Plan would make Monument Circle grand public space

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."

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.