Indianapolis’ Downtown Resurgence : 12-Year Effort at Revitalization Is Huge Success for Rust Belt City

Times Staff Writer

Question: “What do you do for excitement in this town?”

Answer: “You go down to the nearest Roselyn Bakery and smell hot bread.”

Add further insults (“Indian-No-Place” and “Naptown”), and you can share the delight--forgive, even, a certain smugness--on the part of the citizenry in this crossroads city for the almost breath-taking, tangible success of a revitalization program the likes of which most other older cities are lucky to get to the blueprint stage.

“I really can’t think of anything comparable any place,” said Sid Weedman, currently executive director of the White River State Park Commission and--during the late 1960s and early ‘70s--executive director of the Commission for Downtown which took the first, timid steps toward the city’s rebirth. “Not, at least, in terms of its rapidity and the number of projects accomplished.”

Major Downtown Projects

Since 1974, more than $1,682,000,000 in downtown construction projects has been either committed or completed--a dazzling network of carefully planned downtown construction and renovations of office space, hotels, stores and restaurants.

“I think that a number of cities in the Rust Belt, like Indianapolis, are experiencing a resurgence of interest in downtown,” Mayor William H. Hudnut III, now in his third term, said in an interview, “and our dream all the way along has been to keep our city from becoming a doughnut--with all of the development on the outside and all the deterioration and decay on the inside.


“We’ve had to have a concerted policy of reinforcing the central core. You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

It was a city that didn’t hesitate to plow $70 million into a downtown stadium, the Hoosier Dome, although it didn’t have a professional football team lined up to play in it, and another $21 million into a sophisticated natatorium, or swimming complex, accommodating 4,700 spectators, although the nearest swimming team was Indiana University’s, located 60 miles away.

Occupancy Up 290%

From a handful of scattered, down-at-the-heels hotels with a few hundred rooms between them, new and sleek hostelries--a who’s who of Hiltons, Hyatts, Embassy Suites, Radissons, Sheratons and Holiday Inns--have sprung up, and by next year, the city will have no fewer than 14,000 rooms available. In just two short years, room-night hotel occupancy has skyrocketed almost 290%--from 79,000 in 1984 to an estimated 230,000 this year.

Begin with one prestige restaurant just off Monument Circle, Indianapolis’s hub, and one durable steak house on the near-south side of downtown, and then add no fewer than 60 new downtown restaurants and pubs opening in just the last six years.

Perhaps the biggest gamble of all: take the city’s boarded-up, Romanesque, 1880-vintage Union Station--the launch pad for thousands of war-bound Hoosiers in both World Wars I and II--and not 1869507705blighted and shadowy warehouse/wholesale area a few blocks south of the city’s center.

Compound the gamble by attaching the whole renovation to a 275-room Holiday Inn built in the existing train shed and featuring 26 suites made out of restored train sleeper cars. Pack the restored Union Station with 60 off-the-wall shops and an international food court, including more than 30 eateries, bars and nightclubs.

Union Station Attraction

And then sit back, as real estate developers Robert and Sandra Borns did, and see if it works. It was an awesome risk for the unusual partnership between the Borns and the city. An entire generation of Indianapolis natives had grown up trained to shun that forbidding corner of their city.

Opening last April, Union Station has been drawing visitors at the rate of a million a month--80% of them from out of town--to a non-stop barrage of special events ranging from a laser light show to folk and rock festivals to a childrens’ pre-Halloween “Haunted Train” special. Horse-drawn carriages clop through the now-teeming, restaurant-lined streets on the city’s south side.

What happened in this once-sleepy city--whose only real claim to fame was the annual Indianapolis 500 Mile Race--that made the whole thing fall into place?

City after city has laid and launched similarly ambitious plans, only to end up with little to show for them except, perhaps, a dusty and little-used pedestrian mall.

Avoided Others’ Mistakes

“I don’t know,” Margo Lyon, executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, muses. “I think maybe we had an advantage in being so far behind the times. We had an opportunity to look at other cities, see their failures and avoid them.”

“I think, accidentally, the timing was right, too,” Weedman, the one-time executive director of the Commission for Downtown, added. “A few things began happening in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that were really a little ahead of their time as far as establishing any momentum is concerned.

