Urban Design Lessons from Lucas Oil Stadium

A version of this story was originally published in Greater Greater Washington as part a two-part series on urban football stadiums. Visit the original story for more comments, thoughts and opinions about case studies, both good and bad, of other recently built urban football stadiums in America.

The Indianapolis Colts have played in an urban football stadium since the team’s founding in 1984 when the Hoosier Dome (later changed to the RCA Dome) was built in the heart of downtown. For the following 24 seasons, the Colts called this mega-structure home.  The Dome was akin to the Metrodome or Carrier Dome and sat next to the Indianapolis Convention Center.  Together, the two uses made up a large superblock in downtown Indianapolis that created monotonous urban forms and destroyed vitality in the surrounding area.  And yet, the RCA Dome could be considered a decent urban football stadium because the structure was built to the street right-of-way, featured large entryways off the sidewalk, and was decently integrated into the urban fabric as no surface parking lots surrounded the stadium.  In late 2008 the Dome, seen as a relic of a past era, was demolished and the neighboring convention center expanded onto the site.  This signified a new era in Colts football history, as they moved into the sparkling new Lucas Oil Stadium a few blocks south.

Photo by JFeister on Flickr.

To say Lucas Oil Stadium is a mega-structure might be putting it mildly.  The hulking stadium is roughly the size of two large downtown blocks, with its surrounding landscaping, parking, and entryway features taking up an additional four to five blocks.  Needless to say, Lucas Oil Stadium is now a prominent fixture in the Indianapolis skyline, often dwarfing the neighboring skyscrapers.  On the positive, the architecture harkins back to the day of field house structures in which Indianapolis has long had a love affair with.  From this standpoint, Lucas Oil is a success, providing the urban environment a beautiful building that represents the city’s sports venue value system.

In terms of accessibility and walkability, the stadium does well in some points and fails in others.  The stadium is easily accessible from the north, east, and west bounding streets, as the structure features small to medium setbacks with significant entrances from streets that provide large sidewalks for often heavy pedestrian traffic.  From the south, the area’s walkability is poor, as a large parking lot hampers accessibility and diminishes site functionality.  Also, numerous bus lines run along South Street and surrounding downtown streets, allowing for easy access via IndyGo.

By 2012, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail will link Lucas Oil Stadium directly to downtown’s main bike and pedestrian system, thus providing an important link to downtown’s vibrant entertainment districts.  This improvement, along with the new Georgia Street reconfiguration that will provide a pedestrian-oriented, entertainment focused corridor, is proof positive that Indianapolis is attempting to incorporate Lucas Oil Stadium into downtown’s pedestrian experience and make the area more walkable.

Still, much attention is needed to the site if the City ever wants to be successful in integrating Lucas Oil Stadium into the urban environment.  As of today, the stadium site sits on a mega block, offering poor street and pedestrian connectivity to the surrounding street grid and neighborhood.  Plus, the stadium is placed at an extreme angle to the traditional street grid, creating odd open spaces around the stadium and disallowing a vibrant urban atmosphere to be achieved.

Photo by JFeister on Flickr.

And of course, as has long been the chief complaint against urban football stadiums, the structure is so large and monotonous in form that active street life is hampered, something that is especially unfortunate given the few times the stadium is actually used throughout the year.  Thus, the stadium causes a relative dead zone on the southern edge of downtown Indianapolis, an area that is in desperate need of urban forms to reactivate the area and connect it with the vibrant Meridian Street and Illinois Street to the immediate north.

Looking towards the future, integrating Lucas Oil into an urban environment like downtown Indianapolis’s southern edge will prove to be difficult. Still though, improvements can be made that can create a more vibrant, sustainable district with activated street life. Connecting the Cultural Trail to the stadium is an important first step. From there, the street grid needs to be reinforced to the stadium’s south end and transportation circulation needs to be improved, urban forms need to be constructed to the north and east edge, and urban infill needs to occur to the west.

If plans such as these are put forward and actually implemented, Lucas Oil Stadium could quickly become a poster child for successful urban football stadiums in the United States.  But the stadium is still in its infancy and full plans for the area have yet to be developed, so only time will tell if such ambitions will be achieved.

