Michael Leppert: I-65/I-70 project will be record of our downtown priorities

April 13, 2018

We recently visited our son on his study-abroad program in Spain. While there, I found myself asking him “why this?” and “why that?” questions about the area just like he did to me when he was little. As irritating as that exercise can be for parents, when it comes to learning, there is no substitute.

He is there to learn. Curiosity is why I went to visit. And a strange land’s history can teach valuable lessons that are useful back home.

Architecture marks the priorities of cultures better than just about anything. Why things were built in a particular manner, what materials were used, and what purpose the structure was meant to serve capture the mind-set of a community. In the old world, the building of cathedrals, mosques and synagogues documents who existed, when and, most important, why.

Why certain people were in one place or another starts with a question about how they arrived there. Transportation, therefore, becomes architecture’s great partner in historical storytelling.

In Indianapolis today, as is common in many cities throughout the world, urban living is becoming more popular than ever. The list of advantages and efficiencies of this lifestyle shift starts with transportation. The modernization of those systems will memorialize who we are at this moment for generations to come.

What will our story be?

It will have a chapter on a few high-rises and stadiums. It will have chapters on some universities. There will be many stories about neighborhoods and the unique features that come with them.

The Indy story should also show the new IndyGo Red Line. It should show the bike lanes that have been added. It should show the Indianapolis Cultural and Monon trails. Even our sidewalks tell historical stories that we might take for granted. These are transportation options that connect neighborhoods within our city.

And of course, our roads will also tell a tale.

The interstate highway system, as its name implies, originally was designed to connect individual states’ highways. In the process of its development, Indianapolis was divided by the I-65/I-70 corridors more than 50 years ago. It was done to further the mission of the interstate system, but with near complete disregard for the neighborhoods it divided.

That was an error we now have a chance to correct.

Martha T. Moore wrote an insightful article for The Pew Charitable Trusts on April 2 that details some examples of a modern approach that blends our highway needs with our neighborhood priorities. “More Cities Are Banishing Highways Underground—And Building Parks on Top” cites innovative solutions to modern transportation and neighborhood challenges. There are many ways an update of I-65/I-70 can more accurately reflect who we are as a city.

Is Indianapolis a destination or a thoroughfare? For me and a few hundred thousand of my neighbors, this is where we live. Decades or centuries from now, our architecture and our transportation systems should tell the story of who we are, not a story of who was passing through.

The story of America’s interstate highway system is a great legacy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It also time-stamps our nation as one of the automobile: We drive, own and manufacture cars here. Efficiently moving people by car has been a priority of the last century for us, but it no longer defines who we are.

Everything our city and state does on the I-65/I-70 project should be made with that in mind. The story of our past should be accurate. Our neighborhoods mean more to us than the giant roads plowing through them.•


Leppert is an author and governmental affairs consultant in Indianapolis. He writes at MichaelLeppert.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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