Cultural Trail Grand Opening: interview with Brian Payne 

click to enlarge Brian Payne - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Brian Payne
  • Michelle Craig
Years in the making, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick, a visionary, eight-mile path through Indianapolis, highlights various icons and landmarks, while giving users a good reason to explore the city. It's an urban bike and pedestrian path that connects Fountain Square, Indiana Avenue, Mass Ave, the Canal and White River State Park and the Wholesale District, while providing links to the entire Central Indiana greenway system. Led by Central Indiana Community Foundation, among others, the Cultural Trail is a true collaboration, highlighting health, along with appreciation for our ever-growing Downtown. Their May 10-11 grand opening will invite users to "get down on it," and will elevate the already-known Cultural Trail to legendary status. NUVO's David Hoppe sat down with Brian Payne, who is widely acknowledged as the main force behind the Cultural Trail.

"I was not a bicyclist," says Brian Payne, the president and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), a $600 million philanthropic organization dedicated to serving Indianapolis and Marion County. The sandy-haired native Californian is also the man behind the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick.

The idea for a trail connecting bicyclists and pedestrians with the City's seven Cultural Districts didn't come to Payne all at once - that required the help of his then-infant son. The two would go for outings on the Monon Trail. This put Payne on two wheels; he liked it, and what started as an occasional way of spending quality time turned into a personal passion.

Now Payne's son is almost 15 years old, and the Cultural Trail has become the centerpiece for Indianapolis' burgeoning bike scene. NUVO recently visited Payne at the CICF's Broad Ripple office, where he reflected on one of the most widely-heralded and influential public works projects to take place in Indianapolis in years.

NUVO: Can you describe the genesis of the Cultural Trail?

Payne: I loved the idea of Cultural Districts. But they weren't getting any traction because people thought they were too disconnected from the heart of downtown.

In 2001, I was trying to raise money for the Cultural Districts and met with Myrta Pulliam. She, like everyone else, wasn't very excited about how things were going. Mass Ave wasn't very dynamic; Fountain Square wasn't happening yet. Myrta said, "Look, nothing is connected. The least you can do is get the city to build a bike lane to Fountain Square."

Two weeks later I was riding the Monon with my son. I could see people loving it, and wondered if there could be an urban version of the Monon. The fact that the Monon had already fought a lot of battles made way for the Cultural Trail.

I had a lot of ideas about the Trail at the beginning. Some evolved over five or six years, some are still evolving. But I also became the archivist of other peoples' great ideas. I had about 100 one-on-one conversations. My understanding of complete streets and connectivity and place-making - I've learned much of that through the Trail experience. It wasn't like I was an expert. The Trail taught me. The Trail became the basis for knowledge and philosophy, not the other way around.

NUVO: At what point did you feel the Trail could be accomplished?

Payne: I felt this was a city where you can have big ideas and people might help you make them happen. It's funny, I was getting a lot of positive feedback in my one-on-one meetings. Since then, people tell me that they thought it was an interesting idea but, as soon as I left the room, they rolled their eyes, like this is never going to happen. I was too naïve to really see that.

What made it real was when people started investing in it. Early on there were four key investors: Lori Efroymson, Myrta Pulliam, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, and the Lumina Foundation.

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
Lori and Myrta each gave a million dollars on the strength of a hand-drawn rendering and a pitch. That money could have been spent and nothing might have happened. That's the kind of risk they were willing to take. But it said people believed in this. It created credibility. At that point, we could go to the mayor.

NUVO: What principles were guiding the design?

Payne: I felt from the beginning if the city was going to be a cultural destination, we'd have to offer something distinctive. Why would anyone from Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago or Cincinnati come here if we don't have anything different than they have? Different cultural neighborhoods could be the reason for people to come and then, when they're here, maybe they'll take in the Symphony or the IRT.

