Light rail will move Indianapolis forward

December 29, 2008
There is a new way of building the Indianapolis area that is struggling to be born. It is different from how you have built the place over the past 60 years but it is essential to your future.

You have been following how the bulk of the country has been building real estate and infrastructure, which was what the market wanted during the industrial economy of the 20th century. It produced a pattern of development known as "drivable suburban," which gave most people what they wanted: houses on their own lots and cars to get around. It also led to land and energy usage that increased 8 percent to 12 percent for every 1-percent increase in population.

But the times, they are a' changing.

Throughout the country, young "millennial" adults and empty-nester baby boomers are demanding another choice—higher-density "walkable urban" places to live, work and play.

The walkable urban development in Indianapolis is remarkable, as redevelopment in the five cultural districts, such as Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, demonstrate. While not yet at critical mass, downtown certainly will become a "24/7" place in the next economic upturn with the recent investment in culture, retail, office and housing.

But walkable urban development is not confined to the city.

The creation of Carmel Center City, anchored by the Regional Performing Arts Center, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Brainard, shows how suburban town centers can provide walkable urban options. The Speedway Redevelopment Commission is working to show that walkable urban development can emerge on a brownfield site adjacent to the racetrack.

The pent-up market demand for walkable urban development will determine where the majority of growth will go over the next generation. If Indianapolis follows the lead of bellwether cities such as Washington, D.C., and Denver, there will be eight to 12 regionally important walkable urban places. Today, Indianapolis has four or five. Where will the others be?

Why does this matter? Walkable urban places are more energy-efficient and emit fewer greenhouse gases. The market wants such places and securing Indianapolis' place in the knowledge economy demands it.

Ever wonder why so many of your young adults move to Chicago? If you do not build what the rising generation wants, it will leave or not be attracted to Indianapolis in the first place. Losing your young adults is not only a family affair. It will hurt the economy if people in their most entrepreneurial time of life go elsewhere to start businesses.

What can Indianapolis do to give the market what it wants?

Build a regional rail-based transit system, for a start. That is why Denver and Washington are the national models of metropolitan development. Rail transit stations are where 90 percent of these two metro areas' walkable urban places locate. Building a complete transit system, complemented by allowing higher-density, mixed-use places to be built within walking distance of the stations, will be the most important economic development initiative for your region in the early 21st century. If you do not build a transit system, you will be condemned to be stuck in the 20th.

The market is demanding choice—the option of either a drivable suburban way of life, which you have in overabundance, or a walkable urban lifestyle, of which you have a significant deficiency. The walkable urban choices will be higher-density, like what is evolving downtown, or lower-density, such as Broad Ripple. They will be in the central cities, and they will be in the suburbs.

A recent poll by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce showed that 87 percent of voters support mass transit and that 71 percent would support public funding for mass transit.

These trends are coming together at a perfect time for the Indianapolis economy. Sign up for the 21st-century knowledge-based economy.


Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a real estate developer, a professor at the University of Michigan, and author of "The Option of Urbanism." He was the keynote speaker at the Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Monumental Affair Dinner Nov. 13.
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