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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Mediocre planning efforts don't invite people to stay

March 27, 2006

Analysts say the housing market is slowing in Indianapolis and across the nation. Perhaps that's why three significant, real estate developments have attracted so much local media coverage recently.

In one story, the City-County Council approved the development of 28 condos in Broad Ripple, despite strong resistance from the neighborhood association.

Meanwhile, local planning councils easily approved two new developments-a subdivision on the far northeast side of town that will feature almost 2,000 homes and a large condominium complex in Carmel that also will include almost 2,000 units.

Using these examples, a simple calculation indicates that metropolitan Indianapolis is growing outward more than 100 times faster than it's growing inward.

Is this form of growth a good thing or a bad thing?

Common sense tells us why people love the idea of new communities: They offer safer neighborhoods, better schools, new construction and smooth streets instead of potholes. If there were any doubts, climbing real estate values have literally "closed" the deal. As the trend toward suburban living continues to grow, Indianapolis sprawls farther outward. Some indexes list Indianapolis as the 13th-most sprawling city in the nation.

The alternative to "sprawl" is not just less sprawl, it's a different kind of zoning and different types of housing. And it won't be driven by those who like to squeeze people together, put front porches on houses and return to the good old days. The future will be driven by the market, and change is on the way.

Demographic studies of the United States indicate that the demand for new homes is expected to soar over the next 20 years while the demand for older homes-those built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s-will plunge. The same studies indicate that the percentage of single-person households will rise and the large number of retiring baby boomers will want smaller, less expensive homes with convenient services close at hand. Here are a few more trends to look forward to:

People will be more active, independent and individualistic. They will continue to work because they have to.

There will be more age-qualified communities with no kids; the quality of schools will be irrelevant to real estate values.

Energy-efficient living will become more practical as technology improves. For many people, it will become an economic necessity.

Gradually, then suddenly, we will see these forces start to shape cities across the nation. Real estate activity in Indianapolis already reflects some of these trends:

Downtown living is resurging in every city, and Indianapolis is right in there. Lockerbie was way out in front, but Mass Ave is the place to be if you're young. The condominiums in the Conrad are the place to be if you're not as young.

Suburban areas are maturing, becoming more diverse, and fighting their own battles against growth. The Carmel City Center is a fine example of this maturity, while proposed annexations in the suburbs are proof that smaller cities are facing the financial issues and expense of everincreasing expansion.

Almost every city is planning some form of urban rail or high-speed bus system. While the wait for federal funds is measured in decades, perhaps the private market may be an answer. The Clarian People Mover is our city's sole example of an urban transportation system, and its impact has been amazing. Check out the development that has occurred near the Canal Station, for example.

No single neighborhood, city or county in our region can address this complex political and economic puzzle alone. Regional planning-with strong leadership-is the only answer to urban sprawl. If developers are forced to work under old rules and struggle with neighborhood groups, they'll just go farther and farther out. The following suggestions can minimize urban flight and strengthen all of our communities-both old and new:

1. Our Regional Plan must encourage the conversion of old housing stock into new forms of housing. Fall Creek Place and the condominiums near the Indianapolis Art Center are terrific examples.

2. Our Regional Plan should adopt "form-based codes." With "form-based codes," the emphasis is placed on the physical form of the built environment, rather than the land use, with the goal of producing specific type of "places." A typical form-based ordinance may be a simple booklet, compared to hundreds or even thousands of pages of zoning regulation language with current codes.

3. Our Regional Plan must encourage holistic planning approaches. Important environmental issues, such as parking and storm-water runoff, can be solved by encouraging shared parking venues or an integrated storm-water runoff solution. This approach minimizes land use and should result in more efficient systems.

4. Our Regional Plan must include transit-oriented development. Proposed transit systems must not just shadow Interstate 69 or I-70. The location of the stations will drive the development of "transit villages" to enhance existing centers or to add new housing and new commerce in run-down areas.

Find a picture of Indianapolis in 1966 or Carmel in 1976 or Pike Township in 1986 or Franklin Township in 1996 or the airport today and then picture what Indianapolis will look like tomorrow. This region is on the move, but we have to keep it from moving away over the next 10 years.



Altemeyer is a founding principal of BSA LifeStructures Inc., the Indianapolis-area's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's
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