Downtown as Home

What happened in downtown Indianapolis between the 1970s and the present day is often referred to as one of the best examples of urban revitalization in recent years. This is with good reason. Thirty years ago, the city’s nickname was ‘naptown’, today we’re preparing to host the Super Bowl. It would be wrong to deny or discount the massive changes for the better that have benefited the Circle City over these last three decades.

But it’s not enough.

To oversimplify things a bit, the growth in Indy’s downtown has been driven by civic and government leaders focused on three things:

-        Sports and events

-        Retail and entertainment

-        Conventions

All three of these strategies have successfully built downtown into a desirable destination for an evening or a weekend. By themselves, however, they have not built our downtown into an engaging place to live. The recent announcement that the downtown Borders location would be among those that the bookseller would be shuttering in the near future is a reminder that we live in a fast-changing world with  emerging trends that don’t necessarily benefit the strategies Indianapolis has employed to drive the growth in its downtown sector. Obviously, Borders is specifically struggling because more and more people are either ordering books online or using e-reading devices. But this isn’t strictly about selling reading material. Consumer and business behavior is changing dramatically. More and more consumer behavior is no longer centered around going to a shopping district. More and more businesses are allowing employees to work from home or decentralized offices. To survive in such a changing world, downtown Indy can no longer be a place to work, a place to eat, a place to shop, and a place to watch a football game.

It must be home.

Today, downtown’s #1 goal should be to make itself the most resident-friendly downtown in the Midwest. Certainly, steps taken recently have pushed us in the right direction. The Cultural Trail is a great pedestrian-centric initiative that deserves all the praise it’s been given. Indianapolis Downtown Inc. has done a great job promoting Indy as a place to live. Recent apartment developments have been announced that will push downtown’s population higher. But work is still left to be done to make downtown a residential center of the city.

When the downtown population at night is equal to what it is during the day, then Indianapolis will really have something to brag about.

Comments 30

  • Really good article Scott. I agree Indy has come a long way and the city, any city for that matter, needs downtown residents to really give the city vitality and vibrancy after 5pm. It is really a ‘show of strength” for any city when people want to live downtown whether in condominiums and or apartments. The Georgia street project, in addition to the Cultural Trail, is a wonderful pedestrian-friendly project that I hope locals as well as visitors really appreciate about Indy.

  • Great write up Scott. Welcome to the party BTW! 😉

    I agree with this sentiment. The uptic in apartment housing occuring in Indianapolis is a good sign that we are headed in the right direction. There is still a long way to go though. There are many pockets that feel desolate in the CBD that could be amply filled by new neighborhoods, and properly filling out old ones.

  • This hits home with me personally, as I’m temporarily working from home to look after my daughter. This means I’m no longer downtown eating lunch or shopping like I used to do. I’m saving money, but downtown currently has one less daily visitor. I’m definitely not alone in this.

  • Since my coming to Indy in 1997 (born and raised overseas), I witnessed a large (positive) transformation of its downtown. I agree that we need a different focus now. There are some apartment/condo projects in the pipeline (according to there are 33 residential projects with 3,111 units to be completed by 2015), but we also need other things: better schools, better mass transit (connecting Downtown and BRipple with a cable car line would do a lot for development of those abandoned areas between these two hotspots), better public spaces (i.e. parks). So, there is always that chicken or the egg dilemma – you need density to build mass transit, but you get density once there is mass transit available. Anyway, I want to see more engaged mayor. It’s hard for me to accept the lack of urgency or passion from our city leaders (and residents for that matter).

    • Better public spaces…better how? There’s plenty of good and well-designed public space downtown: Circle, Circle Centre, Artsgarden, Military Park, White River State Park, Canal, University Park/Legion Mall/Library, Cultural Trail, and the various campuses (State Government, IUPUI, Lilly, Anthem), along with quite a few pocket parks. My opinion is that programming the public spaces is what’s important, but that’s a different matter than having enough space in the right places…which downtown Indy does.

