Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Why I Live in Indianapolis by Drew Klacik

[ My post Why I Don’t Live in Indianapolis provoked quite a furor. It also inspired occasional guest poster Drew Klacik to pen this response about why he came to Indianapolis, and is still there – Aaron. ]

When a friend constantly tells you how much he or she likes you and then one day says, “But I’d never live with you,” the predictable reaction is to feel hurt and angry. That’s how I felt when The Urbanophile posted “Why I Don’t Live in Indianapolis.”

But last night, while riding my bike on one of Indianapolis’ many bike trails (yes, we have them), I started thinking about why I do live in Indianapolis. The answer surprised me.

While I honestly buy into the quality-of-life, amenity-based strategies that are all the rage these days, that’s not how I arrived here. I live in Indianapolis because I grew up in the Indiana part of Chicago and my late wife grew up near Fort Wayne. We chose Indianapolis because it was close to our families and we had job offers – simple as that. This decision is even more stunning because just a few years earlier, I’d visited Indianapolis for the first time and went home convinced that I would never live in a city that only had one tall building and appeared to be virtually empty at night.

When I moved to Indianapolis, I had no idea that the new mayor had a vision that Indianapolis could rebuild its downtown, obtain an NFL team and one day host a Super Bowl. I had no idea whether the city wanted to be great or accepted mediocrity. And I certainly didn’t base my decision on the architectural design of a parking garage.

I also didn’t grow up dreaming of life in a specific city. When I asked some friends (admittedly not a big or random sample), I found only one who dreamt of living in a specific place. That place: New York City. That friend’s current residence: Nashville, Tenn. Turns out my friend lives in Nashville because it’s reasonably close to family and he had a job offer. Most everyone I talked with told me the same story. Maybe this is because we grew up Midwesterners—and as ESRI’s human tapestry data tells us, we are more likely than those who live elsewhere to value family, tradition and stability. But the key point is our choices weren’t predicated on urban amenities or ambitions. They were all about location and employment. I’d wager that most of us – yes, even us pro-amenity types – are less idealistic in our choices than we profess to be.

This is not to argue that high-quality amenities and bold visions are unimportant. But for those who initially decide where to live based on more practical and personal considerations, it may mean that urban amenities and ambitions are more important to retention than they are to attraction. If so, then a key issue is what residents – rather than potential residents – value in a community. Prior to reading The Urbanophile post about Indianapolis, I wouldn’t have thought that.

Cities, in a way, are like households: What’s our priority? For most of us mortals (maybe not global cities or the “one percenters,”), the answer involves compromise. I might choose to buy a great TV and a nice driver for my golf game. A neighbor might choose a fast car. Another might choose to travel. What we choose doesn’t determine whether we’re striving. We might all be striving, yet we can’t have it all. The same holds true for a community.

So how did Indianapolis advance from that city with one tall building to a city able to dazzle and delight as Super Bowl host? Choices. Compromises. We chose to focus our ambitions and our resources on a sports-based, downtown-festival-marketplace strategy. It’s worked – repeatedly – with the Super Bowl being the latest and greatest sign of success.

Now it’s time to build on what’s working, and to turn our sights to what’s next. Part of moving on likely will be to sustain, enhance and further capitalize on a great downtown – one that’s more appealing to current and prospective urban dwellers. That’s where the new parking garage comes into play – the one the Urbanophile and others so dislike.

The garage, as best I understand, is being developed to rid us of three large asphalt surface lots in the heart of downtown. Good riddance! That, in turn, will clear space for an additional downtown grocery store and more downtown housing. Good additions!

I’m all for quality design. But given a choice – the kind of compromise required of cities and households – the developers of these three blocks chose to focus on the grocery store and the housing without stressing a world-class garage.

In a world of limited means and compromise, does the design or lack of design in a parking garage indicate an entire city’s failure to strive? Or does it reflect a practical desire to balance ambition, cost, and progress? Put another way: If the choice was a nicer garage and a less-grand grocery and housing development, would that be better? If some think the garage should have first-floor retail space, but there is already a glut of unused retail space nearby, should one include it in the design for design’s sake, knowing it likely would sit empty?

While most responses to The Urbanophile article were about design, another key point was urban aspiration. On that point, Indianapolis and many other Midwestern cities have reached a critical moment as they seek to balance the notion of striving with the realities of living within their means. As they choose and compromise, it doesn’t mean that Indianapolis and its counterparts are lacking in ambition any more than a family balancing the cost of a Caribbean cruise vs. sending the kids to college.

Sure, some in Indianapolis would let the lack of resources limit ambition. Others would have us aspire without considering cost. Still others will realize that finding the money – even in the toughest economies – is a measure of our city’s commitment to aspire.

