75_logoThe third panel ULI ever conducted, in April 1948, and the most recent one, in June 2011, involved the same city—Indianapolis.

As ULI contemplates its 75th anniversary, one striking statistic illuminates its mission as well as any other: during the past three-quarters of a century, ULI has conducted over 600 advisory services panels in America and across the world. They constitute a program with extraordinary impact in fulfilling the ULI mission of providing “leader­ship in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.”

Most readers will know about these panels, and many have served on them. Eight to ten experts are brought in at a sponsoring entity’s invitation (usually a municipality) to assess a particular problem and recommend solutions, to the end that land use can be improved and the built environment enhanced by a panel’s efforts.

The experts cover a wide array of fields (academicians, representatives of financial institutions, designers, market analysts, land developers and owners, consultants, architects, persons with public policy background, environmentalists, and so on); they donate their time, but have their expenses covered; they interview a hundred or so local residents; and they spend the better part of a week on the task, giving a public report at week’s end on their findings. Frequently, a panel’s recommendations have deep, positive impact on the cities that host them. That has been—and one hopes, will be—the case in the two instances described herein.

1948 Panel

Curiously, the third panel ULI ever conducted, in April 1948, and the most recent one, in June 2011, involved the city where I served as mayor for 16 years—Indianapolis. This fact caught my attention and prompted me to reflect on the past even as plans are laid for the future.

In 1948, persons (all men) from 13 cities served on the panel. The assignment was to make practical suggestions about how to improve the downtown business district, where there were “serious problems” and where “40 to 60 percent” of the working population was employed (no longer true because of the ever-widening gyre of suburban development). The panel dealt with problems relating to parking, traffic control, mass transportation, urban redevelopment, air pollution, and “additional sources of revenue,” all of which are also issues for today’s urban leaders. Instead of recommending certain steps, however, as became the case later, the panel simply discussed possibilities and left them on the table for the local leadership to opt in or out.

Highlights, taken from a transcript of the discussion, included:

Enhancing revenues. Indiana is not a home-rule state; therefore, “the state is responsible for the cities’ well being,” panelists noted. Indianapolis at the time faced a budget shortfall of $800,000, and its reliance on the property tax (75 percent) seemed excessive. Consequently, panelists noted, “other sources of income should be secured” (sound familiar?) and local government operation streamlined to find savings (again, sound familiar?). The panel believed more money paid in taxes to the state and federal government should come back to the city, suggested floating bonds for capital improvements and installing a payroll and salary tax, and opined that “a greater portion of gasoline, liquor, and certain other ‘share taxes’ should be allocated to the subdivision of origin.” Today, an income tax is in place for all who work in Marion County.

Can you imagine a ULI panel recommending tax increases in the current climate? Undoubtedly, there is no chance. And yet today, as yesterday, cities are struggling to make ends meet.

Transportation. The same problem was/is faced by both panels. In 1948, the panel recommended increasing reliance on buses and streetcars (at that time, more than 400 interurban light-rail cars came into Indianapolis daily, and 55 to 70 percent of downtown workers used mass transit). Expenses should be borne entirely by the rider, the panel suggested. In other words, there should be no governmental subsidies; individual fares should cover operation and maintenance costs. Indianapolis today has an independent public transportation corporation called Indygo (buses and shuttles, but no streetcars), started in the early 1970s, and continues to support “efficient, well-operated, well-equipped mass transportation,” as that panel recommended. However, the current system’s 9 million riders annually pay only 25 percent of the total cost; the rest comes from government.

Not all panel recommendations were followed, even ones that made considerable sense. For example, the panel inveighed strongly against running “super highways” through the city. Such thoroughfares, “like a Chinese wall,” would cut the city into pieces. But after the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system came into being, Indianapolis experienced, perhaps to its benefit but at the expense of some neighborhoods, a plethora of highways running through its middle: I-70, I-65, I-74, and I-69, all rimmed by I-465.

Urban redevelopment. The panel praised the city for doing “a splendid job” in this area—”a shining light for the guidance of other cities all over this country”—and its comments about a couple of projects were a harbinger of things to come. The city began to hollow out as suburbanization took hold in the 1950s and 1960s, but public policies after 1970 or so were aimed at revitalizing the downtown core, exactly as the 1948 panel suggested. As mayor, I instituted a policy of encouraging urban reinvestment without discouraging suburban investment. I used to say, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing,” and likened our efforts to reinvigorate our downtown with housing, commercial development, hotels, an expanded convention center, and entertainment and sports venues to transforming a doughnut into a cookie—solid all the way through.

