Opinion and Forefront

SHEPARD: Conrad's intensity still felt downtown

November 30, 2013

Randall ShepardSurely Larry Conrad is smiling over the recent report about the phenomenal strength of the housing market in downtown Indianapolis.

Conrad was a force of nature who served multiple terms as Indiana secretary of state, ran for governor in 1976, and later became part of Simon Property Group Inc. He died much too young during emergency heart surgery, while attending a meeting in France about building more livable cities.

The new report about downtown housing, prepared for Indianapolis Downtown Inc. by Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, brought to mind one of Conrad’s smoothest maneuvers.

The year must have been about 1987. The Colts had managed to muscle their way into a coveted slot on “Monday Night Football” for the very first time. This was a big deal—three hours of live television, the Goodyear blimp and all the rest. How could we maximize the moment?

Conrad’s idea was that Indy needed to look like a winner. He persuaded the owners and managers of downtown buildings (especially the tallest ones) to keep their lights on that particular Monday night. As the blimp sent images around the nation during the game, Indianapolis looked like the genuine big-time operation it was on the way to becoming.

Fast-forwarding some 25 years, the new report for IDI has revealed something powerful about the present and future of the city. Put in stark economic terms, downtown housing has become a product so much in demand that the price keeps rising modestly even as the supply expands dramatically.

This explosion in supply is hard to miss. Projects in every quadrant spring up as new construction or rehabilitation or both. John Watson had barely finished his rehab of Stadium Lofts, and filled it, when his crews started on new buildings next door. Altogether: 2,000 new downtown units in the last decade, with 3,500 more under construction or in the pipeline for the next three years.

The powerful demand that makes all this possible arises from two factors, according to the new report.

First, downtown Indianapolis has become a growing magnet offering new jobs all along the salary scale. As Drew Klacik of PPI points out, the 2.6 square miles inside the downtown interstates contain 4 percent of Indiana’s total employment (think life sciences, education, finance).

Second, both millennials and baby boomers are more often gravitating toward downtown living.

Do people living elsewhere in Marion County and the metropolitan area have a stake in the success of downtown? The question nearly answers itself. Most downtown jobs are held by people who commute five or 25 miles. And the sporting and cultural attractions enhance life in the suburbs even for people who do not commute.

The initiatives that created our present success were hardly accidental. Prolonged investment by public and private and charitable institutions, plus good civic leadership, made it happen.

When new potential projects present themselves, we’ll be better off if we view the whole range of people who stand to benefit. As the City-County Council makes thoughtful progress on a panhandling ordinance, for example, it would be good to keep in mind that the largest number of people who stand to gain are the thousands of low-wage workers in the tourism and convention business.

The competition to build great cities will be won by commitment to careful research by organizations like IDI and PPI, and through the inventiveness of people who dream up new ideas as successors to Larry Conrad.•

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Shepard, Indiana chief justice from 1987 to 2012, is executive in residence at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, a research arm within IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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