Lessons learned by an urban visionary

During 16 years as Indianapolis's mayor, William Hudnut acted boldly to build the city. Now he says he'd pay more attention to the 'little things.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tall, angular William Hudnut is simultaneously distinguished, commanding, and affable. It's a good combination for a person who began his working life as a minister, became a mayor, and now serves as a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

After having ample opportunity to reflect on urban America, especially about responsible land use and city dynamics, what would the former four-term mayor of Indianapolis do differently if back in office today?

"I'd try to emphasize more of the little things that make up the urban fabric," he says. "I didn't concentrate on those enough."

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In other words, he'd zero in more on serving established local neighborhoods and shopping areas, be committed to the "fitness of things and urban design," and would be less intent on sprawl-inducing new development and big-ticket projects.

The admission came after delivering the keynote address to a recent Restoration and Renovation conference in Boston. Mr. Hudnut thinks restoration will be a major theme of the 21st century. "Renew" will dethrone "new," he says, pointing to statistics indicating that remodeling and renovation now outpace new construction.

Certainly Hudnut is no stranger to urban renewal. He was a strong proponent during his mayoral tenure, from 1976 to 1991, when his stated goal was to build a "cooperative, compassionate, and competitive city."

In spite of those who thought downtowns were obsolete 30 years ago, ready to be "relegated to the dust bin," Hudnut says downtown Indianapolis today represents the heartbeat of an entire metro region.

"As I said when mayor, you can't be a suburb to nothing," he observes.

One city's renaissance

Indianapolis had a reputation as "India-NO-place" when he took office. "People thought of us as a cemetery with lights, a place where you watched the Indianapolis 500 one day a year and slept the other 364," he says. "But all that's changed now."

Under Hudnut's leadership, downtown Indianapolis enjoyed a renaissance. A domed stadium and convention center were built, and an old railroad station was transformed into a thriving attraction for both out-of-towners and city dwellers. The city also carved out an identity as "the amateur sports capital" of the United States by building first-class athletic facilities and luring major national sporting events, as well as the 1987 Pan American Games.

With the help of thousands of civic-minded volunteers, the city succeeded in using sports as an economic-development tool. But Hudnut cautions that, as with Rome, no city is built – or rebuilt – in a day. It's a gradual process that requires great patience and commitment, plus vision.

"You've got to learn to be what you are [as a city]; I think that's the fundamental lesson," he says. "When I was mayor, people used to ask me, 'When are you going after a national political convention or the Olympics?' We're not a Los Angeles or New York. We can't host the Olympics, and we don't want to be like those places. We were about maxed out with the Pan Am Games, which are a smaller scale. We've got to be what we are."

Hudnut speaks as though he still lives in Indianapolis. Actually he, his wife, and 9-year-old son reside in Chevy Chase, Md., where he serves on the town council. "Life moves on, and we're happy in Washington," he says, while acknowledging his nostalgic bond to Indianapolis, which he continues to visit.

"It's hard going back; it makes me homesick," he confesses. "But there's been an awful lot of development in the last 10 or 15 years, since I left office, so I'm gratified."

He is especially pleased – "absolutely astounded," to be exact – by the new townhouses and condominiums that have gone up along a canal that runs through downtown. "Thirty years ago, it was nothing but a junkyard," he notes.

Since exiting politics, Hudnut has held posts at a variety of institutions and, for the past six years, has been at the Urban Land Institute.

Currently, he's writing a book about inner-ring suburbs, the first bands of outward urban growth. Hudnut says these are often caught in a demographic no-man's land between green-lawned outer suburbia and downtown revitalization. Governments tend to neglect them, assuming because they are old and established that they don't need attention or funding.

The forgotten inner 'burbs

While many suburbanites may have evacuated them for newer, outlying neighborhoods, Hudnut believes inner suburbs are increasingly attractive to "singles, mingles, and jingles" – that is, to young singles, urban professionals, and empty-nesters who want to enjoy the energy and social vitality of city life without necessarily living at the urban core.

This in-migration had already begun to happen before Sept. 11. Now, Hudnut believes, it could increase as people come to desire the togetherness of cities over the isolation of suburbs.

Hudnut identifies good housing options as critical to attracting buyers to these inner-ring suburbs. But to prevent overgentrifcation, he favors inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build affordable units alongside market-rate ones. The result can be seamless-looking neighborhoods, incorporating different economic levels.

He cites Pittsburgh as a second-tier city that has done an especially good job of increasing its housing stock. Other cities with near-term futures that excite him are Denver, San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as Indianapolis, where the focus has shifted from sports to culture.

One project that has been a disappointment for Hudnut is the renovation of Indianapolis's old railway terminal into a shopping mall and hotel.

The $60 million renovation, undertaken during his tenure as mayor, was a big winner for a while, attracting many people to the restored Union Station. But nowadays people often bypass it in favor of Circle Centre, a nearby mall.

A few unfulfilled dreams

Before leaving office, Hudnut tried unsuccessfully to persuade the historic preservation community to drop its opposition to connecting the station to Circle Centre with a second-level walkway. Preservationists didn't want to deface the station's facade.

"There are efforts now being made to redo the station and salvage some of it, but it's a far cry from what it was in the late 1980s," Hudnut says regretfully.

Indianapolis once was a bustling passenger-railway hub, but now has limited Amtrak service. Hudnut thinks developing improved rail service – particularly runs of 300 miles or so – is essential for US cities.

One of his unfulfilled dreams as mayor was to connect Purdue University in West Lafayette and Indiana University in Bloomington with a light-rail system that would link the schools at their joint IUPUI campus in Indianapolis. Another dream was to make Indianapolis's airport an alternative to busy O'Hare, ferrying passengers to downtown Chicago, about 130 miles away, by fast rail service.

While he couldn't turn these visions into reality, Hudnut is convinced that ideas like them hold the key to successful urban development.

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