GARNER: Multifamily housing is not the enemy

Sanford Garner
September 18, 2010
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Sanford GarnerIt would be easy to blame the economy for our blighted urban neighborhoods. True, these tough economic times have led to more vacant and foreclosed houses than we can count. But the key to revitalizing a neighborhood stretches far beyond boarded-up houses. If we want to see positive changes in our neighborhoods, and attract businesses, we have to be willing to change our thinking.

For years, people in neighborhoods in and around downtown have said they want more stores. They want Target or Meijer or Trader Joe’s. They want more restaurants, dry cleaners and grocery stores. Yes, it would be great not to have to drive to the suburbs to grocery shop. But it’s not just the economy preventing stores from coming to near-downtown neighborhoods. Stores aren’t going to invest in a neighborhood that doesn’t have the kind of density, income, education level or traffic they need to be profitable.

There are several near-downtown neighborhoods looking at ways to revitalize, such as the area around 20th Street and the Monon Trail, the St. Clair Place neighborhood and the King Park area. While residents typically embrace the idea of revitalization, they, too, often get in the mind-set that the only way to revitalize is to raze abandoned houses, build new ones, and bring in some retail. If only it were that easy.

The challenge of revitalizing an urban community is all about balance. As residents clamor for more retail, they have to understand that the only way to accomplish it is to increase the density of the area. One sure way to accomplish that is multifamily housing, whether that’s apartments, duplexes, townhomes or a combination.

Whoa. Residents speak out about that. They don’t want an apartment complex in their neighborhood. Somehow apartments have gotten a bad rap. There’s an impression that all apartment complexes are bad. Residents worry that a townhome building is going to be 20 stories high and look out of place. But not all townhomes are high-rises; we can point to a host of successful townhomes around the city that blend into the surroundings. Again, this is about balance.

If Indianapolis neighborhoods have a chance of attracting more retail—whether it’s a Target or an independently owned business—we have to figure out how to bring balance, so there is enough density, traffic and buying power to make that feasible.

We can’t give up. Look at Fall Creek Place. The development of work-live spaces, such as Douglas Pointe at Delaware and 25th streets, helped provide the mechanism to bring businesses to a community setting. And, because of it, we have new treasures such as Goose the Market, a hair salon and yoga studios. There is enough density from the redeveloped Fall Creek Place neighborhood and enough buying power in the area to make it attractive to businesses. The same has happened along Massachusetts Avenue, where higher-density properties have led to increased commercial development.

In the area around 20th Street and the Monon, which was part of a study by a national team from the American Institute of Architects, the density is about 140 people per block. Retailers can’t survive with density that low. It’s going to have to be at least twice that amount before a retailer will even think of investing in the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods have to be willing to embrace the idea that multifamily facilities don’t have to hinder a community’s image; rather, they can be the catalyst for helping bring improved amenities to an area. We can revitalize our neighborhoods, recruit the type of services and retailers our residents are seeking, and improve the quality of life, if we’re willing to think broadly and work together, even in these tough economic times.•


Garner is president and founder of the Indianapolis architecture firm A2SO4, is the incoming president of the National Association of Minority Architects, and serves on a national urban sustainable design committee.


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  1. With Pence running the ship good luck with a new government building on the site. He does everything on the cheap except unnecessary roads line a new beltway( like we need that). Things like state of the art office buildings and light rail will never be seen as an asset to these types. They don't get that these are the things that help a city prosper.

  2. Does the $100,000,000,000 include salaries for members of Congress?

  3. "But that doesn't change how the piece plays to most of the people who will see it." If it stands out so little during the day as you seem to suggest maybe most of the people who actually see it will be those present when it is dark enough to experience its full effects.

  4. That's the mentality of most retail marketers. In this case Leo was asked to build the brand. HHG then had a bad sales quarter and rather than stay the course, now want to go back to the schlock that Zimmerman provides (at a considerable cut in price.) And while HHG salesmen are, by far, the pushiest salesmen I have ever experienced, I believe they are NOT paid on commission. But that doesn't mean they aren't trained to be aggressive.

  5. The reason HHG's sales team hits you from the moment you walk through the door is the same reason car salesmen do the same thing: Commission. HHG's folks are paid by commission they and need to hit sales targets or get cut, while BB does not. The sales figures are aggressive, so turnover rate is high. Electronics are the largest commission earners along with non-needed warranties, service plans etc, known in the industry as 'cheese'. The wholesale base price is listed on the cryptic price tag in the string of numbers near the bar code. Know how to decipher it and you get things at cost, with little to no commission to the sales persons. Whether or not this is fair, is more of a moral question than a financial one.