Winning Lap

­Indianapolis hopes to make its cultural mark with a bike-and-pedestrian path that loops through the heart of town.

Other cities have their Eiffel Towers, their Guggenheims, or their Space Needles—those universally recognizable icons that draw people to town. Indianapolis, in the view of the wider world, has a racetrack. However, Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, believes Indy has more to offer than fast cars; it’s just that nobody knows it. He’s at work on a project that would make the necessary cultural statement, but the city’s not erecting another big-name museum or an eco-friendly skyscraper. This motor city has opted to build a $50 million, 7.5-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways right through the heart of town.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail (ICT) will pass nearly every one of the existing arts, sports, and entertainment venues downtown, including White River State Park, the Massachusetts Avenue arts and theater district, and the Victory Field minor-league ballpark. While serving as a cultural development commissioner in 2001, Payne kept hearing how disconnected these facilities were and, as an avid bicyclist, fantasized about linking them with an urban version of a greenway trail. “People will be able to come to Indy, get on the Cultural Trail, and be led to cafés, museums, and shopping,” he says.

To prove this project was possible, Payne secured a $15 million gift from a private donor, then got the city to kick in $15 million in federal transportation funds, and has raised an additional $10 million from other private sources. The ICT, which will be completed in 2010, puts separated bike and pedestrian lanes in public right-of-way space gained by narrowing streets and clos­­ing lanes previously dedicated to cars. Local landscape-architecture and urban-design firm Rundell Ernstberger Asso­ciates (REA) delivered a scheme that feels more like a linear plaza than a greenway. Though it will add 500 trees and 16,000 square feet of new vegetation to the area, it is also amply lined with aluminum furniture, custom lighting, and public art.

But is a cultural trail, no matter how well executed, enough to make Indy the next Bilbao? Payne seems to think so, arguing that for a city to become “hot” it has to be the first to do something—in a big way—that the public is looking for. As desirable as greenways are right now, preliminary studies found no extensive examples of them in a downtown network. But even if the ICT doesn’t secure Indy a world-class reputation, it will still be good for the city. “Most trails are an escape from the urban area,” Payne says. “This one is about exploring and celebrating the urban experience. And we’re taking miles of lanes of traffic from cars and giving them over to bikes and pedestrians.”

REA landscape architect Kevin Osburn, the lead designer, likens the project to renowned nineteenth-century works. “Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace in Boston, the Louisville Parks, and Kessler’s park and boulevard plans for Indianapolis and Kansas City were landmark urban-design projects that set in motion the growth and development of those cities,” he says. “We think that’s what this is: a landmark twenty-first-century project.”

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