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SCHMIDT: Elevate expectations for downtown

October 17, 2014

viewpoint-wayne-schmidtIt’s easy to pat ourselves on the back about the vibrant downtown areas of Mass Ave, Fountain Square, Monument Circle, White River State Park. We’ve come a long way, and people love to spend time in these places.

But we shouldn’t be content. Visit Chicago—or a similar-sized city—and notice the difference. While our Mass Ave and Fountain Square restaurants are busy from 6 to 8 p.m., similar restaurants in Chicago would still be crowded until 10 p.m. Our sidewalks and retail stores might be bustling on a Saturday afternoon, but many are empty other parts of the day and days of the week.

Despite new upscale residential developments popping up downtown as fast as people can build them, we need more urban density to support a healthy base of restaurants and retail.

We need to elevate the expectations. At the same time, we must ask ourselves whose expectations we care about. Just the 30-somethings with executive jobs? Or a broader group? Here are 10 ideas for elevating the expectations for downtown:

1. Invest in amenities that keep young urban dwellers downtown after they have kids. Pocket parks and a few major playgrounds are small investments to keep young families downtown and encourage the interaction that makes downtown living so attractive.

2. Have the guts (and the money) to build more than five stories. If we’re going to get to sustainable urban density, we’ll need more mid-rise places to live.

3. Mix in more affordable housing. Starter living units with lower price points will lure sought-after young professionals earlier.

4. Face up to the fact that urban dwellers may not have cars, which means we’ll need more forms of public transportation. Yes, huge public transportation projects between suburbs, downtown and the airport are good ideas. And the Indiana Pacers Bikeshare is great. But urban dwellers need additional simple solutions, such as downtown trolleys or shuttles for major shopping trips and events.

5. Find creative ways to lure people from one downtown neighborhood to another. For example, bars in the trendy Soulard district of St. Louis run shuttles to baseball games and other sporting events. It disperses the crowd (and the parking) around downtown.

6. Make bus stops more attractive. It’s another relatively inexpensive way to encourage people to use existing public transportation.

7. Hoosiers, get over yourself about walking. We don’t have to drive to the front door of every restaurant or store. Enjoy the fresh air and build your fitness by walking. It’s what urban dwellers do!

8. Don’t ignore the 60-plus crowd. They want to walk to work and enjoy urban living, too.

9. Encourage opportunities for people-to-people interaction. That could be game nights, the above-mentioned pocket parks and playgrounds, board games in the parks, or informal talks on music, art, books and politics. It makes urban living fun.

10. See downtown as a whole. Each neighborhood is unique, but we must stop competing among them and connect the pieces. When we see downtown as a whole, more medical students from the west side will dine on Mass Ave, sports fans and convention goers will visit Fountain Square, and Mass Ave residents will attend a Colts game or a White River State Park concert.

All you have to do is elevate the expectations.•

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Schmidt is CEO of Schmidt Associates and co-author of the book “Indianapolis Architecture.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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