Comments 28

  • One of the best examples of capitalizing on a sports stadium to promote private investment and redevelopment of a blighted urban area is Petco Park in San Diego. I believe the City of San Diego was involved in the planning and implementation of a master plan for the area from the beginning, which provided the framework for appropriate urban design in/around the stadium. The result is a vibrant urban neighborhood called “East Village”. One of the more interesting features that signifies the connection between stadium and neighborhood is a park that is open to the public on non-game days and also serves as outfield seating during on game days (tickets only cost $5).

    Considering Indy’s connection to sports and all the investment happening in the City’s core, it is disappointing that the City did not take the opportunity to capitalize on its investments in Conseco Fieldhouse, Victory Field, and Lucas Oil Stadium. With a redeveloped downtown that already holds appeal for those seeking urban living options, it would seem Indianapolis would have an easier run than San Diego at encouraging efficient land use and redevloping blighted areas in/around its sports stadiums.

  • As always, I look at transit as a great calayst for this.

    If the transit vision of the MPO’s is exectued, Union Station will be redeveloped, as well as a downtown transit hub being created adjacent to the stadium. With all of this sort of investment, does it stand to reason that this could pair with the stadium to induce better development? At that point, would we even be able to say that it was the stadium that influenced this development?

    I think both help. If the land that the post office stands on were to be cleared, it would create a large parcel of land to be developed. I think even if Union Station were not to be redeveloped, and a transit center planned, this would already be a prime spot for development.

    Both being considered, I feel this could be a great spot to help promote better development.

  • LOS is in a part of downtown that was all parking lots and light industrial before the construction of the stadium (and by the strictest definition, the Mile Square, isn’t “downtown” at all). Unfortunately, the quality of the development along West Street has not been good. With better work along Illinois Street and hopefully the eventual demolition of the post office, that can change. Also, the economy has spike some positive plans for the area. This area, bounded by railroad tracks, a seedy residential neighborhood, and the interstate less than .5 miles away, wouldn’t have been high on anyone’s list for redevelopment absent the construction of the stadium. I think LOS is a net benefit for its particular neighborhood’s chances of development.

    I know that the off-kilter angle is often cited as a negative aspect of LOS. First, I think fairness requires an acknowledgment that the stadium is positioned that way so that the big window will face downtown and give a view of the skyline to those inside the stadium. That decision isn’t without value from the outside. The view of the stadium from downtown highrises, and from certain points on the ground (Pan Am Plaza, for one) is really cool at night or when the window is open. Lots of commentators from outside Indy don’t seem to get this, but with the heart of downtown to the northeast of the stadium, I think the position makes sense.

    Ultimately, it’s a stadium, and only so much urban form can be expected at street level. The Colts Pro shop is fairly close to the street right-of-way. Consider the ultimate urban stadium, Wrigley Field. Wrigley is a great asset to its neighborhood because of the visitors and residents and money it brings to the area. But as a structure, what does it do? There is a restaurant down the right field line, at the corner of Addison and Sheffield, that I think is now open year round, but the rest of it is essentially a blank facade and does nothing to generate street traffic other than on the 81-90 days a year that the Cubs play there. That’s not to denigrate Wrigley at all. A stadium is never going to provide the sort of day-to-day street life that a mixed-use building will provide. Still, I think LOS in its current form with solid development around the perimeter will be just fine.

    • Actually, the off-kilter angle has a fair amount to do with the Pogue’s Run Box Culvert passing through the site from just north of Merrill & Capitol, west-southwestward toward White River.
      The massive footing for the eastern “superbeam” that holds up the roof is snugged up to the southern edge of the box culvert while the southeast stairwell is just to its north. When exiting the stadium from that SE stairwell, or from the South concourse, one is right on top of Pogue’s Run.
      The stadium bowl is just to the north of the culvert.
      (source: old Bing aerials from the time of excavation)

  • Those odd open spaces though are quite helpful when 50,000-60,000 people are congregating for a stadium event or leaving one just concluded.

    And while I agree the city doesn’t seem to have adequately thought how to develop around Lucas Oil and Conseco Fieldhouse (I think Victory Field works just fine), I’m not sure Petco Park is a comparable example given the difference in nearby residential and convention hotel density that San Diego boasts.

  • I would rather have people congestion 8-10 times a year for an hour after a game and have a quality urban environment than have odd urban spaces that move people in and out of a football stadium efficiently. Why are we so quick to justify bad designs? This is why we have bad designs to begin with, because we allow them and justify ourselves to living in generic urban environments. We can and should do better and expect more.

