is or isn’t desirable, why it is or isn’t a sign of a healthy community, or what it should or should not be the sole or even a substantial criteria used to evaluate the merits of metropolitan consolidation.

    Finally, the one thing I do agree with @Metrocard about is that there has been absolutely no evidence presented, not even anecdotal, that the unique circumstances leading up to the city-county consolidation in Indianapolis and its implementation are at all relevant to any other city which may be considering government consolidation.

    In other words, each city is unique, each city has its own history, local culture, political climate, built environment, economy, etc, and so without identifying comparable factors between cities, it is not particularly helpful to set up one city has an example of the supposed effects of city-county consolidation.

    New York City is an early example of city government consolidation, so why isn’t it being used as an example? Or, Jacksonville Florida? Or, Nashville? Or, Louisville? Or, Toronto? There are also alternatives to total consolidation, such as the regional framework used in Minneapolis-St. Paul. It would be helpful to look at several examples, rather than looking at one particular city and trying to extrapolate from just this one example. It would also be helpful to identify objective criteria for evaluation, rather than subjective criteria such as “soulfulness.” If you can identify trends emerging across several examples when employing objective measures, then you would compile useful information for other cities considering government consolidation.

    So, yes, with some of the posts, the discussion has certainly gone off-topic, and/or it is being conducted in a manner that is not leading to any useful conclusions.

  34. MetroCard says:

    @ Chris (January 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm)

    You’re taking what I said out of context. My response was in someone who compared Indianapolis to places like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati–which are fundamentally different cities–and I simply explained why. I also responded to Aaron’s comments in my last two paragraphs. If you don’t agree, then don’t agree.

    Also, city development patterns are relevant to the discussion because if there are a bunch of close-in suburbs nearby, then it would obviously be harder for a city to consolidate. It’s no coincidence that major consolidated cities like Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, and Nashville tend to be have some of the least dense central cities and did not have well-formed ring of suburbs at the time they consolidated.

    There are no ranch houses in the neighborhood you showed, but the city still gets suburban pretty quickly. 21st Street and Lafayette Road is two miles away from the core of the city and is well within the pre-Unigov city limts, and yet it’s just as suburban as points miles further north.

  35. John Morris says:

    No time to go into details right now, but I think Aaron’s post was about the pros and cons of doing this in the first place.

    BTW, I did bring up NYC’s history with this.

    All of your comments seem to strongly assume that this is a good plan for most cities.

  36. Woah, MetroCard. Louisville had a ton of suburbs as Kentucky permitted tons of dinky “sixth class cities” that allows even a block or two to incorporate to fend off annexation. These weren’t a complete ring, but there were lots of them, especially in the east end. None of these got rolled up into a consolidated entity.

  37. John Morris says:


    One can see shacks and really tiny houses right by Lucas Oil Stadium on street view. I’m not sure but I think that’s very close to downtown.

    At least in that area, it’s pretty easy to find very small homes and ranch houses.

  38. MetroCard says:

    Aaron–you are correct that there are a ton of micro-suburbs to the east of Louisville that avoided consolidation. I was referring mainly to the unincorporated areas such as PRP and Valley Station that got absorbed into the city and resulted in the major population increase.

    Also, I think some people are confused on the difference between annexation and city-county consolidation. The terms annexation and consolidation are not interchangeable, as they refer to two similar, yet different, processes. Annexation refers to unincorporated communities in a county that become absorbed into a municipal-level government while the county level government remains, whereas consolidation refers to the elimination of the county level of government altogether–thereby expanding a city to include all unincorporated territory at once. The specifics of a merger vary from city to city.

  39. John Morris says:


    Sure looks from the air that very small suburban type homes abound near the downtown. It also, not surprisingly looks like surface parking and garages take up a vast amount of downtown space.

    Kind of interesting, that the convention and hotel folks tell people to hang out near Butler University instead of the downtown. In Pittsburgh, they tell people to go to The South Side or Bloomfield.

    All of this supports the view that the vast “investments” have focused on design and ammenities like parking lots geared to suburbanites.

    Since logically, consolidation would shift power away from the center, one would expect just this type of pattern.

  40. MetroCard: Sorry for nitpicking, but annexation is not limited to unincorporated communities. In the past, many incorporated communities were annexed to larger ones, along with unincorporated territory. This doesn’t happen much anymore, since the laws in many states were changed in the early to mid 20th century to make it more difficult for large cities to annex surrounding suburbs, but it can still be done.

    Cincinnati for example annexed many previously unincorporated neighborhoods, such as Price Hill, Pleasant Ridge, Roselawn, Bond Hill, Winton Place, etc. However, neighborhoods like Westwood, Hyde Park, Woodburn (most of East Walnut Hills), Columbia, Madisonville, and maybe a few others were fully incorporated villages. Westwood’s town hall still exists today. This isn’t limited to just big cities annexing suburbs either. Highland Park, Illinois, a North Shore suburb of Chicago, founded in 1869 annexed the village of Ravinia to the south in 1899.

    Yes it is a different animal than consolidation, but if a central city annexed all the remaining unincorporated land in its county, as well as all the other incorporated municipalities, would it really be that much different? I think here in Ohio that would at least cause a de facto dissolution of the townships, but maybe not of the county government, I don’t really know.

  41. MetroCard says:

    @ Jeffrey Jakucyk

    My point was that consolidation removes the county level of government; annexation does not. That is the critical difference.

    If a central city annexed every square inch of land in a county, there would be no need for a county government. (The administrative division would still have to exist, though, for things such as NWS watches and warnings.)

  42. Chris says:

    @John, I guess I would have to ask what you and @Metrocard mean by “shacks?”

    I live on the West Coast now, but I lived in Indianapolis for over 20 years, and I am very familiar with the city. I have certainly never seen any shack (unless, you mean a woodshed in someone’s back yard) within the city limits, and I traveled all over the city. Also, without getting into a debate over minor issues, I am quite sure there are no ranch-style houses next to Lucas Stadium (maybe, you found one freak in-fill example?).

    Moreover, there is a big difference between a small/tiny house and shack. San Francisco is one of the densest cities in the nation, and yet it has large neighborhoods filled with small/tiny houses, but I don’t think anyone would reasonably refer to them as shacks.

    That said if we want to discuss facts, here they are: The pre-consolidated city reached its highest population density in about 1950, when its density of 7,739 people per square mile was bit higher than the density of present-day Seattle, or a fairly high population density. At the time, the city covered over 55 square miles, or about the size of present-day Pittsburgh, and larger than present-day San Francisco, Boston or Miami. In 1950, there were certainly several major cities, such as Seattle, Kansas City, Cincinnati, etc that were less dense than Indianapolis, but it is hard to make a comparison because those cities generally covered a much larger geographic area. In 1950, Pittsburgh covered about the same area, but it had a population density of 12,487 per square mile. Indianapolis had its peak population 10 years later in 1960, but the city had grown in size to a little over 71 square miles and had shrunk to a density of 6,689 people per square mile, for comparison, the city was then close to the physical size of 1960 Cincinnati, though Indianapolis was a bit denser. If you track Indianapolis and Cincinnati from 1910 onward and adjust for their varying physical sizes, they usually come close in population density. So, perhaps we can say that historically Indianapolis was for many years similar in density to a city like Cincinnati, even though Cincinnati is an older city and had examples of higher average density in some of its densest neighborhoods than in Indianapolis. So, Indianapolis probably had a typical population density for a mid-sized city pre-consolidation. Of course, once it grew to about 5 times its physical size post-consolidation, its population density dropped to that of a low-density city like Phoenix or Charlotte. Post-consolidation, Indianapolis has roughly increased by about 20% in population density since 1980 (it is a little hard to determine since the U.S. Census population measurement for Indianapolis (balance) does not include several little communities that are legally part of the consolidated-city while the census for Marion County includes four larger municipalities that are not part of the consolidated city). The conclusion I would draw is that Indianapolis was never extremely dense city like many older and significantly larger cities, but it was of typical density for an established mid-sized city. Post-consolidation, it shows a trend of a reasonably strong increase in population density. By comparison, Seattle is only about 17% denser in 2010, than it was in 1960, and the city has stayed the same geographic size over that time.

    All this aside, I think if any community is seriously considering metro government consolidation, then its elected officials and citizens should read the many excellent academic studies that have examined the benefits, disadvantages, and general consequences of government consolidation over several years in various communities that have implemented different forms of metro consolidated government. I would suggest in all sincerity that for communities considering metro consolidation, these sort of academic studies would be far more useful than a debate about whether Indianapolis has ranch houses near its downtown.

    @Metrocard, I didn’t address the last portion of your post about OKC, but I certainly don’t think I took the larger portion of your comments out-of-context. You said quite a bit more than just a simple, “Indianapolis is not as old or as dense as Pittsburgh.” And, yes, you did give your opinion about what you thought of Indianapolis, and I gave you mine (along with some pictures ). It would seem we are not going to persuade each other, but I don’t consider our disagreement to be a problem, and I hope neither do you.

  43. MetroCard says:

    @ Chris (January 19, 2012 at 5:21 pm)

    By the way, Chris, those density numbers you posted for Cincinnati and Indianapolis don’t tell the whole story. Cincinnati’s topography limits the total amount of land available for human development; the same is not true of Indianapolis. Since Cincinnati’s land area is limited with the same population density, the average density will be higher when accounting for uninhabited areas. Judging by Google Maps, that seems to be about one quarter of the total land area.

