Smith: Ideas to enliven Monument Circle came flooding in

Erika SmithIndianapolis Star
April 19th, 2011

Ideas to enliven Monument Circle came flooding in

One of my favorite things to do in the spring and summer is sit on Monument Circle and read a book.

I almost always draw strange looks and, for the life of me, I can never figure out why. Monument Circle has the potential to be a truly great public space — a place where people don’t just drive around in cars or walk through, but actually stay for a few hours and hang out. This is clear to me even with all of the construction that’s going on now, including restoration work on the century-old Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

If we do this right, the Circle could be the linchpin of a newly walkable, bikeable and sustainable Indianapolis. But building such a city has to be a group effort with some consensus on what we want our public spaces to be and the role we want them to play.

So I was happy to hear that Indianapolis Downtown Inc. (IDI) received more that 60 proposals for its Monument Circle Idea Competition. The deadline was Friday.

IDI’s president, Tamara Zahn, said Monday that she hadn’t looked closely at the proposals yet, but they seem to run the gamut. People weighed in on everything from traffic patterns to the museum under the monument.

“We’re very impressed by the quality of the submittals,” she said.

Many proposals came from architects and urban designers in Central Indiana. Others came from as far away as Spain and Turkey.

In a few days, six judges will begin to pare the list of proposals. By mid-June, a handful will be posted on the Circle to gather public comment. At the end of June, IDI will announce the top four proposals — three picked by the judges and one by the public.

Chances are none of these specific proposals will become reality in terms of revamped concrete, stone, steel and lighting on the Circle.

This is an idea competition, after all, and the main goal is to start a dialogue in the community.

It’s a way to figure out the common themes of what people value. Or, more specifically, it’s a way to find out what people are willing to pay for when it comes to this type of development.

Do we want more shops? Kiosks? More sculptures? Bigger fountains?

Weekly concerts? A stage for theatrical performances in the summer? An outdoor ice rink in the winter?

“This is nothing more than a great public relations strategy to get the public informed on what public space is,” said Wil Marquez, founder of the urban public design firm w/purpose.

The thinking is that if people get involved and push for what they want, then they’ll take ownership and actually use the public space they create.

“You go to the Circle, and it’s just a monument,” said Marquez, whose firm entered the competition. “How do you sort of inject it with some juice to get people to want to stay?”

The answer to that question won’t affect only Monument Circle.

Zahn said it also will help determine what happens to Georgia Street, now undergoing a major overhaul, after next year’s Super Bowl and perhaps to other public spaces in the city.

Public spaces are important to the city’s vitality. And they will become increasingly important as the city looks at new, sustainable ways to grow. Ways that complement Mayor Greg Ballard’s announcement Monday that 63 miles of bike lanes will be added in the city by the end of the year.

“This is the year when you’ll see many of the connections made,” Ballard said.

I’m glad we’re starting with the Circle.

Call Star columnist Erika D. Smith at (317) 444-6424, send e-mail to erika.smith@indystar.com, or reach her on Twitter @indystar_erika or @beyond_big_game.