Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Great City Halls: Do They Inspire Better Development Throughout the City?

Would municipal workers be more inspired and productive, and politicians more informed and less corrupt, if they worked inside a building similar to some of the beautiful city halls shown in the link below?  For the record, I think the examples from Dallas and San Jose are quite ugly.

Sure, to some extent, good architecture and aesthetic beauty is subjective.  But would anyone really argue that the Indianapolis City-County Building could be inserted into a list of great city halls as anything other than a silly joke?  Or that Indianapolis is a better city for having vacated the old city hall and county courthouse (seen below before being demolished) in favor of the City-County Building constructed in 1962.

It's probably not too controversial to opine that Indianapolis's image, and more importantly its collective civic pride, would've thrived more by maintaining its old city hall and county courthouse.  (The old city hall building lives on, having served as the Indiana State Museum and interim home for the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, but has been neglected for several years despite a recent plan to move a few city planners to a small portion of the building.  The county courthouse was demolished shortly after construction of the existing city-county building.)  But more interestingly, this made me wonder whether the replacement of these two beautiful buildings with one bland structure could be viewed as a precursor to the quality of both private and public development that followed the merger of the city and county governments under the moniker of "Unigov" starting around 1970.

What inspirational development has occurred in the consolidated city of Indianapolis in the last 40 years?  I didn't live here in the '70s, '80s, or '90s, so maybe someone else would be better suited to provide examples, but I can't think of much that appears to be from that era other than a few run-of-the-mill office skyscrapers, plenty of strip malls, a plethora of "big-box" stores and indoor shopping centers surrounded by dozens or hundreds of acres of surface parking (typically with scant, if any, landscaping), and endless residential developments with substandard infrastructure (missing sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, etc.) and uninspired building design.  Clearly, these three decades didn't seem to produce much of anything that we will collectively be sad to see disappear whenever it deteriorates and is eventually abandoned and redeveloped. 

Has the 21st Century provided a turning point for Indianapolis in how its development inspires collective pride, and hopefully civic engagement?  The downtown Fieldhouse (currently sponsored by Bankers Life), Lucas Oil Stadium, the expanded Indiana Convention Center; do these buildings inspire us and will we take in pride and maintaining and preserving them for many decades or centuries to come?  Downtown's Cultural Trail has widely received accolades from around the country.  Will this lead to a strong demand for better public streets throughout Indianapolis in place of the horrendous roads, designed mostly to move cars as quickly as possible with little, if any, consideration given to anyone outside of a car, that predominate the landscape?

Did the consolidation of the old city limits of Indianapolis with the sparsely developed outer portions of Marion County lead to a watering down of expectations for private development, government action, and public participation?  While I've long supported the idea that local government consolidation can provide many benefits through efficiency and creating a more equitable property tax base, I can't help but wonder whether, in the case of Indianapolis, that a smaller jurisdiction might've resulted in better public development as citizens might've had an easier time interacting and engaging with a smaller local government, and the government might've been more inclined to seek public input to ensure that projects were well suited to the diversity of neighborhoods found in a 400-square mile county.  If most of your votes are coming from very different, far-away neighborhoods, it might not come as a surprise that politicians don't make public input in those areas a priority.  Certainly, it's at least a little bit harder to create appropriate street designs in a consolidated county that includes typical urban, suburban, and rural areas, than it would to do for just one of the three.  Maybe I'm just looking for an explanation to excuse Indianapolis's woefully inadequate street designs that have only recently started to show limited signs of improvement.  Nonetheless, it's well beyond time for Indianapolis to make a habit of inspiring citizens and visitors with its public development, which might result in better private development as well. 

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