The City of Noblesville has been considering a “reliever” for State Road 32 through town for some 20 years now. The road currently runs east-west through the center of town, past the Courthouse Square. It’s a two lane road approaching from the east and west, expands to three to four lanes through town and reduces back to two lanes as it leaves town. It passes ten signaled intersections and crosses the White River, taking approximately 10 minutes from Union Chapel Road to Hague Road during average traffic periods.
Traffic isn’t a problem at average times. But during rush hour traffic backs up sometimes east from the square nearly to SR. 37 and west from the square to Hague Road. I don’t question the need for a “reliever.” I suspect Noblesville’s population will continue to grow and traffic will get worse. It seems prudent to plan for that by opening an alternative route across the river. My problem is with the chosen route. In keeping with the theme of this website, I think if we think bigger we will end up with a better plan.
There are people who question the need for a reliever. If traffic only backs up occasionally, they say, why take on the added expense? Plus, Indiana (and the nation) has many examples of bypasses killing downtowns by diverting major traffic away from them. Look no further than Kokomo. That example has our mayor insisting that this isn’t a bypass but a “reliever.” I’m not sure there’s much of a difference but I’m not here to argue whether we need a reliever. I’m presuming the city is going to build a road, so I’m here to discuss the route.
There have been about half a dozen studies conducted over the past 20 years on this topic. They are mind-numbing to read but are available through the City Engineer’s office. Last December City Engineer John Beery gave a public presentation summarizing the city’s findings and conclusions.
This is a page from his Powerpoint. Of these four options, the city has decided that Option B, Pleasant St. is the best route. It’s the cheapest (other than widening Conner St. (SR32) itself), most direct and doesn’t impact floodplains, wetlands, a closed landfill or industry. The only two cons (as opposed to pros) , according to the report, are the impact on residential uses and the number of relocations (which are actually the same issue). As it turns out, this option will displace at least a dozen families and perhaps as many as two dozen in one of the most affordable areas of town while carving a path through a historic neighborhood and introducing traffic (the speed of which is debatable) to a residential urban area.
An Expensive Mistake
I am member of a group of people named the Southwest Quad Action Team, which has been studying this proposal for the past couple of years, listening to both city officials and other authorities, attending meetings and seminars to learn more about the plan and possible alternatives, and devising an alternate route that isn’t on the map above. It has been dismissed by the city as too problematic and too expensive, so not deserving of serious consideration. Although I am a member of that group, I don’t claim to speak for the entire membership. We all have our own ideas about how and why Pleasant St. is the wrong route, though we all agree that it is.
A certain weariness is setting in among public officials. The city has been talking about this for twenty years and has spent thousands of dollars on studies. The county is anxious to build a bridge, the state is eager to get working on SR37 improvements, and there’s pressure on the city to “do something.” However, I am convinced that in our haste to get something done we are making an expensive mistake that will cost millions of dollars, won’t serve the purpose for which it is designed and will destroy a dozen or more affordable homes in a historic neighborhood even as the city brags about how we respect our heritage.
What is being proposed here is a classic “stroad.” That is a term coined by Charles Marohn, the founder of the non-profit Strong Towns. I’ve been following Charles for a few years now because I think he makes a lot of sense. He’s a civil engineer by training who recognized that our suburban style of development (commonly known as sprawl) is expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain. You can read more on his website strongtowns.org.
A stroad is a hybrid between a street and a road, and tries to serve two purposes while doing neither one well. Good streets, according to Marohn, are profitable. They should accommodate residences and businesses that pay taxes and add to the city’s assessed value. They are busy places, accommodating people conducting commerce, living, working and playing. Roads, on the other hand, are meant simply to move cars quickly. They are necessarily liabilities because you need them to get around but they don’t pay for themselves. A stroad tries to do both: add to assessed value by encouraging real estate development while also trying to move traffic quickly, and doesn’t do either one well. We are better off, he says, by keeping the uses separate so each can perform its intended use better. I agree.
