by Thomas P. Healy
Indy Rezone, the comprehensive overhaul of the City’s zoning ordinance, has resulted in an ordinance designed to make Indianapolis a more walkable, sustainable community.
“We haven’t updated land use ordinances in close to 50 years,” said Tamara Tracy, a senior planner at the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development who, along with her colleague John Neal, has been leading the nearly four-year effort. “We have a lot of unique neighborhoods in Indy and they need to be celebrated and recognized as different from each other.”
Tracy said the revamped ordinance emphasizes the common community denominators we share and that bring us together regardless of location in the metro area: water quality, walkability, and safety.
She said the first task to improve the local environment is to plant more trees. “Trees are the ultimate multi-taskers and we need more of them—lots more. Trees aid in crime prevention, storm water storage, and energy efficiency by keeping us cool in summer,” she said.
Pedestrian safety and convenience is another goal. “For the past 50 years our focus has been on the car. We’re not ignoring the car now but we’re not making it front and center. We want people to be front and center.”
Indy Rezone aspires to limit the amount of impervious (hard) surfaces as much as possible. “The biggest thing we’ve done to accomplish that is to reduce the number of parking spaces required,” Tracy said.
“Automobile parking thwarts walkability. If there’s too much, people feel uncomfortable, so we reduced that impediment.” Thus, parking in front of structures will be discouraged. New buildings will be placed closer to the street with entrances that make destinations visible and inviting. “It’s called “transparency”—the ability to see in and out of a building,” she said.
By establishing minimum transparency requirements in the code, planners hope to improve natural surveillance of the area— with more “eyes on the street,” as urbanist Jane Jacobs has written. “It makes people feel welcome in that building and instills the idea that someone is or could be watching. We believe it will have a big impact on both crime and walkability,” Tracy said.
Another common denominator is the need for and availability of clean, plentiful sources of water. “For economic sustainability we have to see that it doesn’t cost a fortune to clean and use it,” she said. “It’s prudent for us to keep our water clean and not contaminate it.”
Taking a cue from Mother Nature, it helps to mimic natural methods and techniques to clean water before putting it back into aquifers, creeks, streams, or rivers. Tracy said the new code aims to accomplish that “by using bioretention areas such as bioswales in commercial areas,” called rain gardens in residential use, “green roofs, vegetative walls and other ways of harvesting rain water.”
Tracy said the code is intended to give designers and property owners flexibility in achieving aesthetic and functional goals. “We’re proposing a scoring sheet for the green factor—an objective, one-page spreadsheet that establishes the minimum score every site has to meet to satisfy storm water drainage and landscaping requirements,” she said.
Improved transit accessibility is one of the multiple benefits realized through compact development of both commercial and residential structures. “Mixed use is a very important component to making the community transit-ready,” she said. “If we spread out, we lose efficiencies.”
The process has sought to strategically identify areas suitable for more intensive use. “We’ve created districts that work together or independently to create a development pattern that can support transit,” she said. “Look at Mass Avenue, Broad Ripple, Irvington,” she said. “These are thriving areas. We want to create more mixed-use districts like those, which will be complemented by transit.”
The massive effort has been guided by community involvement. “We recognize that only one half of one percent of the people in Marion County know what zoning is and how it works, but we definitely know that 100 percent deal with the ramifications of zoning, so they need a seat at the table,” Tracy said. The steering committee, task forces, and subcommittees all had engineers, lawyers, and developers collaborating with people from the health, arts, and education communities as well as with public safety officers.
Tracy cautions that fine-tuning will be required even after the new code takes effect on April 1. “There’s not a person I’ve met yet who says this is exactly what they wanted—including myself. But this moves us forward by decades, so let’s do it!”
View the adopted ordinance here.