TOM HARTON Commentary: Still trying to get it right

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We’re about to pave a small neighborhood park so that patrons of a bar in a government building will have a place to stash their cars while they drink.

What better time than now to revisit a couple of previous columns about urban design? (More on the playground later.)

Back in May, I wrote about local entrepreneur Tom Battista’s work to restore commercial life to the 800 block of Massachusetts Avenue and what’s left of the 900 block. The 900 block, along with dozens of other streets in the old city, became a dead end when the inner loop was built in the 1960s and 1970s.

I lamented the loss of homes, businesses and neighborhoods to make way for the freeway and wondered if it would’ve happened had Indianapolis had someone like Jane Jacobs battling to protect the street grid. Jacobs, who died earlier this year, is widely credited with saving part of lower Manhattan in the late 1960s by leading a group that thwarted plans to carve a freeway through it.

I was correct in stating that Indianapolis didn’t have a Jane Jacobs, but we did have an Andy Jacobs.

The 15-term congressman from Indianapolis (and former IBJ columnist) wasn’t as successful as his New York counterpart in altering the course of transportation history, but in his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives he did what he could to minimize the negative effects of our street-severing inner loop.

In Jacobs’ memoir, “Slander and Sweet Judgment,” he tells his version of why our inner loop was built on mountains of dirt instead of sunk below street level as originally designed.

Sinking such roads was the standard at the time, according to Jacobs’ account, because doing so could preserve the street grid. Bridges could be built over the highway to reconnect severed streets, but boring through a couple hundred feet of dirt wall and shoring up tunnels was cost-prohibitive.

So why did our inner loop deviate from the norm? Jacobs’ memoir, citing transcripts of public meetings, points the finger at the phone company, which wanted the road elevated to avoid the expense of relocating its underground trunk lines. The head of the phone company, who isn’t named in Jacobs’ book, successfully insisted on the major design change. Jacobs said the executive, a transplanted Texan with an ego to match President Johnson’s, stuck to his guns even after the state Legislature authorized reimbursing the phone company for moving the underground lines.

The battle was lost. The mound-makers piled up dirt over Jacobs’ objections and “dead end” signs sprouted around downtown.

That’s history, but the other column I’m updating here is all about the future.

Last October, I wrote about a group drafting design guidelines to be used by the city to evaluate proposals for new or renovated buildings.

City planners have been signing off on designs for proposed downtown buildings since 1970, but they’ve never had anything in writing upon which to base their evaluations. Likewise, project owners haven’t had much guidance about what would pass city muster and what wouldn’t.

The guidelines and review process that are still being hammered out by the Urban Design Oversight Committee are intended to minimize the guesswork and maximize public scrutiny. The result should be building designs that attract people and encourage pedestrian traffic rather than creating commercial dead zones.

If you doubt the guidelines are needed, look no further than 120 E. Washington St., where a plain vanilla parking garage is under construction. It’s a high-profile location where millions are being invested into a building with zero aesthetic appeal.

The garage might be a good bet for its owner, a partnership of parking garage and construction industry execs, but what will it do to attract people and spark more investment on East Washington Street?

And if that isn’t evidence enough that our land usebuilding design standards need some work, consider the small park at 300 E. Fall Creek Parkway that’s on the fast track to being paved over for a small parking lot. The 10-space parking lot would provide some of the spaces required for a restaurant and bar that investors want to open in the Julia M. Carson Government Center next door.

It’s not often a city gives up park space to make way for parking. But the rezoning necessary to cover the playground with asphalt was approved by a city hearing examiner July 27, even though the use is contrary to the Mapleton Fall Creek neighborhood’s comprehensive land-use plan. The full Metropolitan Development Commission will hear the case Aug. 16, but so far it faces little opposition.

It’s hard to say what’s worse-paving a park or putting a bar in a government building. What’s clear is that some of our land-use decisions, whether driven by politics, favoritism or simple lack of oversight, leave a lot to be desired.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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