    My earlier comment was referring to the vernacular architecture of Indianapolis. There are thousands of abandoned worker cottages throughout the city, many of which look like shacks (in my opinion) because they’ve been blighted for so long (paint falling off, porches collapsing, etc). Wood frame housing simply does not hold up as well over time compared to masonry or brick housing from the same era.

    Some of those houses immediately south of Lucas Oil Stadium, like on Kenwood Avenue or Missouri Street, are in extremely bad shape. Motorists coming off 70 towards downtown are greeted by a massive, shiny new stadium and decrepit houses, side-by-side.

  44. John Morris says:

    Very much the same with Pittsburgh, which has large amounts of land it’s very hard to build on.

  45. Chris says:

    @Metro and @John,

    First I never said Indianapolis had the same density as Pittsburgh, in fact I said Pittsburgh was always quite a denser, so I don’t follow the last comment about Pittsburgh, unless it was simply to add that it is a hilly city like Cincinnati.

    Second, @Metrocard, I have relatives in Cincinnati and I have visited it numerous times, so, yes, I am well aware of its hilly topography. However, I was making a general comparison, and it is a valid one. Not all land in Indianapolis, even land that technically could be built on, has been built up. You will find this in any city. E.g., Just Eagle Creek Park alone excludes thousands of acres from development, and there are numerous other parks, greenways, parking lots, streets, landfills, etc. If you want to take the time and do a detailed analysis of satellite maps of each city and compare only built-up areas, then yes, you can get an exact comparison of population density, and of course, you would have to also spend weeks poring through historical photos to compare population density in earlier decades. Also, if you carefully read my remarks, you would note that I specifically stated that Cincinnati has specific neighborhoods with higher average population densities than could be found in Indianapolis. For the purposes of this informal discussion my comparison was quite sufficient and I made my point, and I think you understood it.

    Ultimately, the facts are this: Indianapolis had a typical population density for an established mid-sized city in the 1950s and early 1960’s (use Kansas City, or Columbus, or some other flatter city if Cincinnati is too hilly for you), then Indianapolis merged with its low-density surrounding county in 1970 and grew to about 5 times its geographic size and become a low-density city; however, the consolidated city has shown a reasonable increase in population density over the past 30-40 years.

    That said, I think you and John are perhaps getting lost in rather minor issues, and I guess I am partially to blame for responding to you on these minor issues.

    Aaron didn’t write a post about the historic population density of Indianapolis, or the architectural vernacular of Indianapolis, he wrote a post using Indianapolis as one example of the POSSIBLE effects of city-county consolidation on neighborhood development and political influence. His larger question was how could city-county consolidation, or other metropolitan consolidation be achieved, while still preserving neighborhood political influence and ensuring an equitable city investment in neighborhoods. All this back-and-forth about “shacks,” hills in Cincinnati, etc, fails to address this question and makes the discussion much more narrowly constrained than it should be.

  46. John Morris says:

    “His larger question was how could city-county consolidation, or other metropolitan consolidation be achieved, while still preserving neighborhood political influence and ensuring an equitable city investment in neighborhoods. All this back-and-forth about “shacks,” hills in Cincinnati, etc, fails to address this question and makes the discussion much more narrowly constrained than it should be.”

    That’s not exactly what I got from this post. It’s a pro and con post about the overall effect of consolidation on neighborhood development.


    “To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.”

    I certainly, took that along with his other example of innovation in non consolidated communities to be a bit of a warning.

  47. I think any discussion of redevelopment of Indianapolis has to acknowledge what is happening on the near east side. To be honest I am disappointed that the posr and comments from Indianapolis residents do not address the near east side efforts in detail.

    I do not believe that an upscale develpment of one corner in the heart of some of the most expensive residential real estate in Marion County compares the to the near east side develpment in terms of physical scope, neighborhood population densisity and most of all sociological and economic impact. Driving down east 10th Street now reveals a corridor that is unrecognizable compared to was there just a few short years ago. If there is a story to be told about Indianapolis redevelopment it is there.

    Aaron, if I could be so bold, I would urge you to investigate what has been happening on Indianapolis’s east side. In my opinion it would make a fascinating post topic on its own merits.

    On a an entirely diiferent tack, I do believe that while Chicago’s ward based political may have some merits when it comes to neighborhood development, it is worth bearing in mind that the system was born out of corruption to serve corrupt interests. There has been a legendary history of waste and inefficient govenrment that can be laid at the feet of that legendary Chicago political machine.

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