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.


  1. Connie:

    Describing the idea as lamebrained and numbskull doesn't make your point, but rather serves to alienate anyone who might have a differing opinion - or who hasn't yet made up their mind.

    But to your point - as we've discussed in other forums - comparing the center of the Capital of the State of Indiana to downtown Richmond or Anderson is a red herring. I was born and raised in Anderson. That downtown died decades before they tried to turn it into a pedestrian friendly area, primarily as the result of a suburban mall, strip centers, and the opening of two suburban high schools. As I have previously stated, there was no "there" there.

    Monument Circle may be one of the biggest "theres" in the State. A reason to go already exists, and people who are already there on a daily or weekly basis aren't going to disappear if you take out the cars.


    And that' what I want to hear discussed. What are the real implications - not hyperbole and hysteria. What is the data? Why has Pioneer Courthouse Square been so successful - a pedestrian-only block in the heart of Downtown Portland?


  2. Joe, sorry, but "lamebrained" seems the best descriptor to me and that's not a hysterical reaction ("Hysteria" is a pejorative, as well, of course.) My view isn't a shoot-from-the-hip one. It's based on my experience with how this city is marketed and the sense of insecurity so many of our marketers and our citizens seem to have about Indianapolis and all that's great about it. Rather than market us for what we are--a beautiful, clean city with historic architecture and lots going on, they want to "create" something that's better in their eyes. If we can just turn Indianapolis into something else everyone will love it. I can think of less interesting adjectives to apply to this idea but I rather like the ring of "numbskull" and "lamebrained".
    As you said, the Circle is a "there." It's not broken. Not in need of a quick fix to get some attention.

  3. "It's based on my experience with how this city is marketed..."

    I would suggest that it's less your experience and more your interpretation of how that marketing does or does not serve your personal ideas and interests which flavors your opinion.

    "...they want to "create" something that's better in their eyes."

    Please explain why this is a bad thing.

    I simply don't see closing the circle and promoting our city, its beauty and its architecture as mutually exclusive ideas. You obviously do. Please tell me why. Is getting rid of about 14 parking spaces really going to kill business on the circle? Tell me why.

    You say, "...Hoosiers need to park within eyesight of their destination or they simply won't go there." Are you insulting the people whom you're trying to support in the same sentence?

    And I also have yet to read why it's a lamebrained idea...except that you disagree with it. Compel me. Convince me. Engage me. Don't insult me.

  4. Joe, I wrote a long reply but decided that's not necessary. I'll simply say this:

    My post is about closing the Circle. What I've written is not in any way directed at you as the plan to close the Circle wasn't, as far as I know, your plan.

    You are a realtor. I am a former downtown retail merchant and a preservationist. Those professions don't necessarily share a viewpoint at all times. I've also lived downtown for 13 years, so I bring that perspective to all my writing.

    You disagree with my view. You are free to do that. No need to feel insulted or to expect me to compel you to agree with me.

  5. Interesting discourse here. While I would agree that "lamebrained" is a bit harsh, it does seem like an idea that is "misguided" (to use a favored safe word from the POTUS), based on decades of failed pedestrian malls. It's even more intriguing that reps from ICVA would claim that "cul-de-sacs" might help them rethink living downtown. I doubt it. Besides, what they're trying to do with Monument Circle is restrict access to cars completely, something that would no one would dare propose in the suburbs. And yet they still want to import a stereotypically suburban road design, the cul-de-sac, to the city center. What they want isn't the same as a suburban court or cove; it's weaker stuff.

    Many people prefer downtown because they specifically don't want to live in an environment that restricts mobility the way dead-ends do. And it's not like cul-de-sacs would make the ICVA staff choose downtown when they'd still have to contend with struggling schools, higher crime, mildly greater difficulties parking, and small lot sizes. No, a city needs to be more of a city; when it tries to compete with the suburbs by replicating the look and feel, it is guaranteed to lose.

  6. Apparently I wasn't the only one who expressed outrage at the idea of closing the Circle. This was in my Inbox from a post on the "Keep Monument Circle Open" Facebook page. I am glad Indianapolis residents made their views known about this idea, which is now being tabled and studied further.

    Subject: Memo from the Mayor's Office:
    From: Jen Pittman, Director of Marketing, City of Indianapolis
    Date: June 7, 2010
    Re: August on the Circle 2010

    Since announcing the city’s plan to temporarily close Monument Circle to vehicular traffic in August 2010, we have received a significant amount of feedback from residents, businesses, and community organizations.

    Some feedback has been positive. Some has been negative. One clear theme has emerged: our community – including the Monument Circle stakeholders – wants to be more engaged in the planning process than they have been to-date. And we want to respond to that very reasonable request. A truly collaborative process has the potential to produce something special for Monument Circle and for all of downtown, and we are fortunate to have so many individuals who are passionate about making this happen.

    We believe at this point, the best way to successfully engage the community in finding ways to make Monument Circle an even better public space, is to set aside the planned lane closures for August 2010 and continue to organize special events through the Event Advisory Board, using the existing process that should be familiar to both residents and businesses.

    August 2010 will still have programming aimed at encouraging pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the Circle as well as complementary programming throughout the rest of the city to highlight other public spaces, such as Whistler Plaza at the City Market. The city will work to engage the community in this programming, beginning with the Monument Circle stakeholders. The planning of this programming will not be carried out in a way that specifically seeks to create lane closures. It will be carried out in a way that seeks to energize use and enjoyment of our public spaces.

    “August on the Circle” will become a unified way to market events taking place on the Circle during that month –an outreach campaign that promotes a calendar of events scheduled for a public space. Stakeholders’ already-planned events can become part of this promotion if they choose to include the events.

    Beginning immediately, we will also work with the stakeholders to plan a more robust pilot for the summer of 2011. The focus of that planning from the outset will not be on lane closures, rather on creative ways to energize the Circle, provide an economic boost for downtown, and improve upon an already great public space. The shape that pilot takes will be driven by community input and participation.

    The website; will be updated within 48 hours to reflect the change. During that same timeframe, the city will work with local media to make them aware of the revised strategy. Planning for the summer 2011 pilot begin before the end of June 2010