“Hilton came in, the Convention Center was built, the Hyatt came along, Indiana National Bank decided to build its tower downtown instead of in the suburbs and Indiana Bell also committed its new headquarters building to downtown. But none of these things, I think, really got it rolling.”

At about the same time however, Weedman continues, some other things began to happen that brought no economic gain to anyone, but began intimately involving Indianapolis’ citizens directly--notably a $1.5 million beautification of the city’s hub, the area around the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, “the Circle,” including resurfacing with bricks donated (at $25 apiece) by locals and bearing the donors’ names.

Famed for ‘500'

The old baroque Indiana Theatre, also slated for demolition, became the Indiana Repertory Theatre, and then, in just one year (1978), the $7-million downtown tennis stadium and facility was both funded and built to keep the clay tennis court championship in town.

Even as the tempo was quickening, so was a skeletal framework emerging around which much of the growth would be draped, and that was a logical expansion of Indianapolis’ one previous claim to fame: sports, as personified by the annual Memorial Day 500-Mile race.

Thus, in 1974 the $16.4-million, 17,000-seat Market Square Arena, one of the largest in the country, opened on the city’s near-downtown east side. Now home base for the Indiana Pacers, the arena has also hosted such events as the 1980 NCAA Basketball Championships and the 1982 U. S. Figure Skating Championships.

And then, in rapid order: the Indiana University Track and Field Stadium near downtown, a nine-lane, 400-meter rubber track with a seating capacity of 12,111; the nearby Indiana University Athletic Field, with facilities for softball, soccer and volleyball, and the 5,000-seat Major Taylor Velodrome.

‘Get Momentum Going’

But at what point do repeated kicks in the rump by an aggressive city administration and--luckily, in Indianapolis’ case--a private sector strongly bolstered by a couple of well-heeled local philanthropies, the Eli Lilly Endowment Fund and the Krannert Charitable Trust, become self-powered?

“Our idea from the beginning,” Mayor Hudnut recalls, “was to create growth, not simply manage it. And it took quite awhile to get the momentum going. Frankly, it wasn’t until early last year, 1985, that I felt that Indianapolis was really on a roll.

“For the first time, we had people building spec office buildings downtown--betting on the come for the city.”

And it’s an unusual city block downtown today that doesn’t have at least one office building under construction. The current office vacancy rate? Eat your heart out, Los Angeles, Indianapolis’ stands at 9.2%.

‘Solidified Growth Image’

The breakthrough, Hudnut feels, came with the opening of the $70-million Hoosier Dome, abutting the existing Convention Center, and the snaring of the Colts professional football team--its current zip-for-11 losing streak notwithstanding.

“It solidified the growth image we were trying to create and so, for the first time in ’85, I felt that we were off and running,” the mayor adds.

“We got another big leg up in ’84 when we were successful in our bid for the Pan Am Games next summer. On a lesser scale, we feel that it will do the same thing for Indianapolis that the Olympics did for Los Angeles--a galvanizing of the spirit, and international exposure as a city on the move.”

The Pan Am Games, held every four years, will center on 30 sports--more than are involved in the Olympics--will bring together all of the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Next year in Indianapolis will be the event’s second U. S. appearance.

Upcoming Projects

“All of this isn’t to say that it will continue,” Hudnut cautions. “We have to shepherd the momentum because we’re not an automatic-growth city like so many in the Sun Belt are (although some of them have their problems, too). Just because we live in the Rust Belt doesn’t mean that we have to have a Rust Belt mentality. We’ve got an awful lot in the pipelines for the next five to seven years.”

Such as the $10-million Canal Project (1987) near downtown--lowering the water level of the canal 10 to 12 feet to accommodate a landscaped network of walking, biking and jogging paths and, of course, the ambitious $200-million White River State Park that Weedman is overseeing and which is slated for completion in the early 1990s--a 250-acre urban park near downtown that will encompass Indianapolis’ world-class zoo, a museum of western and Indian art, a family amusement park, botanical gardens and a 750-foot landmark tower.

More significantly, though, you don’t hear that old “smell hot bread” joke in Indianapolis anymore.