Commentary by Kevin Collison
Indianapolis is considered one of the smarter cities in America when it comes to revitalizing its downtown so a recent Father’s Day weekend visit provided an opportunity to check out at least some of the goods and compare it with what’s been happening in Kansas City.
We visited White River State Park, an area bordering downtown, that I’d heard was a strategic concentration of cultural and recreational assets. It includes a 1.5-mile long Canal Walk, several serious museums, the headquarters of the NCAA (I know, a sore subject here), the Indianapolis Zoo and a botanical garden.
First, here’s where Indy kicks our downtown’s butt.
The city and state have not only spent a massive amount of money creating a well-planned, attractive collection of outdoor venues, but also have not forgotten to program it with multiple activities to actually bring people to it. And they’re doing a great job of maintaining its extensive landscaping.
The Canal Walk was lined for most of its length with three- and four-story apartment developments with some limited office space on their first floors. There were a handful of restaurant/cafes along the walkway and visitors had the opportunity to rent paddle boats, kayaks, bicycles and/or take a gondola ride.
In other words, there was plenty for people to do and on a fairly hot Friday mid-afternoon, there were a significant number enjoying the place.
This urban state park is very close to the hotel/convention district and only a few blocks from the downtown central business district. As I’d heard, Indy has strategically invested in its downtown, locating its major sports facilities there including the NFL and NBA, and its minor league ballpark.
It also has bet big on its hotel/convention industry, both with downtown facilities and a great, convenient airport that should be a model for what’s envisioned at KCI.
By comparison, downtown Kansas City has far to go when it comes to enlivening its public spaces and parks.
I recently wrote about the homeless issue at Ilus Davis Park. That civic mall between City Hall and the Federal Courthouse was a huge investment 20 years ago. While it looks great, it’s utterly devoid of activity.
The same goes for Case Park, Barney Allis Plaza and Washington Square Park. All great public assets in concept, but poorly programmed and maintained. There are currently promising discussions about the future of Washington Square Park, but it remains very much a work in progress.
The closest thing that compares to the Indy Canal Walk in KC is the Brush Creek walkway/improvements near the Country Club Plaza. But anybody who goes there knows those walkways are rarely used and I venture most people, particularly out-of-town visitors, don’t even know its there.
There are not signs telling visitors to the Plaza that an attractive walkway runs along the creek just across the street. For that matter, there is no signage anywhere telling people how the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum or the lovely Kauffman Gardens are within easy walking distance of the Plaza.
As for maintenance, while in Indy I noticed all the flower beds, lighting and public spaces were well-kept and graffiti free, Kansas City does a poor job of keeping up its public spaces.
Now, here’s where Kansas City is ahead of Indy.
Paradoxically, all that thoughtful planning that’s contributed to downtown Indianapolis’ success makes it a fairly bland place. It’s a bit overthought, and lacks the eclectic energy that’s accompanied much of the recent rejuvenation of downtown Kansas City.
You could tell the revival of downtown Indy came from the drawing board of arguably some smart planners, but there was little room left for spontaneity. The buildings along the Canal Walk were all uniform height and the handful of places to stop and eat or have a drink felt like franchise outlets.
Architecturally, downtown Kansas City with its mix of old and new buildings dating back to the late 19th Century has a more dynamic and charming impact. And as more people continue to live downtown, its energy will only increase.
Downtown Indy has some big, built-in advantages. It’s the home of the state capitol and all those office workers, it has a major medical and university complex, its major sports facilities are there and its 20 years ahead of us in investing in its convention industry.
KC is making strides, hopefully the new convention hotel will finally break ground soon, and Indy has nothing to compare with our new streetcar and the excitement its brought to downtown.
We’re also seeing a resurgence of independent entrepreneurs bringing their own unique creativity downtown vs the well-meaning, but sometimes stultifying efforts of planners as exhibited in Indy.
In many ways, it’s up to our major government and civic players to do a better job of making smarter choices in locating major public-private investments (future ballpark planning anyone?) and demanding more from our parks and public places.