City Market masterstroke 

They say good things come to those who wait. The wait may be almost over at downtown's City Market. The Riley Area Development Corp. has come forward with a proposal that not only reimagines what the City Market complex could be, but that meets a crying downtown need.

Located across the street from the City-County Building, in the heart of downtown, the City Market is a crucial piece of urban real estate. The historic portion of the complex lends the neighborhood a welcome bit of character. But that section only represents about a third of the total space, which includes a pair of modern extensions, or wings, to the east and west.

Most people know the City Market as a place to buy lunch from vendors on weekdays. In the summer, they might visit the farmers market that sets up there in the middle of the week. But what amounts to a lunchtime schedule on Mondays through Fridays hasn't been sufficient to make the place sustainable. If you're downtown in the evening or on weekends, the City Market is usually locked up.

A recent attempt to renovate the historic space backfired. Not only was it more expensive than expected, it took longer to accomplish, which put a diminished number of vendors in an even more perilous position.

But what arguably made the renovation even worse was its failure to build in any new dimensions to what City Market had to offer.

And so the City Market has trudged along, seemingly closed more hours than it's open, the very definition of a losing proposition.

Enter the Riley Area Development Corp. Riley's proposal would turn the City Market into a 24/7 performance hub that would attract downtown visitors and residents, while also serving as an invaluable and much-needed community resource. Riley envisions creating what would amount to the country's first live-work performing arts center. It would install three 100-seat theater spaces and, eventually, add a 500-seat venue, as well.

The project would include affordably priced apartments and possibly condos for performing artists.

Finally, through a partnership with the YMCA, the project would add a 60,000 square foot fitness center.

Riley says it can develop the three 100-seat theaters and about 63 apartments through grants, a bank loan and federal tax credits amounting to about $10.5 million. It will undertake a capital campaign to raise another $14 million to add the 500-seat venue, rehearsal spaces, and a banquet facility. The YMCA is prepared to invest $20 million for the fitness center.

By conceiving of the City Market as a center where creative people work, live and perform, the Riley proposal provides an almost fool-proof strategy for making the historic market space a viable commercial property. For the first time, vendors will have a reason to be open on evenings and weekends, with a built-in customer base.

But what makes this proposal masterful from an urban planning perspective is that it brings downtown Indianapolis the performing arts center that we've always needed in order to round out our cultural profile, at a fraction of the price such a project would cost to build from the ground up. Carmel's Regional Performing Arts Center will cost at least $150 million before it's done, but with a 1600-seat concert hall and a 500-seat theater, Carmel is having to reinvent wheels that already exist in downtown Indy. By focusing on smaller venues, the City Market proposal addresses long-standing needs and complements what's already in the neighborhood.

Better still, it stretches the notion of that neighborhood. A significant creative center at the City Market site will create dynamic synergies between the Mass Ave and Wholesale cultural districts. Think, for example, of how the IndyFringe festival might spill over from its Mass Ave base to turn on a significant part of downtown. By the same token, it's easy to imagine Indianapolis Symphony players or ISO Concert Master Zach De Pue's Time For Three venturing out for the occasional event at City Market in order to lure listeners back to Circle Theatre.

The proposal's emphasis on small venues couldn't come at a better time. The IndyFringe festival has revealed a significant crop of emerging Indianapolis performance artists and ensembles. But the city has a shortage of small halls where these groups can rehearse and show their stuff. The creation of a center devoted to showcasing the city's dance, theater and off-the-wall performance talent, and able to bring comparable artists here from elsewhere, would represent an indispensable (and overdue) addition to our scene.

Creating a performing artists' equivalent of the Wheeler visual artists' live/work space is another plus. By making downtown living affordable for working artists, it insures a measure of diversity, and the welcome energy that comes with it at the city's core.

It's taken a long time for someone to see the potential of the City Market and turn that vision into a proposal that makes sense. The Riley Area Development Corp. has done it. Let's hope the City recognizes a good thing now that it's finally come along.

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