Thinking little at Market Square 

Wasted opportunity, here we come

On a sunny summer morning in 2001, a few hundred of us gathered on a grassy slope by Lord Street, near Fletcher Place, and watched as Market Square Arena was dynamited. The 15,000-ton building came down in about 15 seconds. “Goodbye MSA, welcome the future” was the slogan somebody dreamt up to put a happy face on the cloud of dust that billowed up from the site where Elvis gave his last concert. Who knew that six years later people would still be parking cars there?

Last week, the Department of Metropolitan Development issued a request for proposals for the redevelopment of the Market Square Arena site. This is not the first time we’ve been down this road. In 2003, the city thought it had a deal; a developer was going to build a pair of high-rise towers based on the pre-selling of units. First one tower would be built and then another as people jumped at the chance to buy condos that would range in price from $300,000 to well over a million bucks. But the people didn’t jump. From two towers, the project was reduced to one — and then none.

“Doing it right is better than doing it quickly,” said Anne Coffey, spokeswoman for the DMD, in announcing the city’s latest attempt to try and make something happen on what is arguably its most valuable piece of real estate. 2007 is still young, but this may prove to be the understatement of the year. What’s more, there is no indication that the city will, in fact, do right by this important site.

The city still says it wants a high-rise condo building where MSA used to be. This time, though, it’ll settle for a 14-story building, or a structure about half the size of one of the Riley Towers. So much for making a bold architectural statement to serve as an eastern gateway to downtown. The city also wants the building to have a significant retail component and expects to see ideas about how it would create and use public space.

Wasted opportunity, here we come.

What happens on the MSA site has the potential to define and enhance downtown Indianapolis for generations to come. This is a chance for the city to think big, to give expression to its ambition to be a significant national destination. And, in fact, creative ideas have been floated about how the MSA site could play an important part in helping to achieve this goal.

In 2003, Harry Kennerk of the Sycamore Group proposed what he and his daughter, the artist Emily Kennerk, called the Circlecity Cultural Initiative International for the MSA site. Kennerk, whose previous redevelopment experience includes the downtown canal, wanted to see the MSA site become the centerpiece of three interlocking parts, including the old State Museum building and the City Market. The Kennerks envisioned a contemporary art museum on the MSA site, an international center for curatorial studies for the museum building and a creative professional center at the City Market. This proposal echoed yet another idea — using the MSA site for a performing and media arts complex — that surfaced in a public program sponsored by NUVO at a previous Spirit & Place Festival.

The Kennerks argued that creating this kind of creative triangulation would bring professional people downtown, attract international tourists and electrify the Massachusetts Avenue cultural district, not to mention residential areas just east of I-65.

In 2003, Harry Kennerk acknowledged the city’s need to increase the residential tax base in Center Township but, he added, “In our opinion the site’s too valuable to put apartments on, or even an office building … With an arts district, your housing comes and your commercial comes and it develops that Eastside of Indianapolis.” Kennerk said, “That site is within eight hours of 75 percent of the United States. To capitalize on what we have we need to leverage ourselves into the international market.”

Kennerk was proposing that the city take cultural enterprise as seriously as it does sports. City leaders have successfully used sports to accelerate downtown redevelopment. Once this meant MSA and the Hoosier Dome; now we have Conseco Fieldhouse and, in 2008, Lucas Oil’s retractable top. But for all our talk about this city’s cultural resurgence, city leaders have yet to show they understand the power of cultural attraction enough to invest in it to a similar degree.

Rather than using the MSA site to invest in our collective future, city leaders are effectively selling the site to whoever is willing to assume the cost of building there. “We need to do a venue that attracts businesses, that brings new net jobs in, that increases our educational base,” said Harry Kennerk in 2003 about his vision for the MSA site. “Apartments [on that site] are not going to attract an intellectual labor pool.”

Harry Kennerk was right then. He’s still right. 

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