      Better schools? Never heard of Center for Inquiry (third location coming soon at King Park, after one downtown and one at School 84 in Meridian Kessler), Key School, or the Math/Science/Technology Magnet program at Tech? All those are well-regarded IPS programs. Add Herron High School (recently ranked in the top 50 HS in the whole US) and the other near-downtown-area charters and that old “need better schools” argument starts to look a little weak.

  • JP, that is what Urban Indy is here for, to build passion for the residents… and our civic leaders

  • Downtown is relatively livable as it exists today, though I like the post and agree improvement is paramount to foster residential growth. Much of the lag in increasing residential population in the CBD seems to center around perceptions of safety. The combination of courts, jails, and homeless shelters in the CBD adds to this perception (or reality depending on your view point.) The Market St. redevelopment plan will remain stagnate for decades without change in this.

    Affordable housing is important but most residential development efforts should be centered around 3 populations: (1) Professionals under 35 with incomes under 60k, (2) Older singles, and (3) the transient professionals that plan to live in the city for under a 5 year period who may prefer rent or home ownership (academic or professional.) I would add to that first group professional students focus on law, business, medicine, and the arts. The CBD and near downtown neighborhoods have to out-compete the draw to northside and Hamilton county apartment/condo living. Schools are not an issue; and entertainment, networking, and possibly shopping are priorities in those groups where downtown can trump those offered by suburbs. I particullary agree with the suggestion by CHRIS (above) to improve programming in public spaces targetted at groups mentioned.

    Improve both the preception and reality of safety and more specifically target the appropriate populations.

  • Chris – you are right, programming is the key (not lack of public spaces). And maybe a school issue is a perception issue. I read about Herron High School’s achievement, and I hope they keep it up and grow. If IPS is equal or better than surrounding schools systems, than they need to change the wrong perception (because I don’t think it’s just me). I find downtown very livable (in 30s, no kids). I don’t need to be convinced, but I might not be a typical Indy resident. There must be some good and some not so good reasons why downtown is not home to more people, and I guess addressing real and perceived problems will be the key. It is frustrating that no problem is ever simple. Even some “no-brainers” like building housing on IUPUI campus (only about 1,000 out of 30,000 students live on campus) are not that simple. I wish someone would write more about that issue, but from what I gathered (please someone correct me if I’m wrong) the gist of the problem seems to be that the state doesn’t permit more housing on campus, since a lot of funding that state provided is being repaid via parking revenue. Although there were some encouraging recent developments.

    • JP, I was not trying to say that IPS overall is good. In fact the opposite is true, it’s bad overall. But “bad overall” always seems to obscure the bright spots that do exist in the system.
      If parents want to use the default public schools based on where they live, then they do risk their kids’ futures if they live in the IPS district. That is a definite cost of living within IPS boundaries: parents must examine school choices carefully, including public magnets, charter, private, and parochial schools.

  • Unfortunately Indy still lacks the proper retail to grow dowtown residency further. I have many friends who live downtown that struggle getting the things they need for everyday living without leaving the core. Where do you go for groceries, hardware stores, department stores like Target, Wal-Mart, Meijers, butcher store………. If you live in downtown Chicago you walk out of any apartment building and you are in walking distance from everything you need and more. Indy has come a long way but unless you want to go to O’malias during business hours you have to get into your car and drive to a bad neighborhood or even farther to go grocery shopping.

  • David this is an example of reality vs. perception. Indianapolis has more than adequate shopping in downtown Indianapolis. Marsh supermarket, CVS, Walgreen’s, and Circle Center Mall can satisfy most daily needs. There are dry cleaners, tailors, auto parts store, gyms, barbars, liquor store, and laudromats. There is even a butcher shop just south of Fountain square – not too far away. Still those who are interested in having a greater milleau of retail, more residents will bring that about. Unlikely to occur the other way around.

  • I agree with Jeff. All of those things are present. You arent going to find a Lowes anytime soon I am betting, but there is a hardware store right next to Omalia’s. I dont even live downtown and have used it often when I was helping out with a project downtown.

    Plus, there are some “convenience” stores that sell all the essentials from personal hygeine to medical. The fact that they arent on every corner may be a talking point, but it should be noted that they arent on every corner when you get away from the core either.

    It all boils down to perception

  • Jeff: In your list of key population groups that should be considered when promoting downtown housing, you talked about older singles — but I don’t know why you left out older Couples. They also are an important group. Also, middle age couples could be another focus, and primarily these would be couples – whether gay or straight – that don’t have kids.

  • CURT: I totally forgot about the True Value next to Marsh. Word needs to get out better that they are there and carry sufficient products for most do-it-yourself projects.

    TJOHN: Good call on older and gay couples. I suspect the groups you mention would have greater impact on supporting commerce in the downtown areas, which is so vital to maintaining the institutions and organizations an urban environment prospers under. I chose the groups I mentioned because I ‘percieve’ there exist a lower threshold for them to make the move to downtown: young, single, and renting. I associate couples and marriage with stability, ‘roots’, and homeownership; thus reducing the number willing or able to make the downtown move. Improvement in livability, though, would do much to attract more of the important groups you mentioned.

  • I would also like to add that downtown/near-downtown neighborhoods such as Herron-Morton Place, Old Northside and Fall Creek Place can be suitable places for families with children. This is evident from the growing number of children in my neighborhood (HMP).

  • In regards to housing at IUPUI…….

    My partner works in the student housing field and has many contacts at IUPUI. The issue with student housing at IUPUI is not the state. It’s with IU. They are starting to see a small percentage people who want to go to IUPUI because it’s downtown rather than go to IU in Bloomington, and they severly restrict the money flow for a large housing program.
    When they started downtown they were more of a commuter campus then they are now. Roughly 30% of the people that go to school there live downtown. They recently recieved approval to build additional space for student housing (roughly 2,000 more than they currently serve).

  • I was talking to one of IUPUI professors about this, and he was giving me a different story….anyway thanks for the info.

  • Man I love this website! I just stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago and have thoroughly enjoyed reading about the things I am passionate about as well. This article in particular stands out for me personally because of my living situation. I am a prime example of someone who should be living in downtown Indy but has been a suburban dweller all of my life. I’m in my mid 30’s, gay, no kids, work downtown, go to school at IUPUI (a geography student nonetheless), and I love being downtown yet I am living about 40 miles away in the northern part of Carmel. I think what Jeff says is true for most people living in the suburbs including myself that it is reality vs perception. I love the “idea” of not having to drive everywhere, of living in a unique neighborhood/setting, being steps away from a variety of restaurants/theatres/festivals…basically a lot of things the suburbs lack. But it always becomes a question of what am I going to be giving up if I choose to live downtown instead of what am I gaining. Is it safety? Is it the comforts of my SuperTarget down the street? Will my grocery shopping experiences at O’Malia’s be enjoyable? I play a lot of tennis and now that the downtown tennis center is gone do I want to give up being able to walk/ride my bike to tennis courts like I currently can?
    Having said all that- the bf and I starting next week are looking at properties downtown and hopefully within a few months will be turning downtown living into a reality and maybe change a few perceptions I have of what I am giving up to live downtown.

  • You’re not stuck with O’Marsh. Check out Pogue’s Run Grocer,
    Not exactly a walk from downtown, but you could bike or ride the bus.
    There are tennis courts near Downtown at 16th & Fall Creek Park (across the street from the State Lab, just west of I-65/Methodist Hospital). There are also courts at Christian Park (500 block south, 4000 block east), Riverside Park (~2500 north, ~1800 west), Brookside Park (~1600 north, 3500 east), and Garfield Park (2500 south, 1000 east).
    But you’ll have to give up the SuperTarget habit.

  • Thanks Chris for the suggestions, I will definitely check out Pogues Run. It is great getting feedback and suggestions to what is available downtown.

    As far as the tennis courts, I very familiar with all of them (but again thanks for the list and the actual locations). The problem with the tennis courts in the downtown area is they are in pretty bad shape. I play a lot at Riverside and used to play at Tarkington and the conditions of them have significantly gone down hill. Good news is IndyParks recently announced they were going to redo some of the courts this year.

