Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Circle is Unbroken

Weighing in on closing Monument Circle to traffic has become the subject du jour for bloggers and opinionators across the city. For a recent opinion piece by the "Star" reporter, Matthew Tully see

Closing the Circle to vehicular traffic is one of the most numbskull ideas to gain traction in this city in a long time. When Carmel is gaining national recognition for its innovative roundabouts, we're closing one right in the heart of our city. That Circle is a natural traffic calming device. It forces drivers to slow down and take a look. And there is plenty going on so there's always a lot to take a gander at when driving on the Circle.

The Circle also allows for parking directly in front of the few retail businesses that have made a stake on or near it. And we all know Hoosiers need to park within eyesight of their destination or they simply won't go there. So, as others have pointed out, closing the Circle to traffic and therefore to parking will kill the businesses that are there.

It also makes no sense in terms of drawing more people. The Circle is full of people almost all the time. Even on Sundays when there are very few business reasons to be there, people are all over the place. Sitting on the Monument, drinking their Starbucks, eating their burritos.

Given its popularity already as a pedestrian hangout, we gain nothing from making it a pedestrian mall. That is such a tired idea already. It was tried all over the state in the 70s and 80s and it virtually killed downtown areas like the one in Richmond, Indiana. Pedestrian malls are a failed revitalization tool. And Monument Circle doesn't need revitalization.

The Circle is already often closed for special events, which makes them seem very special indeed. The word "special" implies something that isn't ordinary. Making the Circle ordinary is the last thing we should be considering and closing it makes those special events not so special after all.

The Circle has been the heart of the city and part of what makes it so alive is the traffic that flows through it. People slowly driving around it get a gander at that extraordinary exclamation point at the center of an old city plan. And the Circle's history is that it has always been used for vehicular traffic, as well as pedestrian activity.

When I heard about this lamebrained idea it made me remember a meeting I attended when I was heading up the Mass Ave Merchants Association about 10 years ago. This was a meeting for the Indianapolis Downtown Inc. Marketing Board. At that time, the board included managers from all the downtown hotels, a representative from IUPUI, people from the Dept. of Metropolitan Development, folks from the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, downtown realtors and others who were busy trying to sell Indianapolis as a destination.

At this particular meeting Kurt Flock, a downtown real estate agent, asked the members of the board how many lived downtown. Out of probably 50 people making their livings promoting downtown, 4 of us (including Kurt and me) lifted our hands in answer to that question. Kurt then asked: "what would it take to get the rest of you to move here?" The first answer was the most memorable. It came from a representative of the ICVA: "cul de sacs."

Well, here we are making a cul de sac out of the Circle. So I guess he's getting his wish.

People, cul de sacs belong in the suburbs not in the center of our urban city. Until the people who market our city get that idea into their suburban brains I guess we'll continue to see these suburban planning notions creeping into the city center. Pretty soon we'll be an extension of Carmel and Zionsville, Greenwood and Brownsburg.

Then I'll be moving to a city.