"has a ring of hope

Contrary to a popular saying, sometimes things end with neither a bang nor a whimper — but a thud. That was the sound heard around Indianapolis as 2006 ground down. The funny thing was that in recent high profile cases involving two of the city’s sore points — the quality of its architecture and the state of its public library — that thud turns out to have a ring of hope.

In the architectural realm the story is about a new hotel the city needs to complement its expanded convention center and retractable-domed stadium. Two finalists were selected, one bearing the Marriott brand, the other representing the InterContinental chain. Drawings were published showing what the proposed hotels might look like. One, the InterContinental, seemed pretty cool. It was sleek, with impressive street-level amenities and a dynamic, layered surface that shot up 44 stories. The Marriot, on the other hand, looked like the belated spawn of the boxy old State of Indiana office building.

The InterContinental was clearly superior; while not avant-garde, it suggested the kind of building you could associate with a worldly, urban environment. The Marriott looked like it belonged in Indianapolis.

Sure enough, the committee of “experts” responsible for deciding between the two contenders chose Marriott. According to The Star, they considered this the better business decision. The committee said it was concerned about getting the building up in time for the 2010 NCAA Men’s Final Four. They liked the fact that Marriott was ready to begin work immediately.

Once again, the city of Indianapolis appeared to be missing its architectural gene.

But then something almost unheard of happened. Smart people began complaining. “Not again!” they seemed to cry. Not another computer-generated, space-taking, boring block of concrete and glass.

These complaints made it to the front page of the Sunday paper on Christmas Eve, along with earnest assurances from high-ranking members of the selection committee to the effect that they didn’t like Marriott’s design, either. “We hope we have a flagship hotel that changes the face of the city,” said Barbara Lawrence, director of the Indianapolis Bond Bank.

It now appears the design of the hotel will be negotiated, with an agreement expected by the end of the month.

Hope, of course, can be a slippery thing. While Lawrence spoke of changing the face of the city, Jeremy Stephenson of REI, the company responsible for coming up with a new design, sounded, well, like a local boy: “It’ll be a nice design and one that certainly is somewhat striking to the skyline,” he was quoted as saying, evidently doing his best to make sure everyone remembered this was Indianapolis, not Minneapolis.

Nevertheless, a message has been sent and, one hopes, received. Perhaps the city’s potentates are waking up to the fact that they have a responsibility to demand that, in exchange for the opportunity to build here (Marriott expects to get a city subsidy of as much as $40 million), developers be required to come up with world-class designs.

The coming Marriott negotiations will test this city’s expectations for itself. Do we expect the best, or is good enough good enough? The trouble is that settling for less than the best, while it might appear to be a decent business decision at the time, can lead to big trouble.

It seems that’s what the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library board finally realized about Linda Mielke, their hapless, soon-to-be former library director. On Dec. 23, Louis Mahern, president of the IMCPL board, announced that Mielke and the board agreed it was best for Mielke to go before her contract expired.

We’ll never know what prompted the library board to hire Mielke in the first place. She had never been in charge of an urban library system like the one she found here. But her predecessor, who could be as abrasive as he was ambitious, had rubbed certain board members the wrong way in the process of expanding and upgrading IMCPL. No doubt Mielke seemed a good enough choice to succeed him.

It soon became clear she wasn’t up to the task. In little more than two years she managed to run a nationally ranked system off the road, shredding the collection and pulverizing staff morale in the name of balancing the budget. Rather than lead the library into a new era, Mielke diminished its scope and services, all while demonstrating a seemingly allergic reaction to representing the IMCPL in public. It’s a testament to the reserves of goodwill the library staff had built that the public was not so much angered by Mielke’s actions as saddened by what they saw happening to a community treasure.

And it’s a credit to Mahern and the board that they realized Mielke didn’t get Indianapolis and never would. Rather than wait for her time to expire, they acted. The IMCPL, clear-headed at last, can now move into what promises to be a banner year with a celebration of Kurt Vonnegut and completion of its new Central building.

The library board can also begin its search for a new director. Let’s hope they insist on someone who understands the potential of this system and this city — and that they refuse to settle for good enough.




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