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Brave New Burbs: Indy's Outlying Areas Are Booming

To protect their futures, the city's suburbs are redefining themselves, one walkable block at a time.

Zach Dobson steps into Joe’s Butcher Shop, sandwiched between Auntie Em’s custard shop and Mary & Martha’s boutique on Carmel’s Main Street. A meat-cutter in a white apron waves from behind the L-shaped glass counter and greets the 30-year-old photographer by name. Inside the cases are neat rows of pink chops, marbled roasts, and thick-sliced bacon. Zach and his wife, Courtney, are regulars at Joe’s. They shop here because they can buy locally raised meat, because they like the sense of community that comes from knowing the owners, and because they can walk here from their home on the edge of the Arts & Design District.

Six years ago, Zach and Courtney moved to Carmel from Chicago. They had lived near Wrigleyville in the city and were used to having everything close by—shops, restaurants, and parks all within walking distance. When the couple decided to move to Indianapolis to be closer to their families, they looked for that same urban feel in neighborhoods downtown and in Broad Ripple. But they wanted to start a family and were attracted by the quality of the Carmel schools. They liked how the suburb was reenergizing its once-sleepy core with apartments and galleries, so they rented a townhouse near the City Center and eventually bought their midcentury-modern home.

Last year, Zach opened a small but sleek new studio, Zach Dobson Photography, on a side street near the Palladium. It’s three minutes from home by car, and on nice days, he can bike. Because lower taxes and rent in Carmel offset the cost of travel, Zach can compete for jobs with photographers who live in New York and Los Angeles.

In their free time, Zach and Courtney walk along Main Street’s brick sidewalks with their two children, sometimes splitting a salad and a tenderloin at Muldoon’s or mixing with the crowd at Bub’s along the Monon Trail. They poke around the Old Town Antique Mall. Driving is the exception, not the rule.

“We had a long-term vision for our family, and Carmel was just the best fit,” Zach says. “And you can still be in an urban environment.”

Zach and Courtney are among the roughly 86 million so-called “millennials”—a generation spanning ages 20 to 34—who are compelling cities and suburbs alike to think differently about neighborhoods. This demographic drove the resurgence of big-city districts in the past decade—places like Mass Ave and Fountain Square in Indianapolis. Now the surrounding areas are waking up, too. Recognizing that their relative youth and cheap land won’t last forever, Indy’s suburbs are aspiring to be culturally relevant, competitive for the “best and brightest” workers, and maybe even a little bit hip—primarily through a movement called “new urbanism.”

New urbanism is characterized by walkable, high-density, mixed-use developments. Storefronts are designed for sidewalk appeal, and parking lots are hidden underground or behind buildings. You see it most clearly in Carmel, a nondescript Quaker town that was just a stop on the Monon Railroad before waves of upscale development began in the ’70s. Now, out of a sea of subdivisions have emerged the Arts & Design District, City Center, and the Village of WestClay.

Of course, these islands of urbanism are emerging in the outer rings of Indianapolis’s suburbs. Things aren’t so promising in the first ring built in Marion County’s townships in the ’50s and ’60s. With no town centers, outdated housing styles, aging retail strip malls, and crime problems, those early suburbs have become a cautionary tale. Just ask Aaron Renn, the Hoosier-born, Rhode Island–based city planner whose Urbanophile blog is followed by new urbanists across the country. “Anyone who’s in Fishers or Avon or Plainfield or Greenwood should just look at what’s happening in Warren Township or Wayne Township and say, ‘That’s us unless we do something different,’” he says. “You need to get ahead of the game and put in amenities that will continue to attract people over the long haul. You’re not going to be the shiny new thing forever.”

THE GREAT MIGRATION

Back in the late 1800s, Indianapolis, like most cities in the industrial north, was a dirty, smelly place. Horses still pulled carts and carriages around the Mile Square, and people burned coal for heat, creating clouds of soot and ash. The housekeeper who hung out white sheets to dry at noon gathered in gray ones an hour later.

Well-to-do citizens sought to escape the grit of the city for the fresh, clean air of the country—or so Woodruff Place and Irvington were considered at the time. Families in these first suburbs lived in gracious homes on tree-lined streets and took streetcars to work.

Residential development continued slowly, then stalled during the Depression and World War II, when both money and building materials were in short supply. Then came the Baby Boom. “Suddenly, all these servicemen were coming home, getting married, and starting families,” says Robert Barrows, professor of history and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. “They were doubled up with relatives and friends and desperate to have a place of their own.”

Inspired by the country’s first mass-produced homes in Levittown on Long Island, developers bought up cheap farmland on the outskirts of cities. In Indianapolis, zoning laws separated housing from retail—no more hardware stores or restaurants with the owners living upstairs. Thousands of affordable single-family dwellings sprouted in Washington, Warren, and Wayne townships. Half of the American dream was owning a home. The other half, which fit into this new lifestyle, was owning a car.

The suburban migration wasn’t limited to whites. Middle-class black families moved up the Michigan Road corridor. “We tend to focus on so-called ‘white flight,’” Barrows says, “but it’s well to keep in mind there was ‘black flight’ for many of the same reasons—a desire for better housing and schools.”

In 1970, when Unigov popped out Indianapolis’s boundaries overnight to the Marion County line, homeowners began looking to the contiguous counties, where taxes were lower and lots were bigger. When Judge S. Hugh Dillin ordered Indianapolis Public Schools to begin busing black students to township districts in 1973, the pace quickened. Hamilton County doubled its population between 1970 and 1990.

Millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history. Indy's suburbs realize they have to attract them to thrive.

Developers like Pulte, Drees, and Estridge bought up land in outlying counties for subdivisions, offering homes in a limited range of styles and prices. As a result, homogenous developments lined crowded collector roads like Hamilton County’s Springmill. Town and city planners struggled to keep up with schools, roads, water, and police and fire protection, though most did well thanks to property-tax revenues from newcomers. But long-term planning has been a luxury. When he was elected in 1995, Carmel Mayor James Brainard became one of the first and most outspoken advocates of new urbanism as a more sustainable alternative to this suburban sprawl. Now other Indy suburbs are looking at ways to ensure their own futures when the open land runs out.

And that’s a good thing, says Frank Nierzwicki, a city planner since 1985 who now teaches at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Change is sometimes not easy,” he says. “But if you do nothing, you’ll still have change. You just won’t be able to control it.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING URBANIST

New urbanists like Brainard and Renn say the automobile-based design of subdivisions is bad for the environment, our health, and our psyches. “We used to have beautiful traditional towns before we tried to design everything around our cars,” Brainard says. “We’ll still accommodate the car, but let’s design cities for people instead.”

The central theme of new urbanism is walkability. Urban planner Jeff Speck is the author of Walkable City, and his firm designed Carmel’s ambitious Midtown plan, which will connect the Arts & Design District and City Center. People have to make the choice to walk, he says, and they won’t do that unless communities are safe, comfortable, useful, and interesting.

It’s those last two factors with which booming suburbs like Fishers and Avon are struggling. Yet today’s millennials are demanding all four. They want to walk to restaurants and coffee shops and cultural events. They expect bike trails and recreation nearby. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they’re not in a big hurry to buy a home. And they may be more interested in upgrading their smartphone than buying a car.

Millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history, outnumbering even their Baby Boomer parents, and Indy’s suburban leaders realize they have to attract this youthful demographic to thrive. Scott Fadness, Fishers’s town manager, is well aware of the importance of young residents to his city’s future. “All these things we’re doing—whether it’s mixed-use development or path connectivity or Wi-Fi access—it’s all being influenced by this next generation and their affinity for a level of connectivity and ease of access that just wasn’t in demand 20 or 30 years ago. ”

Some Baby Boomers, often born and bred in the suburbs of the ’50s and ’60s, are embracing the same ideals. No longer interested in maintaining a big house and yard, they are downsizing to upscale lofts and condos in downtowns or Traditional Neighborhood Developments—TNDs for short—like the Village of WestClay.

Cathy Catellier, 62, browsed at Nature’s Karma in Carmel’s City Center with her grandson Cooper on a recent rainy Sunday. Cathy, executive assistant to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, and her husband, Steve, lived in both Noblesville and Geist before renting a rooftop terrace in City Center. Now they bike the Monon and walk to concerts at the Palladium. Cathy worried at first about the transition to apartment living, but no more: “We feel comfortable, but we still have that city feel.”

Speck says people tend to fall in a housing continuum that looks like this: traditional suburbs, then TNDs, then suburban city centers, then downtown. Families with small children are usually at one end, and millennials and some Baby Boomers, like the Catelliers, are at the other.

