Carmel’s Billion-Dollar Bet

October 22, 2018

Can you build a better kind of city, one that will hold its value through the ages, through sheer brute force and debt—lots of debt?

This is the bet on which that the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana has gone all-in. In this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn talks about Carmel with Aaron Renn, better known to the internet as The Urbanophile. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he focuses on urban, economic development, and infrastructure policy, and a Contributing Editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal. He blogs as the Urbanophile at his own site.

Renn is a native of Indiana and has a longstanding interest in Carmel, and take a somewhat more rosy view of it than Chuck does. He characterizes Carmel as both a very typical and very atypical Midwestern "big square suburb"—a 6 mile by 6 mile square, to be exact, a legacy of Indiana's rural township system. It is typical in that it is known for family-friendly living, nice homes, good schools with winning sports teams.

Carmel, however, is atypical in that for the last two decades or so, it has taken on over $1 billion in municipal debt—roughly $10,000 per Carmel resident—in pursuit of a high-quality built environment: arguably a New Urbanist alternative to traditional suburbia. Carmel has built roundabouts galore to handle traffic without requiring massive stroads. It has poured money into upgrading rural roads to complete street parkways, and taken full control of its own water infrastructure from Indianapolis. Perhaps most controversially, the City of Carmel has acted as a sort of master developer for a built-from-scratch downtown and civic commons, which includes such big-ticket items as a $175 million, acoustically perfect concert hall.

Carmel's gamble, Renn says, is a response to the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns diagnoses, in which suburbs lose their allure after a generation, wealthy residents skip town for the next suburb out, and those older suburbs find themselves unable to pay for infrastructure maintenance and services. But rather than adopt the Strong Towns approach of incremental development, Carmel has gone the opposite direction. Renn summarizes the Carmel mindset:

"We are actually going to invest into producing actual high-quality, urban amenities, infrastructure, etc. while we are in our growth phase, so that when we are complete, we have an essentially unreplicable environment that will retain its allure in a way that these earlier generations [of suburbia] didn't."

Carmel's bid is to permanently be a premier suburb of Indianapolis, and to offer the amenities that can attract a surgeon, a high-powered attorney, or an executive at a company like Eli Lilly. It is to be a place that can compete with the lifestyle offered by upscale enclaves in coastal cities.

Marohn responds to this with a wariness about debt and a question about who or what puts the brakes on human hubris. Carmel is implementing today's best practices du jour at a full-throttle pace, but, Marohn asks, what about the planners who looked at 1920s Detroit and said, "Cities have been bad places for a long time. There've been tenements and congestion... We've got this figured out. We need to put highways through here, and tear down buildings to open things up." Weren't they, in undertaking—aggressively—the first generation of the suburban experiment, also saying, "We know how to design a higher-quality living environment. We just have to do it"? Strong Towns is rooted, in large part, in a deep skepticism that any individual is capable of knowing what will be resilient 20, or 40, or 100 years from now."

Renn is not as concerned about Carmel's ability to sustain its debt levels, arguing that in many cases the city has simply foregrounded things that would be hidden, unfunded liabilities in other places. But he does agree with Chuck that a valid criticism of Carmel, above and beyond the question of debt, is its inorganic nature. The city is not the product of thousands of natural experiments as developers see what works and do more of it, but rather of a tightly controlled vision of what the community will be at its finished, built-out state.

Can Carmel realize that vision? Or will it go off the rails, due to changing local politics, a decreasing appetite for big municipal debt, or unforeseen economic or cultural factors?

"That place has not given itself any alternative path, if this proves not to be the right one," says Marohn. There's a lot to like about Carmel's urban design choices, especially vis-a-vis other suburbs in the Indianapolis region, but Marohn says he cannot help but feel that the city is headed for a binary outcome: either really good, or really disastrous.

Listen to the episode for a lot more insights about one of America's more ambitious experiments in local government and planning. What do you think of Carmel? Let us know in the comments.

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