As the Indianapolis Cultural Trail snakes through downtown neighborhoods, it takes pedestrians to some of the most vibrant parts of the city.
People can go from Indiana Avenue and the Madame Walker Theater Center — the epicenter of Indy’s historic jazz scene — to the funky indie rock venues of Fountain Square.
They can pass by massive works of public art, including the LED display “Ann Dancing” and the ethereal Glick Peace Walk. Foodies can get to world-renowned eateries such as Milktooth, Bluebeard and Black Market all on the same walkway.
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail has helped connect people to the best that downtown has to offer since it was started 10 years ago. Created as a way to unite the city’s six distinct districts, it has become a tool bringing development and investment to areas situated along the trailway.
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Hotspot neighborhoods such as Fletcher Place, Mass Ave and the Canal Walk have developed rapidly as the trail has passed by it. A decade after the pathway was founded, it has encouraged not only physical fitness and inter-connectivity, but economic growth as well.
“We continue to learn more every day about the impacts of the cultural trail, whether they are community impacts, economic impacts, transportation impacts,” said Kären Haley, executive director of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. “It’s really become the connective fiber in downtown Indianapolis. It’s a new experience every time you’re on it, especially this time of year with all of the botanical gardens that are blooming. Hour by hour, something is changing on the trail.”
On a balmy early spring morning, pedestrians flooded onto the trailway enjoying an unusually warm day. Parents pushed strollers as they made their way to attractions such as White River State Park and the Indianapolis Zoo.
Groups of young adults perused restaurants looking for brunch. Joggers pounded the pavement while cyclists zoomed around them. People stepped from local shops directly onto the trailway.
This diverse use was the vision that city leaders had for the trail when plans started coming together in the late 1990s. City leaders had created six districts, such as the Wholesale District, Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, to market cultural attractions. A part of that plan was figuring out a way to link all of those areas together for pedestrians.
“The original basic goal was to connect all of the downtown cultural districts, but to do it in a way that really had never been experienced before, to be an international leader as to what this urban trail would look like,” Haley said.
Studies and a concept design followed, and in 2004, the city of Indianapolis provided a boost by allowing the trailway to be built in city right-of-ways. A $15 million donation by Eugene and Marilyn Glick helped fund the initial construction, and by 2007, ground was broken on the trail’s eastern corridor.
Piece by piece, the trail came together. A $20.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation through its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program helped complete the rest of the project. By 2013, it was complete.
“It’s how they’re getting to work, it’s how they’re getting exercise, it’s how people are finding great nightlife. It’s how people experience Indianapolis,” Haley said.
As soon as segments of the trail started opening to the public, the benefits of the trail became apparent, Haley said.
According to a study conducted by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, property values within 500 feet of the trailway increased 148 percent from 2008 to 2014. That marked an increase of more than $1 billion in assessed property value.
The greatest jumps in property values were seen on the southeast portion of the trail along Virginia Avenue. That section, which connects the downtown Wholesale District to Fountain Square, saw property values increase 295 percent.
More than half of the 39 businesses surveyed in that area all reported bumps in revenue and customers, according to the study.
“Many (business owners) noted that the trail has led to increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the area. A couple of respondents commented that the trail has attracted a more affluent customer base to the area and that out-of-town guests feel safer and more connected to downtown now when traveling along the trail,” the study said.
Likewise, the businesses that have been attracted to the Virginia Avenue area have created a buzz. Artisanal breweries and distilleries such as Chilly Water Brewing Co. and Hotel Tango Foxtrot have established themselves along the trail.
In warm weather, people flock down the trail to eat at Milktooth, the nationally recognized locavore joint specializing in brunch food. People can find charred octopus at Bluebeard, karaage rice bowls at Rook and bucatini and fresh favas at Pioneer.
“We have a lot of before-and-after photos, as well as data, showing how the cultural trail has completely transformed in a positive way,” Haley said. “There are a lot of restaurants that have popped up, a lot of mixed-use development in places that were vacant parking lots or abandoned buildings.”
As Fountain Square has become a center of the arts in Indianapolis, the cultural trail serves as a direct lifeline to the slightly isolated neighborhood. People can easily walk from downtown to enjoy art openings, concerts and other events.
“Fountain Square has always been a destination, but the trail made the areas between it and downtown come to life. You’re not just riding on the trail to get to Fountain Square, you’re riding to experience everything in between,” Haley said.
Though construction of the trail is complete, improvements are ongoing to help people better use it. Trail organizers partnered with the Indiana Pacers to provide 250 bicycles available to rent at 27 stations along the trails.
The bikeshare program allows people to check out a bike to tool around downtown, paying a small membership fee and hourly rate, then returning the vehicles to another station when you’re done.
“You’ve got this publicly accessible trail that anyone can use any time of day, and now we have bikes that are publicly available as well,” Haley said. “It makes bikes available for everyone.”
Even though construction on the trail has ceased, organizers are constantly analyzing and looking for ways to improve the experience. Special events such as an Easter egg hunt planned on the trail today generate more interest. New public art and murals are also frequently popping up to create buzz.
“We’re always thinking about what’s next. We have this great idea of a cultural trail, but how can we use that to really open up and impact other parts of the city,” Haley said. “We’re working with the city and other stakeholders to say what should we do next and have the most impact.”
Indianapolis Cultural Trail
8: Miles of trail
2013: Year trail officially opens as complete 8 miles
$63 million: Total project cost
$27.5 million: Total private funding
$35.5 million: Total federal transportation funding
11.25: Acres of trail pavers
8,065: Cubic yards of topsoil
$864.5 million: Estimated economic impact
11,372: Estimated jobs created
86: Number of bike racks
40: Miles of Indianapolis Parks Greenway Trail system connected to the trail
7: Public art projects along the trail
— Information from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail