Magnificent Midtown: Making it in the middle 

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Like many other Midtown Indianapolis families tempted to take off for the suburbs when they reach their own bursting point, our clan of five has thought about it: tempted by the Faustian allure of flush schools, low crime rates, more bedrooms and bathrooms, a sprawling backyard, a driveway for goodness sake—all available for less than the sticker price of our current modest bungalow.

But each time we do the math, we come to the same conclusion: you can't beat where we live; that is, if a vibrant, diverse community with walk-able, bike-able, locally owned businesses and amenities are important.

Lucky for us, what we've been frustrated by but resigned to tolerate in Midtown—the increase in vacant and abandoned properties, crumbling infrastructure, missing or unsafe sidewalks, gang activity, mediocre green spaces—is just about to transform, if Kathryn Shorter has anything to say about it.

Shorter, who volunteers her time as president of Harmoni, the not-for-profit organization that convened five years ago to mobilize a concerted effort to revitalize Midtown into "one of the best midtowns in the country," sat down with me to talk about Midtown: its challenges, its opportunities, and its soon-to-be-seen transformations.

As Shorter puts it, "It just appeared that no one was focusing on this part of town at all." With the seemingly more pressing issues of the downtown area, she adds, "We were taken for granted as a part of town that didn't need attention." The crisis point was reached, Shorter believes, when "property taxes doubled or tripled disproportionately because of the IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) tax rate. We really had a crisis on our hands."

At that point, Shorter and a group of others concerned about Midtown came together to craft a vision and plan for Midtown. With $150,000 of privately raised funds, Harmoni, along with the Maple Road Development Association (MRDA) and input from a number of other partnering organizations, commissioned a study to "create a vision for this area and to start to catalyze positive proactive development." The group of Indianapolis-based consultants recommended that Midtown expand its borders to its current periphery, which comprises nearly ten square miles from Fall Creek to the south and the White River to the north, to encompass important historic neighborhoods and institutions such as Ivy Tech Community College. (The resulting document, "Midtown Indianapolis 2010: Guiding Principles & Future Development Strategies," may be viewed in its entirety on the Harmoni website at www.indyharmoni.org.) Harmoni has continued to raise funds to the tune of $600,000, through and with the support of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), and it's just beginning to put its money where its mouth is.

What's in a name?

Most cities of our size on up to the behemoths like New York and Chicago have sprawling midtown sections that serve as a great big connector between a central downtown and a sprawling series of suburbs radiating upward and outward. But in those cities, to varying degrees, their Midtowns have a character of their own, and a community of concerned citizens, neighborhood associations, and community development corporations that see to it that the area is tended to, and as much as possible, thrives. Mass transit is a priority as a means of connecting these communities and business districts and slowing down automobile traffic.

As Shorter likes to emphasize, this sort of connectivity is what Indianapolis' early planners had in mind. "I think it's interesting that the current transit task force and Indy Connect are really coming up with the recommendations of putting things back the way they were, with one example being the trolley situation along College Avenue."

Actually naming the Midtown section of a city lends it a legitimacy it often lacks otherwise, giving city organizers and citizens the opportunity to envision what it wants and make the most of its assets. Our own Midtown wasn't on the radar as a distinctive area of the city until Harmoni and its constituents started naming the issues that were contributing to its decline.

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Midtowns, by nature centrally located, are often like the forgotten middle child: they command less attention by their very position—in the middle. As urban development scholar Larry Ford put it in 1998, there's a polarization between city centers and suburbia: "We have constructed a pervasive duality that seems to pit central city against suburbs."

Indianapolis' recently christened Midtown, comprising many distinctive neighborhoods that have given residents a strong sense of place, is home to roughly 40,000 residents, and boasts numerous businesses and cultural and educational institutions that also add to that civic identity: the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Butler University, Ivy Tech Community College, Marian University, the Indianapolis Art Center, among other cultural and intellectual assets. All of these contribute to a vibrant, urban lifestyle, and to the character of the city itself.

The vision for the Midtown Initiative, as Shorter refers to it, is to "exceed its original condition as an exceptional place to live in Indianapolis. The goal is to rejuvenate these attractive neighborhoods and revive business areas—corner by corner, block by block—until the entire Midtown area is thriving and sustainable."

The Numbers Tell All

All of this is for naught, Shorter suggests, if we can't get families like mine to stay, and get others relocating to Indianapolis to move here rather than the more staid suburbs. While the population of Indianapolis overall has increased 9% in the last decade, the population of Midtown has declined 13%, according to the US Census Bureau. This population decline and a vacancy rate of 87% have contributed to reducing Midtown's share of the total Indianapolis population by 20% in almost 20 years.

The decline is likely to continue as the population ages and younger groups decline—no doubt lured by those double lots, extra bedrooms, and flush school districts to the north of us.

Shorter sees issues such as alleys, for instance, which are seen as a blight in many neighborhoods (including my own), among the many concerns of neighborhoods—and within the context of a Midtown-wide vision, still best addressed by those neighborhoods themselves. "Alleys are fabulous assets to a community," Shorter says, but "it certainly has not been a priority. I think again it plays into our discussion, how do we get control of our infrastructure destiny?"

As Shorter explains, TIF, or tax increment financing, would allow a local community within a larger city to re-invest incremental tax dollars, resulting from development in a particular defined area, in building better infrastructure. This method, Shorter points out, has been used downtown for years, as well as up north in Carmel: "What it does is it rewards positive development by improving the infrastructure surrounding the development."

A second tool is called EID, or Economic Improvement Districts. "This concept is very similar to a homeowners association in a suburban area," Shorter describes, "where by vote, a community can decide that they would like to, in effect, levy a tax for a fee that would be used for specific purposes in that area." For example, a group of blocks could decide that they want sidewalks and alleys in perfect repair, and work with the city to determine how much additional funding beyond the city's contribution would be needed, and by vote, raise those funds. "It's an oversimplified description for it, but it's a fairly straightforward concept and I think one that could be very well received," Shorter asserts.

"And those of us that have spent the last several years researching communities in other parts of the country of the same age as ours have learned that this mechanism is widely used." The Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Wilmette, for instance, have had this mechanism in place since the 1970s.

Although these options are yet to be implemented, Harmoni has already made strides towards transforming Midtown. "We've had 34 visioning sessions around Midtown in the last two and a half years," Shorter says. "Over 400 people have invested hours and hours of time, not just articulating what they want, but taking time to learn some of the principles of urban planning and design. We want everybody that has invested time to understand how that has been valuable and where this is all going."

As the exodus of families similar to mine continues, Midtown's tax base, and therefore our schools, continues to be in jeopardy. Whether we realize it or not, all Indianapolis residents are invested in making Midtown more livable across the board: whether we live here, work here, or simply enjoy its restaurants and institutions. For those who choose to stay, we have an even greater stake in making it a more livable (and lovable) place to be.


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