Center Township’s problems aren’t perceived to be as bad as the problems in the oldest parts of cities like Cleveland,
Detroit and St. Louis. By pushing the city boundaries to include all of Marion County in the Unigov consolidation of 40 years
ago, the city dodged many of the ailments of those landlocked, deteriorating Midwestern cities.
But Aaron Renn, who writes The Urbanophile blog, reminds that the old city is little better off. Center Township, a rough approximation of the city’s pre-1970 boundaries, has lost half its population—not so dissimilar to Cleveland, et al.
That’s the bad news. But Renn joins other observers in noticing the beginnings of a revival of inner cities, Indianapolis included.
Renn notes Census Bureau population estimates show Center Township actually gaining population in the past couple of years. Not much, but noticeable.
“Central Indianapolis has hit an inflection point and has started growing,” he says.
Renn’s point is echoed in a new book by University of Virginia professor William Lucy, “Foreclosing the Dream; How America’s Housing Crisis is Reshaping Our Cities and Suburbs.” Lucy sees high foreclosure rates in exurban areas and rising incomes and housing prices in city cores, and concludes the trend toward suburban living has peaked. People have grown weary of long commutes, Lucy argues, and they crave convenience of cultural activities that tend to be concentrated in central cities.
Renn foresees two scenarios for Center Township.
One is the revival sputtering and proving to be a mirage.
The other is a turnaround with areas like Fountain Square redeveloping with apartments and neighborhood nodes of activity. Attractions like the Cultural Trail would continue attracting people to restore homes and open retail stores.
“The outcome is going to be really good or really bad,” Renn predicts. “It’s much more likely in a strong region like Indianapolis that the outcome is going to be good. So, I’m optimistic.”
Indianapolis won’t see a flurry of residential towers built. The city never has been New York or Chicago, and it shouldn’t be, Renn contends.
Rather, Renn envisions a city ordered more like Paris, which is densely populated but low-rise. To increase density, Indianapolis zoning officials need to consider allowing, for example, two single-family dwellings and a carriage house with an apartment in the back—all on a single lot. That brings three households into the space traditionally occupied by one household. And with smart design, the extra density would barely be noticeable.
The city should also be more willing to allow mixed uses in older neighborhoods, similar to the live-work spaces in Fall Creek Place.
Higher density is particularly important now that households are smaller than they were a century ago. Otherwise, retail won’t follow, and the model falls apart. “We have to be willing to embrace land-use changes,” Renn says.
By the way, Renn foresees continued suburban development here, just not as much as in the past.
What are your thoughts? Is Center Township on the verge of revival? What are your feelings on higher densities?