Most people who have lived in Indy for at least a few years know that the south side of town is the least densely populated and, for the most part, the least developed of the four.Â Two of the three southside townshipsâ€”Decatur and Franklinâ€”still claim huge stretches of land that are essentially rural farms, and the I-465 beltway does not extend nearly as far southward from downtown as it does in the other cardinal directions.
However, the reputation that the south side has of being almost rural seems completely unfounded, when one considers some of the densely populated areas immediately south of downtown, including neighborhoods such as Babe Denny, Bates-Hendricks, Sacred Heart, South Village, and Garfield Park.Â The high level of development continues into Perry Township, home of such communities as Homecroft and Southport and the most densely populated of the three southside townships.Â Â By many metrics, though, the south side of town still lacks a key defining visual element to distinguish it.Â In addition, the primary commercial corridors of Madison Avenue and U.S. 31 (East Street) have suffered from some of the typical outward migration of businesses toward the southern reaches of Indianapolis and the suburb of Greenwood.Â An area called the Miracle Mile, centered around where Madison Avenue splits to form U.S. 31 and southbound Madison Avenue, was thriving with shopping and dining opportunities in the 1950s.Â Today, itâ€™s spotty, offering some still-successful businesses but many shuttered storefronts, vacant lots, or used car dealerships broadly indicative of depressed land values, as I indicated on a previous blog article.
While many business owners in the area have long been aware that it needed a facelift, the tornado of May 30, 2004 proved the catalyst.Â Ripping through a broad stretch of the city, including its most historic neighborhood (Homecroft), the F2 tornado damaged a number of businesses across the south side in general and the Miracle Mile in particular.Â Over the next few years, the greater community around the East Street and Madison Avenue corridors organize to form the Gateway Business Alliance.Â Doing business as the Gateway Community Alliance (GCA), the organizationâ€™s primary goals include economic development, expanding educational opportunities and the redevelopment of housing in the area.Â Since the tornado, the GCA has witnessed more than $30 million in private investment flow into the area, despite contending with one of the longest and severest recessions in recent history.
Even with these achievements, the GCAâ€™s profile has been relatively low.Â However, that is about to change with the completion of an important visual element to improve the streetscape:
These big cement columns flanking the road donâ€™t look like much at the moment, but soon they will materialize as the Gateway Arch, a primary feature in the Gateway South Initiative.
Jeff Cardwell, Founder & President of the Gateway Community Alliance (and a City-County Councilmember until recently), was able to provide me with some renderings of the arch should look like when complete.Â Hereâ€™s a view southward, right where Madison Avenue and U.S. 31 diverge:
Notice the small sign in the background, in the grassy area formed by the Y-shape at the point of divergence.Â This northward view along U.S. 31 better demonstrates the placement of these two signsâ€”what the Initiative is calling â€œcommunity windowsâ€.
After multiple years in design by HNTB, this arch broke ground several weeks ago, with an anticipated completion date in time for this yearâ€™s Miracle Mile Parade on August 31.Â The two columns on either side of Madison Avenue will feature pedestals of brick and split face stone, supporting masts made of cast stone.Â The black arch itself will be made of brushed and polished steel.Â Clearly it intends to serve as a landmark, a prominent visual cue in an area with little other evidence of unity among the existing structures.Â The arch is appropriately scaled to attract the eye of motorists passing by, while the more modest community windows are better suited for pedestrians.
The development of the District Gateway includes far more than just these new fabrications, however.Â The arch and community windows help to kick off a broader master plan for the area to improve its overall attractiveness.Â The site plan around the arch reveals the level of care being put into the landscaping for the Madison/US 31 divergence point:
These plans merely capture Phase One of a project with considerable geographic scope and a greater time horizon.Â The overall focus area includes Raymond Street to the North, Thompson Road to the South, Keystone Avenue to the East, and Bluff Road to the Westâ€”in short, the most populous expanse of Indyâ€™s south side within the I-465 beltway.
Other, subtler aspects of the initiative are visible in various fits and starts.Â Among the most visible are the significant improvements along the Hanna Avenue corridor east of Shelby Street, the hub of activity for the University of Indianapolis.Â UIndy primarily sits on the northern side of Hanna Avenue (the right side of the street in the photos below), but a few old buildings rest to the south, and most of the universityâ€™s expansion is taking place on that side, integrated with old houses in the University Heights neighborhood.
During school passing periods, the density of pedestrians crossing Hanna is moderately heavy, and the improvements have provided copious crosswalks, landscaped medians, specialty lighting, audible flashing signals at important intersections (such as Otterbein Avenue), and a replacement of the ugly cable-suspended stop lights with metal masts and stanchions.Â Â Anybody familiar with the campus beforehand would recognize that the aggregate results have helped to calm traffic along Hanna Avenue so that the thoroughfare does not split the campus in half as dramatically as it did before.Â In addition, overhead power lines have been buried through the entire width of Hanna that passes through campus.
Beyond the UIndy campus, however, the pedestrian streetscape is less impressive.
West of the campus along Hanna, the sidewalk suffers the usual double-barreled Indy shortcoming: installation of the pavement right along the curb (no tree lawn to shield pedestrians from speeding traffic), and the quintessential utility poles protruding from the sidewalk.
And, while the intersection with Shelby Street clearly has undergone upgrades, west of Shelby is less impressive.Â At the intersection with Madison Avenue, sidewalks are already inconsistent:
And between Madison and U.S. 31, Hanna only received the sidewalk treatment on the south side of the street, a frustratingly common DPW tactic that I featured at a recent improvement along South Emerson Avenue.
Notice that the north side of Hanna includes a bus stop, but potential passengers have to stand in the grassâ€”not an easy situation for a person using a wheelchair or stroller, but a common configuration throughout the south side of Indy.Â Meanwhile, at the intersection of Hanna and U.S. 31, the crosswalk is incomplete: no signals, and no curb cut on the southwest corner, making it impossible for a wheelchair to get from the street to the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, the opposite side of the street lacks crosswalk features altogether.
Apparently work has also begun on the streetscape along Shelby Street.Â One of the most significant improvements, largely supported by the GCA, was the installation of bike lanes along Shelby Street, connecting University of Indianapolis up to Garfield Park and then again into Fountain Square.Â The photo below, south of the Shelby and Sumner Avenue intersection, reveals some new drainage upgrades that are visible at the horizon:
The Gateway South initiative is obviously an incremental process.Â Frankly, I think it has been a wise decision to begin with the most visually stimulating element: the formidable arch spanning across six lanes of traffic.Â It demonstrates unequivocally the sincerity GCAâ€™s plan and its ability to implement the most ambitious element.Â However, I have followed the evolution of the design of this project over the years, and I recall one of the earlier master plans showing clearer articulation of the installation of sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting, most of which are absent in the more recent iterations.Â Mr. Cardwell has assured me that those will take place in later phases.
My hope for this expansive streetscape improvement plan is that it will emphasize quality and comprehensiveness over speediness of implementation.Â If it takes twice as long to raise the funds to install sidewalks on both sides of Madison Avenue, U.S. 31, Shelby Street, as well as the east-west collector roads (Hannah, Troy, Sumner), it would be worth it in this area with a heavy concentration of businesses and residences, often immediately next to one another.Â The density of activity more than justifies sidewalks that comply with the cityâ€™s Complete Streets bill that passed last year.Â (A significantly less dense area in Decatur or Franklin Township, for example, may only warrant a sidewalk on one side of the road.) Most likely, much of the Gateway Southâ€™s focus area developed at a time before it was incorporated into the city; prior to 1970â€™s Unigov, Troy Avenue was the southern boundary.Â As a result, the area evolved with less rigid zoning regulations and considerably less advanced infrastructural investment that it otherwise might have enjoyed.Â The catch-up process may prove slow and costly, but the integration of key visual landmarks with a vastly improved pedestrian environment should ensure a smart blend of aesthetics with unquestioned utility.