Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted and JJ Kaplan
Over the past two decades, the city of Carmel, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Brainard, has grown from a rather typical north suburban car-centric city to a world-renowned city known for its infrastructure, development and redevelopment, arts and entertainment, diverse culture and, of course, roundabouts. Most cities would take a few centuries to achieve the milestones that Carmel has in 20 years. The city has become a model for modern urban planning around the world.
We took a brief look at some of the city’s greatest achievements and most dramatic changes to the landscape over the last 20 years with Mayor Brainard. We also speculated on what the future may hold for the city through the mayor’s eyes.
According to the Carmel Central City Core Redevelopment Study completed by Indiana University Public Policy Institute, the city has more than tripled its population from 1990 to 2010 and was estimated at 86,946 in 2017.
Since Mayor Brainard took office in 1996, several improvements to the city’s infrastructure, the development of the outlier areas and redevelopment of the inner core have been started and completed, and new projects are in process as the city continues to grow and evolve.
In the summer of 1997, public discussion of City Center began during a time when Indiana suburbs were developing strip centers, regional malls and market-driven subdivisions with minimal entry points that prohibit expedient entry and exit for the various public safety agencies. The mayor had another vision, and the City took steps toward creating a downtown redevelopment and “urban place-making” initiative. The significant construction in the redevelopment areas has earned national and international accolades.
To the west of downtown Carmel, Brenwick Development and a group of selected, high-end custom homebuilders began building an architectural marvel known as the Village of WestClay. The developers broke ground on the then 686-acre Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) in 1999 and introduced a whole new concept of neighborhood planning and living to Indiana with its Broad Street Home Show in July 2000.
Carmel adopted the City Center Redevelopment Area Plan in 1998. The plan was for City Center to become a focal point and gathering place for residents and tourists. In February 2000, the Redevelopment Commission entered into a project agreement with AMLI Residential Properties for what was the first CRC mixed-use development project in the Arts & Design District (312 market rate apartments). In June 2001, the construction of the first commercial building (Kestner Building) in City Center commenced. The construction of the Monon Greenway is completed.
In 2002, the former Kroger grocery store was demolished, and the Ryland Townhomes and former Shapiro’s Deli complex construction began. In 2003, Pedcor Headquarters in City Center began construction and was completed in 2004. Also in 2004, the groundbreaking for the Carmel Clay Veterans Memorial Plaza began.
In the fall of 2004, Pedcor was awarded the bid for City Center and broke ground in 2006. The construction of the Palladium, The Tarkington and The Studio Theater began in 2007. Construction on the Lurie building began in the Arts & Design District. In the same year, Mayor Brainard won the primary election with 59 percent of the vote. The changes within and around the city were causing buzz all over the county and throughout central Indiana.
Throughout the years of the recession, the city, like the rest of the nation, felt the financial impact. However, while construction in the commercial sector slowed, it did not come to a screeching halt. The projects that were slated to begin were delayed, but the projects that were underway continued throughout the peak of the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. According to the IU study, between the years 2004 and 2014, 565 building permits had been issued. Carmel had big projects going on during the recession. There was approximately $250 million of construction at a time when nothing else was going on. The City continued to invest during that period, and those investments are paying off.
In 2009, construction began on Sophia Square, a mixed-use building in the Arts & Design District with 202 residential units, an underground parking garage and over 45,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail space. The Indiana Design Center opened in 2010 and is home to businesses such as Blue Moon Café and Holder Mattress Company.
With much pomp and circumstance, the Palladium opened its doors in January 2011, followed by The Tarkington and The Studio Theater in August of the same year. The venues continue to draw international, national and local talent for its patrons and provide numerous outreach programs for youth throughout central Indiana.
In the spring of 2011, Brainard won the primary election with 62 percent of the vote. He would go on to win the 2015 primary with 63 percent of the vote.
“We had several projects going in 1997,” Brainard recalled. “Some of our first projects in our administration were focused on redoing the streets in what is now the Arts & Design District. We rebuilt, starting with 1st Avenue N.W., almost all of the streets in that area. We added curbs and sidewalks. There hadn’t been sidewalks built since the early 1900s. We installed period street lights and put frames around the signage to create a special look. The City was in the process of starting to buy, through the Redevelopment Commission, the 88 acres which became the City Center. We were doing the initial master planning of that area for a new downtown for Carmel, knowing that the old town area wasn’t large enough to be a downtown for our geographic area.”
The mayor also mentioned that during 1997, the City decided to connect and widen Pennsylvania Street from 103rd to 131st Streets. That bond has been paid off. One of the biggest projects that year was the construction of Hazel Dell Parkway.