  • This areas suffers from a road grid only designed to move a large traffic volume during morning and evening rush hours in the north-south orientation.

    1.) The east-west streets McCarty and Merril should both be opened all the way from Fletcher Place, through the Eli Lilly campus, under the railroad, and on to LOS. (Beyond for McCarty of course.) There is no great reason to have these closed at Eli Lilly and through Penn and Delaware.
    2.) Remove the ramps off I70 that cut deep through the blocks connecting to Capitol, Illinois, and Meridian. Recreate frontage streets flanking the interstate that collect and distribute traffic to I70.
    3.) Keep the area west of Missouri and West Streets an industrial area, but mandate no new industrial development to the east of that. Also keep West and Missouri much as they are, with the hope heavy vehicle traffic will prefer their use during non-rush hour periods over Illinois, Capitol, Russel, and Meridian which will have more residences.

  • I disagree almost entirely with this article. You’re over-looking what is surrounding the stadium. The immediate surrounding uses to the north and east are what is hindering an urban environment around the stadium. Poor planning of the burgeoning hotels on the west side of the stadium (as poorly thought out as the canal) will ensure there is mediocre design along the west side. THINK WRIGLEY FIELD: residential and commerical.

    Also, i’m not sure how strictly comforming to gridded streets matters when you’re taking up to 4 city blocks. The post office building conforms to the grid and provides worse access.

  • Greg, instead of lecturing those who disagree with you about “settling,” why don’t you point us to some football stadiums that are better integrated into the urban environment than LOS. In the “the good” posts on the Washington website, the examples provided were lacking, I thought. That post mentioned Soldier Field in Chicago, Quest Field in Seattle, and the football/baseball stadiums in Cincinnati. Soldier Field essentially is in the middle of a park and is a significant hike from the L and from any restaurant or retail activity other than the surrounding museums. The stadiums in Cincinnati take up valuable riverfront space and are separated from downtown by an enormous highway and busy surface street, literally something like 14 lanes of traffic. I’ve never been to Seattle, but based on aerial photos, Quest Field is bounded by some seedy light industrial buildings to the west, railroad tracks busy surface streets to the east, a convention center to the south, and a parking lot to the north. In other words, pretty similar to LOS. I’ve never been to Seattle, but having walked to Soldier Field and Great American Ballpark, neither is remotely as integrated into the urban environment as LOS.

    My guess is that the lack of any truly “good” examples means that building a stadium downtown involves tradeoffs. As I noted above, even Wrigley Field, the ultimate urban ballpark, doesn’t add to its block when considered only as a structure. I think LOS will be defined by what surrounds it, and not by a slavish insistence that every decent urban building has to be built to within a foot of the right of way.

  • Eric – I am not sure what you disagree with me on as the points you made reiterate what I wrote in my piece.

    John – I am not trying to lecture anyone, I am simply pointing out a mindset I believe is prevalent in the Midwest in a general sense. I never personally attacked anyone. As for ‘good’ examples of urban footbal stadiums in the United States, I do think the ones covered in the Greater Greater Washington post are much better than waht Lucas Oil offers. Yes, Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati takes up valuable riverfront property and yes that can be debated. But the structure was and is a part of a larger plan that is only now coming to reality. The way the structure is situated allows for urban forms to co-exist with it in a more harmonious way that Lucas Oil will ever be able to due to its awkward siting. Yes of course there are significant tradeoffs with placing such a hulking structure in an urban environment and those tradeoffs are what sparked the debate to begin with. And I am not insisting the structure must be built to the ROW or else it is a ‘good for nothing’ structure – if you could point me towards such comments I would be greatly appreciative. I believe that the siting of the stadium is awkward and out of context and inhibits a better urban environment from being created.

  • Reiterate what? You don’t talk about the surrounding uses at all in the article. Too much focus on the street grid and orientation of the buidling. The fact is that the stadium was built in an industrial area. Put that stadium in Veteran’s Memorial Plaza and we’re not having this conversation.

  • Well the piece is on the layout and design of the stadium itself and not the surrounding uses. Having said that, at the end of my article I call for a plan for the entire area and that “urban forms need to be constructed to the north and east edge, and urban infill needs to occur to the west.” Your original post seems to reiterate this point I made.