As I learned more about trails, I saw that with a tweak here and there, we could connect to the White River Trail and the Pleasant Run Trail, as well as the Monon. At that point, we saw the Cultural Trail becoming the hub for the Marion County trail master plan.

The connectivity aspects kept building. We saw that if we grew the Trail a little bit - if we added another mile or another segment - we could actually connect to every significant arts, cultural heritage, sports and entertainment venue. If not right to the front door, then within a block.

We knew that we had to have an urban version of the Monon. To me, that meant it had to be more highly designed. It wouldn't be blacktop, it would be pavers. It had to have lighting for 24/7 use. One of my favorite things is to be on the Trail at 10 or 11 o'clock at night. To me, that is a big city thing to do.

Then we felt that a really beautiful level of landscaping was going to be important. I always figured that my favorite parts of the Trail would be wherever the coolest buildings are.

But now I find that my favorite parts are where the landscaping is most plush. Along North Street, from Alabama to Delaware, to Pennsylvania - that's two blocks where there are no cool buildings. But there are four levels of landscaping; it's the most beautiful part of the Trail for me.

NUVO: What story does the Trail tell about Indianapolis?

Payne: One of the guiding principles, up front, was for the Trail to position Indianapolis as a progressive, innovative and creative city in the 21st century. I don't want it to be a celebration of the past. I want it to be about today and tomorrow. Neighborhoods that wanted to have historical lighting - we fought like crazy on that. It's not about yesterday. I think we've realized that.

One thing I love is when we take people who have lived here a long time on Trail tours and they come away saying, "I've never seen that." It shows that the city is much more surprising than people think it is.

NUVO: What about the Trail's future?

Payne: People want to continue to add to the Trail. But it's very expensive because of all the infrastructure - gas lines, electric lines, sewers. DPW did a study. The entire cost of the Trail was $63 million. Six million of that is a maintenance endowment. Then a lot went to design fees and project management. Maybe $45 million was hard construction. Well, $20 of that $45 million went to enhancing infrastructure under the Trail or next to it, some of which hadn't been touched in 100 years. We paid for that. Some people assume the Trail was city money that could have gone to their favorite project, but that's not true. We actually raised the money that built $20 million of city infrastructure your tax dollars didn't have to pay for.

The most important thing is that we maintain what we have at an incredibly high level. That's a moral obligation to the donors. If it's a choice between adding on and degrading our maintenance, or keeping maintenance at a 100 percent level, I'd say keep maintenance at 100 percent. The beauty of our landscaping is one of our most important differentiators. I don't want to see it degrade a notch.

NUVO: Have you noticed that the Trail has informed and energized the way people now talk about public spaces in Indianapolis?

Payne: There are so many groups now that are all about urban design, place-making, multi-modal transportation. I think the Trail has helped coalesce some of those conversations. As the Monon created the opportunity for the Trail, the Trail has created an opportunity for other things. It emboldens people to take their ideas to another level. This is a city that cares about design and connectivity and dreaming and creativity and innovation.

I'm a believer in zeitgeist - that we all have independent ideas that are somewhat about the same things because something's going on that makes it the right time to have those ideas. The Trail just happened to be the right project for the right time. It's not because I figured out what's going on in the world and thought, "Okay, this is the time." It was just great good fortune.

We had big ambitions and, along the way, the ambitions got bigger and bigger and bigger. At some point, we started saying that the Trail wasn't just about connectivity, it's about changing Indianapolis' values. Indianapolis didn't used to value sustainability. Indianapolis didn't used to value bicycle culture. Indianapolis didn't used to value design and beauty. This is about changing values.

Sometimes, after a bad day, we'd think, "What if we get this built and it doesn't do any of these things? Have we sold the city a bill of goods? Can I look the Glick family in the eye after they gave $15 million?"

But, right now, I think we're actually delivering on all our promises. I am relieved about that and I'm thrilled because I believed it at the time and, now that it's built, I still think we're delivering on our promises.

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig

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