In all likelihood, though, compromise will be necessary. While many look down on the notion of compromise, I think of it as the key component of incremental progress and the failure to compromise as the enabler of inaction. When choices must be made, it’s critical that incremental progress be viewed from two perspectives: How far have we come and how our progress compares with that of other communities.

In the final analysis, each city is likely to make different compromises. Ideally, those compromises reflect the current demands and long-term aspirations of their citizens and institutions. Some may choose well-designed parking garages. Others will focus on neighborhoods, parks, schools or some combination of services and amenities. Those with internal perspectives will view progress as change over time. Those who think more globally will choose to measure progress relative to other cities.

Is Indianapolis perfect? Nope. Could and should it try harder? Yes. Should it seek to get more people and, thus, more perspectives involved? Of course. Should, it keep in mind that it is competing globally for human capital and private investment? Yes again.

But like many, non-global Midwestern cities, Indianapolis will have to make choices and compromises. In so doing, it will pursue a strategy that’s different from other places, and those differences won’t appeal to all.

Ricky Nelson once sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” I’m pleased to look at it this way: For some, Moby Dick was just a whale; for me, the parking garage is just a parking garage, but a new urban grocery and more downtown housing that is incremental progress.

Drew Klacik is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

Topics: Public Policy, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

23 Responses to “Why I Live in Indianapolis by Drew Klacik”

  1. Chris Corr says:

    I would just like to point out that the OneAmerica garage looks the way it does not because of a lack of understanding within Indianapolis city leadership, planning bodies, development community or the general populace, but because it’s exactly what OneAmerica wants. They are the sole landowner of all property being used in the Block 400 project, so they held all the leverage to get what they wanted in the garage design.

    The garage doesn’t meet the city’s own Regional Center Design Guidelines because of OneAmerica, end of story.

  2. Chris, I agree it’s not a lack of knowledge for the most part, but a lack of will. But pinning the blame on OneAmerica raises an immediate question: how does that explain all the other urban design problems of recent years: the Villagio, the DeRemini, the BW-3 facade, the non-flush raised sewer inlets, etc? Clearly, larger forces are at work.

  3. Chris Corr says:

    I would say the Di Rimini is a poor example. What was originally proposed was a barely passable infill design that squeaked through the city at a time when no one other than large institutions were building ANYTHING in downtown.

    I bet it would not have cleared today.

    What we have now is a built structure that is a terrible deviation from the original barely passable design that violated fire code and was shut down. That doesn’t exactly strike me as an example of the city bending over backward to let anything slide.

    The Villagio, BW3 facade and the sewer inlets are solid examples of acceptance of poor design and a lack of will to change it.

    However, lack of will was not the problem with this garage. OneAmerica was quite content with their suburban-style, low-maintenance, low-property tax surface parking lot arrangement and it took years to even get them to the table to discuss a project like this. No one was going to strong arm them into accepting a garage with a form they didn’t like — like including retail to compete with their tower retail — especially when this deal involves them paying ongoing garage maintenance and property taxes far above what they currently pay for the surface lots.

  4. Matthew Hall says:

    There are many undemanding and easily satisfied people in the world. They need to live somewhere and Indy is for them. No one was arguing against this view. We are arguing about how Indy might appeal beyond these people to the more discriminating that often contribute much more economically to the businesses and places they are part of.

  5. Chris, I’m curious to know. Did One America tell you that themselves? Have the directly acknowledged that they are responsible for the garage design? I haven’t heard them say anything.

    Notwithstanding, there are numerous other issues with the design of the Block 400 project. The garage is simply the easiest case to make because of the fairly objective lack of proper urban design.

  6. Curt Ailes says:

    Particularly vexing about this garage, is the CEO of One America going on record, in the July Indianapolis Star, waxing poetic about multimodal solutions to getting people to and from work; being supportive of car pooling, Indy Connect, etc.

    In the same breath, this garage was plotted to look like the existing One America tower. I get the impression that there was zero thought paid to how the design of this garage, while admittedly utilitarian in its function of storing automobiles, is a 180 degree turn in land use & transit planning 101, that being that poor land uses will negatively influence people’s transportation choice.

    The needle is poorly skewed towards the auto in Indy, but here we have the CEO on record and yet his company, whether or not he had any input at all, pushing in exactly the opposite direction.

    They had an opportunity to really reinforce their CEO’s public rhetoric and yet chose to turn their back.

