EDITORIAL: City needs to raise bar for project design

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Everyone knows Indianapolis can’t sell itself with an ocean or mountains. The city’s attributes are largely man-made.

That’s why it’s puzzling the city doesn’t demand more of those who shape its built environment. The city’s low bar for design was on full display July 12 when a bland, monolithic proposal for a 1,000-space downtown parking garage moved a step closer to final approval.

The mammoth garage is being developed by Flaherty & Collins for One America at the northwest corner of Illinois and New York streets. The $14 million structure is being built to replace blocks of surface parking One America will lose nearby when Flaherty & Collins develops Block 400, an $85 million apartment and retail project for which the city is offering financial incentives.

The largest incentive is the garage. The city is paying for it but isn’t willing to demand an inviting design in an area with great potential to connect downtown proper with the campus of IUPUI. The approval amounts to the city’s working against itself. It’s seeding retail and housing development to draw people to the area, but it’s heading toward allowing a garage more likely to repel them.

Approval of the garage didn’t go unnoticed by the design community here, including a group of young architects who have asked the city to set the bar higher.

And the garage design incurred the wrath of at least one nationally prominent authority on what makes urban areas tick. The July 19 entry in Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile blog was titled, “Why I don’t live in Indianapolis,” and included this sweeping indictment: “I cannot name another major city in the United States where the city’s own developer community, own architectural firms and own city government so consistently produce subpar development.”

This comes from someone who once lived here and who regularly sings the city’s praises. The criticism hurts, but it’s worth hearing—and heeding—if it contributes to a better Indianapolis.

A variety of factors contribute to a city’s appeal as a place to live, visit and do business. One of them is the built environment, and it’s an area where the city needs to catch up with its peers.

Good design, especially for a parking garage, need not be expensive. What it requires is a change in attitude—an understanding among developers and architects that bare-bones, utilitarian designs won’t cut it. The cities Indianapolis competes with don’t accept them, and neither should we.

Ratcheting up expectations can start when the Metropolitan Development Commission considers the garage project next month.

Decades of hard work and creativity have gone into turning the city into a pro sports town, a first-rate convention destination and a regional tourist draw. Why not demand architecture to match?•

To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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