TOM HARTON Commentary: Keep your eye on the design

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Design matters, and architects aren’t the only ones who should care. On the eve of two significant ground breakings, even those of us who know nothing about facades and fenestration should consider what’s about to take place here.

Later this month, the first dirt will be turned on the site of the city’s new airport terminal, and we can assume that dignitaries will brandish shiny shovels next month just south of the existing RCA Dome. In both cases, there will be smiles all around as the men and women who’ve wrestled these public projects from the drawing board into the ground get their due. After years of planning, courting public opinion and dueling the naysayers, the fact that anything at all is going to be built will probably be enough to satisfy stadium and midfield terminal advocates.

Only time will tell if their heroic efforts succeed from a design standpoint. Design won’t win football games or land airplanes, but it will dictate whether these important civic projects live up to their potential as engines of our local economy.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s not hard to find examples of highly anticipated projects that didn’t realize their potential-even though the dignitaries at the ground breaking were no doubt grinning from ear to ear.

The National City Center, known as Merchants Plaza when it was built on the site of the old Lincoln Hotel between 1974 and 1977, was one of the first major achievements of the city’s late-20th-century renaissance. With a 535-room Hyatt Regency Hotel, two office towers, a soaring atrium and assorted shops, the $46 million project was billed at the time as the largest privately developed complex in the state’s history. Its value to the newly awakening downtown couldn’t be understated.

I remember the anticipation and don’t deny that it brought much-needed excitement to downtown, but it could’ve done so much more.

The southeast corner of the complex, at Illinois and Maryland streets, was designed as a loading dock and remains one today. Perhaps no one could’ve predicted that intersection would become one of the busiest in a lively commercial corridor, but given its proximity to Monument Circle and considering the aspirations of city planners, it’s not inconceivable that someone might have realized the corner should house more than docks and dumpsters.

Likewise, the Washington Street side of the complex doesn’t do much to invite passersby into the building. The designers didn’t do the project owner or the retailers any favors by erecting a fortress-like façade set back from the street.

A better design wouldn’t necessarily have cost more, and it could’ve earned a better return on the initial investment.

A few blocks east is another edifice that failed us. You don’t have to go far to find an architect who will lament the loss of the grand old Marion County Courthouse, replaced by the 1962 City-County Building.

Whatever you think of the building, it shouldn’t have been set so far back from the street. The half-block plaza on the south side of the building, where the courthouse once stood, is a missed opportunity. For 43 years taxpayers have been saddled with this worthless plaza, which rarely hosts anything but employee smoke breaks.

If the plaza’s not going to be used, the city should redevelop it to meet a public need or, better yet, sell it The city needs the money, and a well-designed makeover could breathe life into the east end of Washington Street.

Thirty or 40 years from now, what will be said about the midfield terminal and the new sports stadium? Maybe it’s enough that the airport be functional, but does it say anything about the city? It is, after all, the first impression for many visitors.

In our cardboard stadium world, it’ll be victory enough if the sports venue is still being used 40 years hence, but will it do all it can for the surrounding neighborhood in the meantime? Should it be aligned with the street grid to take advantage of its urban setting, or should it be angled, as is now the plan, for good views of the skyline?

Maybe it’s too late to improve either project-if improvements are required, that is. But for all the projects we’ve not yet dreamed of, let’s make good design a priority. When the construction dust settles and the bills are paid, it’s the design that lasts.

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