There isn’t universal agreement within the city as to exactly what this road will look like but because it’s main purpose is to move traffic you can presume the speed limit will be as high as possible and the right of way as wide as possible. Yet at one point in a meeting the city engineer insisted it is going to be a city street, not a highway. Shortly afterward the mayor characterized it as similar to Hazel Dell Parkway or Union Chapel Road, which are not city streets but high speed thoroughfares.
We’re Moving Forward Anyway
Recently the City Council voted to spend $2.75 million on design drawings so we can figure out what we want this road to look like. Another million dollars was allocated to land acquisition so it’s pretty clear that we will be bulldozing many buildings to make this happen. I maintain that this is a mistake.
Even if this really will be a city street, and we can save many of the buildings by keeping the road to three lanes, imposing this kind of traffic on a neighborhood will be devastating. Consider how you would feel if the city decided to put a three lane highway “reliever” through your neighborhood. You lose the sense of privacy and security that a good neighborhood imparts, you lose the safety of knowing your kids can wander over a street or two without being in danger, you lose the character of tree lined streets with porches close to the sidewalk. Walkability to downtown will be interrupted by heavy traffic, a peaceful neighborhood shaken by people in cars who just want to get through town. It’s not a pretty picture.
My critics, including some city councilors and other city officials, maintain I am mistaken, that this will improve the neighborhood, not destroy it. But I can’t think of any example where imposing a new thoroughfare on a city neighborhood made the neighborhood better. Through streets, which this meant to be, work in conflict with neighborhoods. They should connect neighborhoods, not divide them. Go around them, not bisect them. I am open to evidence to the contrary.
The most frustrating aspect of this is that there is an alternative. It would be harder and more expensive to pursue but it would displace far fewer families, keep a historic neighborhood intact and very possibly open a section of Noblesville to development that currently is inaccessible. I (and the SW Quad action team) am simply asking that the city give serious consideration to this alternative instead of dismissing it as unworkable.
Here is an aerial with the city’s route in black and some alternatives in other colors.
All the options start at Hague Road on the west.
The city’s route (black) heads east immediately and follows the route of the old Midland Trace railroad right of way. It skirts the Dove’s Nest development, which will likely mean demolishing a dozen or so homes on the west side of the river that weren’t built when the initial route was determined. It crosses the river where the Midland Railroad bridge ruins currently are (bridge will be rebuilt on new piers), takes a 45 degree right turn for a couple of blocks to meet up with Pleasant St. and follows Pleasant out to SR 32 east of town. At least another dozen or homes will be demolished on the east side of the river and likely a few businesses as well.
The red route takes a more southern approach through farm fields, meets up with River Road where it runs east/west and crosses the river at a shallows that we’re told used to be a river crossing in the old days. Its shallow enough that horses and buggies could cross there when the river was low. The route takes an immediate right and crosses old industrial land that used to be the location of factories and an old landfill. It skirts around businesses along south 10th St., crosses Allisonville Road (same as S. 10th St) in the wetlands area and meets up with Greenfield Avenue at the 16th St. intersection. At that point there are several options, and all have advantages and disadvantages.
The yellow route would take the road directly north to Pleasant St. from Greenfield Avenue. However, this is a residential area along the southern portion. Although the homes might be able to stay, the increased traffic would likely impact their quality of life. The SW Quad Action Team is concerned about imposing the SW Quad’s problem on another neighborhood, so this might not be the best solution.
The green route would entail widening Greenfield Avenue between 16th St. and SR37, which would be a timely project as the state moves ahead with plans to improve SR37. That intersection is planned to be upgraded to an over/under roundabout style similar to Keystone Parkway sometime in the next ten years as the construction in Fishers moves north, so this project could be incorporated into that one. This has the added benefit of improving access to Hamilton Town Center which is another few miles southeast on Greenfield. None of the other routes helps connect to HTC. Reliever traffic would head to HTC or north on the improved SR37 and exit at Pleasant St. to meet up with SR32.
