The story of downtown Indianapolis over the last 40 years is a narrative of self-determination, of a committed civic sector ambitious enough to believe it could make the mile-square into the vital heart of the region.
In the late 1960s, downtown was a hollowed-out core, under siege from more attractive suburban retail, with little business activity and just a few hundred hotel rooms. The area that is now IUPUI was acres of dilapidated neighborhoods.
The city had one advantage—our corporate and community activists. In partnership with a string of strong mayors, they went about exploiting opportunities to build a vibrant downtown.
They used sports as a catalyst, luring the Indiana Pacers downtown, attracting the Indianapolis Colts, and creating a prime destination for championship events. They supported the growth of the modern IUPUI campus and of White River State Park as an enormous urban renewal project. They also embraced a unique spirit of public-private partnership to bring investment of all kinds to the mile-square—corporate headquarters, Circle Centre mall, refurbished and new cultural attractions.
Today, we face a new challenge. Bill Hudnut famously proclaimed that Indianapolis couldn’t be a “doughnut city” with an empty downtown. Today, downtown thrives—the hole in the doughnut is solid. But now this core is constricted by a concentric circle of blight separating it from our robust suburbs.
While we were building up downtown, Center Township overall lost 67 percent of its population.
The same energy and ingenuity that we devoted to building downtown must be applied to the surrounding neighborhoods, four to six miles outward. Here is a three-part prescription to start the rebuilding:
First, we must adopt an integrated strategy to reinvent urban neighborhoods as places where people want to live. This means transforming housing, physical and social infrastructure, and creating neighborhood-serving commercial districts.
We have isolated examples of how this approach can work—the revitalization of Fall Creek Place, the effort under way in the Meadows led by Strategic Capital Partners, and the Near Eastside Legacy partnership between neighborhood groups and the Super Bowl Host Committee. The challenge is scaling up these best practices into a strategy that can be applied to other areas with the right mix of grass-roots leadership and market activity.
Next, education. Failing schools are a primary reason for the flight of people and capital. We must reverse the status quo in urban education.
There are examples, in Indianapolis and nationally, of inner-city schools that are thriving. These great schools share common characteristics—school-level governance, leadership that embraces innovation, and accountability. Our vision for rebuilding our urban core must set schools free to embrace this model.
Mass transit is also a vital priority for rebuilding urban neighborhoods, giving residents the mobility to connect with jobs and their other daily needs. Dense residential and commercial development also grows along rail and bus rapid transit routes, attracting new people, investment and jobs.
The evolution of downtown took a generation, and this transformation will take the same long-term focus. We’re seeing progress in neighborhood redevelopment, education reform and transit planning.
Decades ago, we weren’t prepared to accept this city as a doughnut with downtown as the void in the middle. Looking forward, we have to broaden our focus to the next ring out by rebuilding and creating a truly prosperous region with a vibrant urban core.•
Miles is president and CEO of Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.