  • There are no surrounding uses is the point. Urban highways run down the east and west sides. There are some hotels and industrial sites on one side, and a post office on the other. The stadium does not do anything to encourage people into this area unless there is a football game(or comparable event) going on. For the price tag on the place, one would hope that there would be a bigger return on investment in terms of other businesses moving in to add to the taxroll, calm the streets compared to what they are today, etc. It didnt help that the city bought the parking lot directly across South Street and basically uses it as another parking lot while we see a huge expanse of convention center corrugated wall behind it.

    All tolled, this is a much worse environment compared to say… walking down South Meridian. We can argue about the merits of bars and a downtown mall, but there are PLENTY of people walking around, spending money, and activating the area in a positive manner.

    None of that is happening around the stadium. One would think $675 million in investment would pull more people than a handfull of days out of hte year.

    • You make a good point on the relative lack of strong ROI here. That seems to have been lacking in all stadiums for all venues downtown; the city has been so enraptured as trying to be a major sports venue that the city’s leaders never really push the developers to provide a rational ROI for the overall community; its more a reaction to what the promoters want instead of a true partnership among “equals” when it comes to location, fitting into the comprehensive plan, overall site planning, or development(one could say the city ought to be thought of as an equal, considering the financial investment made…). Nevertheless, there is potential to redo the surrounding land area around LOS to provide year-round activity, pedestrian activity, yes, more sales tax revenue, and more functional integration into the “urban fabric”, such as it is in this immediate area, and putting parking into an adjacent garage facility of design similar to LOS. Pogues R

    • You make a good point on the relative lack of strong ROI here. That seems to have been lacking in all stadiums for all venues downtown; the city has been so enraptured as trying to be a major sports venue that the city’s leaders never really push the developers to provide a rational ROI for the overall community; its more a reaction to what the promoters want instead of a true partnership among “equals” when it comes to location, fitting into the comprehensive plan, overall site planning, or development(one could say the city ought to be thought of as an equal, considering the financial investment made…). Nevertheless, there is potential to redo the surrounding land area around LOS to provide year-round activity, pedestrian activity, yes, more sales tax revenue, and more functional integration into the “urban fabric”, such as it is in this immediate area, and putting parking into an adjacent garage facility of design similar to LOS. Pogues Run’s daylighting could generate more smaller scale business around LOS, and break up the otherwise “desert” of surface parking that was allowed here (the city not being an equal partner has its consequences). the previous comment was posted too quickly…this chatter here is supposed to be the “real” comments; lastly, there needs to be some way to integrate the Babe Denny area south, as Pogues Run ran through there as an open stream prior to 1915. I’ve chattered enough.

  • I guess I have a hard time drawing a line in which Paul Brown Stadium is on the good side and LOS is on the bad side. I understand that some sort of mixed use development is going in between GAB and PBS, but that’s the only place where PBS integrates with anything. The aforementioned 14 lane superhighway is to the north; the riverfront is to the south; the Bengals’ practice fields (yet another fine use of downtown Cincy’s beachfront property) are to the west. The edge of the stadium is a good 100 feet from the traffic lanes of the street to the east. That’s better than LOS at its worst point compared to Capitol (250 feet) but the Colts Pro Shop (street level retail!) is only about 40 feet from Capitol’s traffic lanes.

  • John, I will submit to you that the practice field next to PBS is a terrible use of land. But having said that – I think putting a use like PBS next to the highway isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we accept that hulking stadiums are nearly impossible to integrate into an urban fabric, then why not put it somewhere where we only need to integrate, say, 2 sides of it instead of all 4? Something has to go next to the super highway in DT Cincy (yes, ideally, the super highway wouldn’t even be there, but that’s another issue), so why not a stadium that still has 2 sides integrated into some sort of fabric? This is what I see happening in Cincy with PBS.

  • I find the odd open spaces around LOS will eliminate any sort of integration with human scale development in the near future. This space planning mission was for convenient people moving from the stadium to the next hotel space or mall. All this means, John, is downtown Indianapolis is a developing MALL for convention goers. Natural residential and commercial development will be integrated in the longer term future—while, unfortunately, at a higher cost because of the type of planning that shapes downtown Indy as a CONVENTION CENTER and not a PLACE TO LIVE. It’s a reality we all have to deal with. Sorry, but LOS is a bigger vacuum than what you may want to admit.

