A tale of two woebegone projects

David Hoppe

There are a lot of things I don't understand. For example, why are so many Americans afraid of a single-payer health care system? I am also befuddled by the infield fly rule in baseball, as well as whatever it is some people find appealing about Jessica Simpson.

These things, no doubt, can be explained. But I don't get the explanations. No matter how reasonable they sound, they still don't make sense to me.

There are some things I don't get about Indianapolis. I was reminded of this the other day while attempting to cross 38th Street without doing damage to the undercarriage of my car. Thanks to where I live and work, I have occasion to cross 38th Street between Meridian Street and College on a frequent basis. You'd think that after almost three years of finding these intersections stripped and gouged, pock-marked and torn apart, I'd be used to the routine of slowing down - way down - and crawling from one side of the intersection to the other. I mean, this project has been going on for almost as long as it took me to finish college. But so far, I haven't gotten used to the interminable version of "progress" that is being acted out on 38th Street.

It seems fairly obvious by now, though, that getting "used to it" is what the City of Indianapolis expects us to do. Since, on many days, no real construction work seems to take place there - one rarely sees the swirling dust or hears the mighty roar of earthmoving machines - 38th Street has taken on the appearance of a kind of semi-permanent urban exhibition dedicated to blasted infrastructure. I know that the city expects me to learn to take this scene for granted, to let the days blur into months, and the months blur into years.

But then I hit another pothole and the trance is broken.

Last summer the mayor made a point of coming out and assuring everyone that, like all good things, someday the 38th Street project would come to an end. This, undoubtedly, is true. It makes you wonder, though: If it takes this much time to refinish a road from I-465 to the State Fairgrounds, how long do you think it will take to build I-69?

Time, I've learned, passes differently in Indianapolis than in other cities. I'm not talking here about Eastern versus Central, or daylight-saving. No, in other cities it is famously said that Time is Money. With the exception of construction projects of a seemingly unspecified duration (see above), this is not the case in Indianapolis, which brings me to something else I don't get.

It was on July 8, 2001, that my family and I, along with hundreds of others, gathered on a grassy knoll on the south side of downtown to watch the implosion of Market Square Arena. MSA was the home of the Indiana Pacers and a storied venue for rock bands from around the world. Elvis played his last concert there in 1977. Located at the east end of Market Street, between Alabama and New Jersey, the MSA site also represented one of the most potentially valuable swatches of urban real estate to be found anywhere in the United States.

Or so one would like to think.

In 2003, a number of finalists were selected among developers bidding to build projects on what was recognized as the eastern "gateway" to our downtown, a site that could define the look of our skyline for generations to come. Some people here held high hopes for the space. It seemed to offer an unprecedented opportunity for a great civic project that might enhance the quality of life for the city as a whole. A multifaceted performing arts center that might anchor and interact with the Massachusetts Avenue cultural district was one idea. But in February 2004 a winning bid was selected: The plan called for two high-rise condominium towers with retail shops.

Over two years have passed since then. The MSA site is being used as a parking lot, which, in this car crazy city, might be said to fulfill another kind of civic need.

It seems there weren't enough buyers for those high-end condos. But this wasn't so surprising, since the buildings weren't very interesting architecturally and, for the money, you could as easily buy yourself a similar place in, say, Chicago, near Millennium Park.

The people who understand these things will say that it's because this hunk of real estate is so important that finally breaking ground on the MSA site is taking such a long time. They want to be sure to get it right. But as time passes, as days blur into months and months blur into years, it gets harder and harder not to think that nothing's happening there because Indianapolis isn't just a city other people don't want to invest in, we don't seem ready to invest in it ourselves.

I don't get that at all.

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