Air pollution. In connection with revitalizing downtown, the 1948 panel noted that “smoke control” was not “a problem the city should ignore.” At that time, Indianapolis was a solidly manufacturing-based smokestack city, labeled by John Gunther in his 1947 book Inside USA as “the dirtiest city” in the United States. The panel warned that if the city did not clean up its act, “you are going to find yourself at a disadvantage in the future.” Advice well taken. By the late 1970s, the city was designated by Keep America Beautiful as “the cleanest city in the United States” for its size and is currently in attainment of the Clean Air Act standards for ozone, air particulate matter, and so on.

Urban consolidation. The heart of the 1948 panel, so prescient in its observations, was a discussion aimed at governmental reform. The panel considered the proliferation of separate municipalities and unincorporated communities (the word suburb was not in its vocabulary yet) as “absolutely ridiculous”—”an absurd situation.” It hinted at (“[we] did not feel qualified to go on record as to the remedy”) the importance of consolidation and annexation in order to plan for future growth and save monies by creating efficiencies and eliminating duplication of services and taxing authorities—a task that needs to be undertaken by many urban communities in the 21st century.

Twenty years later, in the late 1960s, the hint became a reality. A movement sprouted, spearheaded by former Mayor Richard G. Lugar, to effect consolidation of ­Indianapolis and Marion County. It culminated in approval from the state legislature in 1969 and the establishment of UNIGOV (City/County Unified Government) in 1970. Sixty governmental units were reduced in number and size, and six city departments were created—public safety, transportation, parks, metropolitan development, public works, and administration. In addition, six municipal corporations were created—covering health and hospital, library services, city hall operations, convention center operations, airport, and public transportation—to produce improved and more efficient service delivery. Some functions, like schools and fire services, as well as a few smaller towns, were not ­consolidated, but a strong mayor system was set up, and a City-County Council of 29 members was created.

UNIGOV has subsequently provided the foundation for the growth of Indianapolis as a major American city by centralizing community leadership, enhancing economic development and the city’s tax base, and eliminating ­inefficiencies and overlapping authorities.

2011 Panel

This year, the panel’s assignment was to figure out what to do with a large, 102-acre (41-ha) industrial site vacated by General Motors, located immediately west of the White River in downtown Indianapolis. The empty factory shell and a huge parking lot, a legacy of the city’s ­historic connection to the automobile industry, had become an ­unproductive eyesore on the downtown landscape. Should it be plowed under? Reused as an industrial operation? Turned into an urban village? Made an extension of the nearby blue-collar neighborhood to its south?

These were questions faced by the panel, of which I was a member. Thus, as in 1948, issues of urban revitalization dominated the discussion. Our key recommendations had two points of focus—adaptive use of the property, and connecting it to downtown. The vision we imagined for the site consisted of a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that would become an extension of downtown Indianapolis, compatible with the existing surrounding neighborhoods and nearby land uses.

Some of our suggestions included the following:

  • Connect the site to downtown by extending South Street (which the 1948 group considered an impediment to smooth traffic flow) across the river to the GM site, with an iconic cable-stayed bridge that would also serve as a “doorway” to the city that could be seen by travelers on the nearby interstate highway.
  • Improve street access to the site by straightening and widening the roads around its edges.
  • Mix uses—residential, commercial, and civic—to create, in effect, a new downtown neighborhood, an urban village. The new residents could be young professionals who want to be close to the dining and entertainment options along Massachusetts Avenue, graduate students at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and empty nesters moving to be closer to the cultural amenities and other options offered in the city.
  • Fund the revival with revenues from new jobs, new homes, and various sources of local, state, and federal grants and incentives, in addition to funds allocated for the site by GM.
  • Replicate on the site the grid designed for ­Indianapolis by Alexander Ralston, a pupil of Washington, D.C.’s archi­tect and civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant—rectangles and diagonals, seen by the 1948 panel as somewhat unwieldy.

This comparison shows that problems faced by cities after World War II have not disappeared. Issues of transportation, environmental degradation, overcoming blight, and finding sufficient funds to carry on the public’s work are critical, yesterday, today, and tomorrow—issues that call for ULI’s continuing involvement in pursuit of providing responsible leadership in the constructive use of land that in turn assists in creating and sustaining thriving ­communities.