Greening Indy’s Redevelopment District

About two miles from downtown Indianapolis is the city’s designated smart growth revitalization district, a distressed area with many vacant properties, including a largely abandoned industrial corridor along a rail […]

About two miles from downtown Indianapolis is the city’s designated smart growth revitalization district, a distressed area with many vacant properties, including a largely abandoned industrial corridor along a rail line, but also good bones for renewal including a resilient population, a good street grid, some stable residential blocks, and prospects for a new, state-of-the-art transit line in the old rail corridor. I spent a few days there last fall as part of an AIA advisory team. I’ve been running a series on the neighborhood in my NRDC blog, summarizing what we saw and heard while there.

In my most recent post, I offer some thoughts on what strategies might give redevelopment there the best chance of success as a smart, green model project.

Achieving a path of sustainability in the district will be a challenge, and not just because of issues within the neighborhood. For example, Indianapolis as a whole is extraordinarily automobile-dependent: Of the nation’s 60 largest cities, it ranks 6th in the portion of its commuters who drive alone to work. In addition, disinvestment is a well-established pattern in Indiana: the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that an astonishing 94 percent of development in the state has been taking place on greenfields, outside of existing areas. (By comparison, in Oregon the portion is 52 percent; in Colorado, 62 percent.)

In that post, I discuss some recommendations for capitalizing on the district’s location and street texture by filling in vacant lots and adding density and complementary commercial uses on properties that are now blighted with abandoned industrial buildings. This can and should be done without disturbing single-family blocks or displacement. If the new transit line is built, which in my opinion it must be, the district’s appeal to investors will rise considerably, making thoughtful restoration financially viable.

If these things are accomplished, the community will attain the critical mass necessary to again support neighborhood-serving retail. Residents should not have to leave their own community to shop for food, health supplies or hardware, visit the bank, or grab a bite to eat. This is partly a matter of convenience, and partly a matter of giving the community a center, a stronger identity and sense of place.

Beyond capitalizing on its location and improving the neighborhood’s components and texture, though, the city will need to do more to achieve its stated goal “of creating a green development demonstration area recognizable as such within 3 years.”

Perhaps the district’s greatest opportunity for additional sustainability achievement lies in the use of advanced techniques for managing stormwater runoff with green infrastructure. The issue is of particular importance to Indianapolis, which is plagued with combined sewer overflows. Green infrastructure techniques include such measures as rain gardens, green roofs, vegetated swales, buffers and strips, tree planting and preservation, and use of permeable pavers for sidewalks, street and parking infrastructure. These allow stormwater to be absorbed rather than running off and picking up pollutants on its way to receiving waterways.

In the redevelopment district, the potential for these techniques is immense, because so many of the community’s roads and sidewalks need repair or replacement anyway, and there is likely to be so much new building on previously developed sites now covered with impervious surface. Sidewalks represent particularly good opportunities for incorporation of pavers and native vegetation at appropriate intervals, for example, and as streets are upgraded, they can be designed as green, complete streets with native landscaping to separate lanes and slow traffic to appropriate speeds that support walkability.

My group recommended that, in addition to undertaking extensive infrastructure repair in general, the city should Initiate a green infrastructure pilot project in a portion of the district, perhaps an area four to six blocks in size. This would have the benefit of visibility, adding credibility to the city’s efforts to restore the neighborhood without requiring major capital expenditure. At the same time, the city could plan and construct a model green, complete street that reduces water runoff, enhances neighborhood beauty, and accommodates all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers – equitably and safely along one of the district’s main corridors. The street could become a showcase leading to similar efforts throughout the neighborhood and in other parts of the city.

We also recommended that city planners work with community residents to designate an area of the neighborhood to serve as a walkable center, with moderate-density multifamily residences and an appropriate mix of neighborhood-serving shops and services. Ideally this would be located at a light rail stop. The center’s plan should be designed to qualify for LEED-ND gold or above certification.

Of course, for my architecture and planning teammates and me to make recommendations is pretty easy; for the city and neighborhood to implement them will be much more challenging, especially given the recession. At best, it will take a long period of sustained investment. But I was impressed by the amount of energy and commitment we witnessed while there and, given the successes I have seen elsewhere in similar situations, I’m very hopeful.
For a bit more detail along with several photos and maps, go here.

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