Midtown’s Growing Pains

By Aaron M. Renn

Improvements made as a result of Midtown Indy initiatives were a welcome start at addressing the significant infrastructure upgrade needs in the area. However, they were not entirely perfect. The 2009/10 Broad Ripple Avenue repaving project through the core of Broad Ripple Village was a pre-existing, federally funded Department of Public Works initiative. It managed to hit a sour spot of being expensive but not transformative. Some of the improvements on Meridian Street were similarly disappointing. For example, new sewer inlets were raised above the existing curb height, creating a visually jarring effect and highlighting how many areas of needed curb restoration were not addressed. If what is undoubtedly the single most significant stretch of street in the city isn’t done right, no place else stands much of a chance. DPW has a long way to go to adapt their street designs and project approach to the 21st century. (I don’t think it is any accident that both the Cultural Trail and Georgia Street designs were not DPW projects.) Perhaps the Complete Streets ordinance adopted by the City-County Council in 2012 will spur DPW to design excellence.

Click to download a PDF of the plan.

Envision Broad Ripple

A better example of urban planning is the Envision Broad Ripple initiative, a community-driven, City-endorsed effort. When implemented, the Envision Broad Ripple plan should fix many of the defects in existing zoning, which currently necessitates a painful and politically risky variance process for nearly every proposal While neighbors would always like to be able to veto any development they don’t like, and the variance process provides a venue to do that, this type of political risk is a huge drag on investment. As someone once put it, political risk is the only real risk in real estate development if you know what you are doing. Creating a predictable environment for approvals is crucial to luring more investment. There is a key but often missed link between the poor business climate created by the zoning environment in central Indianapolis and the disinvestment we see. This doesn’t mean I advocate low standards. In fact, standards can be high, but they need to be objective and achievable with reasonable financial estimates. Ultimately the type of development the neighborhood would like to see should gain approval immediately in the majority of cases.

The EBR plan may strike some as too timid, given that it leaves the status quo in place in many cases. But incremental change is always going to be the watchphrase in Indianapolis. Some technical corrections clearly are needed in the document, however. Floor heights are set at 10 feet, for example, which is too low and could easily make otherwise high-quality projects appear nonconforming.

Envision Broad Ripple is already showing results. For example, the Broad Ripple Village Association endorsed the Browning Investments/Fresh Thyme project proposal as being broadly in keeping with the plan, with caveats. Note that the approval required a zoning change and variances. Nevertheless, the plan supports growth in residential population density that is clearly needed for increased dynamism in Broad Ripple specifically and Midtown generally.

Midtown’s evolution will certainly involve a lot of controversy, as projects ranging from Fresh Thyme in Broad Ripple, the Bent Rail Brewery at 53rd and Winthrop or the outdoor café proposal at 49th and Pennsylvania streets a few years ago demonstrate. Some controversy is healthy. Public input is by all means a good thing. But you never please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Midtown needs to establish an overall point-of-view policy with organized support, and the mayor and others need to give it political air cover. If City leadership simply lets would-be investors twist in the wind, their interest in the area may turn elsewhere.

Aaron M. Renn, who blogs at Urbanophile.com, recently relocated from Midtown to New York City where he is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2013/ January 2014 issue of the magazine.