Where the Canal Walk first went wrong.

Up to this point I have generally shied away from design criticism, largely because I think the blogosphere is filled with far more well-versed, better qualified voices (or keyboards) than mine, but also largely because opinions on successful design remains rooted to individual preferences. No matter the erudition or rhetorical gifts of an architecture critic, he or she generally contextualizes personal taste culture to shroud those opinions behind the veneer of objectivity. So in this posting, even as I essentially deconstruct a building, I will fixate most on its effectiveness as an edifice at engaging with its surroundings far more than its aesthetics. I know urban design hardly embraces a different critical ethos than architecture criticism (or film or music criticism), so I concede now that my opinion of this building, regardless of the historical or spatial context that I provide, remains quite simply my opinion. But, like the most capable critics of any discipline, the skill of argumentation coupled with an advanced knowledge of the subject might very well infuse the opinion with a perceived objectivity: in short, that the critic convinces its audience of his or her case so effectively that his or her highly opinionated artistic judgment takes on the tenor of a unquestioned fact. In all likelihood, I am far from achieving the airtight argument that endows this critique with an air of objective authority—feel free to challenge my assertions here. But be warned: as in all my blog posts, at least I come armed with photos.

For those who are unaware, the CentralCanal emerged as part of the nationwide canal boom of the 1820s and 1830s, when Indiana was still among the youngest states. The early pioneers witnessed the economic success in New YorkState of the Erie Canal, at the time the most high profile civil engineering initiative in the country, a transportation route that linked Midwestern granaries to coastal ports and helped put the city of Buffalo on the map. Hoosiers wanted a similar waterway to reinforce the centrality of the newly established capital city of Indianapolis, after Corydon IN had been deemed a too southerly location. The Internal Improvements Bill of 1836 authorized the construction of the CentralCanal through state bonds, intended to enhance existing linkages between northern Indiana (where the WabashRiver transects the state) and the southwestern city of Evansville. The CentralCanal predominantly intended to improve upon the navigability of the Western Fork of White River, which flows through Indianapolis and was a critical incentive for locating the city there, but proved specious after early settlers discovered the river is too shallow to be navigable for half of the year. Thus, the 1836 bill intended to include Indianapolis as part of a greater network of a canal.

Implementation was a failure. Nine miles linking the remote village of Broad Ripple to Indianapolis opened in 1839, but the nationwide Panic of 1837, cost overruns, incompetent management, and inadequate revenue caused the state to default on interest payments and brought work to a halt. Although other projects in the state such as the Wabash and Erie Canal achieved some success, the railroads soon eclipsed the demand for canals. While a minor source of water power, the canal never served as a transportation artery. The state sold the CentralCanal a decade later to pay off debt—it passed through the hands of several utility companies until 1881, when Indianapolis Water Company transformed some of the land into FairviewPark and used part of the waterway as a recreational ferry. While the park survives today as Butler University’s Holcomb Gardens, the more urbanized sections, particularly south of 16th Street, languished as more or less an open sewer. The upgrade of an urban freeway system in the late1960s forced several blocks of the canal into underground culverts, where West Street converges with I-65 through a tangle of exit ramps. Only in the 1970s did the CentralCanal earn recognition as an American Water Landmark, no doubt attempting to preclude any further burial. However, the canal continued to blight the landscape in this area, only intermittently allowing water flow but consistently filled with garbage. (A slightly more detailed overview of the canal up to this point can be found in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis by Bodenhammer, Barrows, and Vanderstel. The Canal Society of Indiana provides further information.)

Only in the mid-1980s did plans really begin to percolate for the revitalization of a portion of the canal downtown. The $10-million process of draining the canal, lowering the waterway 10 to 12 feet (well below street level), reinforcing it with improved culverts, sidewalks, fountains, landscaping, and pedestrian paths reached the end of its major phase in 1987, from a base south of Ohio Street up to St. Clair Street. The 1990s saw extensions and improvements on the north end (up to 11th Street) and south end (to meet with the White River at the White RiverState Park). Generally speaking, the local population has visited the canal quite heavily in the warm weather for the activities one would expect with any waterfront, while private businesses involving the rental of paddleboats, bicycles, and, most recently, gondolas have emerged over the years.

