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The Future of Downtown (Indianapolis Monthly)

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August 14, 2022


Moving Forward

After a devastating few years, city leaders hope the distance between where downtown is and where it’s going will be a short walk. 

IT TAKES ROUGHLY an hour and a 3-mile walk to travel between the future of downtown and its past. One sunny day this summer, I took that walk, simultaneously traversing the current Indianapolis, the one it supplanted, and the one that will soon replace both of them.

Beginning in the Bottleworks District at High Alpha—the venture studio that has created nearly $1 billion in local economic impact through its tech portfolio companies—I walked down Mass Ave toward the old GM Stamping Plant.

For 80 years, the hulking, 2.1 million-square-foot site powered much of the local economy, employing thousands. Instead of portfolio companies, it stamped Chevrolet trucks and buses. But cities and economies change. Abandoned since 2010, the GM Stamping Plant spot is finally moving in the right direction again. Elanco Animal Health broke ground this spring on a $100 million headquarters there, which city leaders hope will transform the blighted industrial area back into the bustling spot it once was. 

As I got closer to the land nestled along the White River, I looked to my right and saw a sign. “FIND WHAT’S NEXT” read a giant poster draped on the Indiana State Museum, almost cheering me on as I got closer to my destination.

That’s what civic boosters here are trying to do right now: find what’s next for a somewhat bleary-eyed city. Indianapolis finds itself in the middle of a “vibe shift.” The pandemic-era term, coined by trend-forecasting consultant Sean Monahan and popularized by _New York _magazine earlier this year, is exactly what it sounds like: a cultural change, following a period when a “social wavelength starts to feel dated,” according to the magazine’s Allison P. Davis.

The city’s vibe shift has been unfolding over the last year, as officials placed cultural defibrillators on the heart of downtown, attempting to shock it back to life after the twin forces of the pandemic and the new civil rights movement roiled the Mile Square in 2020. Storefronts were boarded up. Crime increased. Open drug use, and occasionally feces, dotted downtown streetscapes. The economic currents laid waste to treasured restaurants like Ed Rudisell’s Black Market on Mass Ave and Rook in Fletcher Place. A downtown that had been on the rise for decades was suddenly in huge trouble.

Now, with the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, the city’s core may be transforming again. Civic leaders spent years preparing downtown to be the kind of place that could host a Super Bowl. Now they want to do something very different: make it a desirable place to live.

“We’ve traditionally thought of our downtown as a place where people work, so we thought about the population of downtown as workers,” says Scarlett Andrews, director of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development. “Then we thought about how to make it a place that people wanted to visit. Now workers want something different. Visitors to some degree want different experiences. But we have a lot of people living downtown, and we need even more.”

Consider this: The occupancy rate of downtown apartments is 97 percent. That suggests an opportunity for more housing. It may also call for new kinds of development.

“We need to change how we think about our public spaces and infrastructure,” Andrews says. “We need a more people-centered approach to what residents, visitors, and workers want.”

What, exactly, does that mean? Back to the vibe shift: In the coming five years, a historic slate of projects will take shape downtown. For the most part, these won’t be the office towers and malls that characterized development here in the late-20th and early-21st centuries. A new kind of neighborhood-based construction, represented by campuses like Bottleworks, Elevator Hill, the Stutz complex, and 16 Tech, seems to be in vogue. Then there’s the city’s partnership with the cultural development firm GANGGANG to create the South Downtown Connectivity Vision Plan, which could reshape everything from the kinds of trees you see planted to the variety of benches you sit on.

Last year, nearly a decade after Super Bowl XLVI, the city finally took down its city-limit signs touting our experience as the host city. It was time for something new. Indianapolis is ready to find what’s next, as the sign at the museum urged.

I told Jeff Bennett, Indy’s deputy mayor of community development, about my walk, and asked him what he made of the new Indianapolis that will spring up alongside that path in the next few years. 

“You can stand and point at historic resources that have already become revitalized campuses like Bottleworks,” Bennett says. “Then you can point at sites like the stamping plant that will be changed over the next few years. No city is fixed in time. They’re always changing. You’re either moving forward, or you’re moving backward, but you’re never standing still. And I think that corridor you walked represents that—the city is moving forward.” —Adam Wren

Indianapolis Monthly - The Future of Downtown