  7. I think a city’s built form is a reflection of thepopulace’s value system, and the amount of urban legacy the City has. Indy, quite simply, does not have a strong urban legacy that other Midwest counterparts such as Cincinnati or Cleveland has. And so, you won’t find urbanism as strongly valued in Indy as it is in those cities. On a different scale, you won’t find public transport. as admired in Cincinnati and Cleveland as you will in Philadelphia or DC, and so on. This reminds me of a piece I wrote a while back, comparing the latest urban designs in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. I was struck with how much better Cincy’s recent infill projects were than Indy’s. It is, because, Cincinnati has urban legacy roots and examples that point towards good urbanism that Indy cannot rely on. Here are the pieces that touch on these subjects: http://urban-out.com/2010/07/01/cincinnati-sees-dramatic-increase-in-high-quality-urban-designs/ and http://urban-out.com/2010/05/18/indianapolis-demand-better-urban-designs/ and http://urban-out.com/2010/03/29/cincinnati-and-indianapolis-opposite-opportunities/

  8. Walter says:

    Reading this commentary I am reminded of Irwin Miller. “Mediocracy is expensive.”

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    Drew Klacik hints at the key reason for Indy’s success over the past three decades: a good life is not what you find in a place. A good life is what you make in a place.

    Unlike him, I only spent a few grade-school years in Indiana and also lived on both coasts growing up. But like the writer, I came here for a job (and to escape the fussy, whiny, toxic strivers’ “keep up with the Joneses” culture that passes as a “culture of excellence” on the East Coast). I wanted to “work to live”, not “live to work”. (A competing job offer was in White Plains, NY. Ugh.)

    Apropos of Indianapolis’ beginnings as a mile-square grid next to the confluence of two swampy rivers in the middle of open woodland, I’d say the dominant paradigm here is, “if you don’t like it, get busy and change it.”

    Nothing changes without change agents, and I applaud Chris and Curt for trying to change the parking garage project, as well as Indy’s transit culture. It’s a long march, and I’m glad to see the next generations stepping up.

  10. Matthew Hall says:

    Indy’s competition isn’t New York or California, it’s Nashville, Charlotte or Columbus, Ohio. Those are the places Indy has to be better than if it wants to move upmarket.

  11. Bruce Hetrick says:

    Prediction: If Indy proposed the Mother of All Parking Garages — a veritable Taj Mahal of temporary automotive space — The Urbanophile and The Star’s online comments would be filled with cries of wasted money that should have been used for education and public safety. Personally, I’m eager to get a garage that’s complementary in design to OneAmerica’s headquarters and build the new grocery a block from my downtown home. We face far bigger issues than this one. Besides, as downtown property owners go, OneAmerica does a darned good job of landscaping, lighting, maintenance, etc. I’d rather trust them to do the right thing while spending my aesthetic energy getting the Di Rimini demolished.

  12. Matthew Hall says:

    Better designed structures don’t have to be more expensive to build.

  13. Patrick Taylor says:

    Drew is still one of the smartest and realistic thinkers I’ve ever known. I’m glad I stumbled across this article.

  14. What happened to all the Super City braggadocio? Does no one understand what super means? says:

    New slogan: Indianapolis, where we’re good at rationalizing mediocrity and not much else. There’s been exactly zero “raising the game” since the Super Bowl.
    Yes, it is totally unreasonable to ask for a storefront or two on a parking garage so that any reasonably fit person weighing under 400 lbs. can walk for a little longer around downtown without seeing everything there is to see. Why after all would that be important to the convention or tourism businesses that we’ve invested so heavily in already? It’s totally unreasonable for the taxpayers to pay for $155 million downtown development and to expect anything taller or better than a three-story building with a fast-casual restaurant chain that has locations in every suburb. It’s completely insane that anyone would expect tall buildings, good design, a bare minimum of aesthetics or urbanity or any civic aspiration when the taxpayers are paying for downtown projects that should be privately funded in the first place. There’s all this inane drivel about how these projects should be cheap or practical, but why are the taxpayers paying for these projects to begin with if they don’t serve a civic good and aren’t anything that anyone can be proud of? If Buckingham or One America wants to litter our downtown with garbage structures, let them pay for it. If we the taxpayers are paying for a project, it should advance the city in some form or fashion, or be a source of civic pride or at least something we can point to while taking the in-laws around town. All these pathetic excuses must stop. Indianapolis has great potential, but also much complacency to overcome.

  15. MSH says:

    Here we go. Again cosmetic detail lies in the eye of the beholder. You cannot please everyone nor does it mean something is a failure if you personally don’t like it. It means you just don’t like it, deal and move on. Municipalities like the average family has to pick. What’s more important for Indianapolis, the amenity itself like a marsh or the afterthought like the parking garage? The a erage person prefers the amenity because that is where your value is and what brings people to that area. For one america, their sole goal is parking for their employees. If it’s designed to be easily converted down the road to hold retail, great but purposely forcing empty knowing good and well the area can’t support it is bad design and bad business as you create in part an empty street level feel with people walking by empty store fronts.

