It’s no secret that Indianapolis has been a huge focus of my blog over the years. One of the biggest criticisms I get here, especially when I ding some other city, is that I’m nothing more than a mindless booster for Indy. While I like to think I’ve given the city a lot of tough love over the years, it’s definitely true that I’ve had many, many good things to say, and I have no problem saying that I’m a big fan of the city overall.
Why then, might one ask, don’t I actually live in Indianapolis?
The answer is multifaceted, but without a doubt one key reason is that I simply can’t sign up to what the city is doing in its urban environment. Indy is going one direction, I’m going another. It’s as simple as that.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The city recently announced a plan to subsidize a mixed used development on a parcel in the core of downtown, a project called “Block 400.” It would include apartments, retail, etc – all good. While the concept is great, the design is another matter. I could go into depth on the monotony of the structure and other matters, but what I want to show you instead is a parking garage that will house employees from One America insurance. Here was an initial rendering of the garage:
It’s about as boring a garage as can be imagined. It’s on a prime block just steps from Monument Circle, but has no street level retail or other interest. It’s just a dead parking garage.
Various folks took umbrage at this, so the developer decided to tack on some awnings, which got them approved by the city’s hearing examiner. Here’s their updated design:
Let’s be honest: this isn’t a garage, it’s urban design garbage. And guess what? The city of Indianapolis itself is paying to build it.
I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I can certainly understand that there are economic constraints, tradeoffs to be made, etc. And not every project can be a home run.
But this isn’t unusual at all – this is standard operating procedure for Indianapolis. This is par for the course. This is just what Indianapolis builds. I cannot name another major city in the United States where the city’s own developer community (including Flaherty and Collins, the developer of this property), own architectural firms (including CSO Architects, who designed this) and own city government so consistently produce subpar development.
I’m not exaggerating at all. And this isn’t even the worst offender. For example, here’s another downtown development that not only sucks out loud, but the state fire marshal condemned it and forced residents to move out:
While I’ve named the names of the folks involved in the parking garage and they certainly deserve it, let’s not focus overly on them. This trend goes back a really long way, and is pervasive. The previous city administration, which was of a different political party, behaved no differently. Partially it’s a result of a lack of good urban history of the type that exists in other places. So there isn’t a good template ingrained in the city to follow.
But ultimately, as I’ve written before, it’s a crisis of values.
Indianapolis is the place where, as a rule, not good enough is more than good enough for most people, even community leadership.
That’s why I don’t live there. Because that’s not good enough for me. I may not be perfect, but I aspire to more than mediocrity. I don’t expect any city to be perfect or all the way there yet. You can inspire people, including me, to join your army to take hamburger hill or to get behind the rock and push, if you provide a vision of what can be. That’s one reason people are planting their flag in Detroit. It’s the hope of the possible.
But when it’s clear that the city itself – and I mean that in the broadest sense – has decided it wants to go march off in a different direction, it’s a lot harder to enlist in that army, no matter how much you might want to.
Alas, it seems lots of people agree with me – on the actions if not the reasons – as Center Township (the urban core) lost another 24,000 people in the 2000s. They voted with their feet – just like tens of thousands of others have been continuously voting with their feet since 1950 – to go build a better life for themselves somewhere else.
And in a decade where downtowns made strong residential comebacks, with young people streaming in to live in them, Indianapolis was an exception. Its downtown* added less than a 1000 residents, and their distribution suggests that almost all of that might be a result of jail population expansion. Even downtown Cleveland did better.
I’m sure Indy’s boosters will be happy to talk about world class parts of downtown like Monument Circle, the Cultural Trail, Georgia St., etc. And these are legitimately first rate. Actually, that makes it worse. It shows that Indianapolis can compete with the best if it wants to, but most of the time it just doesn’t care to. It’s not ignorance. The city knows that to do, it just doesn’t want to do it.
For some reason locals seem to think that doing it right should be reserved for a handful of special places and occasions. But the mark of at great city isn’t how it treats its special places – everybody does that right – but how it treats its ordinary ones. Indy is like the guy who thinks he can get away with wearing the same old dirty clothes fives days in a row and not taking showers, as long he slaps on a little top shelf cologne before he leaves the house. I’ve got news for you, people are going to notice.
Indianapolis retains a very compelling regional story to tell. There are tons of reasons for people to come to or build a business in, metropolitan Indianapolis. But the real story there is mostly in the suburbs.
