by Thomas P. Healy
The City of Indianapolis is partnering with the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and IndyGo to develop zoning and land use policies that support IndyGo’s commitment to rebuilding local transit after 50 years of neglect.
“As a community, we’re so fortunate to have an incredible investment in our transit system,” Emily Mack, director of the City’s Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD), told transit advocates in January. “We want to help support that investment with the creation of compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-used developments adjacent to our transit stations.”
DMD’s pledge to help leverage the $390 million investment slated for the Marion County Transit plan has been enabled in part by an award from the American Cities Climate Challenge (ACCC). In 2018, Indianapolis was one of 20 cities selected from 100 applicants for the $70 million program funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Technical assistance and support valued at $2.5 million will accelerate Indy’s existing efforts to tackle climate change and to promote a sustainable future for residents. The ACCC favors proven solutions that can be implemented quickly and scaled efficiently. The goal is to influence the built environment and transportation systems to achieve significant greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions.
Part of ACCC’s technical assistance is provided by implementing partners including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Emily Barkdoll is the NRDC’s city strategist for the ACCC. In addition to Indianapolis, she works with teams in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio. “My role working with the Indianapolis team is to support policy and advocacy and manage the climate advisor, an NRDC staffer who is working on the action plan to support the already phenomenal work in Indy,” she said. “We want to make sure that transit and transportation options are equitably distributed, not leaving people behind and perpetuating existing inequities,” she added. Making transit use a more attractive alternative to driving will help cities achieve emissions reductions, she said. “We’re looking at infrastructure, transit, and housing placement to make sure the opportunity for long-term growth is less carbon intensive.”
Barkdoll works with the City’s lead on ACCC, Katie Robinson, director of the Department of Public Works Office of Sustainability. She said the City’s grant application included plans to accelerate energy efficiency in large buildings, provide new programs to incentivize public transportation, and expand pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure as a part of a transit-oriented development (TOD) strategy. These reflect two key elements of Thrive Indianapolis, the city’s inaugural sustainability plan: transportation and land use. “We are a car-centric community but we have to build in different aspects of how we move people,” Robinson said in an interview. “Since nearly 34 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, we cannot tackle our emissions profile unless we challenge our land use and transportation patterns.”
One of the Thrive Indianapolis action items seeks to “increase TOD through high-density housing, access to employment opportunities, and economic growth with measurably less consumption of energy.” This translates into building infrastructure that supports people choosing to walk, bike, carpool, or ride transit for their daily needs. “It’s about really reevaluating the kind of community we want to offer to our residents in the future,” Robinson said.
WALKABLE URBAN PLACES
For planner Brad Beaubien, this means walkable urban places. “We’ve got high demand for this type of product, so by focusing on the bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors we take advantage of that massive public investment that provides for economic mobility for people.” Beaubien was part of the team that crafted the Bloomberg grant proposal while serving as DMD’s long-range planning administrator. He left that position in late 2019 to become Visit Indy’s new director of destination development, where he will continue his involvement with regional community development projects.
Beaubien observed that of Marion County’s 403 square miles, a mere 5.5 square miles could be considered walkable using a Walkscore® of 69 or higher. “Most of it is downtown, and the rest is in Midtown and pockets of Irvington and Southport,” he said. Seizing the opportunity presented by the prospect of nearly 100 BRT transit stations when the full build-out of the transit network is complete, Beaubien said the City is focused on the 14 square miles of properties within a quarter mile of a transit station—the distance planners consider a reasonable 10-minute walk to transit service. “If you look at the block immediately around the station area that’s not walkable and could possibly change, you’re looking at about 1.5 square miles,” he said. “That land is precious,” he continued. “That’s where we have the opportunity to actually make transformative change and build those multiple places that are in very high demand.”
Though the City recently updated its land use plan to encourage TOD along the Red Line corridor, current zoning and land-use regulations do not foster a built environment that supports transit. In some cases, Beaubien acknowledged, regulations actively undermine walkable urban spaces by allowing gas stations, surface parking, self-storage, drive-thru windows, strip malls, auto sales and repair, and/or fast food joints. “I get asked all the time, ‘What’s going to go there?’ ‘What else is there besides that stuff?’” Beaubien said. His reply? “Well, everything! All of those things in much better form that is not built for you to show up in a 1-ton vehicle because it’s built for a person to arrive on a bike or on foot or on transit.” Beaubien said this requires a new approach. “Build for people first.”
In conversation, MPO deputy director Sean Northup pointed out that the Purple, Blue, and Red BRT lines are all located in historic transit corridors. “The irony is that what’s built there now is currently illegal.” For example, along the Red Line corridor in Midtown, “You see buildings built to the corner with very little parking, some height, the kind of lot coverage with no side setbacks, wide sidewalks, street-front dining. All the kinds of things that are really in demand and easy to use if on foot are illegal.” Even with the great strides made by Indy Rezone, the city’s zoning ordinance upgrade that took effect in 2016, “Everything not zoned for residential is at high risk for inappropriate ‘by-right’ zoning.” He added that by ‘inappropriate’ he meant “the kinds of uses that do nothing to promote transit, density, or walkability.”
The local partners realized that accepting the challenge to think strategically about land use around BRT lines required expert advice. So IndyGo and DMD jointly applied to the Federal Transit Administration for a planning grant focused on the Blue Line BRT on Washington Street. “The Blue Line is our test case to think through what the zoning intervention is and as a pilot for what happens on other lines,” Beaubien said. Kansas City–based Gould Evans was selected as project lead and they brought in Toole Design, Urban3, and Green3 Studio to round out the consulting team.
The consultants were charged with reviewing land use patterns and making code revision recommendations for properties within a quarter-mile radius of the corridor. “It’s about strengthening the connection between land use and transportation,” said Brooke Thomas, IndyGo’s director of strategic planning. She wants to head off concerns that dense transit corridors will wind up being unaffordable high-rise canyons. “Transit-supportive development is not new to Indianapolis, and neither is walkable urbanism,” she said, citing the north College Avenue corridor as a good example. “We would use any changes to the zoning ordinance to protect what’s there and replicate that in other parts of the community where it makes sense.”
Brad Beaubien said the consultants have been under contract since July 2019 and have spent the past several months in conversation with the IndyGo team, planning staff, and city leaders to gain an understanding of what works best for the Indy market and its existing ordinances. “We don’t want something that’s so dramatically different from what we have that it’s difficult for DMD and Business and Neighborhood Services to implement,” he said.
It also can’t create standards that are difficult or unaffordable to build. Besides support from partners like MPO, DMD and IndyGo are benefiting from another ACCC implementing partner, the Urban Land Institute (ULI). A national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., its members include land use, design, and development professionals. Both the headquarters and its Indiana chapter are active in building connections with the local development finance community as well as developers to discuss potential zoning changes that could affect parking, setbacks, and height. “We want to make this easier to build, not harder, so we have to have that conversation,” Beaubien said.
Sean Northup said the MPO has conducted market preference surveys with the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors and found that “we’re underbuilding the walkable market by 40 percent a year. So the market has spoken and that’s the main thing we’re all responding to.” Northup said the studies underscore the market’s understanding that living in a walkable community close to transit means better access to more opportunities. “This is a conversation about who’s going to benefit from the half-billion-dollar-investment that our community has made in itself to help people.”