As both large- and medium-sized cities transition from manufacturing-based to service-oriented economies in the postindustrial era, many will grapple with issues of how to reshape the economic base while preserving the culture and protecting the natural beauty of the city. Across the Rustbelt and other parts of the country, the contraction of the manufacturing industry is causing factories to shut their doors. This often puts municipal officials in a political bind, forcing them to decide whether the site will be prepped for resale to another industrial user or if it should be remediated and prepared for residential development and commercial business.
The city of Indianapolis, Indiana, faced such a situation earlier this year. Indianapolis and Develop Indy, the city’s economic development organization, brought in an Urban Land Institute (ULI) advisory services panel last month to provide recommendations about how best to position a vacant industrial site so that it remains a productive part of the city’s urban fabric.
Since General Motor Company’s January 2011 announcement to close its GM Stamping Plant, located west of downtown Indianapolis, the city realized the need to revitalize the well-situated property. The plant, which opened in 1930, employed a workforce of nearly 5,000 at its peak. Since that time, staff has been reduced to almost 700, which was followed by a 2009 bankruptcy filing. In his 2011 State of the City speech, Mayor Greg Ballard announced plans to bring in a ULI panel of experts to help devise a plan for repurposing the 102-acre (41-ha) site after the plant’s closure, scheduled for June 30.
The panel spent a week analyzing the site and interviewing over 75 residents. At the end of the week, panelists suggested that the site be transformed into a downtown neighborhood connected by an iconic bridge across the White River to the city’s central business district.
Panelists offered city officials a master plan vision that includes a school and mixed-income housing for people of all ages. In addition, the panel said that office space and street-level retail would help revitalize the area so that it is attractive for artists, startup companies, and new businesses. However, the panel stressed the importance of preserving certain historical aspects of the site’s building by turning one section into a memorial park that would be themed with the history and importance of the automobile to the growth and character of Indianapolis. The panel’s other recommendations include a riverfront park as well as a recreational/health facility. The panel said that the plan would likely take ten to 15 years to complete.
“Our vision for the redevelopment of the site is a mixed-use, coherent, sustainable urban neighborhood linked to both the river and the downtown,” said Bill Hudnut, senior fellow emeritus and former Indianapolis mayor. “We want it to be an identifiable special place in the tapestry of Indianapolis neighborhoods, in keeping with the feeling in the city that downtown is everyone’s neighborhood. To accomplish this task will require skill, resources, patience, perseverance, optimism, and a willingness to take a sizable risk.”
The panel laid out a master plan vision for the reuse of the site. The four-component plan suggests creating a new downtown pedestrian–friendly, mixed-use neighborhood; embracing the White River by extending and expanding the White River Park; creating an exciting destination in the new neighborhood; and constructing an iconic symbol that celebrates the city’s embrace of the new neighborhood.
According to Hudnut, a key part of the recommendation is the objective of connectivity. Connecting the riverfront properties to the central business district and downtown has enormous economic and quality-of-life advantages for the city.
Ballard thanked the panel for their recommendations, community engagement, and time spent in the city, in a statement describing the situation as a “great opportunity for Indianapolis that happens only once in a generation.” In light of the recommendations, Ballard says that he still hopes that a new company will take over the abandoned building.
However, while bringing another manufacturer to the site could mean hundreds of new jobs, it may not be a reality given the current economy. According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the “supply of old industrial buildings exceeds the demand from the kinds of companies that might use them.”
“The one thing that would be a mistake would be to think that manufacturing would come back to that site,” ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon told the Journal. “In most cases, manufacturing is not coming back.”
In a postindustrial society, finding another manufacturer tenant for the site could be wishful thinking. Cities like Indianapolis, which once served as models of how to develop around the industrial sector, might now serve as paragons of the great transitional city.