Although this route would take very few homes or businesses, the obvious disadvantage is that it isn’t direct. In an effort to stay on current thoroughfares, it zigzags a bit, which might affect travel times.
One other alternative to the green route is the blue route, which is more direct but would entail another bridge over (or under) SR37 and plows right through the Hare family homestead. Half a dozen families live there, and though this wouldn’t take all of their homes, it would increase traffic in their neighborhood. The upside is that Hare Chevrolet, the group of buildings just north of the blue line before it crosses SR37, would likely get a new entrance and much better visibility and access than it has now. I am friends with some of the Hare family and I certainly don’t want to step on their property rights, but unless you raise the idea, you never know how it will be received. The other appealing aspect of the blue route is that it would open up a new access to the undeveloped land behind the retail on the east side of SR37 (Lowes, Meijer, Best Buy). That land will eventually be developed and now is the time to start planning on what we want that to look like. Certainly, tying it to the west side of SR37 (which is a huge psychological barrier) with a dedicated road isn’t a bad thing and might help accelerate progress there. Building now will help prevent having to make these kinds of “demolition” decisions later.
So, what’s the answer?
I don’t have all the answers, but I think these ideas raise enough questions that it is worth exploring the alternatives before we start destroying what we have. Here, then, are half a dozen reasons supporting further study, many of them directly answering objections raised by the city to an alternative route. These aren’t all my ideas…they are the result of a couple of years worth of meetings with the SW Quad Action Team.
- The city says if people have to go too far out of their way, they won’t use the alternative route. I suspect this is true but who knows how far is too far? I believe most people assess travel distance in time increments…minutes that it takes to get from one place to another. In that case, our alternatives are probably faster in that they don’t cross as many busy intersections so have fewer impediments to get across town. And, let’s face it, if you are going to take the “reliever” you are likely interested in getting through town as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t you rather go a little farther with fewer stops? As an example, if you check travel time from Noblesville to Keystone at the Crossing on google maps you will get three routes. The shortest in distance is Allisonville Road but the shortest in time is SR37 to I69 to I465. Its four miles longer but two minutes shorter. Same principle. Traffic won’t move as quickly through the city as it would in the country.
- The city says our alternatives are unrealistic because they cross wetlands and an old landfill. Although our alternatives are more complicated they aren’t impossible. Yes, there is an old landfill on the south side. No doubt there are issues that must be addressed. But now is as good a time as any to address them. They aren’t going away, and if we ignore them we are only leaving them for a future generation to worry about. Let’s do the right thing and solve the landfill issue now. We on the Action Team have spoken to state officials who deal with old landfills and it turns out a road is one of the better uses for an old landfill.
Yes, our route goes through wetlands and that complicates things. But South 10th St. was built right through a wetland. You can tell they filled it in to raise the road. If they could do it 100 years ago why can’t we do it now? I realize we have to be cognizant of drainage and other environmental issues but when you weigh environmental issues against destroying homes, well I think people and their homes should prevail.
3. Let’s think in terms of economic development. As long as we’re going to spend $65+ million (the current estimated price tag) on a road, shouldn’t we expect some kind of financial return on it? The Pleasant St. route won’t open any new land for development; the route is already developed. In fact, it will take property (residential and commercial) OFF the tax rolls and lower the total assessed valuation. Our alternatives, on the other hand, open old land to new development. If you look at the map you will see there is considerable unused land south of downtown. Some of it is an old landfill…can’t build on it. But, there used to be industry on some of the rest of the land and making it accessible will reopen it to development. Heck, the increased tax receipts could help pay for this road. That helps turn it from a money loser into a money maker.