Mayor Brainard believes travel has made millennials and empty-nesters more open to new ideas. They visit other cities and sit in beautiful sidewalk cafes and wander narrow streets and then come home and talk about their wonderful vacations.

“Why can’t we build cities like that?” the mayor asks rhetorically.

“Who goes for a romantic walk by a big-box store in a 10-acre parking lot?”

He lets the questions hang there for a moment.

“We can do better.”

LESSONS FROM CARMEL

The conference room in Carmel’s Town Hall looks out over the Monon Trail as it cuts between the Palladium and Pedcor’s seven-story mixed-use development. Mayor Brainard shares a story he tells often. “We even had opposition to the Monon when it was first introduced,” he says with a laugh. “We had a protest in front of City Hall.”

Now it’s hard to imagine Carmel without the Monon. The five-term mayor says his city has a track record of building things people like. Last year, Money magazine named Carmel the best place to live in the United States, citing its good schools and healthcare, low unemployment, and abundance of things to do. CNN and Newsweek praised the city’s roundabout program, noting an 80 percent drop in injuries at busy intersections. Author Speck calls Carmel a model for turning an automotive suburb into a city with a truly walkable downtown.

If the Midtown project goes forward, it will create a “linear village” along the Monon Trail to join the thriving Arts & Design District and City Center. “The whole premise behind Midtown is when you connect two walkable areas, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Speck says.

Those parts are impressive if not universally admired. Visit carmelchatter.com, and you’ll see posts like “Carmel Redevelop-
ment Commission in great shape! Not!” or “Palladium being blamed for Symphony’s problems.” There are quibbles about the price and style of Seward Johnson’s Rockwellian sculptures and concerns about the grandiosity of the Palladium.

And with some reason. Revenue from the $175 million Center for the Performing Arts, which includes the Palladium and two smaller theaters, fell short of projections in its first two years, so the Carmel City Council had to provide funds to pay the bills; the council is also refinancing $195 million of the Carmel Redevelopment Commission’s $267 million in debt to complete other City Center projects. That last figure led Carmel to be named in the top 10 of the state’s 2012 ranking of local government debt. But Brainard argues that Carmel’s debt is low compared to its assessed value. No residential tax dollars go into CRC projects, he adds, and the city’s AA+ bond rating was recently confirmed. Projects funded by tax increment financing districts, or TIFs, he says, are a gift to future generations.

Urbanophile blogger Renn is no fan of the Palladium—both because of its style and its cost—but he defends Carmel’s investment in its downtown, as well as its demand for high-quality building design. The debt has to be seen in the context of the city’s ability to repay it, which is high, he says. Still, he wishes a district named for “Arts & Design” had an edgier, more modern aesthetic. He rejects what he calls the “throwback” architecture he sees in so many new-urbanism developments. “When those styles are not indigenous to the region, not authentically Hoosier, it enhances the artificiality of them,” he says.

City Center’s Pedcor building does have a Disney World feel. Streets are spotless, and buildings follow the same European theme. Still, its charm is hard to dismiss. Even on a rainy afternoon, the patterned brick streets glisten, the terraces draw the eye upward, and the spacious windows of shops like Uber Boutique and Addendum invite you to step inside. Which may be why occupancy rates here and along Main Street are so high. Apartments are more than 95 percent leased at City Center and close to 100 percent gone at Sophia Square and Old Town on the Monon, in the Arts & Design District.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much influence City Center and the Arts & Design District have had in attracting a growing list of companies to Carmel. Good schools, high median incomes, and, yes, traditional upscale subdivisions also play a role. But these districts do provide urban living options that didn’t exist before.


SUBURBAN SOUL-SEARCHING

Other suburbs watching Carmel’s downtown development shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to copy it verbatim, says Brad Beaubien, director of the Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning Indianapolis Center. They need to find their own identities and figure out what makes them distinctive. “Otherwise, you’re just a sea of vinyl villages and subdivisions that don’t have any intrinsic value to them.”

This sense of place may be second in importance only to walkability. Carmel built its downtown around arts and design. Zionsville, in Boone County, has long established itself as a quaint Indiana village, with what Renn calls “one of the nicest Main Streets in Indiana.” But other suburbs with booming populations are still struggling to define themselves while building on what attracted residents to them in the first place.

