Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Quality of Life and Government & Economic Development and Economic Development and Real Estate & Retail

Group plots public-private revival for midtown Meridian neighborhoods

June 30, 2008

There was a time when residents of Meridian Kessler, Butler Tarkington and Broad Ripple viewed North Meridian Street as a connection between their neighborhoods.

These days, the road feels more like a divide--an intimidating commuter highway between downtown and the northern suburbs that discourages pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

A partnership of community groups including the Meridian Street Foundation is hoping to change that by giving the neighborhoods a collective identity--Midtown--and mixing private and public money to fund major infrastructure improvements. The Historic Midtown Neighborhood Initiative, or HARMONI, has adopted "walkability, bikeability and creation of inspiring places" as its mission.

The group is designing a five-year plan and already has raised $300,000 in private funds toward a goal of $2 million for the first phase, said Kathy Shorter, the group's president. The private money will be used to fill gaps between what the city plans to spend and what is needed, and as leverage to win grants. The target area has about 60,000 people.

"We're kind of a self-help initiative," Shorter said. "The city is working with us, but we're not willing to wait for their schedule."

Focus on connectivity

The idea to develop one identity for the collection of established neighborhoods began with business owner Gary Thrapp, who owns G. Thrapp Jewelers at 56th and Illinois streets.

For years, Thrapp has struggled to explain to customers where his store is located. He suggested Midtown, and the name already is catching on, said Shorter, who put together HARMONI with group Vice President Cindy Zweber-Free. Shorter, a former marketing executive for IBM, now runs the group full time as a volunteer.

Highlights of the first phase, which would cost $4.4 million to $7.4 million, include transformation of portions of Meridian Street's middle turn lanes into landscaped islands and a speed-limit reduction to 30 mph, along with a brandnew look for Alice Carter Place Park between Meridian Street and Westfield Boulevard. Locally based urban design and planning firm Storrow Kinsella Associates is designing the plan.

Some of the suggestions:

A continuous center landscaped median on Meridian from 54th Street to Kessler Boulevard, with breaks at intersections.

New crosswalks with distinctive paving along both sides of Meridian from 54th Street to Westfield Boulevard, at Alice Carter Place Park, and on Westfield and 56th Street from Meridian to Illinois streets.

A continuous tree lawn between sidewalks and curbs.

A new traffic signal at 54th Street.

Some of the plans bear a resemblance to the $50 million Indianapolis Cultural Trail project. In fact, the Cultural Trail has been funded in a similar fashion, with almost all its funding coming from private donors. The Central Indiana Community Foundation, which is leading the Cultural Trail effort, also is a partner in HARMONI.

The key theme is connectivity, CICF President Brian Payne said at a community meeting held at Alice Carter Park in June.

"We must slow down automobile traffic and rebalance toward pedestrians and bicycles over automobiles," he said. "For this park to actually inspire families and couples to use it, we must first create a safe way for them to get here."

Leveraging private funds

Projects like HARMONI have become more common nationwide as federal grants for infrastructure have disappeared and local tax revenues targeted to neighborhoods have shrunk, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA.

The most common targets of the groups: cracked sidewalks, dangerous intersections and a lack of trees. Loukaitou-Sideris helped one group, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, distribute seed money to 12 neighborhoods, all of which then raised more private funds and applied for government grants.

Raising the money necessary and pulling off infrastructure-improving projects is extremely time-consuming and requires a certain temperament, Loukaitou-Sideris said. Often, the groups are led by schools, churches or local businesses--entities that rely on a neighborhood's vibrancy for their long-term success.

The HARMONI group's efforts should get a strong boost from $4 gas, as people all over the country are rethinking travel by car, said Ann Sewill, president of California's Community Foundation Land Trust.

"The idea of trying to balance where people live and shop and work is what planners have been talking about for decades, but it's getting a popularity boost," Sewill said.

It's no coincidence that homes in far-flung subdivisions aren't maintaining their values as well in the housing crunch as those closer to employment centers, she said. In Los Angeles, the difference is wide: Some suburban homes have dropped 35 percent of their value, while urban ones have shed only 6 percent. The difference probably is narrower in Indiana, since the local housing market never got as heated as in California or Florida.

Back to the future

Mass transit will be a focus in future phases of HARMONI. Organizers plan to push restoring a rail line along either the Keystone or College avenue corridors--an amenity that disappeared after World War II.

Nostalgia may be one way to sell the overall effort. Mark Miles, president of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and an informal adviser for HARMONI, grew up at 46th Street and Guilford Avenue. He walked back and forth to school and could bike to the theater, grocery store or football practice. The neighborhood had a wide variety of people.

"It was a wonderful place to live," he said. "Personally, I think sprawl and suburbia don't offer the richness of life that the old-style neighborhood could offer. I raised my kids in Florida in gated communities; we don't do anything without going to the car."

The HARMONI plan also makes sense for the city, said Miles, who thinks the retooled infrastructure could be enough of a selling point to attract new residents and help increase the tax base.

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