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.'
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.
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."