    That is sort of my point in my earlier post- if I didnt know IndyParks was doing something about the current condition and options of tennis courts in downtown it would make me think twice about living downtown. I think those types of ammenities that are so in abundance and in better condition in the suburbs are what keep more people from moving downtown.

  • It seems to me that making the transition to a 24/7 downtown can be an arduous one. It requires some important changes in the thinking of the general population. They need to get over their fear of the danger many believe exists in the urban core. It requires letting go of the fantasy of a detached home on a single plot of land. It requires believing that hi rises and hard surfaces can be a neighborhood. It means accepting living in a place where everyone does not look like everyone else. These are all tough conceptual issues to overcome.

    With that in mind, it seems to me that those cities trying to expand their residential base in the downtown core need to gear their attractions for the low hanging fruit…….singles, empty nesters, artists and gays [no pun intended]…….the people who traditionally live in downtown settings. These are people who are not as concerned with parks and schools and who are fairly mobile so they can drive to get groceries. Indeed, these people more likely are concerned with good restaurants, clubs, concerts of all kinds, museums……a reasonable level of nightlife. These are amenities more easily attained in a successful downtown core that hosts conventions and lots of office workers.

    The city in which I live has a growing residential population in its downtown core. There are roughly 55,000 people living downtown. However, only now is a supermarket setting up operations. Only now is Target building a store. Only now are some families considering living downtown. While that’s great……..the more the merrier, I never expect families to make up a large percentage of the people living downtown. Why? They have too many considerations……good schools, child safety, places for children to play where mothers or fathers can easily monitor them by looking out a window, other closeby playmates, daycare, etc. Can these considerations be overcome? Of course……..but I don’t think easily.

    For some reason, families are always the prize but I think cities need to let go of that goal and just go for what works and what can be attained easily. And thats the people I identified up above. Later, if there is an interest, they can work to gain families.

  • Been a downtown resident for almost a decade, I don’t know why anyone would live anywhere else. We are a one car family, we walk to grocery, hardware, banking, library, colts, pacers, IRT, ISO, the Murat, and we haven’t even been able to eat at all the restaurants, etc. I find the current retail satisfactory, but would love to take it to another level to really gain traction. I love Goose Market, the new pop-ups coming on the north end of Mass Ave., as well as what I expect Georgia Street will attract. I visited the Pouges Run grocery and those neighbhorhoods a few weeks ago and those are the right steps. And now, the connectivity with our bikes and the cultural trail is incredible.

    I think the biggest misperception that I wish people would quite reiterating is the education system. They read the articles about IPS, and immediately parlay that across all downtown residents. As a recent parent who has spent the last year preparing for the first year of school,and done a significant amount of research on the topic, the thing downtown gives you is choise. The Center for Inquiry, International School, Oaks Academy, Broadway United Methodist school, the Todd Acadamy, all the Charter Schools, etc. In addition, you have IUPUI center for learning, and you drive the same distance to Park Tudor as any Carmel parent does. Based on the news that keeps coming up about Carmel schools, I am glad we went the downtown route for the educations part alone, not including all the other benefits. I really hope people start realizing all these options for the educational endevors, not all of which cost $$.

  • Anybody can live downtown and escape to the suburbs for the Super Target any day. Is it better to ‘live’ in the suburbs and escape to work and play downtown? It will be interesting to see how many more years it takes downtown to gain the residential population to support a 7 day / 18 hour city. The biggest perception changing development Indianapolis should support will be the College Ave light rail connecting B.R. to Downtown to Fountain Sq. It’s the one thing that will develop midtown and make downtown totallly livable. We just need an engaging mayor (with a supporting administration) who understands economics and COMMUNITY development. Why pave 69 every other year when it doesn’t need it? And the BRAIN DRAIN is a real dilemma here…let’s face it.

