Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gateway to navigational confusion.

In recent years, the various public and private agencies in Indianapolis have collaborated on the commissioning of public art projects in what would appear to many to be unlikely places: off the side of some the region’s busiest interstate highways.  The most prominent location for these installations is along the I-70 corridor connecting the Indianapolis International Airport to downtown, with the goal of providing a colorful, idiosyncratic greeting to people arriving by plane to the city and traveling to the most likely destination: the city center.  But why build a sculpture in an area in which people will most likely be zipping by, and newcomers will probably be more concerned about finding their way than a cluster of many have called (somewhat pejoratively) giant gumdrops?  In some cases, the installations no doubt attempt to divert attention from economically distressed neighborhoods that the interstates transect, just as the many murals disguise the otherwise blank walls induced from a demolition in previous years of the adjacent building--a blog topic of mine from the past.  City leadership amplified the public art initiative in the months preceding Super Bowl XLVI, in which the nation’s eyes would hone in on the host city.  Ostensibly the mentality behind the public art was to engage in as multifaceted of a campaign as possible.

I can hardly criticize the welcome mat that the city rolled during the Super Bowl: not only was I not living in the US at the time, but virtually every international media source I scanned (and I surveyed many) formed a conclusion of the city’s hosting ability that was overwhelmingly positive.  But I have noticed that, after approaching the city center by car from a number of directions, one of the most prominent gateways—the city’s welcome mat to wheeled vehicles—is also among the least satisfactory.  When approaching downtown after getting off the I-70 interchange at Meridian Street, this is what a motorist will encounter at the first stop light intersection with McCarty Street:

I have little complaints with the sign; it’s utilitarian, inoffensive, and widely reproduced at various entrances throughout the city, both at egress points from the downtown interstate system and when entering the city from a municipal boundary.  But isn’t an essential aspect of downtowns—of urbanism in general—missing?

I confess, I’m caviling about a sidewalk, yet again.  During a block-long stretch of Madison Avenue, it is missing completely, on both sides of the street.  It picks up again at the next intersection (the stoplight in the distance of the above photo), where it intersects with a small stub of Merrill Street.  By any metric, it’s a strange oversight I’m hoping the City corrects in the near future, since, once a car travels north of McCarty Street, it has left the exit ramp and is fully integrated in the urban environment.  (The City and various nonprofits have thoroughly mapped sidewalk deficiencies in central Indianapolis  in the recent past.)  But this stretch of the street still functions as a through-way for vehicles only; not only is it impractical for pedestrians to walk here safely, it is virtually impossible.

Landscaping and street trees hug the curb, leaving little room for pedestrians even to walk through the grass.  Granted, this 1.5-block stretch of Madison Avenue offers little attraction for pedestrians: virtually all buildings have backs turned away from to the road, giving little incentive for a person to access by foot.  Meanwhile, the parallel streets to Madison to either the east (Pennsylvania Street) or west (Meridian Street) offer perfectly acceptable sidewalks and better access to any buildings.  So why does this stretch of the Madison Avenue entrance to downtown Indy exist under these conditions?

The streetscape across approximately a one-quarter square mile stretch on the immediate south side of downtown Indianapolis has changed dramatically over the past twenty years.  While the high-profile construction of Lucas Oil Stadium involved some changes in the right-of-way—including the elimination of two blocks of Merrill Street, indicated by the blue line—the source of the most significant alterations is the Fortune 500 to the stadium’s southeast: Eli Lilly and Company’s corporate headquarters.  The pharmaceutical giant has played such a pivotal role in the growth and prosperity of Indianapolis that it is understandable that it should leverage changes to the road network as the needs for its campus grows.  (Lilly also helped to fund a considerable amount of the city’s public art along the I-70 corridor coming from the airport.) The markings I made on the Google Map below shows the current street configuration:

The first major transformation during my lifetime involved the removal of a segment of McCarty Street in the late 1980s.  The street used to extend from Delaware Street to East Street, linking the Babe Denny/Pogue’s Run neighborhoods with Holy Rosary and Fletcher Place, but Lilly purchased that three-block right-of-way and developed it, indicated by the red line I’ve drawn on.

