Downtown development 

I don’t know what made anyone think that strip of greensward on the east side of the downtown Central Canal between New York and Ohio streets would make a great spot for a hotel. The site is a block long, but it’s steeply sloped and narrowly squeezed between two immovable objects: the canal and a four-story parking garage for state employees.

The state of Indiana controls the land. In 2006, the bureaucrats whose job it is to review such things decided to see what they could get for it and put out a call to real estate developers.

Those were the days, of course, when everybody and his brother wanted to build hotels in Indianapolis. And Indianapolis wanted hotels (or, more precisely, hotel rooms) to support the city’s convention business, as well as its Super Bowl bid.

Enter a citizens group calling itself Canal Park Advocates (CPA). These folks thought they had a better idea. The Indiana History Center is located across the canal from the site and, during summer months, the IHC hosts an outdoor concert series on its terrace. A kind of tradition has organically formed around these concerts, as people have taken to bringing lawn chairs and blankets to the green below the parking garage for an evening of free music. Seizing on these events, the CPA argued that, rather than developing the grassy embankment across from the History Center, the site should be officially declared a park.

The CPA called the embankment “one of the city’s best examples of an ‘outdoor room’ and an ideally-located civic space.” In their vision statement, the CPA proposed creation of “appropriate visitor amenities and landscape enhancements,” and concluded by saying, “We envision trees and greenspace and an oasis that complements dense downtown development.”

So far, no one has come forward with a development plan for the land that either the state or the city has been willing to embrace. And in October, Maury Plambeck, head of the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development, released a statement saying the city will leave the site as it is — for the time being. “That means we won’t pursue development of the site,” he wrote, “nor will we work to have it designated a park. The city will, from time to time, monitor the site in an effort to determine its most effective use in the future.”

Or, in other words, until somebody comes along who is willing to make a deal.

This is a frustrating situation. The canal park advocates are frustrated because they have made a good case, based on actual use, for the land. They point out that it is virtually the last undeveloped site along the canal. Its discovery and use by the public grew naturally from its location and the events that take place nearby. Enhance and accentuate this space and the city could find itself with a great new civic asset for relatively little cost.

But it is also frustrating to see the way the CPA has framed this story as a battle between precious green space and downtown development. While the CPA’s vision for the site is appropriate, their contention that this park might complement “dense downtown development” betrays a certain lack of urban comprehension.

If anything, one might wish for greater density in downtown Indianapolis. The problem with our downtown is not its density, but the vast stretches of concrete plain given over to surface parking. The automobile not only killed our public transit system, it instigated the leveling of square blocks for cheap parking.

Since Indianapolis is essentially a residential city, its downtown needs to project as much vertical dynamism as possible. Otherwise people are liable to mistake us for a suburban quilt with a few big buildings clustered near an airport. While green space is important downtown, great architecture is crucial — the way, ultimately, that a city’s vitality and ambition are gauged. Unfortunately, downtown Indianapolis has even less great architecture than it does greenspace.

The issue of what to do about the strip along the downtown canal should include the question of whether a potential building there would, through the quality of its design, add more to downtown’s urban environment than the park proposed by the CPA. To the CPA’s credit, this is now a tough call.

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David Hoppe

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