  • Apparently “NONAME” wants to turn this into a race issue which is unfortunate. The reality is there are bad neighborhoods with high crime and good neighborhoods with lower crime if we use crime as the determinant for what is good and bad. I figured everyone here is an adult and can handle discussing reality. You are the one that correlated “bad” with “brown” and I think that reflects more of your personal demons and insecurity and should be discussed at the psychiatrist office and not here.
    I think my point that there is not enough retail for daily living in downtown was sufficiently proven with the posts that followed me. Everyone had to put their brains together to find the one grocery store and the one hardware store in downtown. The other stores mentioned were a bus ride away and unfortunately our bus system is not the best. And no “NONAME” not the best has nothing to do with brown. Tu deberias tener mas confianza y no debes buscar el racismo donde no existe.

  • We strive to keep things civil around here. If you guys want to argue, take it somewhere else.

    • No problem Curt. My post would not have been necessary if you would have piped in 3 days ago when I was basically called a racist.

  • David: You were unfairly inferred a racist by NONAME. I’m sad to read that comment.

    Still your point that downtown lacks retail was not “sufficiently proven” by the cummulative list of downtown retail options. I work in high level academic medical research and would be fired for using a phrase like that in the way you did! Some who live downtown are unsatisfied we do not have a one-stop shop like Meijer or Target. There is a convenience associated with a business like that, especially when your barbar, dry cleaner, optometrist, dentist, car wash, and liquors is in the adjoining building. As easily listed above, the downtown day-to-day retail options are there but organized differently — no better, no worse.

    More residents with higher incomes near the CBD will bring more retail and redundancy of existing services, improving the experience by providing more choice within proximity to one’s residence.

    • Jeff: Fair enough. Since I am commenting on just experience and opinion and not profession I think we may be looking at this from two different lenses. I have a lot of friends that live downtown and I am often downtown and I think defining “convenient” may help my argument. Given the spread out nature of our city and downtown the area being serviced by the grocery store near mass ave and the one known hardware store is very large. If you live on the IUPUI campus or near it you would have a hefty walk to simply buy groceries or have to get in your car and find a parking spot. Driving to the grocery store in my opinion takes away the appeal of living in an urban environment. Not to mention if you have to drive there are also few gas stations downtown as many of us have probably found ourselves on empty realizing the only gas station is on the Southwest side of downtown or over by Fifth Third Bank on the East side of town I think off of Ohio? My point has been argued before by the attempts to build housing and additional retail in downtown. The main pitch with the failed Market Square twin tower development was the proposed retail for the residents to be able to shop nearby. . In this article under the “attracting retailers” section the same observation is made.
      Maybe one grocery store and one hardware store and scattered retail is sufficient for such a spread out downtown but in my opinion not all that convenient and I think an area for improvement.

  • Consider No Name “on notice”. That comment has been unapproved, as he used a fake e-mail address and was unnecessarily inflammatory. Apologies for not acting sooner. I honestly missed most of the discussion.

  • I just stumbled on this website today and wanted to say how great it and this whole discussion is.

    I grew up in Indy and never returned after leaving for college. My sister still lives in town, and on recent visits to see her I’ve been really impressed with what’s going on in downtown. Even if the mayor isn’t supportive, the city has made major strides physically with infill development, the area around the canal (there was NOTHING along the canal when I was growing up) and west to IUPUI, and the amazing blossoming of Mass Ave. It’s clear that there’s a lot going on at the grassroots level, from blogs like this to the cultural trail to renovation activity I’ve seen in Mass Ave-adjacent areas. While some official moves like the convention center expansion seem to me, if not misguided, at least backward-looking and ham-handed, at least there’s a vision of filling in and densifying downtown. But I think the gist of the comments here is right: focusing on making d/t resident-friendly would end up lifting all boats by supporting more businesses, more services, and maybe that tantalizing light-rail line I’ve seen mentioned.

    Beyond all that I wanted to point out that the focus on families in this discussion misses some significant demographic realities. At least on the national level, traditional, two-parent households with children at home have fallen from something like 3/4 of the entire housing market around 1960 to something approaching 30% of the housing market today—and dropping. (I’ll see if I can find some links and come back to post them.) Schools are important, of course, but the reality is there are all kinds of family formations nowadays and plenty more singles and houses with kids than you might think. I don’t know the demographics in Indy, but can they be THAT different from the national numbers?

    Again, congrats to the team that runs the site. Great to see it.

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