4. The City’s plan will destroy a neighborhood. The Southwest Quad has traditionally been the working class area of Noblesville. It was home to many factories in the old days and factory workers lived in these homes. Just more than 2 years ago the city recognized the southwest quad as an area worth paying attention to. City officials drafted the Southwest Quad Neighborhood Revitalization Plan with admirable goals like: Create stronger connections between the Southwest Quad and downtown, study alternatives to manage traffic impediments at 8th St. and Pleasant St. and engage in the planning process for a future east-west bridge over the White River. It doesn’t say anything about razing homes, and yet we’re considering demolishing the most homes for a single project in the city’s history. A major road through the southwest quad will severely impact the quality of life for these residents. It doesn’t make the neighborhood safer, or healthier, or more connected…all goals of a report generated by the city just two years ago.
Noblesville’s historic neighborhoods are its “unique selling proposition,” to borrow a marketing phrase. Old Town Noblesville has managed to withstand the pressures of suburbanization for several generations but these kinds of projects raise the threat to new levels. Traditional neighborhoods provide a unique and cherished quality of life for their residents, which many young people are rediscovering. I believe they are the neighborhoods of the future as well as the past. They are more resilient than subdivisions. When we destroy them we jeopardize our future.
5. Affordable homes. I know a lot of people figure the current homes on Pleasant St. are old, some are in disrepair, and the community is better off knocking them down and starting over. But that’s just not true. They are old but most are in good repair and these kinds of homes serve a very important purpose: they are affordable for people who work in service industries and entry level jobs, are just starting out, or are trying to get by on one income because one parent wants to stay home with young kids. These are modest homes but most are well-built and they can’t be reconstructed at the same price.
The city recently conducted a housing study to find out what kind of homes will be in demand in the future. Among the findings: young people can’t afford to live here. In fact, some city workers can’t afford a home on their city salaries. Why then, are we considering tearing down a couple dozen affordable homes for a road? It makes no sense. People need an affordable place to live more than they need a quicker way out of town.
6. The city claims the route is preferred because it includes a trail. It’s true that the Midland Trace trail is expected to enter the city on the old Midland Railroad right of way, but the trail will arrive whether its next to a road or not. The trail route is already determined but that doesn’t mean it HAS to have a road next to it. In fact, as an avid bike rider, I can tell you that a trail away from a road is preferred to one next to a road. Look no further than the esteemed Monon Trail, which is so popular precisely because it DOESN’T run next to road. Trails away from traffic are safer for kids and adults, more peaceful, more relaxing and less intrusive to the neighborhood. Most trail users understand that…engineers often don’t. A Midland Trace trail without an adjacent road is better than one with a road.
There are many more reasons to oppose this idea and I will be adding them in time, so keep your eye on this website. But it’s crucial that you let your City councilor know NOW how flawed this idea is. The council recently voted to spend $2.75 million on initial designs for this project and another $1 million to start acquiring property. It has already purchased some homes on Pleasant St., which have been vacant for a year or more. Soon they will be derelict because the city is letting them deteriorate, and the run-down houses will be one more self-fulfilling reason to proceed with this project.
This issue is debated in City Council meetings from time to time so keep your eye on the agendas here. Minutes from previous meetings are also here but a little difficult to find. To read the minutes of a meeting you have to click on the agenda for the following meeting. The minutes of the previous meeting are a link in that agenda.
The city actually did hold a public information session on this plan on December 13, 2016. The city saw it as a way to inform the community of its plans, and the community saw it as a way to express themselves to city officials. Unfortunately there are no minutes of that meeting (the city says it wasn’t required to take minutes), so there is no record of the fact that every community speaker in that meeting spoke against this idea. The only ones speaking in favor were city officials. What’s wrong with THAT picture?
You can find your city councilor’s contact info on the city’s website here. If you don’t know who your councilor is, check out the council district map here to find out. Write them an email or give them a call. Or come join us at a Southwest Quad Action Team meeting. We meet the third Thursday of each month at 6:30pm at The Gathering, a Victorian house on the southwest corner of 8th and Walnut. All are welcome. Pleasant St. is usually discussed at some point in the meeting.