A City Arises from Sprawl: Carmel, Indiana

A remarkable city is arising out of the suburban sprawl of Carmel, Indiana.  Over the last 13 years, what began as an area of high-end suburban housing, strip malls and fragmented office buildings is being transformed into a true city with a mixed-use urban fabric, and a hospitable public realm. So far, the transformation has taken place in two areas, at what might be the northern edge and central point of the future city center: at the northern edge, the Carmel Arts and Design District is developing along Main Street; half a mile south, between City Center Drive and City Hall, a magnificent cultural, civic and mixed use housing/business area is taking shape.

Can this vision be maintained until a complete, genuinely urban city center has been achieved?

Carmel, IN is one of the fastest growing communities in the US, with a highly educated professional population of 82,000. It is a well-to-do suburb just 16 miles north of Indianapolis, with a median household income of $117,000 and a low tax rate.

Most of the land within the city boundary consists of suburban housing on spaghetti streets and cul-de-sacs, large mansions and country estates. A new urbanist suburban housing development called West Clay Village lies three miles west of the center, but more significant are the more urban housing alternatives of apartments and condos over shops being constructed in the city center.

Unlike most suburbs, Carmel is in the process of rediscovering itself, and building a pedestrian-friendly urban scale mixed-use downtown.

Old Town

The historic center of the original 19th century Quaker town was a 4 block by 8 block settlement with Main Street as its commercial heart. Adjacent to this are the public high school and library. After the City invested in the decaying infrastructure of the Old Town area (rebuilding streets with curbs and brick sidewalks, upgrading water mains and sewers), private individuals and firms invested in restoring the buildings. Now, for several blocks along Main Street, there are lively 3 to 5 story mixed-use buildings with hospitable facades that invite strolling, window-shopping and dining. Apartments above the stores ensure “eyes on the street”.  The simple, Georgian-style architecture of the historic Quaker buildings set the tone for future development.

Extra-wide sidewalks now accommodate outdoor cafes, displays, strolling, and a plethora of public art by Seward that encourages interaction, play and conversation.

“Sophia Square” (not a square but a new building on the north side of Main Street) has achieved the first new complete city block of mixed-use urban fabric, with handsome 5-story facades to the street. The interior courtyard provides a pool, sundeck, and grill stations in addition to outdoor seating and dining. The building includes one-, two- and three bedroom apartments of varying design to accommodate individuals, couples and families. Facilities include 2-stories of underground parking, a 3D cinema, virtual golf, wine cellar, executive center, billiards and lounge.

Old Town includes the Arts and Design District, Carmel Elementary School and the public library, but the area is too restricted to accommodate the anticipated increase of population (to 100,000 in the near future). The City therefore decided to begin to develop a new city center a half-mile further south between City Center Drive and City Hall. These long-term plans were unveiled in 1997.

City Center

The City decided on a policy of requiring developers to ensure high quality architectural design and construction in keeping with the original Quaker aesthetic, and to provide underground parking. To attract corporate headquarters and technical firms to Carmel, the city needed to be attractive for well-educated young people who would require high quality apartments, walkability, traffic-free public places and a vibrant mixed-use city center.

The vision of a livable city center was inspired by European examples. As Mayor Brainard explained, “Many people travel to Europe to see the beautiful architecture and linger in the plazas and relax at sidewalk cafes, just taking in the scenery and people-watching. We wanted to create that same type of ambience. We wanted to show that creating more density through mixed-use development could lead to an exciting, thriving area that attracted people and business. We took the best of what history had taught us about creating the best cities and used new development tools unavailable in the past, added high quality architectural standards, and implemented techniques we knew would appeal to a community to create a gathering space, a true, dynamic downtown for Carmel.”[i]

A substantial amount of undeveloped land and an abandoned retail center were available for redevelopment south of City Center Drive. In all, the City obtained about 88 acres and improved the underlying infrastructure.

Carmel residents had expressed a desire for cultural amenities in the city. The greatest need was for a concert hall with fine acoustics. With a public bond and private support, a superb design was developed based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. The Palladium, a 1,600-seat concert hall was opened in 2011 and now provides a home for Carmel Symphony Orchestra and visiting musical shows. In addition, the near-by 500-seat Tarkington Theater and the 200-seat Studio Theater provide space for local theater, dance and music organizations.

To create the first piece of mixed-use urban fabric in the city center, the Carmel Redevelopment Commission approved a public/private partnership with the developer Pedcor. A complex of 3- to 7-story buildings combining luxury residential units, office space, underground parking, and one million square feet of boutique shopping and restaurants with pedestrian plazas between the buildings were completed in 2011. 

Lower density Georgian style townhomes, apartments and offices fill out an extensive adjacent area around a large reflecting pool.

Traffic Calming

As a fast-growing suburb of Indianapolis, planning in Carmel from the 50s to the 80s inevitably revolved around the automobile. Commerce and business developed along arterial roads with stop signs and traffic lights; suburban housing was zoned in plots with cul-de-sacs and spaghetti streets that fed into the arterial roads. All trips had to be made by car.

When Mayor Brainard took office, he was determined to improve this road system that was causing major traffic congestion. Having experienced the efficacy of traffic roundabouts in England, Mayor Brainard began to introduce this system in Carmel. There are now 80 roundabouts in the city – more than in any other US city, replacing stop signs and traffic lights. They have been shown to reduce accidents with injury by about 80%, and improve air quality, as well as reducing travel time, and fuel consumption.

The future

What Carmel has achieved in the last 15 years is extraordinary.  Will the City be able to maintain this level of vision and energy to create a truly urban compact mixed-use fabric within a one-mile radius of the City Center building?

Will they create a continuous, dense, predominantly 5- to 6-story urban fabric that defines streets and encloses squares? Will they make Carmel a world class pedestrian-friendly city by creating a network of traffic-free urban squares (not squarks), each with its own personality (as in Venice or Padova, Italy; Strasbourg, France; or Freiburg, Germany), linked by streets that prioritize pedestrians at most times of the day?

A dense residential population will seek shops and workplaces within walking distance. Will their vision encompass a true mix of uses, including department stores (like Bloomingdales, in San Francisco; or Harrods and Selfridges, in London); contiguous with mixed-use apartment buildings containing grocery stores (like WholeFoods in Portland's Pearl District, or Safeway in downtown Portland), restaurants, small shops and services at street level (as already built in Carmel's City Center Building); and mixed-use office buildings with a similar mix of uses at street level (as is common throughout European cities)?

Will they tame the automobile within the city center by continuing to provide underground parking for residents, workers and shoppers, and limit delivery to morning hours?

Will they make it a child- and elder-friendly city center (the true measure of a livable city) by ensuring that children and elders living in the central area can safely and independently access those places they need to go (school, shops, cafes, library, friends’ homes, etc) on foot, by bike, or public transit?

Most cities would take a few centuries to achieve such a goal. Carmel, however, is on the fast track, and guided by a leader of vision, Mayor James Brainard. I believe Carmel has the capacity to achieve a substantial urban fabric around the city center, even within twenty years, if they so desire. The city has already made an astonishing commitment to achieving a livable, truly urban city center. As they continue, they will provide an exemplary model for fast-growing cities around the world.

Mayor Brainard spoke about Carmel’s development at the 50th IMCL Conference on “Reshaping Suburbia into Healthy Communities”, in Portland, June 23-27, 2013, where he received the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Making Cities Livable Award.


Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.)
Director, IMCL Conference

[i]  Brainard, The Honorable James. Carmel: ‘round about right. 2011. Urban Renaissance Books.

Photo courtesy City of Carmel, IN