Not surprisingly, the Canal Walk stimulated plenty of development along its banks. But have this development enhanced the success of generally well-appreciated water feature?

The structures featured in this photo series, a Marriott Courtyard and Residence Inn, were among the first major developments to break ground on the canal after the first phase of improvements. At this point, they have been standing in the area for about 20 years and apparently remain quite successful; I believe Marriott has owned and operated them continuously. However, one can see the design standards that Marriott applied from the first photo. (My apologies that some of these photos, taken from a cell phone originally, suffer in graphic quality; I have tried to replace the most critical shots with better ones.)

Both hotels share a block in which the western side of the block directly abuts the canal. The Residence Inn streetwall directly parallels the canal, whereas the Courtyard is built on the easternmost side of the block, away from the canal. Therefore, half of the Residence Inn’s views (in its traditional double-loaded corridor style) overlook the canal, while none of the Courtyard’s views do. This in itself seems like a foolish oversight on the part of the developers. Even if they were operating under height restrictions due to zoning (and my research on the zoning code at the time suggests that they were not), one would think they might have sought a variance or some special approval, so that the farther of the two hotels (the Courtyard) could capitalize on the views through a greater height beyond what is blocked by the closer hotel (the Residence Inn). I suppose the Courtyard may see its excellent views of the downtown skyline (across three full blocks of surface level parking) as an asset. Or it could be that hotel developers don’t particularly care about views, since they are typically catering to a transient population with very little loyalty to the place in which they are spending the night—interior amenities are far more important. However, it most likely did occur to the Marriott developers to give the direct canal overlook to the Residence Inn, an extended stay hotel for more long-term guests who might actually look out their window.

Height is ultimately a minor complaint. Beyond the height, why build along the canal exactly? Everything else about this hotel complex indicates a determined effort to shut itself off from the surrounding area. Witness the entry point on New York Street, taken from a point standing directly on the right side of the prior photo:

The interior space between the two buildings—the middle third of the block—is devoted to surface level parking, and the primary entrances to the two buildings overlook this interior parking lot. You see the Courtyard in the above photo, the one farther from the canal. Here is a photo of the Residence Inn’s entrance:

Having cropped any of the peripheral streetscape, this could easily exist anywhere else in the country. To add insult to injury, they gated the New York Street entrance. Cars must flash their room cards to raise the lift arm gate, then walk across a parking lot to either hotel lobby. And here’s what pedestrians get for an entrance:

The three-foot wide aperture and its sidewalk may be attractively landscaped, but it hardly encouraged passers-by to pop in and look at rates. Far more critical, however, is what the canal perspective offers. Here’s a view looking down at the Residence Inn from the street level:

From a distance, it might not seem too bad: the designer provided some embellishments resembling arcades, and the central one, though under shadow in the above picture, at least offers broader windows to take in the views, as a gallery for viewing and relaxation atop one of the arcades. But here’s what this hotel frontage looks like at the canal level:

And walking alongside it:

The view inside is of a game room with a pool table, but those people indoors only have one nondescript exit:

In the interest of fire safety codes, the designer was solicitous enough to add exits at the foot of the stairwells, but they predictably offer even less dialogue with the Canal Walk:

Thus, we have no storefronts, no retail, no restaurants, and minimum engagement between the building and its waterfront setting. It could just as easily have been looking at a parking lot. Which brings us to the other building, the Marriott Courtyard; its frontage along Senate Avenue undoubtedly has less to offer (after all, much of what it overlooks actually is a parking lot). But the view is abysmal:

Completely impenetrable—a brick wall to for pedestrians to walk along, and the obvious butt-side of the building.

If anything, the only thing that distinguishes these two structures from their equivalents in the suburbs—or at interstate highway exits in rural America—is that the developers took additional pains to sequester the hotels’ activities from their environs. To be fair, one must evaluate these hotels in the context of the time in which they were built. As some of the earliest development after the completion of the canal, the developers no doubt perceived the Canal Walk as risky. At that point, the area was largely windswept and blighted, most of downtown closed down after , and no one was certain that the canal would become a major attraction, or that it would even be maintained. These structures date from around 1990, give or take a year, and the second (away from the canal) was built only after the assured success of the first. But the canal, and the area, no longer carries any stigma of high crime, the condos along it command a high price, and pedestrian traffic can be quite high on a good summer day.

The failure here is partly a by-product of an unimaginative, conservative hotel development team, but also reflects city leadership that lacked either a long-term vision or a backbone. The original dream of the canal was praiseworthy; the execution of the redevelopment was accomplished; the follow-through was a disaster. Though the Canal Walk is often listed as a principal cultural district downtown, I can find no evidence of a zoning overlay district that subjects developments in the area to greater design scrutiny. In the absence of an overlay district (which may come closest to real heart of the problem here), the city could have at least made recommendations or requirements that developers provide better activities to animate the pedestrian space along the canal. But they didn’t, possibly out of fear that draconian design standards would deter any developments. And now that the canal has little remaining vacant space, it provides an amenity that is largely akin to a suburban corporate park: jogging trails, pond graced with willow trees and Canada geese, et cetera. When the weather gets cooler and the bike/boat rentals shut down, the Canal Walk rolls up its sidewalks. A few runners continue to train along it in the winter, but it has no year-round appeal. Could this be why it has failed to attract retail along its banks? Of course not. The building design has failed to stimulate anything of interest directly along the canal’s banks, and the zoning regulations have not held designers to any higher standard. Making a truly vibrant canal requires adapting many of the same standards of a good main street, but at this point the Canal Walk offers no lateral interest; it is simply a bidirectional path that works as long as one parallels the water itself. Any attempts to deviate from this linearity leave a pedestrian staring at a wall.

Here’s the pedestrian view from across the canal, at the other side of Residence Inn:

Lots of windows to offices filled with cubicles, though the Venetian blinds are almost always drawn. Few doors to the outside. It is a back entrance to these offices, clearly occupied by businesses that have no use for the frontage along the canal, but it provides a pleasant amenity to their workers during a lunch break—the same offering as those duck ponds in the suburban corporate parks.

Even the State of Indiana got it wrong with its own development! Part of the government center fronts the canal, a particularly lushly landscaped area in the summer that offers a great deal of opportunity for recreation and people watching. Here’s the frontage:

Here are some close-ups of the frontage along the canal. Along the northwest face, pedestrians get part of an attractive waterfall (to the far left) but most of it comprises a blank concrete wall used to support the unloading area above it, at the street level.

Further along the canal, at the west side of the complex, is a recessed arcade that looks into a cafeteria for city workers, with two—yes, two—picnic tables outside.

The building offers no other means of opening the windows in warm weather, no table service to the outside, and passers-by are most likely unsure whether it is even a public eating area. It is, but think of the additional revenue the City might have made if it had leased that space to an enterprising restaurateur.

Because I don’t know the exact chronology of developments along the canal, I can only point to the Marriott and the government center because they are among the oldest, and have tacitly set the standards. The luxury condos have followed them hook line and sinker. Some at least provide patios that overlook the canal, but further north of the Marriott are some particularly egregious examples:

An ivy covered wall fronts the canal, because this lowest level was ostensibly used to give the condo residents covered parking. And across the canal are the ones that win the “Most Suburban” award:

While these offer slightly better canal frontage than the condos in the previous photo, these are still the back side of buildings whose frontage includes two-car garages behind an elaborate gate system. Deplorable from an urban design standpoint.

Fortunately, other developments offer glimmers of hope. A few of the museums along the southern portion of the Canal Walk have cafés that overlook the river, though two of them still suffer considerable weaknesses. Here is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art:

And here is the Indiana State Museum:

In both cases, the museum cafés are on elevated terraces up a flight of stairs , but still offer blank walls to passers-by along the canal. At their current locations, they are far less likely to attract random passers-by and must depend more heavily on museum patronize to support the eateries. At the very least, these two institutions provide cafeteria-style dining clearly targeting the general public, which is a far more generous provision than virtually any other structure along the Canal Walk.

A new apartment development, Cosmopolitan on the Canal, is taking one of the last unoccupied parcels and will feature retail at both the canal level as well at the respective street corner when it is complete. It will hopefully compensate for the significant oversights among the two aforementioned museums. And this one lonesome tenant below opens itself up to the canal while all its neighbors turn their back:

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a non-profit whose mission is “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Though not retail, it offers a reading room and is open to the public during regular business hours. It is among the few office tenants that has clearly seen the visibility of the Canal Walk and has seized it as an opportunity.

While most Indianapolis residents perceive the Canal Walk as an urban asset, many have complained in recent years about the lack of restaurant and retail offerings, not to mention the difficult in finding a restroom. It is no small irony that the one structure so far that offers the sort of amenities that pedestrians are seeking is a structure that existed long before the revitalization of the canal.

Buggs’ Temple was a long vacant structure that developers adapted in 2006-07 into two stories of restaurants with terraces and spectacular views of the city skyline. It sits at the northern terminus of the Canal Walk and comes closer to presenting its offerings to pedestrians as they walk by than any of the museum cafés on the south side of the canal. It’s too early to prognosticate the two restaurants’ long-term success, but if it has whetted the appetite for increased canal-side dining options, any subsequent development on what little remains of the Canal Walk should capitalize on this.

Modeled after San Antonio’s River Walk (Paseo del Rio), Indianapolis wisely does not attempt a carbon copy of the appearance of what may still be the most aesthetic waterfront in the country. But it also falls far short of the cultural offerings of the River Walk. While San Antonio offers more consistently comfortable weather than Indianapolis, its River Walk also offers a greater density of activity, multiple paths, and a patina that makes it appear as though it has existed since the city’s founding. (Plans for the River Walk date from the 1920s, and implementation began during the New Deal through WPA funding.) Other efforts in Providence and Oklahoma City also clearly saw the River Walk as the best and original; their initiatives have also met with mixed success. Is a waterfront development below street level so difficult to implement that only one in the country can get it right? Even the success of the River Walk is a mixed blessing to San Antonio; it competes with the Alamo as the number one tourist attraction in the city (and, according to my tour guide, in the state of Texas as a whole), but the rest of the city does not share the River Walk’s commercial or pedestrian vibrancy. Emerging back to street level onto San Antonio’s “real downtown” can be an almost demoralizing experience. While every city has drab sections of their downtowns, the real life of San Antonio is 15 feet below the street; Indianapolis’ downtown has other, superior nodes of activity.

The Central Canal of Indiana was a failure upon its first implementation in the 1830s, and, by many standards, success continues to elude its second implementation as well. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about the Indianapolis Canal Walk over the ensuing years. Buggs’ Temple may be the real impetus, but many of the remaining structures along the canal show evince the possibility for retail retrofitting along the canal. Perhaps the City should engage a feasibility study evaluating each of the buildings for the ease in which their canal frontage could be converted into restaurant or retail space with minimal structural changes. Or maybe the market will provide the incentive on its own. While the condos with the ivy-covered brick wall will most likely never enjoy canal-side retail, many other residential structures could convert to retail quite easily—the challenge may be less architectural than political, neighbors in the same condo complex raise objections. And even that trailblazing design fiasco, the Marriott Residence Inn, could find room to offer retail at the Canal Walk—whether it requires major surgery will be irrelevant if management learns, in true corporatese, how much it will impact its bottom line.

3 thoughts on “Where the Canal Walk first went wrong.

  1. CorrND

    Wow, very thorough analysis! Lot’s of interesting information I wasn’t aware of (particularly that the Marriott hotels are among the oldest structures on the canal).

    Four specific areas bring me hope about the future of the canal:

    1. Obviously, The Cosmo. When they fill up, the residential density within a 2 or 3 block radius of Indiana and Michigan will probably be the highest in the city. That’s a retail opportunity just waiting to be tapped into (which Flaherty & Collins are no doubt aware of, given the retail you mentioned).

    2. The ~1.5 block stretch on the east side of the canal from St. Clair north to the IU Emerging Technologies Center. The property at 9th and the canal has been for sale for years so it likely has an unacceptable price tag, but the property immediately south of it on St. Clair just recently went on the market (I first noticed the sign yesterday). Maybe we’ll see some movement there.

    3. The Canal Overlook and Canal Square canal-front spaces you discussed. Nice that the developers of those projects had the foresight to include those spaces. There isn’t a failure of design there as much as a “failure of occupation.” If they were all instead occupied by interesting shops and cafes, etc., there would be enough density there to get people down to the canal specifically for that.

    4. The contentious state parcel across from the Indiana Historical Society we discussed on the downtown tour.

    In my opinion, the only complete, utter failure on the canal is the “ivy covered wall” of the Gardens of Canal Court. There’s actually nothing behind that wall but dirt, no excuse for that horrible design.

    That complex was actually built in three phases and I’ve long meant to provide a thorough analysis of it. Maybe I’ll do that in the near future. For all its design failures, it does house a huge number of downtown residents.

    Reply
  2. JC

    “But it also falls far short of the cultural offerings of the River Walk.”

    It’s a canal packed with bars and restaurants on most sides. How do those qualify as “cultural offerings?”

    And while it may be more successful as a commercial venture you don’t see people biking, blading, or families en masse like out canal. What you see instead our throngs of convention-goers spilling in and out of bars till all hours of the night.

    I’d rather have the challenges of our canal blended with its successes than what San Antonio has.

    Reply
  3. AmericanDirt

    Thanks so much for your responses–keep them coming!

    CorrND–
    The chronology of development along the canal is based more on memory than anything (which of course is fallible), but the oldest structures I recall were the Residence Inn (not the Courtyard), the condos directly across from the Residence Inn (Canal Court I believe), the Indianapolis government center, and, slightly later, the fire station. I agree with you that the only design that appears incorrigible is the Gardens of Canal Court. And it is definitely a failure of occupation in the case of all the office buildings fronting the canal, but the design–particularly the fenestration and means of ingress and egress–always seemed to have office and not retail in mind. Very unfortunate.

    JC–
    I agree with you that one could easily question if the bars of the San Antonio River Walk constitute culture, but culture, like “character”, is entrenched in subjectivity and personal taste. Some would pose a convincing argument that Las Vegas is a place without culture; I would beg to differ.

    Culture or not, I still think activities that have flourished on the River Walk transcend its design limitations. But I’m glad you recognized some of the activities that the design of the River Walk precludes: roller blading and biking, for example. At times, the path of the River Walk makes perpendicular turns, leaving blind spots, while it tapers to only 3 feet or so in width, so it’s way too congested. And the twists and turns keep the River Walk’s visual rhythm unpredictable and exploratory. And it maintains a consistent flow of people that the Canal lacks when the weather cools. San Antonio of course has the advantage of a much longer warm season, but I was there on a weekday in March when it was a high of 45F and it was still packed. How many of those visitors were locals is another story.

    Hopefully someday the Canal Walk can surpass the River Walk in terms of what it has to offer, obviously by forging a different trajectory in doing so. I don’t think restaurants will wilt in the cool weather, and perhaps it can retain a local appeal and not suffer the presence of ubiquitous chains that one finds in parts of the River Walk. I also cannot emphasize how much of an advantage Indianapolis has over San Antonio in terms of its downtown in aggregate. The Paseo del Rio and the Alamo appear to be the only shows in town; I saw virtually no evidence of condo or apartment development there, even along the River Walk (thus the overwhelmingly touristy feel). When you emerge from Indianapolis’ canal, you can still find many other things to do, even if its a bit of a walk. Going to the street level in San Antonio is often desolate.

    Reply

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