In a manner consistent with it’s recent revitalization efforts in the downtown Art’s District and the new City Center &Â Palladium, Carmel has laid the groundwork for future revitalization of the 70’s era Merchant Square; which lies near the intersection of 116th Street and Keystone Parkway in Hamilton County. At the core of the plan is a phased reconstruction of the current configuration with an aim at pedestrianizing the now automobile oriented commercial development.
Before anyone gets ahead of us, this is simply a plan; not yet set in stone. Nationally renowned city planner Jeff Speck was tapped to assemble a plan for revitalizing the aging automobile oriented commercial center into a pedestrian oriented site that would prove to be more environmentally and economically sustainable over the long term with hopes of stemming the out-flux of high profile tenants to newer and far flung developments such as Clay Terrace & Hamilton Towne Center.
But why and how is that accomplished? As Speck has pointed out repeatedly in written books such as Walkable City, the built form of our fringe suburbs is automobile oriented, providing a barrier to potential activation by pedestrians. Indeed, from the report,
“The transformation of Merchantsâ€™ Square holdsÂ the potential to be a demonstration project ofÂ lastingÂ significance. The challenge presented byÂ Americaâ€™s suburban commercial centers, in someÂ ways epitomized by Merchantsâ€™ Square, is to redevelopÂ a somewhat viable but auto-centric environmentÂ into a pedestrian-friendly place of civicÂ life, while limiting negative impacts on existingÂ businesses and residents. We believe that such aÂ transformation is possible at Merchantsâ€™ Square,Â and that this siteâ€™s evolution can serve as a modelÂ for literally hundreds of similar sites across theÂ country.”
As pointed out, putting the pedestrian at the center of the plan provides the foundation from which the design springs forth; and how success will be judged.Â With more than 350k square feet of retail space and large expanses of surface parking, much is required to rectify prior planning.
The proposal begins with an analysis of the existing conditions and then plots a course to sustainability on the basis of a Primary Network of Walkability. The existing roadway network is evolved over time to something that would encourage more pedestrian friendly land uses. A supporting secondary network is established as well, and aÂ trans-formativeÂ gateway along 116th street is envisioned.
Existing land uses are addressed as well. The proposed plan recognizes the success of current retail, but also defines an expected shelf life on the current buildings and how future redevelopment could take shape to support the goals of this plan.
In an interview with Carmel mayor Jim Brainard, I asked why Merchant Square and why now? His reply was that all redevelopment vision needs to start with an idea or framework. While this plan may not (and mostÂ certainlyÂ will not) be carried out 100% as it stands, planning for the future now will ensure that when the time comes, the city is ready to embrace these changes. He also commented on the sustainability of redeveloping our existing spaces versus developing in greenfield environments.
I asked why there is not a transit component to this plan. Indeed, Speck asked the same question when assembling this plan. His response was that the Indy Connect plan already dedicates service to this area and that redefining the work already done would be redundant. However, he did note that future transit plans could influence the final version of this plan. Indy Connect’s vision of this area in the future includes local bus service along 116th street as well as Bus Rapid Transit along Keystone Parkway. How a future stop at 116th street would be designed and oriented could influence how the Merchant Square plan evolves.
The next step towards implementing the plan starts with the Carmel Planning Commission. Until then, nothing will take shape from this plan.
Is this a grand vision? It may not be as big as transforming Carmel’s old downtown (now the Arts District). It does carry with it a trans-formative focus that speaks of the tremendous amount of work that would need to be completed for this vision to come to fruition. As we have seen in the local media, it can be difficult to carry out these large scale plans without some push back. The City Center as well as the Art’s District while fantastic in their built form, have not come without significant push back from fellow Carmel conservatives. Seeing how the leadership in Carmel push this plan forward will be interesting.
A draft version of the plan can viewed as a .PDF by clicking here.