Infill Before Density: Some Ideas for Indy Velocity

Erika Smith from the Indy Star fills us in on a new plan for development in downtown Indianapolis that includes improving residential as well as retail and business development. Here’s some basics about the plan:

This is the thinking behind a new strategic plan called Velocity.

Led by IDI, this year-long process — with the help of dozens of community, political and business leaders — will come up with a five-year vision for Downtown Indianapolis. Under consideration are ways to drive economic development, make better use of public spaces and parks, improve transportation (yes, including transit), increase housing options, and add more arts and cultural attractions. A public launch is set for Tuesday.

But this isn’t planning for your father’s Downtown Indianapolis.

We’re talking Raymond Street to the south, 30th Street on the north, Tibbs Avenue to the west and Keystone Avenue/Rural Street to the east. That box includes a lot of up-and-coming neighborhoods that have benefited from Downtown’s growth, but it also includes a lot of neighborhoods that missed the rising tide that was supposed to lift all boats.

You can take a survey to give your opinions about what will improve downtown – your answers will help shape the advisory groups vision of what Indianapolis can be.

One of the things I emphasized in the comments of the survey is that we should concentrate on infill before density. There are hundreds of empty lots in downtown and “downtown adjacent” neighborhoods where homes have been bulldozed over the last 30 years. We have a lot of empty spaces to fill in – but rather than doing that completely with condos, townhomes and multi-story apartment buildings, consider strategically filling them in many of them with single-family residences. And where you are filling in with more dense residential construction – give apartments some breathing room. Make them three-bedroom rather than two. Make them two bedroom rather than one. Make them appealing to families with kids and dogs, not just single professionals. In short, concentrate on filling in the vast wasteland of empty lots up and down College Avenue with residences before building yet another downtown condo.

Old Northside Neighborhood

I agree that urban sprawl is bad. I know that density is considered ideal in urban planning. But we have a lot of empty slate to work with here. We can be careful about how much density we’re adding, because Indianapolis is attractive to it’s current residents for a reason. Stephanie and I considered living in Chicago, New York and Toronto when we were deciding where to live; we didn’t just land in Indianapolis by accident, or because we grew up here. The reason we picked Indianapolis over those other cities is because we’re able to afford to have a private library in our own home, and keep a dog and a vegetable garden in the yard, even living downtown. It’s not that I love driving – I’d rather take a bus (or better yet, a streetcar! Lets bring those back) to my workplace. But Chicago and New York seem frenetic and stressful, like there are people living in your lap all the time. We can come up with a happy medium between our current sprawl and the density of a large city, and better public transit can get us from place to place.

We’re not Chicago, and we don’t need to be. In fact it’s better off if that isn’t our goal; if we take advantage of opportunities we have that Chicago does not. Indianapolis has a distinct advantage in doing this sort of city planning over larger cities; we don’t have to make the same mistakes they did. We don’t have to force people to live in 300-square foot boxes because we’re retrofitting blocks and blocks of 200-year-old buildings. We don’t have to screw up by making the Robert Moses mistake of displacing urban neighborhoods and local businesses. We don’t have to become unfriendly to families with kids who need space to raise them. We also have the advantage of having a built-in target market for new residents – the people just north of us – the folks who grew up in Carmel and Noblesville because their parents moved out of Indianapolis in previous decades. This generation of young Hamilton County adults is more culturally aware than the people of their parent’s generation who fled the city for the suburbs. They’ll see the advantages of living closer to their workplace and shortening their commute while broadening their cultural exposure and awareness. But they grew up with a backyard and a dog and room and bedrooms for kids, and they may still want that.

I’m sort of curious whatever became of the Ball State plan for Urban Design Indianapolis that was in the works back in 2007 and 2008. I linked to that project several years ago, and when I went back to reference the guidelines they came up with here, the link to the website where the plan resided is broken. I was wondering how much that plan might inform the current one. After a considerable amount of searching, I wasn’t able to come up with a link to the plan that worked.

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Indianapolis’ disastrous downtown parking meter deal

This has been a hot topic on facebook and with local blogs for the last couple weeks or so. Mayor Ballard had come up with a deal to privatize parking meters downtown and in the Broadripple Area that basically gives away the baby with the bathwater. The deal is a 50-year contract with a private company to install and maintain the meters, and they will reap the profits from said meters over that time. Prices on the meters will go up. Free nights and weekends will go away – you’ll pay at the meter from 7 am to 9 pm. Residents in Broad Ripple will be required to buy parking permits to park in front of their homes.

Basically the deal is done but will require the city-county council to approve. That has suddenly become more difficult due to some analysis by urban planning guru Aaron Renn of Urbanophile, who looked closely at the details of the deal and wrote two articles, one about how the deal is bad public policy: Parking Meters and the Perils of Privatization

And the other is how this particular deal sucks so bad:

Indy’s “Son of Chicago” Parking Meter Lease to Be a Disaster for City
Lots more detail in both those articles on how everything shakes out. Post the articles which have been circulating widely among policial wonks, many more people have contacted the city-county council to complain about the deal, and they were forced to postpone a discussion in the Rules Committee about it in order to address some of the complains with a response. Downtown businesses are starting to realize how deleterious the affects will be on their business, according to the Indiana Business Journal.

