Rethinking Monument Circle in Indianapolis

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When Chicago-based CEOs for Cities visited Indianapolis in October, the group of urban leaders was at once dazzled by Monument Circle and puzzled by its apparent under-use.

“Sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s close to home,” said Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities. “[Monument Circle] isn’t animated or as vibrant as it ought to be.”

Focus circle We Asked boxWith that predicament in mind, this month jurors for the Monument Circle Idea Competition will convene to choose three winning proposals for future use of Monument Circle. The winning suggestions, which could address any combination of design, programming or traffic management issues, are to be considered in the Department of Public Works’ preliminary concept for future implementation.

In anticipation of what these ideas could look like, IBJ gathered advice from local and national experts about what should be done to improve the city center and where the city should look for inspiration.

Brad Beaubien, director of the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University, said there is a dearth of pedestrian activity on Monument Circle due to the nature of the ground-level businesses surrounding it.

Lobbies of Chase Tower, WellPoint Inc. and Emmis Communications Corp. alone take up nearly half the circle’s ground-level space.

Experts who aren’t so close to home agreed with Beaubien’s comment, but think there are other issues to be fixed.

To see a map of Monument Circle's current layout, click here.

David Dixon, principal for planning and urban design at Goody Clancy in Boston, explained that Monument Circle is still embedded in the age in which it was created. When the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was erected during the City Beautiful Movement of the late 19th century, it was meant as a place-making decoration, something to be looked at but not touched.

“Public spaces have a new purpose, to bring a sense of shared community and destiny,” he said. “The space needs to engage people rather than just offering somewhere to go.”

Citing the iconic bean sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, he said human interaction is key—some fusion of light, water, music and retail.

“All of these elements are meant to make the circle function more as a neighborhood square than a traffic artery, a place where the pedestrian becomes almost more important than the vehicle,” Dixon said.

However, he doesn’t suggest closing the circle to vehicular traffic, at least not all the time. He said it’s important that the circle take on different personalities at different times of day. For example, a commuter circle in the morning and a market in the afternoon.

To some, the call for ideas seems to imply Monument Circle is lacking a certain something, as cities like New York have conducted similar competitions to plan places like High Line Park, a former abandoned railroad track.

But James Howard Kunstler, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based author of “The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition,” said the circle is fine as it is, design-wise. Or rather, there’s nothing to be done in that regard, as he said design mistakes were made 30 years ago when “abortion buildings like the Chase Tower” were constructed.

“The blocks around the circle are filled with glass boxes completely undistinguishable and not meaningful, so I can see how people would confuse that with the circle being problematic,” he said.

To increase activity on the circle, he suggested investing in the area around it to create more residential space. This could include offering tax incentives to developers to adapt old buildings to affordable and appealing downtown living.

“Until the whole district gets more lively, with more people downtown at any hour of the day, this programming issue with the circle will persist,” he said.

As far as the circle itself, he suggested altering the city’s bylaws to require a minimum of windows on the ground level and an entrance every so many feet, to inspire more retail and more activity.

Roy Strickland, director of the master of urban design program at the University of Michigan, compared Monument Circle to Campus Martius in Detroit, an oblong roundabout, in that it has the power to bring people downtown who normally wouldn’t travel there.

Wireless Internet, several cafes, a park and a seasonal ice skating rink draw suburban dwellers to what’s been nicknamed “Detroit’s Gathering Place.”

Strickland said water is key; the sight, the sound and the touch of it all tend to put people in a good mood.

In terms of design, he suggested minor modifications to the buildings surrounding the circle to include more flags and to make them more mixed-use, “even if the architecture isn’t so great.”

“The color and movement of flags create character that can be just as important as the architecture, whether they’re in front of buildings or jutting from them. “

CEOs for Cities’ Coletta acknowledged there’s a lot of inspiration to be had by looking at what other cities have done with their public spaces, but she said with the help of the Monument Circle Idea Competition, Indianapolis can come up with something unique.

“Monument Circle looks like something from a dream,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it, and therein lies the challenge.”•


Views of other esteemed plazas

Monument Circle has much to recommend it, some experts say, but it also could use dashes of inspiration from elsewhere to bring it to its potential. Here are a few examples of public spaces that give people an excuse to linger and enjoy, rather than just visit.

Focus circle Columbus Columbus Circle, New York City (Photo/Shutterstock)

Columbus Circle, New York City

The point from which all official distances to New York are measured, Columbus Circle is as much a tourist attraction as it is a hub of commerce, entertainment, natural beauty and consumerism. Surrounding the circle are such city treasures as Central Park, Time Warner Corp. and Museum of Arts & Design. Fountains designed by the firm that designed the famous Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas were added in 2005.

Focus circle DC Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)

Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

The Official Dupont Circle Snow Ball Fight, pictured above, drew more than 3,000 people on Feb. 6, 2010. The traffic circle, which has a main thoroughfare in a tunnel beneath it, has achieved a balance of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The park and fountain at the circle’s center are home to chess tournaments and political rallies. Surrounded by a neighborhood, Dupont Circle is a logical meeting place for the proximate residents.


Focus circle Detroit Campus Martius Park; Detroit. (AP Photo)

Campus Martius Park; Detroit

To commemorate Detroit’s 300th anniversary, then-Mayor Dennis Archer implemented a revitalization of Campus Martius Park, an oblong roundabout where two of the city’s main streets (Woodward and Michigan avenues) meet. Visitors enjoy free WiFi, an ice skating rink in winter, a central fountain and two retractable stages that rise out of the pavement for various performances.


Focus circle Morocco Jamaa el Fna; Marrakesh, Morocco (Photo/Shutterstock)

Jamaa el Fna; Marrakesh, Morocco

The main public square in Marrakesh isn’t surrounded by exquisite architecture, but the vast plaza buzzes with activity. Daylight hours host fresh orange juice venders, performers and snake charmers, while evening hours bring dozens of food stalls. Myriad cafes flank the plaza for those who’d rather watch the action instead of take part

Focus circle Paris Place Charles de Gaulle (Arc de Triomphe); Paris, France (AP Photo)

Place Charles de Gaulle (Arc de Triomphe); Paris, France

The meeting place of 12 straight avenues, Place Charles de Gaulle is such a busy traffic artery that pedestrian access to the Arc de Triomphe and the surrounding plaza is achieved with an underpass. Unlike in Indianapolis, the traffic circle is still surrounded by centuries-old buildings low enough to let the Arc remain the focal point from a distance.


  • Reason to come
    The Circle needs a reason to come. Continued events associated with the Circle and more (somehow get the mini-marathon to involve the Circle again as in the 80's, a formal place for press conferences, exhibit space and show rooms for local events and items of pride, improve the viewing experience at the top of the monument etc. - it's a dungeon as is). We are seasonal so Spring / Fall activities - outdoor restaurants with heaters; Easter parades, flower shows, pumpkin patches and sales, farmers markets, and walks/running/bike races to include the Circle. In Summer restaurants/mini-water park with sprayers ice-cream etc. Maybe even some temporary carnival rides . For young people how about a Zip line, concerts/Karyoke competitions/ American Idol competitions etc.; karting around circle. In Milwaukee they have a beer wagon that a dozen people pedal (and drink) as they go! Winter with the lighted monmument, ice skating, and holiday activities (Tuba concert/etc.) and snow+ice sculptures. Also buskers/musicians licensed to be present would help. And keep out unlicensed pan-handlers. Most of this isn't hard or expensive and could be done by private companies. Let's get creative.
  • No title
    Back in the 80s, they used to allow ice skating in the monument's fountain.
    That said, the Strawberry Shortcake/Ice Cream social is awesome on the circle!!!
  • Monument Circle
    I live in the Detroit area and as much as Detroit would like to think of Campus Martius as being a great success or perhaps unique, it is anything but. There is some activity during the day on week days and at other times during special events, but other than that it is pretty much dead most of the time, bottom line there is less going on there than on Monument Circle. As far as DuPont Circle in Washington goes, I have spent quite a few nights in the hotels nearby and I've really never noticed DuPont Circle being a focal point of much activity. Connecticutt Avenue after it passes through the Circle is interesting for various reasons. It is a metro stop and I think it has the tallest escalator in the world taking riders up to ground level. DuPont Circle was also once the heart of Washington's Red Light district and the remnants of this activity still remain. There are some fine restaurants in the area, but they aren't on DuPont Circle. The roundabout around DuPont Circle is also not closed to traffic.
  • Retail???
    I thought a an entrance to Circle Centre would have been nice. There needs to be a reason to walk around the circle other than business reason.
  • the circle
    Here's a novel idea ... let's leave the Circle alone. It is a great space just the way it is!!
  • But...
    Until downtown Indy leaves the automobile mindset behind, the Circle will continue to just be another roundabout, albeit, one with a unique centerpiece. Attempting to add frou-frou window dressings will fall by the wayside under the continuing onslaught of traffic, its attendant noise, and pollution.
  • Expand Pedestrian Space by Narrowing Street
    The circle has a lot of under-utilized space as is already but if ambitions are wanting to add interactive areas (Chicago's Bean) or many outdoor dining/entertainment areas, the amount of pedestrian friendly areas HAS to increase. How will a Campus Martius-like skating rink work for the circle without closing the entire circle down each and every winter? Campus Martius has a largely enclosed green area surrounded by streets (like the circle minus the monument) to which the rink and concerts may be held.

    If parking is taken off the circle, and the traffic "lanes" are really reduced to a single "lane" with sporadic short turning lanes to get off the circle, the amount of user-friendly space on both sides of the monument and current sidewalk could be increased in order to make room for large areas for which many "circle use" ideas may be implemented.
  • Monument Circle
    We would love to see an ice rink and water feature (fountain) there. Detriot's Campus Martius Park is a glowing example and it was designed by a wonderful firm in Muncie.
  • Some people like the unadulterated sounds of the city
    I really hope that the final plan does not include unescapable music programming. Not everyone likes to be forced to listen to music just for the sake of there being music. I see it as nothing more than noise pollution, and I would much rather listen to the sounds of my city than have to listen to preprogrammed and mall music.

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