On the downtown Indianapolis waterfront, runners, bikers and rollerbladers weave around more leisurely pedestrians along the water’s edge.

Gondolas glide up and down the canal, while paddleboaters amble through the water. Diners enjoy a cocktail, a burger or a light pasta dish at outdoor patios. Sculptures, murals and museums all sit on the edge of the walk.

On certain nights, people can sit out under the summer sky and listen to live jazz.

But it’s not a lake or even a river that has brought people downtown. In the middle of landlocked Indiana, it’s a public space known as the Canal Walk.

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The downtown Canal Walk has become a centerpiece of leisure, fitness and culture in Indianapolis. But city leaders envision the space could be used for so much more.

Similar to how San Antonio’s Riverwalk is the tourism focus of the city, Indianapolis officials would like to make the canal an even bigger attraction downtown.

“You can traverse this 3-mile loop uninterrupted by cars and buildings, and do that along a calming waterfront,” said Bob Schultz, vice president of marketing at tourism group Downtown Indy. “You can walk, you can blade, you can run, and people do all of those things in an urban, built space.”

The Canal has been a part of Indianapolis for more than 200 years. Originally, it was started in 1836 as part of the Indiana Central Canal, a nearly 300-mile long transportation route that would connect Indiana to the rest of the world.

But the project failed after three years. Only 9 miles of the canal were operational, and the state was bankrupt.

Though the canal was never completely finished, the portion that was done was put to use by industry and for water. Efforts to restore the waterway started in the 1980s, and by 2001, the Canal Walk had been completed. The three-mile loop starts at White River State Park, extending east and then north to 11th Street.

In the past 15 years, development has taken off.

The space has been transformed with condos, apartments and hotels lining each side.

Public greenspaces and war memorials also have been added throughout the years. About halfway through the walk, the canal widens into a small lagoon. Fountains bubble on the sides, and people lounge under shade trees on manicured lawns.

The plaza hosts the memorial to the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the World War II war ship that sank in the Pacific Ocean.

Businesses make their headquarters along the walk, and American College of Sports Medicine has created a public exercise garden for people to take advantage of.

Restaurants such as the gourmet burger eatery Burgerhaus and the Italian cafe Fresco have added another level of attraction to bring people to the canal.

“Private investment always follows public investment, and in the case of the canal, it’s taken a little longer because it is an unseen asset. A lot of people drive over it or around it and don’t even know it’s there,” Schultz said.

But while the structure is in place, organizers have had to work to bring more people to the canal.

The canal walk is owned and maintained by the city of Indianapolis. But last year, Downtown Indy partnered with city officials to help promote the space and book private events, such as weddings.

“The city does of good job of maintaining that asset, but we told them to let us tell its story a little more, managing some additional events and marketing it a little bit,” Schultz said. “That way, we can raise its profile.”

Downtown Indy worked with IUPUI to assess the Canal Walk to see how it was being used, and learned how people got to it. What they learned was that serious misconceptions existed regarding getting to the canal from the streets, Schultz said.

“Most people thought there were anywhere from seven to 10 ways to access the canal,” he said. “In reality, there are 54 public entry points, with many of them accessible for people of all abilities.”

From ramps leading down from nearly every street that crosses the canal to elevators off of New York Street, officials have worked to ensure that anyone can easily reach the walk from street level.

A leg of the Indy Cultural Trail, which winds through the different neighborhoods of downtown, intersects with the canal just south of St. Clair Street. At the head of the canal walk are some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, including the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indiana State Museum.

Downtown Indy has teamed with the city’s department of public works to add signs both on and around the canal walk to direct people down to it. A new Website serves as a digital guide for people looking to learn more about the restaurants, attractions and parking around it, Schultz said.

The group is also promoting the unique events that currently go on along the canal, and envisioning new ones that can energize the public in the future.

The Indiana History Center hosts its summer Concerts on the Canal on its waterfront plaza every Thursday in the summer. The Eiteljorg Museum hosts its own concert series, Under the Sails, on its newly refurbished patio space abutting the canal.

The canal has been used for IUPUI’s rowing regatta and for 5K races. A triathlon is planned for later this year. In late August, the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s interactive light festival, In Light In, will make its debut.

“What are other ways that big events can come to the canal, that aren’t going to damage it but at the same time spark creativity and a communal experience? With these light installations set up on the entire length of the canal,” Schultz said. “We’ve had to look at, whether we create an event or we help facilitate another user, that’s what our role is.”

At a glance

Canal Walk

What: A public walking trail along the refurbished canal in downtown Indianapolis

Length: 3 miles

Where: The canal walk starts at White River State Park, extending east then north to 11th Street.

Built: Started in 1836, with the main Canal Walk renovated and completed in 2001.

Upcoming events:

  • July 30: Walk for Water, 9:30 a.m. to noon, benefit for the Jubilee Village Project, starts at Admiral Spruance Basin, indy.walk-for-water.org.
  • July 31: Tri Indy triathlon and duathlon, 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., starts at White River State Park, www.tuxbro.com.
  • Aug. 26-27: In Light In, a public light festival, 8:52 p.m. to 1:02 a.m. each day, inlightinfestival.org.
  • Sept. 4: Sharkfest Swim, a point-to-point open water swim race, 8:30 a.m., starts at the Walnut Street Basin, sharkfestswim.com.

Information: canalwalkindy.com

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.