“In 1997, we were in negotiations for Central Park, were expanding Meadowlark Park and getting ready to start on West Park, trying to build that supply of park land,” Brainard said. “We were starting to work on the Monon Trail and were acquiring 246 parcels [when we got] involved in a class action suit between the landowners and CSX Transport over who got the City’s money. We had to close into escrows because we didn’t know who was going to win that class action suit. The landowners were arguing and eventually prevailed in almost all cases that these were reversionary deeds which were reverted back to the parcel in which they had been separated back in the 1860s when the train line was active. It was very difficult to acquire all of those parcels in Carmel at that time.”
Brainard continued, “We engaged in a tough discussion with the community about why Clay Township, all of it in the school system area, ought to be a part of the city of Carmel,” he said. “I had suggested, though it was very controversial, that the township combine with the city. At that time, Indiana law didn’t allow for a vote to do that. We had to do it by annexation. Today, the law does allow for a vote. I had suggested that the legislature reform that law, and eventually former Governor Mitch Daniels got that changed.”
Brainard explained that in 1997, there were a lot of unincorporated “holes” throughout parts of Carmel, and it made for inefficient delivery of services. “A blue car would go to the house on a street, and a brown sheriff’s car would go to the house next door,” Brainard explained. “A part of a street would be paved by the County, and the next half of a mile would be paved by the City. It made no sense at all. That’s one of the reasons why our tax rates have declined is because we’ve become much more efficient as a result of the earlier annexations. These improvements were important to the tax base that we built over the next decade and a half.”
Brainard continued, “When Brenwick was looking at developing the land that is now the Village of WestClay, the City had zoning jurisdiction over the area, but it wasn’t in charge of the streets at that time. I remember asking George Sweet [Brenwick Development] if they would consider doing a new urbanism community. George was known for quality building and developments. The project was turned down twice by the planning commission and then unanimously approved by the city council. In 1999, Mr. Jesse Cox and his wife Beulah donated their land that lies to the south of WestClay to the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department. It is what people know and enjoy as Coxhall Gardens.”
What many people may not know about Coxhall Gardens is that the two 90-foot twin bell towers that stand to the east and west of the gardens are the only two like-towers that stand on the same site anywhere in the world. They are interconnected with fiber to play simultaneously and can be played manually or electronically. One tower houses the commemorative bell that was cast on site during a ceremony where attendees were able to take home miniature commemorative bells.
When asked what moments he felt shifted the trajectory of the city in a positive and forward motion towards becoming what Carmel is today, Brainard replied with his key moments.
“The Monon Trail, the roads and infrastructure including the roundabouts, maintaining low taxes and a good tax climate, our City Center and Arts & Design District, in addition to our great schools and library, are some of the amenities and projects that I am most proud of. All of our cultural amenities too as it’s unusual for a suburb to have what we do. We have more diversity, and as a result, more corporate headquarters are locating here because they know that all of their employees will enjoy living here.”
Looking off into the future, Brainard said with conviction that he believes there will be some type of center core transportation system in Carmel in the upcoming years. Perhaps a streetcar system of some kind will make it easier for people to cut back to one car if they want to.
“I believe that in 20 years, we will have autonomous cars, and as a result, they will be able to drop you off at the door and then go park themselves,” Brainard predicted. “I also think we’ll see the land along U.S. 31, all of the existing big parking lots, developed, and the parking will be underground. The parking lots will become little villages around the high-rise and big office buildings with pocket parks and plazas in the dense areas. I would hope that we see some sort of transportation connection aside from cars with the city of Indianapolis in 20 years.”
A Campfire Story: The Carmel Motel
Once upon a time, there was a motel located west of U.S. 31 known as the Carmel Motel. For residents of Carmel who lived in the city during the late 1990s, the motel was nothing more than suburban blight, but in the 1950s, it was actually a nice property and pit stop for travelers.
“On August 8, 1997, we raided the Carmel Motel,” Brainard said. “It was a Friday evening. We went after work when they least expected. We arrived with half a dozen government agencies, including a Vice officer who was on loan to us from then-Mayor Steve Goldsmith. She had experience with Vice operations in Detroit and had been working with us for several weeks to shut the motel down. We were going after the motel for several violations, including child labor violations, gambling and drug violations, not to mention two murders that occurred onsite within a few months of each other. The motel had become, in essence, a tenement apartment building. The pool was green and mucky. People had put metal down on the floor where they would build fires to keep warm when the owner would shut off heat to the rooms.”
Brainard concluded, “The owner appealed to the court system and asked for an injunction to stay open, but once Judge Nation saw the photos, the appeal was denied. The owner followed the law and demolished the building as he was instructed to do by the City of Carmel. The property became part of the Clay Terrace development a few years later.”