Time was, downtown Indianapolis was a drowsy concrete hamlet that sleepwalked during the day and hit the snooze button at night. “Naptown” was a well-earned nickname. The slipper fit.
If any one person can be credited for shaking the place awake, it’s late Mayor William Hudnut. In the early ’80s, he guided revitalization efforts that led to the arrival of the Colts and Circle Centre mall, setting the stage for a revival of the Mile Square. Yet an emptiness remained. In the book Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, co-editor and American historian Wilfred McClay writes, “We human beings have a profound need for ‘thereness,’ for visible and tangible things that persist and endure.” Hudnut gave downtown a pulse, but he couldn’t give it a heart.
That’s where people like David and Becky Hostetter came in. In 1984, they moved their young family of six to an 1889 Italianate double designed by Bernard Vonnegut. The neighborhood just east of Mass Ave was run-down, and so was the house, but at $500, it was a steal. Over the next couple of decades, the Hostetters renovated the home—and helped rebuild a neighborhood and coin its name: Cottage Home.
The Hostetters and other urban pioneers evangelized about the opportunity downtown, and eventually, more people followed, then the businesses, and new apartments and condos. “Thereness” is downtown’s selling point now, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
You can barely walk a city block without stumbling onto a construction site. The outbreak of apartment buildings has reached epidemic proportions. According to a 2018 report by Downtown Indy, Inc., the number of market-rate apartment units in the area has doubled since 2010. By 2020, 30,000 residents will live downtown.
Most of those residents are Millennials and empty nesters, either affluent or disciplined enough to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,049—about $300 more than Indy’s metro-wide average. Realtor Mark Nottingham says downtown rents are comparable to Austin, Nashville, and Denver, but curiously, downtown home prices remain lower than in those markets. “For developers, [apartments] are a more profitable activity,” he says.
Few have cashed in on the opportunity more than Milhaus, a prolific developer whose boxy apartment buildings now dot the downtown landscape. Their four- and five-story buildings feature flat roofs and gaudily colorful fiber-cement panels. With names like Mozzo, Artistry, and Circa, they are not-so-subtly marketed toward the 40-and-under set.
Luxury options are in shorter supply, but that market is on the rise, too. There’s E’laan on Market and East streets, where a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with wall-to-wall windows goes for $1,795 a month. Just a block west, 360 Market Square—a gleaming, bean-shaped skyscraper that houses a new Whole Foods Market—features apartments with solar shades, soaking tubs, and rents in the mid-thousands. Developer Litz & Eaton has been adding larger and swankier townhomes after noticing an uptick in demand for luxury. One new project, Liberty Place, is a pocket of 11 townhomes built to suit the buyer for $855,000 to $1.6 million. The size (some are 4,100 square feet) and amenities (a four-car garage, large rooftop terrace) are unusual for Liberty’s location in the thick of the action (Lockerbie, just off Mass Ave). For homebuyers, limited inventory has sparked a significant uptick in prices.
It’s easy to see what’s driving the migration. Downtown is a walkable, vibrant (but not congested) amusement park that appeals to several generations. The Pacers, Fever, Colts, Indians, and Indy Eleven round out a fine smorgasbord of pro-sports entertainment. Casual nightlife abounds, too. Take the 20,250-square-foot Punch Bowl Social, where you can sip craft cocktails while playing Skee-Ball or shuffleboard. In the last year or so, downtown has added ax-throwing, escape rooms, its first ping-pong bar, a slew of coffeehouses, and a sparkling new venue for the Phoenix Theatre. A second “barcade” is on the way. The list of breweries, America’s barometer of urban hipness, is longer than a brewmaster’s beard.
Soon, too, downtown will be the one place in Central Indiana where you can realistically live without a car. The Red Line bus rapid-transit system opens on Labor Day weekend, and if it’s anything like BlueIndy, the Cultural Trail, Pacers Bikeshare, and the motorized scooters, residents will use it.
Is downtown perfect? Not if you’re into shopping. Circle Centre is a shell of its old self, and many of the retail spaces that occupy the first floor of the new apartment buildings throughout downtown are vacant. High-end stores are especially disinclined to locate in the area. According to Catherine Esselman, who works to attract retail clients for Develop Indy, the city is battling the perception that it’s a “one-store market.” Currently, most high-end brands already have a store in The Fashion Mall. “I think we’re a two-store market—at least,” Esselman says.
There are reasons to be optimistic. A seismic shift to downtown is coming next year with the opening of the first phase of Bottleworks, the largest development of its kind in the state. It will bring the nation’s first West Elm Hotel to Indianapolis, along with some publicity from around the country. (A few national journalists lucky enough to get a sneak peek were blown away.) According to Nottingham, who specializes in downtown realty, the project will “create a new center of gravity for downtown” on the far end of Mass Ave.
Incidentally, Bottleworks will sit mere blocks from Cottage Home, where the Hostetters still live 35 years later. The proximity of the two places serves as a potent reminder that downtown’s resurgent “thereness” requires more than policies and programs to thrive. It requires people. Lucky for downtown, they’re coming in droves.
Explore Downtown Living: