Sunday, November 15, 2009

New paint over termite-ridden boards

A lot of disparate events in the last few months came together in my mind today as I was reading the Indianapolis Sunday Star's article about revitalization along Martin Luther King, Jr. Street.

It's a touchy subject to be critical of a story about revitalization of an African American neighborhood when one is not African American, but a few things in the coverage of the project to revitalize the area seem wrong-headed to me.

As a downtown resident, and one who had to study some of MLK for impacts that might be caused to historic properties by the Cultural Trail, I have spent quite a bit of time walking and driving on the street. The article in the Star correctly states some of the problems, such as lack of parking and fast-moving traffic, and spells out some efforts that will be helpful in ameliorating them, including creating parking spaces out of one lane of traffic. New signage to direct visitors to local places of interest, banners "depicting figures such as [Martin Luther] King and local basketball legend Oscar Robertson" will line landscaped medians where the traffic lane once was, and the intersection where MLK meets I-65 will be "marked with two decorative pillars."

That all sounds fine. And it sounds a lot like the sort of ideas that Storrow and Kinsella, the landscape design firm in charge of the project, offer up for most of their downtown "revitalization" projects. Slow traffic, put something in the middle of the street, and create an environment that feels like something special is going on.

I have a few issues with this. First and utmost is that these are all just glossy paint over the much bigger issues on this corridor and in much of urban Indianapolis, which are abandoned derelict buildings and the crime and fear that comes with the broken window syndrome. Murals of Barack Obama and King are not going to make those problems go away. I have to wonder how much bigger an impact there might be if the $2 million spent on these cosmetic issues were put into making those empty buildings occupiable or even giving incentives to businesses and homeowners to move into them.

As a neighborhood activist in a working-class neighborhood with its own large set of abandoned buildings, and as one of a half-dozen neighborhood leaders invited to tour the southside with city department heads to talk about how we are trying to address this issue, I'm well aware that the issue of abandoned buildings is a primary problem in most neighborhoods and almost insurmountable for private citizens or citizen groups to tackle alone. The long waiting period while buildings sit empty before the city will place them on tax sales, and the city's own foul-up after the last tax sale, which voided the purchase of hundreds of these buildings, force neighbors to look elsewhere to try to address the problems that arise from having empty buildings around.

That's where beautification efforts come in. The thinking goes that if we make our neighborhoods look better in other areas maybe the folks we hope will make their homes here will overlook the broken windows and boarded-up doors in the 5 other houses in their block. As I toured the southside and heard the various stories of each of the neighborhood leaders on the bus the one thread that we all wove our tales around was abandoned buildings. Most of our neighborhood groups had coalesced around that issue, but none of them had been able to make any headway in solving it or even improving it much.

And that's why I think this revitalization effort is misdirected. Creating parking spaces for businesses and slowing traffic are laudable. But adding banners of Oscar Robertson and building up landscaped medians are not going to fix what's wrong in a neighborhood where a good portion of the buildings are sitting empty. And until those empty buildings are filled, no amount of makeup is going to cover the blemishes that mark the neighborhood.

The Star article neglected to mention where the funding for this effort is coming from or how much of it is going to the planners, but I strongly suspect that a different approach might render better results in the long run. I'd like to see the city make a real effort to fill up these empty buildings. And I'd like to see the monies that go into prettification go instead into incentivizing real people to take a chance on a troubled neighborhood.

A friend of mine just took me on a tour of a termite-infested house he's recently purchase for a song. His plans for rehabbing the house don't start with paint on the half-eaten boards or with a flower bed outside the front door so you won't notice what's missing in the beams and rafters. He's going to take out those termite ridden boards and put new ones in their place in somes spots; in others he can treat the board with insecticide and inject filler into it so that it reinforces the board from the inside out, making it strong once again. Painting and primping comes much further down the road for his house. He knows he has to have strong posts and beams first.

No matter how nice it is to have the city pay some attention and throw some money at a troubled neighborhood, unless the city helps do the real work of restoring the neighborhood and getting home owners and business owners into the abandoned buildings, it's still just painting over termite-infested boards.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Slowly comes a new Skyline

Indianapolis has been and remains a small topographical blip on the landscape of Central Indiana. But a couple of new changes to the downtown landscape are expanding and lifting the urban skyline. The first one, Lucas Oil Stadium, hulks massively over the southwestern edge of downtown. That's ok. It's not a terrible building. It's conservative, like most of our buildings. Some of the details, mainly the buttressed pilasters that define its window bays, are attractive. But in general it's just another huge football stadium, and it's another stadium (like Conseco Fieldhouse)that's paying design homage to the great beauty of Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Lucas Oil Stadium is an architecturally benign growth.

I am happier with the design of the JW Marriott, the new hotel under construction along Washington and West streets as part of the revamped Convention Center project.

The JW Marriott was designed by HOK Architects, a firm that is also responsible for the no-big-deal Indianapolis International Weir Cook Terminal (which by the way, looks a whole lot like the also no-big-deal Providence, R.I., airport terminal). HOK has designed some cool stuff, like the Edificio Malecon Office Tower in Buenos Aires and the very cool Tyson Foods Discovery Center in Springdale, Arkansas.

The JW Marriott in Indianapolis isn't in the spectrum of cool that those buildings represent. It isn't a great building. But it is a kinda-cool building. Rising 34 floors (according to Wikipedia)the curved building is clad in shimery-blue glass panels. A shorter two- to three-story section spans its facade along West Street. The design is nothing special, but the look is attractive and modern. And the panels break the smooth line of the glass wall which prevents the building from looking like a curved blue version of the negative landmark, "gold" building. Shorter buff and tan block buildngs that attach on the south side and spring up to the rear of the blue high rise are also part of the complex and are attractive in their own right, although far more pedestrian.

This isn't knock-your-socks off architecture. But it is a big asset to the downtown skyline, adding a high-rise several blocks west of Meridian Street on a corner that has been uninspiring. It's a nice juxtaposition to two buildings I like a lot on the north side of the street: the sandstone Eiteljorg and the sort-of 1950s International-ranch retro style of the Indiana State Museum. And the JWM even fits nicely with one of the city's best old buildings, the Perry K Steam Plant, whose terra cotta details make it a remarkable, industrial Art Deco beauty.

So this new good building is making nice with some existing good architecture. Along with Lucas Oil Stadium, it expands downtown to the west. But the most important asset the JW Marriott building brings to downtown Indianapolis is its addition to the skyline. This is a tall and truly urban building that's making a statement. And I like what it's saying. Feel free to weigh in with your yays or nays.