Indianapolis sidestepped a major identity crisis last week when Mayor Bart Peterson managed to keep the Simon Property Group from moving its headquarters to the suburbs. Although lots of people around here like to talk about how losing the Colts would be a blow to our "major league city" status, losing the Simon headquarters to some office park up beyond 86th Street would have amounted to the same thing. Mayor Peterson knew he couldn't afford to let Simon get away.
Some will complain that the mayor might have been a little too anxious to keep the Simon headquarters downtown. The incentive package the city has offered the mall developer is generous, to say the least. Not only will the city allow Simon a 10-year tax abatement worth $3 to $4 million, it will spend $4 million to shore up a parking garage below the Capitol Commons site where the building is to be located, provide 1,000 free parking spaces to Simon employees and last, but far from least, give Simon the building site for free.
In another world, a corporation like Simon, which turned a $56.18 million profit in the first quarter of 2004, might be expected to pay its own way in matters like these. But this is the United States, the year is 2004 and if you want to keep Simon's 800 employees and 1,000 annual visitors in downtown Indianapolis, you better be prepared to deal.
But even more was riding on this. The biggest issue facing Indianapolis today is whether or not this sprawling metropolis is ever going to learn how to act like a real city. This community has a love-hate relationship with the very idea of urbanity. For every person here who pines for big city amenities and atmosphere, there's someone else who dreads the very thought of taking public transportation, say, or being downtown after 5:30 p.m. Indeed, I don't think it's a stretch to bet that a lot of Simon employees probably hoped that a move up north was coming.
Had such a move taken place, it would have threatened to undo 25 years' worth of civic investment downtown. For over two decades, Indianapolis has worked hard to fill its downtown with a variety of attractions - sports venues, museums and, yes, a Simon shopping mall. Lately, we have seen a drive to substantially increase the number of people living downtown as well. But great downtowns are more than glorified theme parks. They also have to be places where business happens.
The size and scale of a successful downtown reflects ambition and the power to get things done. While we all know that there are fortunes to be made in suburbs, cities have been - and continue to be - the places where success is writ large. If a downtown can be a metaphor for personal growth and opportunity then a look at Indianapolis is still a way of understanding our brain drain. It still lacks the scale and density to reflect the aspirations of many of the people who would otherwise settle here.
The seeming inability of some of us to come to terms with downtown meaning and dynamics is revealed in the grumbling heard regarding the use of a portion of the Capitol Commons for the Simon site. The Commons is a square block of green space that was originally created in the 1980s as a welcome alternative to an above-ground garage. Since then, it has functioned more as a glorified front lawn for the Westin Hotel than as meaningful public space. Simon's building will occupy about a third of the Commons. Far from besmirching the space, the headquarters will more likely consolidate it, providing the fountain there with a better sense of scale and the grounds with greater sociability.
Nevertheless, people have complained that this constitutes a loss of valuable green space. They need to remember that this is the Mile Square we're talking about, the heart of downtown. While the importance of urban green space is undeniable, there is also a question here of context. Never having established itself as a meaningful gathering place, the Commons has instead been a counterintuitive block of dead, albeit well-meaning, space located at the core of where this city's action is supposed to be. If you want green space, walk over to Military Park or Veteran's Mall.
The real question concerning the new Simon headquarters ought to be: who will design it? Now that Simon has been given a prime piece of downtown real estate it is incumbent upon them to put a building there that is equal to their privileged position in the city. There are two sides to every deal; Simon should hold up its end by commissioning an architectural statement that will put their headquarters - and Indianapolis - on the map.