Yet I believe even the urban core of this not very historically urban city could be compelling as well – if it wanted to be. Indianapolis has all the potential in the world. Indy is like the up and coming star at a company whose boss pulls him aside one day and says, “You’ve got all the potential in the world, but if you want to get that big promotion, you need to stop doing/start doing X, Y, or Z.” Anybody who has made it to the top was fortunately enough to have somebody give them one or more of those good kicks in the pants along the way.
Indy, unfortunately, has heard the message many times before from many different people, and has elected not to do anything about it.
Locals love to make excuses for why things can’t be better. F&C’s development director for the project said of the garage, “Some things aren’t achievable.” What is so different about Indianapolis that makes that true there but no where else? What miracle of economics allowed similar cities like Nashville or Cincinnati or Columbus to build many urbanistically correct new developments in those places while somehow it is impossible in Indianapolis? Maybe it’s time to recruit some out of town developers and architectural firms who have a different attitude towards the possible.
I would encourage Indy’s leaders to take a short hour and a half drive to downtown Cincinnati and take a look around what’s there. Not the old buildings, but the new ones. Most of them are candidly quite bland architecturally, but from an urbanism perspective – and be sure to take someone with you know what’s what they are talking about on this so that they can point it all out – even the bottom quartile of new buildings in downtown Cincinnati beat most of the top 5% of what’s been build in downtown Indy.
I’ve listened to various civic leaders of late talk about how rebuilding the urban core is now a big priority of the city. If that’s true, and business as usual has been leading to a catastrophic population collapse for some time, wouldn’t you think that you might, you know, try something different? Apparently not.
When people in Indy want to do something, they can. That’s why they built an amazing franchise in events hosting, particularly sports. They understand what world class is there, they understand the competitive marketplace, and they do what it takes to succeed – including building world class venues, districts, and capabilities to make it happen. So why hasn’t it happened elsewhere?
I was involved in a discussion about building a high tech industry in Indianapolis a few years ago. Someone boldly said that since Indy had been able to pull off building the sports cluster, it should be very capable of equally pulling off a high tech cluster to rival top hubs in the country. A friend of mine was very dubious about this, and said insightfully, “Sports succeeded because sports is consistent with the state of mind (i.e, the culture, values, and patterns of life) of Indiana. But high tech is more consistent with the state of mind of other places and not so much with Indiana.” Indianapolis is #1 in sports. And while it’s done well in some parts of tech, I don’t see how you could really rate it as more than the middle of the pack nationally on that.
“State of mind” makes a big difference. That’s ultimately a question people ask themselves these days, whether it is a company and a prospective employee sizing each other up, a consultant and client, or a city and a prospective resident or business. The most important question is always, “Is there a cultural fit?”
In an era where an ability to attract talent is perhaps the defining characteristic of urban success over the long term, Indy needs to ask itself the hard questions. How competitive is it? I’d have to say right now that it does a great job for people who want to live in a suburban environment like Carmel or Fishers. That’s very, very important and not to be minimized.
But there are people out there that want more, who prefer different types of environments. Right now Indy is simply not very competitive in that market. And if it keeps on its current path, it never will be. Convince yourself otherwise by finding the exceptions to the rule and getting them to gush about how great things are. But the numbers don’t lie.
Like that young up and coming employee who’s got the goods but has a few problem areas that will, if not fixed, hold him back, Indy needs to take a serious gut check about the things that hold it back – and an embrace of mediocrity and lack of seriousness in its approach to urban core development are chief among them.
Ultimately as I said it’s a question a values. There’s nothing wrong with being happy about where you are. Most people don’t have that burning ambition to make it higher, nor a passion for excellence. In this competitive world a lax attitude will probably undermine your performance in the end, but if that’s what you want be, go for it. I won’t judge a place for that. Just don’t expect those who want better for themselves to sign up for it.
In any choice a city makes, somebody is going to be unhappy. Any branding choice is, in a sense, a choice to exclude by focusing on something rather than something else. There’s nothing wrong with setting down a marker of what you’re going after – and being comfortable with fall out from that.
Ultimately it’s not about me or any other specific individual. I’m under no illusion that I’m someone who is personally important to future of any city I might find myself. But it about people generally, and being able to attract enough of them – particular of those that are critical to the 21st century economy – to make the city successful and indeed sustainable over the long term.
Just remember, talented, ambitious people – those with big dreams and hopes for themselves and their societies – want to live in a place where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspiration.
What do you aspire to, Indianapolis?
* Downtown defined as the area inside the inner freeway loop and the White River.