Plan would make Monument Circle grand public space

September 15, 2008

A group of local business and civic leaders is working on a plan to transform the city's most visible symbol into a public-gathering space without equal in the United States.

Monument Circle already hosts dozens of activities each year--including major concerts like last year's NFL Kickoff--and it will host several events connected to the 2012 Super Bowl. But many stakeholders believe the Circle has yet to live up to its true potential.

They envision it as a grand public space in the European model, a pedestrian-friendly piazza that draws crowds year-round to mingle and dine and watch performances in the shadow of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

"From a European perspective, this could be one of the great public spaces in America, it seems to me," said Simon Crookall, president of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which performs at Hilbert Circle Theatre. "It has enormous potential."

A group of business and community leaders met in July and began a lively discussion of how to improve the Circle, including the possibility of closing it to car traffic, said Tamara Zahn, president of Indianapolis Downtown Inc., a not-for-profit focused on promoting the city. Another group, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, even commissioned a study of the Circle's potential from Project for Public Spaces, a not-for-profit based in New York.

There is no consensus yet for a move to ban vehicles on the Circle, an idea that resurfaces every couple of years. But plenty of people are sold on other efforts to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

The concept has gained steam in part because of progress on the $50 million Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is scheduled to encircle the Circle by 2011. The bike and pedestrian path should help Monument Circle accomplish its potential, said Brian Payne, architect of the Cultural Trail and president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

Closing Monument Circle to traffic isn't the only way to make it a more appealing space for people on foot, Payne said. Other options include reducing the number of traffic lanes or allowing cars on only part of the Circle.

The group's first priority, though, will be focusing on activities and how to transform the Circle into a community gathering place.

"We're exploring whether the Circle can be so much better than it already is," Payne said. "A lot of us think it could. It has much more potential than what has been realized."

Project for Public Spaces suggested a framework for turning the Circle into the "center through which Indianapolis can create its future and showcase itself to the world." The group delivered its report in April.

"Monument Circle is the focal point of the city and downtown and in many ways the entire state," the group said. "It is one of a kind and means many things to many people, but does not yet provide the regular reasons to come and participate in the space."

A few of the group's recommendations:

Slow traffic and protect pedestrians with narrower lanes and planters. Design a plan for the Circle that includes surrounding blocks. Consider changing the traffic pattern of one-way streets, which are barriers to pedestrian traffic.

Add new amenities. "A great place needs to have at least 10 things to do in it or 10 reasons to be there," the report says. Try temporary food kiosks, an ice rink and temporary art displays.

Organize a single entity that manages the Circle and oversees day-to-day operations.

Explore the possibility of closing the Circle to vehicular traffic, keeping partial closures as an option.

"There are many higher and better uses for the street space than just for cars," the report said. "However, as a general rule, the streets should not be closed unless they are going to be programmed and managed."

The goal of the effort is "to add year-round value" for residents and visitors without hindering anyone's business, said Martin van Week, general manager of the Columbia Club, which is on the north side of the Circle.

"If we do the right thing, with the support of the city, this could be a beautiful thing in addition to what we already have downtown," van Week said. "At the moment, we're still in the fog, but the fog will lift."

Some business owners on the Circle, including Greg Bires of Windsor Jewelry Co., are cautiously supportive of imposing more limits on traffic.

Daytime downtown employees are reliable customers for Windsor, but others are harder to snag--particularly those with a suburban mind-set that parking should be available a few steps from a store. Turning the Circle into more of a "destination" could help Windsor, which has been doing business downtown since 1919 and at its current home on Meridian since the 1970s.

"If we could get people who don't work downtown to come more often, I'm open to listening," Bires said.

Others aren't so receptive.

Traffic at South Bend Chocolate Cafe drops off sharply when the Circle closes for events and festivals because customers are discouraged by crowds and a lack of parking, said Travis Hollans, the store's assistant manager.

The only bright side would be that pedestrians and bicyclists would be safer, said Hollans, who rides his bike to work.

Decisions about the Circle, including whether to close it to cars, will have to be handled carefully and with plenty of public input, Zahn said. City leaders across the country often have opted to close public streets with similar goals, and many of those plans have backfired.

"This is a beloved space that in many ways works," Zahn said of the Circle. "We want to improve how it works, not detract from how it works."

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