What’s behind a community turnaround

For Indianapolis North-East residents – the label “turnaround” has been synonymous with the realities of education reform and transformation. Taken in context, its “reversal” ambitions suggest an immediacy or impact condition. In any case, “turnaround” has become an controversial word for big change, including a “we are not doing business as usual” reality which is exactly the place to start a project with purpose.

W/purpose principal, Wil Marquez considers urban design a dessert best served with a load of vision and  topped off with a rich story that everyone can sink their teeth into.  In the case of a first ring community like Devington, Indianapolis’s “first” North-East suburb, whose claim to fame was not only considered a desirable “a new way of living”, but whose mid century vanguard and immediate downfall – should give a city pause. In many ways, “First Devington” and its “subdivision” past reflect a metaphor for the representation of neglect but also the poster-child for a “turn around”.

Entering into this project, w/purpose asked Indianapolis developer Gary Hobbs, President of BWI, LLC “why compete with other developers by essentially offering the same affordable product?” We felt strongly that a sub-urban development will flourish only if they push development an architectural ideology to a higher ground of innovation. We, including Hobbs, didn’t want to feel constrained by an “either or” scenario, when an either AND or solution existed.  In agreement, Hobbs locked into the unique interplay of disciplines, people, and resources where the final solution would not only be coined as an appropriate “architecture” or affordable building product, but a community focused product that is not only site specific, but a visible catalyst in turning around the areas economic and cultural revival.

The interplay of people was not organized under a traditional top down design model, where architect/developer behaves as protagonist or solo visionary. Under these conditions the Devington community already came equipped with a big idea, which our office would only be reacting to or working with. Instead, a model introduced by dean William Rees Morrish at New York’s 2010 Architecture Week frames how our team wanted to engage – somewhere along the fold of social architecture, system thinker, or urban specialist. In short, w/purpose positioned itself as turnaround ninjas – whose agenda included these 10 goals:

  1. Participate alongside Devington Communities Association, United North East CDC, various city departments, and local collaborators to develop a clear redevelopment strategy.
  2. Research local context, material, and aesthetic.
  3. Develop site specific façade and lighting design strategy.
  4. Investigate ideas of connectivity to local resources & institutions (school, church, retail, bike lanes).
  5. Develop unique story, including media communication
  6. Execute creative scenarioscapes and various project representations and presentations.
  7. Develop site and urban design infrastructure strategy (bike rack, seating, banner poles, cart corral, entry canopy design).
  8. Continue to ask big questions that discomfort the giants.
  9. Work with local transit authority on updated bus stop.
  10. Remind ourselves not to be lame by finding plausible design solutions that others at the table ignore, deny or can’t solve.

In the recent article, The Business of Design, Bill Breen explains, “in this turbulent, get-real economy, the advantage goes to those who can out imagine and out create their competitors”. As a urban + public design office, this is exactly where we wanted to end up.  We listened to the communities concerns on affordable housing, regeneration,  crime and quickly came to the realization that certain kinds of affordable housing products need a team to become co-authors, not consultants, to a story that openly embrace a design “turnaround” strategy.

As the project looks to break ground soon, what ultimately shook out for us was clear map of how a senior community connects with area resources, engages their curiosities, and visualizes their future. This interplay in divergent thinking inspired a first step in not just shifting current affordable development ideology – but a new way to expand the discussion around an areas reality of  “turnaround”.