Though Noblesville’s population has grown by more than 80 percent over the last decade, its downtown has yet to reach its potential, Renn says. The Hamilton County seat arguably has more natural assets than any other Indianapolis suburb: one of the state’s great courthouses surrounded by beautiful historic buildings; pleasant downtown streets with sidewalks and traditional homes; and an enviable setting on White River. New restaurants and shops are popping up on the square, but there’s opportunity for more. “I’m surprised it is not a hugely upscale destination because, frankly, Carmel has been trying to replicate what Noblesville already has,” says Renn. “Its assets are better than its performance.”

In Greenwood, popular with young families attracted by Center Grove schools, city planners have struggled for years to redevelop the original town center at Main and Madison streets. The plan, released in 2007, calls for rehabbing buildings, improving streets and sidewalks, and locating government offices there, but progress has been slowed by the economic slump and a population that’s less affluent than Carmel’s. As one planner noted sympathetically, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have poor people to deal with.”

But Fishers is where the next and most dramatic new-urbanist changes are likely to occur. Young families drawn by easy access to I-69, affordable housing, and good schools have made it one of the fastest-growing towns in the United States—its population jumped from 2,000 in 1980 to nearly 80,000 today. The town council has kept up with schools, roads, and city services, leading Fishers to regularly appear on best towns and suburbs lists compiled by Money, Forbes, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

But the town, soon to be a city after last November’s referendum, has seen such a rapid influx of newcomers, town manager Scott Fadness says, that it has yet to come into its own. The half-dozen brick buildings in the current core—the town hall, library, police department, fire station, amphitheater, and train station—are new and attractive and surrounded with green space and trails. Construction will begin soon on the Nickel Plate District’s first mixed-use project. Right now, though, there’s little to make you want to linger—or to cross the formidable, multi-laned 116th Street.

Creating an urbanized town center from scratch is daunting but not impossible, says Walkable City author Speck. A small-but-perfect, pedestrian-friendly core—perhaps just a few blocks—is the goal. Fadness sees Fishers as Hamilton County’s sleeping giant, with all the pieces required for a strong sense of place: family-friendly activities, good schools, a strong work ethic, a commitment to nurturing entrepreneurs. It’s just a matter of putting the puzzle together—and shifting away from a suburb that is almost 100 percent driven by people getting into their cars.

That’s why Fadness calls rapid transit a “game changer” for his community, and for Indianapolis. While city leaders have talked about mass transit for decades, a bill in the Legislature as of press time would allow residents in Marion and Hamilton counties to vote to fund the initial phase, which would cost an estimated $1.3 billion over 10 years.

The most realistic first step is bus rapid transit (BRT). Think train cars on rubber wheels. Public transportation initiative Indy Connect foresees five lines linking downtown and suburbs like Fishers and Noblesville. BRT would run in dedicated lanes and travel faster than traffic.

If rapid transit materializes, it would likely spur more higher-density, mixed-use development around stations. “The best way that urban suburbs can support the city is by creating walkable communities that are effective nodes for transit,” Speck says. “If there’s a transit stop you can walk to, you’re much more willing to come into the city.”


A SUBURB OF SOMEWHERE

So will more-vibrant suburbs mean a healthier city? Indy burbs are banking on the same millennials who moved to the city in recent years migrating to urban centers in the suburbs (where they’ll have coffee shops, walkable streets, lofts—and great schools). But migration can go the other way, too. Suburbs with thriving cores can be a “gateway drug” to the city, Speck says: “Once born-and-raised suburbanites experience mixed-use, the coffee shop downstairs, houses that touch each other, we naturalize those in our minds. We are much more prepared to consider downtown living.”

Plus, you don’t improve a city by keeping its suburbs down, Ball State’s Beaubien says. A healthy city has to have healthy suburbs—it’s not one or the other. And the more choices a region provides, the better. “It’s the equivalent of a community only
having a Ford dealership,” he says. “If someone wants a Toyota, they’re going to have to go somewhere else.”

Competition for millennials and empty-nesters could also force Indianapolis to bring more energy to neighborhood progress. Adam Thies, director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, says the city is poised to capitalize on the demographic shift by promoting the authenticity of its older neighborhoods. Those efforts can be seen in Fall Creek Place and Irvington as well as the near-eastside improvements funded by the Super Bowl Legacy Project.

The larger point, though, may be that in today’s global climate, we compete not just as a city or a suburb, but as a region. Which means everybody needs to bring their A game to development. “When Fishers and Avon and Zionsville and Noblesville and Carmel are all being the best they can be,” Renn says, “that’s better for everyone.”


Illustration by Stacy Newgent

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue.