As the Indiana Department of Transportation continues toiling away on the North Split interchange downtown, groups around the city are already planning for eventual renovations to the rest of the “Inner Loop”—and redevelopment of the neighborhoods that were negatively affected when the highways were originally built.
“That’s the focus for tonight, is to understand our past so that we don’t repeat, in the future” the same mistakes, said Brenda Freije, CEO of the Rethink Coalition, the not-for-profit trying to lead the charge on alternatives to the current Inner Loop’s footprint. She spoke at an event Tuesday examining the impacts of highway construction on urban neighborhoods.
Indiana Avenue was a bustling majority-Black neighborhood before Interstate 65 and the IUPUI campus were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, said A’Lelia Bundles, great-great granddaughter of the famed Madam C.J. Walker.
“Madam Walker was drawn to Indianapolis because of the thriving Black business community along Indiana Avenue,” Bundles said.
There, the woman that became the nation’s wealthiest self-made black woman built her headquarters. She described a community full of locally owned restaurants, music venues and churches, but one that planners still considered blighted.
“All of that wealth was killed when the highway came through, and when the campus was built,” Bundles said. Officials later razed buildings along the path of the future highway, while IUPUI swallowed more structures for its parking lots.
Some groups are hoping to revitalize the area.
Reclaim Indiana Avenue, a not-for-profit that emerged in reaction to a controversial and now-canceled Buckingham Cos. apartment development project next to the Madam Walker Legacy Center, is among them. So is Indiana Landmarks, which works to preserve historic structures, and which backed Tuesday’s event.
The Rethink Coalition, for its part, wants INDOT to put the Inner Loop below-grade when it comes time to refresh the decades-old infrastructure. In an analysis by engineering firm Arup, Rethink’s plans would allow officials to reconnect a splintered city grid system and, via a smaller footprint, reclaim valuable land downtown.
The recessed approach would be more expensive: a projected $2.8 billion versus the $2.3 billion estimated to rebuild as-is. Advocates say the redevelopment sparked by the more expensive option could fill the financial gap.
It would also require a hefty dose of political will.
“To take whole communities and carve them out, to spend tons of money, labor and resources building this infrastructure—it was big,” said Justin Garrett Moore, an Indianapolis native and New York City-based urban designer. He spoke in video footage played at the event Tuesday.
“It’s going to need to be equally big, if not bigger, to go back and address it,” Garrett Moore said, aligning policymakers, community members and resources.
Bundles pointed at the Bottleworks District and overall revitalization downtown as proof that revitalization is possible. But those who care about Indiana Avenue will be looking carefully at plans for future projects in the area. There are already alternates to Buckingham’s proposal floating around.
“One of the things that came out of some of those conversations with the developer was someone saying to us, ‘But, it’s just a blank slate,'” Bundles said. “I would say that it’s not a blank slate for those of us who grew up there. And it should not be seen as a blank slate.”