The modifications most relevant to the above photos (the gateway without a sidewalk) took place in the late 1990s, commensurate with Lilly’s development of the Faris Campus.  This complex stretches across multiple city blocks, engulfing several streets in the process.  Among the largest segments to undergo the axe were two more segments of the aforementioned Merrill Street, which, these days, is literally mere fragments of what it was 25 years ago.  Back then, Merrill ran perfectly parallel to McCarty Street and stretched about the same length, from Kentucky Avenue to Virginia Avenue, so well over a mile long.  However, while McCarty earns its prominence by being the first general-access roadway parallel to the I-70 interstate—the presumptive east-west gateway to the broader downtown area—Merrill Street was never more than a modestly trafficked local road with just a couple stop lights.  Very few addresses fronted Merrill Street; it was little more than an ancillary entrance.  Even a portion of Merrill between Delaware and New Jersey streets is now a private road, owned and fenced in by Lilly.  Although the elimination of a segment of McCarty Street in the mid-1980s precipitated a significant change in traffic patterns for the area, the complete fragmentation of Merrill into a few stubs and two-block fragments barely raised an eyebrow.  Lately, the City has commenced a fully pedestrianized segment on the block of Merrill between Pennslvania and Delaware streets, under the train viaduct:

Beyond the near-complete elimination of this reasonably lengthy street, Lilly’s Faris Campus instigated other modifications to the southside of downtown that have irrevocably changed the transportation network.  The welcome sign in the first photo from this blog posting comprises the culminating point of this reconstructive surgery.  In the past, Meridian Street’s diversion north of McCarty was much more straightforward.  Traveling northward from the intersection, a fork in the road gave motorists and pedestrians two options: a northwesterly bound Russell Avenue provided quick access to the north-bound arterial Illinois Street, while Meridian Street diverged to a northeast bound two-way collector stub (also named Meridian Street) that again became prominent when it merged with Madison Avenue at the approximate intersection with South Street.  The block long green line in the Google Map shows the previous configuration to Meridian Street.

I did not live in Indianapolis at the time of the Faris Campus construction, so I don’t know if it aroused controversy, but the changes have proven significant.  Meridian Street between McCarty and South streets no longer provides direct access…to itself.    At the McCarty Street divergence, where Meridian starts moving northeastward, it devolves to a quiet, little-used segment.

After just three blocks on this segment of Meridian, motorists/pedestrians must turn onto the local road called Henry Street, where Meridian terminates.  The termination is below, but notice that it's still easy to see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the distance.

This T in the road at Meridian and Henry is apparently obscure and sparsely traveled enough to merit nothing more than a stop sign.  By comparison to the “Welcome to Indianapolis” sign gateway, it’s also quite pedestrian friendly.  But it's a strange treatment for a street that, just a few blocks further south, promised a direct connection to the absolute center of the city; it is the city's meridian, after all.  And here it ends at dinky two-lane Henry Street.  Then, after just one hundred or so feet on Henry Street, the motorist/pedestrian must turn left (at a stop light) on that same gateway section of Madison Avenue in order to continue downtown.

Here’s another view of that intersection, looking toward downtown, where Madison Avenue meets with the unremarkable Henry Street, which, I reiterate, has become a quiet temporary terminating point for what is otherwise the city’s most prominent north-south road.

At this point, after traveling a block further northward toward South Street, Madison Avenue changes names as it once again becomes the arterial, north-bound portion of Meridian that continues toward the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  Here’s looking south from the Meridian-Madison-South intersection:

Just beyond that conical sculpture, the interrupted path of Meridian Street is visible in the distance. Meridian Street therefore now falls under a permanent detour.

Meanwhile, the naming scheme of Madison Avenue embodies what the US military would politely label a “Charlie Foxtrot” (for those not aware of this term, look it up).  Technically, the Madison Avenue arterial that stretches all the way toward the southern suburbs of Indianapolis comes to an end when the street forks into northbound Delaware Street and Southbound Pennsylvania Street.  However, a small five block stub of Madison Avenue between I-70 and South Street has existed for as long as I can remember, even though it is completely non-contiguous with the 12-mile remainder of Madison Avenue.  I have shaded this Madison Avenue extension with a pinkish transparency in the map.

How does this stub fit in to the big picture?  Without digging into old Public Works records or archival maps from the 1960s and 70s (okay, I confess, I dug a little bit), my interpretation is it is a leftover fragment that was made discontiguous when the City converted Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets to complementary one-way arterials that forked outward from Madison Avenue.  The turquoise diagonal dashed line just north of McCarty indicates the original path of Madison Avenue.  But the pinkish highlighted area—the sidewalkless gateway from the interstate exit ramp--has essentially evolved into an orphan street segment, and while it is obvious from a map how it might have met with the primary arterial of the Madison Avenue that sprawls southward, it is not necessarily so easy to understand for those unfamiliar with the city—namely, the visitors the city is trying to attract with public art, signage, and a walkable downtown area.  Essentially, two contiguous intersections have the same street name, visible from the photos below.  The first shows the intersection labeled with a big purple 1 on the map, on McCarty Street looking westward:

The second intersection, labeled with a purple 2 on the map, is on that stretch of Madison right as it has stopped being called Pennsylvania, looking southeastward:

So essentially, two parallel streets at two adjacent intersections on McCarty both have the name “Madison Avenue”.  It proves even more of a problem for motorists leaving the interstate from the I-65/I-70 arterials and entering through the southside of downtown, the region I have highlighted with a green transparency. Look at how the signage first tells drivers they are disembarking at Meridian Street:

And then, as the exit 79B meets the southside gateway to downtown, McCarty Street, look at the various options:

And the conventional street signs tell motorists that they are on this street—
--even though the interstate exit told them they were disembarking onto Meridian Street.