There will apparently be a hearing on September 20th after the regular city-county council meeting.
The city’s “response” to Urbanophile’s articles, which doesn’t offer any arguments of substance and mostly picks nits about the level of detail Aaron got into in his articles, is here:

PDF download – Parking Meter Modernization Will Improve Infrastructure and Spur Economic Activity

Thankfully, Aaron Renn assessed the response and picked that mother apart as well:
Indianapolis Parking Meters – The City’s Response

Contact information for the City-County Council, should you be interested in registering your opinion.

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Some Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Again cleaning out some old notes and writing, I came across some thoughts I had about the book “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” and the subsequent discussion we had about it in book club. I started to write this, but felt I needed to do some additional research to back up some of my ideas, and shelved it. Dunno if I’ll ever get around to doing the research, but the ideas I had are interesting, at least.

We were talking about the architecture of the Robert Taylor Homes, and how it was, to some extent ill-suited to Chicago and the climate, and about the galleries being built outside, etc. and I was thinking about that and what I have skimmed from the Christopher Alexander book “A Pattern Language” about how profoundly architectural components can affect us and how we interact as a family, a neighborhood and a community, etc., and it made me wonder if they had, when they had decided to build the projects, taken an entirely different approach to building for low-income families, whether there would have been an different outcome.

For example, the way the buildings were constructed had a lot of influence on how the people interacted as a community. People were required to live in a fashion that was more intimate than other communities might have been, and it forced dependencies on people like Mrs. Bailey that wouldn’t have existed in other settings.

Architecture also had a powerful effect on how the gangs were able to seize control of the buildings and use them – controlling halls and stairwells, using empty apartments, etc. I wondered if that wasn’t part of the difficulty the gangs had with establishing other places, like Iowa. They didn’t have as much control over their members because they didn’t have as much control over their locations.

That caused me to wonder whether the architecture of the projects actually contributed to the rise of the gangs and the influence of drugs throughout the community. Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series)” talks a extensively about how the city can curb criminal activity by sculpting the streetscapes so that people can see the street from their windows and keep an eye on what is going on.

Separately from those ideas, I was thinking about how easy it is for me to judge Mrs. Bailey and JT – because I have the freedom to be an ethical person because I have enough money to be moral. When the economic system you’re trapped in gives you absolutely no incentive to be moral when being moral can get you killed, and when there are additional powerful reasons — like survival — for you to engage in unethical and immoral behavior, you’re going to do what you need to. The odds are stacked against moral behavior and right conduct.

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New Urbanism – Study at home

Cordelia at the Phenomenal Field proposes a home study course in New Urbanism, based on recommended reading over at the Where blog.

I’ll sign up for this home study course – this has been a subject burgeoning at the base of my brain for awhile. I’ve had Jane Jacob’s book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) on my wish list for some time. I need an excuse to pull that trigger, and the others on the list sound great as well:

2. The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger (2007).

3. The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (1993).

4. Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, with Norman Mintz (1998).

5. How Cities Work by Alex Marshall (2000).

I have at hand already A Pattern Language, and another book that has been languishing on my shelf for several years “Cities in Civilization” by Peter Hall – focusing on cities that have had created “golden ages” of influential cultural creativity – think Florence in 1400-1500, or Paris in 1870-1910, and examining what was unique about those urban settings that created the crucible for that dynamic creativeness.

And as a resident of an old urban neighborhood, I’m particularly interested in this title:

The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez.

I always get good ideas from Cordelia; this reading list and subject is another. And I have a cool new blog – Where – to add to my feed reader.

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Urban Design Indianapolis

While we were exploring downtown Austin, we had an extended discussion comparing Austin and Indianapolis – and how Indy is quite a bit behind on basic urban design and development. Last night, though, a related email landed in my inbox forwarded by my neighborhood association – a link to Indianapolis’s website detailing their urban planning initiatives for downtown.

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Living downtown is cool, hip and trendy

Hey here’s an article on something I figured out back in 1992: Living downtown is cool, hip and trendy. “The death and life of America’s cities” – Fred Siegel, The Public Interest

But do you own a cool Victorian there? I thought not.

(2014 update: Yes, in 2002 I was obliviously quoting an article from a neoconservative think tank without looking closely at what they were saying. I’m sorry; I was an idiot. I probably still am. It’s an interesting read today, though, because you can definitely observe how wrong they were in the article “It would be a mistake to assume that the big cities can ever again achieve the dominant position they once held.”- much has changed in the 12 years since they wrote it; the flood of people moving back to urban centers and away from suburbs is well-documented.)

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Sky City / Pyramid City urban development projects

Some stuff I’ll have to photograph – Discovery Channel’s Engineering the Impossible – someday.

Tokyo’s Sky City
It would house 35,000 residents and host 100,000 daily workers, students and visitors. This space-age city in the sky might seem like science fiction, but it answers some questions about where humans might live as our most crowded cities become even more densely populated.

City in a Pyramid
Imagine a self-sustaining pyramid-shaped city in the air. And imagine that it is built by robots and with little help from human workers.

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