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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis October 10, 2011
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Mass transit can help revitalize neighborhoods, too

This article originally appeared Oct. 2, 2011, in The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, IN. Reprinted by permission.

Marcus Saloane has lived along College Avenue near East 28th Street for almost two decades.

He’s watched the neighborhood change from a place where young men would brazenly stand in the streets to shoot people to a place where young professionals are moving in with their families. The blight and the crime aren’t gone, but redevelopment efforts are slowly picking up speed.

But to kick that redevelopment into overdrive, Saloane and many of his neighbors hope to capitalize on a potential commuter rail line that would run between Noblesville and Downtown Indianapolis.

“We’re acting as if we’re going to be a stop,” he said. “We’re looking for positivity. The neighborhood has been in disrepair for a long time.”

This is the untold story of mass transit.

When many people in Central Indiana talk about why we should or should not fund a $2.4 billion system of public trains and buses, often the conversation gets stuck on the notion of moving people.

People say things like: “Why would I pay to make it easier for commuters from the suburbs to get Downtown?” Or, “I don’t want to go to Noblesville to have fun.”

Those are valid points, but both miss the larger point.

Mass transit does more than move people from Point A to Point B. When planned properly with the right community support, it can spur economic growth in struggling neighborhoods.

In Central Indiana’s case, those neighborhoods fall primarily between East 38th Street and Downtown, along the Monon Trail and a stretch of long-abandoned railroad tracks. Under the multibillion-dollar Indy Connect transit plan, those tracks would be rehabbed to support commuter or light rail.

If a stop or two is installed along the way, these neighborhoods could be transformed into vibrant havens for young professionals and families living in upscale condos and houses, and patronizing new shops and restaurants.

In some ways, such a transition would actually be a return to the past.

These neighborhoods, now bereft of the kind of activity that often comes with stops along transit lines, are the same neighborhoods that were built and then thrived on transit in the early 1900s. There were Interurban, or electric streetcar, stops all along College Avenue. Indianapolis, in fact, had one of the most extensive systems of streetcars in the country.

“Every four blocks all the way up to Broad Ripple, there’s a node of development. That’s where there was a stop,” said Brad Beaubien, director of Ball State University’s College of Architecture & Planning in Indianapolis. “There’s a legacy of transit that you can still see today.”

Perhaps it’s time to revive that legacy—both to help solve longstanding problems in neighborhoods and to ensure that Indianapolis is attractive to future generations.

Building for transit
The rule of thumb is that transit, particularly rail, increases the value of nearby property. Study after study has shown this to be true in San Diego, Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and many other cities.

The increased value isn’t the same from city to city, of course. And there are some exceptions to the rule. Development projects in Denver and Minneapolis, for example, have had a tough time lately because of the economy.

But transit is generally a boon for a neighborhood.

The trick for residents is to secure a stop along the way—and that’s not as easy as it used to be.

Once a decision is made to build a rail line in a city, almost every neighborhood wants a stop. The competition can be fierce. So, neighborhoods have to prove they are transit-ready.

Connectivity matters. Are there bike lanes? How about sidewalks with streetlights? Is there a major employer nearby? There’s no point having a stop in an area that doesn’t connect to anything else in a city.

“You really think about transit as being a market accelerator, not a market maker,” said Catherine Cox Blair, program director for the nonprofit advisory group Reconnecting America.

Just because you build a transit stop doesn’t mean they’ll come.

So, these days, developers are looking to cities and local transit officials to identify stops that would be good catalysts for condos or retail. What’s more, because of the economy, many projects around transit lines are “infill” projects, such as a new apartment building next to existing houses and a park.

The idea is to build on the density of a neighborhood so small retailers will follow. A convenience store or a small grocery store might pop up. Compare it to the kind and number of businesses that have opened along the Monon Trail, another key part of Indianapolis’ transportation ecosystem. Last week, for example, Cafe Patachou’s Martha Hoover said she plans to open another restaurant, Public Greens by Patachou, along the trail.

“The more activity you have, the more you’re going to attract retailers and residents,” said John D. Jackson, an associate principal with Indianapolis-based RATIO Architects. “You expect to see something very urban.”

Back to the future
Not long ago, Indianapolis had that kind of activity in its neighborhoods, and a lot of it was tied to the Interurban streetcar system.

Over four decades, 111 companies operated more than 3,000 streetcars over 2,100 miles of track across Indiana, ranking second only to Ohio, according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Eventually, the popularity of cars and the buildout of the highway system helped kill the streetcars—although the names of some roads, such as Stop 10 on the Far Southside, are reminders of its existence.

The automobile changed the culture of Indianapolis. It enabled urban sprawl, and neighborhoods that once sprung up around businesses and transit lines eventually found themselves without both. What’s left, at least in neighborhoods south of East 38th Street along the Monon Trail, are abandoned industrial sites known as brownfields.

Cleaning up those sites has been one of the first priorities of residents to make their neighborhoods transit-ready.

“Right now, it doesn’t make sense to put a stop there,” Beaubien said. “You wouldn’t put one in the middle of the greatest concentration of brownfields in the county and destroyed neighborhoods.”

Officials from several community development corporations have met to come up with other ways to prepare the neighborhoods for a rail line.

Among them: There are plans to build a “bicycle boulevard” along East 17th Street, which would link Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, over the Monon and rail line, to Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue. There also are plans for new housing. With some strategic rezoning, the idea is to use the large tracts of abandoned industrial land for new development instead of tearing up neighborhoods of homes.

Brian Kirtz, who owns a house in the changing neighborhood of Kennedy King, says he hopes those plans will be enough.

“What our main concern is, will there be a stop or not?” he said. “We would probably be offended if the train just went on by.”

Ehren Bingaman, head of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, insists there will be at least one stop, possibly more, south of East 38th Street. That’s assuming, of course, that state lawmakers agree to put a referendum on the ballot and then voters decide to raise taxes for transit. And those are big assumptions.

Some residents are skeptical—about transit itself and about whether they’ll ever see a stop to help their neighborhoods. Saloane, however, is a believer.

“We’ve heard so many stories; so many things have come and gone,” he said. “But we’re just sure that eventually, a train will be coming down those tracks.”

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