Continuing northward on this Madison Avenue orphan stub, it remains a prime arterial for reaching the city’s absolute center at Monument Circle, but a visitor would have no way of knowing this until the intersection with South Street into the Wholesale District (marked on the map by a purple number 3), when…
…Madison Avenue Orphan Stub changes name again back to Meridian Street.

The radical improvements of navigational technology over the last decade have palliated this problem significantly; most people these days can just check their GPS to figure out how the roads here function.  But GPS will save them in spite of the signage, not because of it.  Other cities which I know well (New Orleans comes to mind) have equally confusing entrances from the exit ramps, in which navigation falters from a morass of modified streets, name changes, stubs that go nowhere, and unexpected interruptions to the conventional grid.  The near-southside of Indianapolis is probably no worse than a number of cities, but the initiative for a solution at this point seems elusive.  The confusion induced from this street-grid palimpsest does not affect the locals, who know the area like the back of their hand.  Visitors eventually figure it out, and probably without much of a headache if they have GPS.

But a stretch of Madison Avenue Orphan Stub/Meridian Street Access/whatever-you-want-to-call-it remains without sidewalks, and the only affirming, conclusive sign when exiting the interstate is that “Welcome to Indianapolis”.  Is this tangle of street segments severe enough to warrant another round of surgery from the DPW?  Absolutely not.  But Lilly may grow again in a better economy, another major employer may expand, or the moderately deflated real estate of the area may encourage the construction of a similar mega-attraction like Lucas Oil.  The existing confusion isn’t going to heal into scar tissue any time soon.

A much cheaper solution than further alteration of the right-of-ways could involve two primary steps: 1) eliminate the orphan street status; 2) place pedestrian and motorist navigability on equal footing.  Merrill Street and McCarty Street are reasonably straightforward—they terminate and reintegrate at fixed latitudes.  Madison Street is a mess, but a simple renaming of the stub could easily forge a separate identity that makes it less confusing on the signs as well as a birds-eye view from maps.    Perhaps this stub could be renamed after a major civic leader from the past?  While it would necessitate the cost for replacing road signs on both the interstate and the conventional streets, the shortness of Madison Avenue Orphan Stub means the cost shouldn’t be as great as renaming the orphaned stub of Meridian Street (of course), and it will allow for a more clear-cut terminus to Madison Avenue where it forks into Delaware and Pennsylvania Street.  The cost incurred to businesses will also be minimal, since very few businesses front this stretch of Madison Avenue—it is essentially an extension of the exit ramp that eventually provides access to Meridian Street at South Street.  The most plausible means of assuaging businesses frustrated by a name change would be to remind them how the renaming will relieve much of the confusion when trying to explain the street network to visitors—no more double Madison Avenues. 

Signage improvements would fall under the category of streetscape enhancements, which effectively transitions the discussion to the second corrective measure: equalizing navigability for pedestrians and motorists.  Both could benefit from signage that helps clarify this network, and the pedestrians will earn the accommodation they need with installation of 4-foot wide sidewalks on the margins.  While this may require the sacrifice of streetscape improvements (trees, shrubs) currently at the curbs, it will involve little to no sacrifice to any privately owned parcels, since no buildings front the Madison Avenue Stub, nor will parking lots shrink as a result.  If this Madison Avenue Orphan Stub receives a renaming after a famous Indianapolis figurehead, the streetscape improvements could include plaques or memorials addressing the dedicatee.  Eventually, I would hope the City might improve the clarity of the Henry/Madison/Meridian intersection, so that the north-south artery regains the importance it deserves instead of tapering off into virtually nothing.  But that would probably involve some heavy surgery toward existing traffic patterns.

Obviously this remedy is not terribly high on the City of Indianapolis’ to-do list; it probably isn’t even up there at all.  I’m even willing to concede that I just identified a solution in search of a problem, mostly out of my frustration of seeing a block-long gateway to the city without any sidewalks.  But we could also analogize the south side’s thirty-year incremental changes to a frog slowly getting boiled without realizing the temperature is rising.  Clearly the signage and pedestrian infrastructure here is imperfect.  How much worse does it have to get before it results in an civic contretemps?  More than anything, it could integrate into a balletic political maneuver—a means of bringing a solution to the forefront the next time the city does want to dedicate a road to a great former leader.  “Hey—there’s that confusing stretch of Madison Avenue right when you get off the interstate.  Lots of people travel it but it doesn’t make sense because the rest of Madison Avenue continues a half block away.  What about renaming it and improving it with some real sidewalks?”  Legitimate problem is solved—so long as the City finds a more reputable dedicatee than Mr. Charlie Foxtrot.