Lesley Weidenbener: Spark feels like a Circle success

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This is not a political column.

It is in no way meant to take a side in the Indianapolis mayor’s race.

But as a person whose office is right on the Circle—the IBJ newsroom’s windows look out over the monument—I wanted to offer a few thoughts about Republican Jefferson Shreve’s position that Spark on the Circle needs to go.

“Monument Circle has gone from a bustling epicenter to a place where business owners vacate leases and people no longer feel safe,” Shreve said when explaining his larger ideas for downtown. “Once Spark concludes, it’s time to roll up the artificial turf and allow cars and more people to circulate around the Circle again.”

I’ve been coming downtown to work for nearly 30 years. Shreve is certainly correct that Monument Circle was a busier place before the pandemic. And it was busier still five or 10 years before the pandemic.

Even before COVID, Anthem Inc.—now Elevance Health—had decided to give up its Monument Circle space and move its headquarters to its Virginia Avenue campus. Emmis Corp. was already shrinking its workforce. And businesses on and around the Circle had long been coming and going.

Then the pandemic walloped downtown. It has taken years for the Circle to recover anything resembling normalcy—and we’re not fully there yet and maybe never will be.

But the biggest positive during this period has been Spark on the Circle, the temporary park created this summer by a partnership of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, Downtown Indy Inc. and the not-for-profit arts group Big Car Collaborative.

Spark is on the southwest quadrant of Monument Circle, which is the section where Emmis and The South Bend Chocolate Co. are located. The city closed traffic on that quadrant to accommodate the games, tables and chairs, snack bar and other amenities the temporary park offers. A police officer parks every day next to one entrance.

Is the traffic closure a bit of a pain? Yes. It takes ClusterTruck more time to bring an order. Some Uber drivers coming from the north can’t figure out quite how to get to the eastern half of the Circle. And dropping someone off can now require going a couple of blocks out of the way because downtown’s one-way streets make navigating the closure cumbersome.

But I just don’t care. I believe the energy that has come from the people who are visiting and enjoying Spark is too important to the Circle to worry about the inconveniences. Every night when I leave my office, there are a dozen people at Spark—kids stacking up huge blocks, colleagues sitting in Adirondack chairs having a beer and friends playing table tennis after a dinner downtown.

I understand that is just one point of view. Shreve said his position “comes out of conversations with the business community on and around the Circle who have seen a drop in revenue since Mayor Hogsett closed it.” I would like to know much more about that.

But I think it’s too soon for Shreve to have made up his mind about Spark. I hope that—if he’s elected—he will take a second look. Spark is an example of what Indianapolis needs to do more of.

That doesn’t mean closing the entire Circle to traffic—nor should it. But writing off the entire experience is a mistake. Learning from it and developing something even better is the right move. I look forward to whoever wins the mayor’s race figuring out what that is.•

__________

Weidenbener is editor of IBJ. Reach her at lweidenbener@ibj.com.

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