    Matt, i get that you feel cincy is somehow superior but to know nothing of indy yet make kid like remarks of the mediocre go is enough. Like the op, i am also a transplant. Unlike the op, i work out of my home and can live anywhere and have. I choose to live here over cincy and cle, kc or back in chicago even though i have no family here

  16. MSH says:

    I do that because it offers the best of both worlds, affordability and access to amenities. Cincy the people were miserable and negative. Amenities are the same in both places with cincy having better gentrified neighborhoods while indy has a better downtown and better ran government.

  17. Chris G. says:

    Wonderful insight. You explained how Indy produces results from great ideas. Indy was the successful receipient of the Super Bowl because they are doing things right. Not perfect but correct more times than not. Way to take a stand!!

  18. Idyllic Indy says:

    Chris Barnett said: I’d say the dominant paradigm here is, “if you don’t like it, get busy and change it.”

    From my experience, the dominant paradigm in Indy is “If you don’t like it, shut up and/or go away, but whatever you do, please stop bothering me about it!”

    While this statement could be attibuted to many of the pom-pom waving, blinder-wearing boosters, I find it most commonly in City government, most notably the DPW. I’ve been calling them out on the raised sewer inlets for years, and they don’t get it. The only time they actually acknowledged any shortcoming is when it was explained to them that they were violating the ADA by creating short steep rises in the sidewalk. Their solution is to make slightly longer and shallower rises in the sidewalk now rather than to install sewer inlets at heights to match the existing curb height.

    Of course, that is just one of many examples of what DPW doesn’t understand about appropriate street design. I’ve lived here nine years, and I’ve seen very little incremental progress in the quality of DPW’s projects.

    And as I believe someone else pointed out, it’s one thing to accept compromise and mediocrity of a privately-financed development, but when the City is subsidizing a project, there’s no excuse for accepting a poor urban design. The One America garage certainly isn’t the only such example.

  19. Chris Godlewski says:

    Please remember we need to be concerned with results. The Indianapolis metro area has a net gain in domestic migration. Many midwestern cities do not experience such a fruitfull result. Indy leaders comprimise and make do with what they have. And urban design is a comprimise as whether financed by public or private investment. Indy is a magnet as a residential, cultural and business center. The facts support that!!

  20. Idyllic Indy says:

    Chris, I don’t think Indy leaders compromise on urban design. In order to compromise, they’d need to at some point be asking for something better. I’ve never heard such requests from Indy leaders. Frankly, I don’t think they are very well educated about either what constitutes good urban design or why it is important.

    Yes, the Indianapolis metro area is growing, but what of Indianapolis? Most of it is withering: housing stock deteriorating, infrastructure crumbling, and the ranks of the police force dwindling after years of not hiring while the mayor is now telling us to face the overdue reality that there must be public safety budget cuts.

    If you live in downtown Indy, Meridian-Kessler, or one of a few other select neighborhoods, or in suburbs such as Carmel, life is good. But if you are among the other 3/4 of Indy, the story is much different. The many thousands of abandoned homes that are not being renovated and the majority of neighborhoods where infrastruture is decrepit, if not simply missing, speak directly to the untold reality that cripples Indy financially. You can’t pull any tax revenue from an abandoned home and you can’t squeeze much from the occupied home next door that sells for $15,000. Yes, the City is tearing down abandoned homes, but this a cat-and-mouse game. They don’t even appear to be targeting the demolitions or combining those target areas with housing renovation dollars or infrastructure investments. Do we think that houses in these neighborhoods will stop being abandoned if only we can manage to demolish the already abandoned ones?

  21. Chris Godlewski says:

    I won’t deny that Indy politicans lack the foresight and comprehension to understand the little details (such as urban design). Their decision making criteria are apparently created upon a whole different set of standards that might not always gel with planning policies. There are wins and their are loses and every city experiences that. I will be honest and say I look for the good in this great city. Indianapolis (proper) is the least segreated major city (a U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study) in the U.S. Yes it still has its problems but city leaders find other successes and victories to make this town work. Just imagine the issues the public works department are having in Detroit. Good things are happening in Indy.

  22. Idyllic Indy says:

    Chris, good things are happening everywhere. But how many bad/mediocre things are happening in Indy? And what percentage of projects in Indy are mediocre at best in comparison to our peer cities?

  23. Chris Godlewski says:

    Idyllic Indy,

    You are asking a question that can be answered in so many ways and by many different people. The political will does not seem to be there to change or apply such methods. And mediocre appears to be the philosophy where urban design is not a concern. Will that change in the near future, probably not. Unless there is catastrophe I wouldn’t expect much to change in central indiana. Steady growth, relatively unappealing development but growth nonetheless. The Indy culture might not be for everyone but in the Midwest it is generally appealing. Thanks for the conversation!!

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