  • I agree with Micah. For downtown to feel like a real urban place, it needs to be a place where people LIVE as well as work and play. It is way too much of an event city.

  • What they can do with LOS is send the parking underground superimpose streets were the surface parking now sits and bring back to life the Legends District–SODO in a new location even though LOS sits in the Wholesale District or at least near it…
    anyway here’s a map of my new streets:

    • That IS an alternative…worth researching further; underground parking, or at last some of it underground and the rest in a parking garage…however configured to allow the surface street system to function better and to have more business activity and include the daylighted course of Pogues Run as part of the plan…

  • The neighborhood just south of the stadium was a pretty vibrant place until I-70 cut through its heart. Since then, the area has been under constant decline because all the aspects of neighborhood were removed–access to convenience stores, walkable areas and a dense street network. Now that the city has invested in the football stadium and in making Indianapolis a convention destination, the area between I-70 and McCarty will continue to deteriorate. However, reincorporating the street grid, creating a combination of structured parking below and above ground, filling in with mixed-use, low-rise development and boosting the residential portion of the surrounding neighborhood could make stadium district an active and vibrant neighborhood.

    In terms of urban form, treat LOS like a European Cathedral (after all, it is to that scale and now acts as the seat of American Sunday worship) and create a plaza on the South side, filled with mixed development that can become an active space year-round, perhaps with a Saturday farmer’s market, etc. Extend the White River park down behind the Industrial garbage and turn it into a gateway to the stadium district, connecting Victory Field with the stadium along an extended urban green space. There is real opportunity to create something special within the city, even if the crappy architects made Lucas Oil Stadium an object in the field.

    By the way, I am a graduate architecture student at the University of Cincinnati, and my master thesis project happens to be the redevelopment of Indianapolis around LOS in an attempt to transform it from suburban modality (acres and acres of parking) into an urban delight.

  • Kyle, I’d take issue with “acres and acres of parking”. The amount that is exclusively for stadium use is relatively small, about the same footprint as the “cathedral” itself.
    Compare an aerial of LOS with the new stadia in Dallas and Phoenix, or even Dodger Stadium. Only a small part of the parking around LOS is there only for LOS. It mostly serves the daytime office uses south of the rail line, primarily Lilly, Anthem, Post Office, and Farm Bureau. Soon also Rolls Royce. In a way, LOS is “free riding” on all that existing downtown parking. It even replaced a bunch of surface lots.
    Obviously I am looking only at the 2006 marginal change related to the stadium itself rather than the whole suburban-driven-since-1950 story. No one can argue that a substantial amount of surface parking has replaced structures in the downtown area over the long haul.
    Oh, regarding some of that “industrial garbage” west of LOS: much is now super-secure telecommunications and server farms. 21st-century infrastructure in adaptive re-use of early 20th-century industrial and warehouse facilities. The way things should be.

    • Yes, I agree that its adaptive reuse is the highest and best use of the existing infrastructure, but the nature of its security automatically cuts it off from urban interaction. This is why extending the White River State Park behind it all and continuing the green path down into the area surrounding Lucas Oil would be a great way of activating the space in the general neighborhood.

      The parking lot, even if its footprint is small relative to other stadia, is still excessive for an urban place. The amount of surface lots immediately surrounding the stadium, or within reasonable walking distance, is too much to warrant such a waste of potentially valuable property around the stadium. For example, the owner of Indianapolis Welding Supply, who buys properties, razes the buildings and converts them into parking, is not doing the neighborhood area a favor. It’s a fantastic business move on his part because the land is currently more valuable as temporary parking than as vacant building, and he will make a killing on the land if redevelopment ever does happen. That property could all potentially be highly valuable, and he stands to gain much in the future. However, the more deteriorated the fabric becomes over time, the more difficult it will be to sell the development opportunity to investors who are scared into a more conservative stance due to the economy.

  • The biggest missed opportunity with the construction of LOS was not keeping Merrill Street open between the stadium and the parking lot. Two super-blocks, each comprised of four downtown blocks, would have been enough of an impediment to redevelopment of the surrounding area, but I fear the one mega-block caused by vacating Merrill Street will continue to have a huge dampening effect on the surrounding area for many years to come. Of course, some progressive thinker could try to renegotiate the deal…

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