EDITORIAL: City sends message that design counts

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Developers have had a rough time lately securing city approval for high-profile real estate projects. Some might see that as government interference. We see it as a sign of progress in a city that for too long has seemed willing to approve any development that came down the pike.

The city’s new backbone was on display May 24 when the Regional Center Hearing Examiner sent Flaherty & Collins Properties back to the drawing board to tweak the design of a 1,020-space parking garage it plans to build at the northwest corner of New York and Illinois streets. It’s part of a city-backed plan to add residential and retail space to the northwest quadrant of downtown.

The garage, intended to serve employees who work in the One America Tower across Illinois Street to the south, didn’t comply with urban design guidelines the city adopted in 2008. The guidelines, which apply to new construction and alterations to structures in the downtown area, call for garages fronting pedestrian walkways to have street-front retail or other features that welcome passersby.

Flaherty & Collins said the garage was purely utilitarian and that it therefore shouldn’t need to alter the design to make the building more welcoming to pedestrians walking along Illinois or New York streets.

The guidelines suggest otherwise. It’s true the guidelines are just that—guidelines. They’re not absolutes, but they are an important tool for city staffers who are charged with judging the appropriateness of building plans.

The guidelines serve a larger purpose as well: to create an environment that is appealing to those who live, work and shop here. That, in turn, creates demand, providing an opportunity for future investment while protecting investments already in place.

And the guidelines were assembled with input from developers, many of whom welcomed the opportunity to know ahead of time what design factors the city would use to determine if a project was worthy of approval. Better that than rolling the dice and risk being on the wrong end of an arbitrary decision.

While the urban design guidelines played a role in the initial rejection of the Flaherty & Collins garage, they were not a factor in the unanimous decision of a city zoning board on May 1 to reject plans for another parking garage—this one in Broad Ripple at the southwest corner of College Avenue and Westfield Boulevard.

The developer, Keystone Group, was handpicked by the Ballard administration to develop the $15 million, 350-space garage. But the zoning board and Keystone failed to reach agreement on a way to avoid having the garage built below the city’s recommended flood plain. It’s good to know that a project favored by the mayor has to jump through the same hoops any other development would face.

We hope both developers come back with plans that are economically feasible, aesthetically appealing and in line with city zoning guidelines.

Enforcing a flood plain recommendation and rejecting a developer’s initial garage design aren’t exactly signs that Indianapolis is becoming a tough place to build. But they send an important signal that design is no longer an afterthought here and that all projects get equal scrutiny.•


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