By now, the DiRimini apartment complex drama has become a familiar tale to anyone following urban Indianapolis issues. The infill development project, located in western downtown Indianapolis, has been under construction since early 2010. Over the past several months as the building rose out of the ground, it became obvious that what was being built did not resemble the plans submitted to the city for approval in 2009. Therefore, in early September, the city’s Department of Code Enforcement issued a stop-work order on the DiRimini due to 35 cited violations on the downtown urban design guidelines, standards all new construction projects must follow.
Aside from being architecturally hideous, the building fails because the ground level does not interact with the street, the windows are out-of-scale, the building material is tacky, there is no differentiation between unit walk-ups, there is poor fenestration, and the retail component does little to activate the street frontage. Really, I could go on and on about why the DiRimini exhibits poor urban design, but this story, which has been heavily covered by the local media for the past few weeks, shines a light on an even bigger issue plaguing numerous streets in our urban core: poor urban designs. While there are numerous offenders, many of which that deserve to be called out building by building (I am looking at you 3Mass,) I have noticed an abundance of poor urban designs among a prominent group of buildings/places that deserve to share some of DiRimini’s spotlight: Indy’s gay establishments.
If you drive around or go from place to place, you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of Indy’s gay restaurants, bars, or nightclubs feature 1970’s era boarded up windows, hidden entrances, and have an overall ‘vacant’ look. Below are four such examples, all found in downtown immediate urban core.
English Ivy’s @ 9TH and St. Joseph.
Talbott Street @ 22nd and Talbott.
Varsity Lounge @ 16th and Pennsylvania
The 10 @ 12th and Pennsylvania
The images speak for themselves; these places do not abide by an urban design aesthetic that strives to create active, vital streets. And they ought to (even the nightclubs), as each establishment is located in a commercial urban setting and thus should abide by an urban aesthetic that is positive and progressive, not shameful and stuck in the 1970’s. To make these places more contextually sensitive to their settings, they need to include more attractive facades that add character to the area, feature significant ground level fenestration to create an inside-out connectivity to the street, and have entrances off the sidewalk to activate street life.
These types of improvements would be a positive step for the Indianapolis urban community. For example, English Ivy’s sits along Alabama Street in the midst of a small, quaint commercial district. In this area, open storefronts with high levels of fenestration add vibrancy to the street and create a small community node unique in downtown Indianapolis. Ivy’s is perhaps the most frequented establishment in the district but unfortunately, it detracts from the otherwise nice commercial corridor as the façade creates a wall to the street, giving the structure a vacant feel and look. Ultimately, this is something that depresses the area instead of activating it. If Ivy’s opened itself up and featured large windows that connected the inside of the restaurant to the street, an even more vibrant district would be achieved, and a greater sense of place could be attained. And in the end, a sense of place is our urban core’s strongest asset and competitive advantage over suburban and exurban regions. Thus, urban design improvements, no matter how small, need to be prioritized so Indianapolis can truly attain a vibrant urban core, something that’s an important characteristic of any 21st Century world-class city.
I believe implementing physical urban design improvements will also have a positive impact on social aspects of the gay community. Opening the establishments to the streets with a strong urban design aesthetic signifies a strong gay community that is no longer interested in hiding behind the 1970’s shame facades. Such improvements could increase community visibility and begin to raise more awareness, regional acceptance, and tolerance. Plus, a stronger gay community sends the message to the outside world that Indianapolis welcomes diversity and progressivity, things that are important characteristics of any 21st Century world-class city.
So for a better urban fabric, a more visible gay community, and a stronger, more world-class Indianapolis, it’s time the gay community demand better urban designs out of the establishments they frequent!