TOM HARTON Commentary: Luring people with bricks, mortar

A parking garage is about to rise on a vacant lot at 120 E. Washington St. It’s ironic that a block or so west of the site, a group of architects, city planners, real estate developers and leaders of the city’s arts movement meet on a regular basis to plot against such garages.

The garage in the works isn’t just any garage. In its current design, which is yet to be approved, it’s only a garage. No ground-floor retail. Just a garage. Four stories tall. Plopped down on our Main Street. A high-profile location. The downtown stretch of the National Road.

The people who meet a block or so west of the site of the would-be garage aren’t against garages. But they want garages-and all buildings-to respect their surroundings. They want downtown structures that function but fit in.

That means considering the surrounding architecture and making sure the building attracts people instead of repelling them. Does the front of the building have windows that allow passersby to interact with the building on some level, or is it a stark, foreboding wall that sends them away? People make for busy sidewalks. And busy sidewalks are good for business.

By late next year, anyone who wants to build downtown will need to carefully consider such things, because design guidelines, long absent here, are on the way.

The city has been signing off on designs for proposed downtown buildings since 1970, but the reviewers charged with doing the work haven’t had anything to measure the designs against. Without clear standards, subjectivity has crept into the process, which is unfair to developers and has led to giant mistakes made of concrete, bricks and mortar.

That’s where the people plotting against plain vanilla garages and the like hope to do some good.

Known as the Urban Design Oversight Committee, the group, which I’m part of, has been meeting for two years. Under the leadership of the city, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and the Indianapolis arm of Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning, we’re plotting to do away with the subjectivity.

By examining four critical areas-the northeast end of Massachusetts Avenue, the BioCrossroads research community, the convention center/stadium complex and West Washington Street-the committee expects to arrive at design guidelines that can be applied to all of downtown.

Public workshops on the first three areas have been conducted and a second opportunity to weigh in on the area around the stadium and convention center is coming up Oct. 21. A workshop on the final area, West Washington Street, is planned for January. Information on the process is available at

If the forthcoming standards are adopted by the city, it’ll be another step toward creating an urban core that attracts investment, jobs and people.

David Johnson, president and CEO of the BioCrossroads economic development initiative, is among those who understand that well-designed buildings and public rights of way are important to economic development.

BioCrossroads is championing the development of a research community along Stadium Drive northwest to 16th Street. Johnson knows better than anyone what it will take to create that research hub. First and foremost, it requires money. Money to fund research and money to turn that research into products that sell because they improve or save lives. But that’s not all. It’ll also require a built environment that’s attractive to the talented people BioCrossroads must recruit to work here.

“Most communities trying to do a New Economy strategy are thinking about design, and the discussion always seems to come back to real estate,” Johnson said.

“The environment where people live and work and research matters a great deal to the type of people we’re trying to attract here. People want to be in an environment where they can live near, or right above, where they work. The design of it has to facilitate that.”

Good design doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does require a “we,” not “me,” attitude. That bit of wisdom, supplied by Adam Thies of EDEN Land & Design Inc. in a letter to the editor last week, sums up what needs to happen here. Project owners have to look beyond what’s good for them and consider the broader impact of their projects. Soon, they’ll have guidelines to take the guesswork out of it.

Good design is the common denominator of urban areas where people live, work and play. Those people might even keep an ugly parking garage in business. But too many ugly garages will send people off to spend their time and money elsewhere.

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

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