Here's a simple but vitally important request for Gov. Eric Holcomb and his transportation team concerning the future of Downtown Indianapolis: Please listen.
Listen to what community leaders in Indy say about how the state could dramatically improve the quality of life for residents in and near Downtown. Listen to what national experts say about the potential for major economic development if the state Department of Transportation were to adopt a visionary approach to rebuilding the interstates that slice through Downtown. Listen to what taxpayers (and voters) say about their strong desire for better connected, more equitable and healthier neighborhoods in our state capital's core.
Listen. And then engage in an ongoing conversation about Indy's future.
On Monday, the Rethink 65/70 Coalition — a grassroots collection of business leaders, architects, urban planners and other engaged citizens — presented a study on the potential economic benefits of rebuilding portions of the interstates below ground level.
Arup, an international consulting firm hired by the coalition, determined that recessing the highways could free up 83 acres in Downtown that could generate more than $2 billion in economic development and at least $55 million a year in additional property tax revenue.
Beyond direct economic growth, rebuilding the highways below grade would tie more neighborhoods directly into Downtown. That would boost property values and create fantastic opportunities to improve residents' quality of life.
Think about this scenario: Mass Ave and the Cultural Trail now end at the concrete wall that is I-65 and I-70 on the eastern edge of Downtown. On one side of the highway, the certain-to-be transformative Bottleworks development is under construction. On the other side, investment dollars are pouring rapidly into the Cottage Home and Windsor Park neighborhoods.
What great things could happen if the interstate were rebuilt below the surface and a park was developed on a deck above the recessed highway? Suddenly, Cottage Home and Bottleworks aren't separated by a highway but are connected by green space. Suddenly, the whole near east side becomes a natural part of Downtown linked by walking trails and bike paths.
And the same could happen with neighborhoods on the north, south and west sides of Downtown.
Too far-fetched? Too much Californian moonbeam and not enough Midwestern practical?
Well, Indy, we have a neighbor down the road that's already way ahead of us.
In the 1990s, Cincinnati rebuilt I-71 as a recessed highway cutting through its downtown. The interstate remains open air — as I-65 and I-70 would in Indy — but is designed to allow for the addition of covering decks, which would feature new park land.
In the years since Cincinnati rethought I-71, the land between the interstate and the river has been redeveloped to include stadiums, new housing, new businesses and a beautiful riverfront park.
No slight on our friends in Porkopolis, but if they can do it there, we should be able to make it happen here.
But first, state leaders need to listen and engage.
Paul Knapp, the CEO of Young and Laramore and a leader in the Rethink 65/70 Coalition, told reporters on Monday that administrators with the Indiana Department of Transportation declined an offer to review the new study in advance.
State leaders did engage with the coalition in conversations about the interstates' future earlier this year. The state studied a number of options, including a recessed highway, but decided to move forward with a rebuild of the North Split that will do little to reconnect neighborhoods with Downtown.
A spokesman for INDOT said on Wednesday that state leaders have agreed to review the study and to meet with coalition leaders. He said transportation officials were unable to attend a briefing on Monday because it was Veteran's Day.
Coalition members haven't given up pressing for a more visionary approach.
"We maintain hope that there is a reasonable process," Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, said. "If we don't give it every consideration, we could blow a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Davis is right. We could miss the chance to partially fix the historically bad decision to run interstate highways through the center of the city. We could miss the chance to improve our city's core in remarkable ways. We could settle for mediocre when we have the opportunity to boldly pursue excellence.
Let's not blow it. Instead, let's continue to think and talk about what could be. Let's agree to listen.