VIEWPOINT: Indianapolis' utility acne syndrome

March 24, 2008

It took decades of turning a blind eye to get here: Indianapolis has draped itself in utility poles. Walk, ride, jog or drive to any major street in Indianapolis, with the exceptions of a few designated boulevards, streets and avenues. Take a mental picture of where you are. Now, with Photoshop in your mind, remove the web of utility poles and wires from that picture and quickly open your eyes. We're visually strangled by them.

Few streets are exempt from the blight. I've heard lots of stories about why Indianapolis doesn't have buried utilities. Some salts say it's because Indianapolis is built on a swamp, and the water table is too high and the logistics too difficult to cost-effectively bury them. It's a believable yarn. In actuality, the reason is simpler: raw economics.

Putting utility poles in alleys and behind buildings requires utilities to buy easements and right-of-way. That costs money. One look down 82nd Street in Castleton, however, adds an additional causative taint: horrible planning. Zoning expansion was granted without an examination as to where utility infrastructure needed to be placed so it wouldn't blight the scenery. And blight it has.

Worse is a new crop of eyesores in the form of beige utility canisters that have been built across the city to house the mini-central offices for AT&T's competitive digital build-out. Where we once complained about too little broadband competition in the city, we've had our requests answered: hundreds and hun dreds of awful, 3-foot-high digital subscriber-lineaccess multiplexer canisters.

Not a single thought was given to camouflaging, fencing or in any way blending these backyard monoliths into the sur rounding landscapes. They stick out like sore thumbs, and have become magnets for graffiti/tagging. The one in my back yard is also a convenient respite for AT&T technicians on breaks. The easement granted by the prior owner had nothing in it about their 20-foot paved parking lot. I'm expecting vending machines to be installed any old day now.

I'm also visualizing any number of utility company PR people jumping out of their chairs when they read this, thumping their chests, and harrumphing, then howling that everything I've mentioned is perfectly legal. Sadly, it likely is. Communities across the country now wrestle with aesthetic standards for cell-phone towers, radio/TV, and wind-power-generation towers. When I drive through Chicago's suburbs, and even a few around Indianapolis, I see great lengths taken to prevent utilitypole glut, not to mention aesthetic cell- and communications-tower problems.

In most of Indianapolis, however, one need drive only a few blocks to see the problem with the building codes and utility regulations that have blighted the city. Sure, we pay some of the lowest power costs in the Midwest. And we love the thought of competitive communications, be it cell phones, broadband access, or even old-fashioned land-line telephones. Incumbent with the competition is requisite infrastructure.

We don't, however, have to pay the price in unmitigated ugliness. The mental snapshots you'll now edit as you travel the city have additional blights to cite in the form of billboards and signs that ought to be visible from the International Space Station, down to the cretins that nail landscaping solicitations and even airbrush-classes signs on the easily accessible utility poles around the city. All of these are ripe for criticism at a later time.

Where we have to get a grip on entropy is simple: Motivate our City-County Council to mandate zoning and building codes that reverse the scars and acne that have been visited upon our heretofore beautiful Indianapolis landscape. Our grandchildren will thank us, as that's how long it will take to reverse the trend-decades.

Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a local computer analysis firm.
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