Good Ideas in Plainfield

Although I have previously bemoaned some of the poor town planning here in Plainfield, there are in fact some examples of very good, forward-thinking planning and design. One such plan has moved beyond the concept stage and is taking shape (thanks to the much maligned Federal stimulus package of last year) even as I write – the re-construction of the stretch of the National Road (US40) in downtown Plainfield. When all is finished, Main Street will be (eight feet) narrower. Yes, that’s right – narrower. (Don’t tell Governor Daniels – he’d flip out if he heard of a road construction project that will force traffic to navigate more slowly.) By widening the sidewalks, planting trees, adding a center median and paving some of the intersections with brick, Plainfield’s planners are taking a huge step in making the old town center more walkable (and therefore, more sustainable). This is also a prime example of New Urbanist ideals, namely the taming of the automobile to serve (not dominate) people.

I also want to emphasize that though the planning of town governments is important, ultimately the responsibility to develop and sustain good communities – that is places of interest, of simple beauty, of common welfare – lies with the citizens. I again raise the Village Theater as a case in point. The competition of the new multiplex (part of a massive new shopping mall in Plainfield) surely makes operating the Village as a typical movie house nearly impossible. However, what the current owner fails to understand is that the Village is not a typical movie house – it has a value and a utility far beyond the ability to show Avatar in 3D. Rather than play to those special characteristics however, the theater sits vacant, the interior essentially gutted in an ill-concieved and never-finished remodeling project.

The Royal Theater in Danville faces the same competition of the local multiplexes – yet it thrives with local music concerts and mirco-brewed beer. I’ve seen Avatar in 3D and I’ve been to the Royal; I’ll take the concert and beer over James Cameron’s razzle-dazzle any day.

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Organizing for Plainfield

The recent lawsuit by Kroger Corporation has grabbed lots of attention and elicited strong reaction, most of it against the Cincinatti-based grocery giant.  Kroger’s proposed actions are but a small nuisence compared to other “developments.” Nevertheless, this is a battle certainly worth fighting, though it is not the only one in need of fighting if Plainfield is to make itself into a sustainable, livable place. The sprawl in Plainfield is not nearly as bad as Avon, yet Plainfield’s record on sprawl control is far from great.

Perhaps the greatest knock against Plainfield’s planners and town officials is the presence of three (yes, three) Wal-Marts, only one of which, is fully occupied. You see, in the mid-80s, Wal-Mart built a store along US 40. The store was pushed far off the road by an enormous parking lot and bracketed on each side by a strip-mall, whose tenants no doubt benefited from the proximity to America’s largest retailer. About ten years later, Wal-Mart decided to build a new store – which they did on a massive parcel of land adjacent to the original store. Again, this store was set far off the road, surrounded by oceans of asphalt and strip malls. The old strip malls soon folded, the old Wal-Mart remained largely abandoned save for the occasional use as a warehouse. Another ten years or so later, Wal-Mart again wants to build a new store.  Again, they want to build it on a massive parcel adjacent to the site of their other stores.  In the names of the false gods of Materialism and Development, town officials rolled over again. Absurdly huge parking lots and accompanying clingers-on stores also followed this third Plainfield incarnation of the retail giant. The second Wal-Mart store now stands empty, its surrounding strip malls largely abandoned. A small portion of the original Wal-Mart has been converted into a Value City Furniture yet the surrounding strip malls are literally falling apart; both the original and second parking lots have become race courses for drivers looking to avoid traffic on US40. The massive scale of abandoned buildings, loudly and crudely testifying to our disposable culture, seem to mock the tiny trees and large weeds which dot the oceans of asphalt.  James Howard Kunstler calls this attempt at landscaping  “nature band-aids” – an inadequate response to the hideous affront on our senses caused by the poorly designed and constructed buildings.

It’s quite stunning really to drive along that portion of highway (and one dare not walk given the speed and amount of traffic) and see what a mess it has become. Meanwhile, nearly every building in the town core remains empty. The Village Theater, which should be wonderful venue for local music acts, the Hendricks County Symphony, theatre troops and cheap family movies, has suffered (perhaps irrevocably) from nearly 10 years of mismanagement and gross neglect by its owner. Other businesses have suffered because the jewel of downtown Plainfield remained (and remains) in disrepair.

What Plainfield, especially the town core, needs is a dedicated movement – a group of concerned citizens – to advocate for sustainable, smart development guided by the principles of New Urbanism. Many residents of Plainfield realize this fundemental truth; we need to organize if we hope to see any progress. I truly believe the key to revitalizing the town core is the Village Theater. It was Hendricks County’s first movie house, built in 1927. The Royal Theater in Danville should serve as a model for how these old yet grand movie houses can compete with the local multi-plex. The Royal hosts eclectic musical acts, many featuring local talent, all to supplement a limited number of movie screenings. I know of at least one party interested in purchasing the Village; I will be contacting him. If you are interested in saving the Village Theater (and putting it to good use), or otherwise lobbying the Town Council and other parties to adopt New Urbanist principles, please contact me – stevenson[dot]matthew[at]gmail[dot]com.

Daniels’ Administration spends $1 billion for sprawl-development

This is a case study for the creation of ugly sprawl. Give it ten years and the bypass will be as congested as the old road. Then what? Another bypass? Adding bypasses around towns is the myopic answer to traffic congestion. I generally like Mitch Daniels, but if there’s one thing that drives me nuts, it is his insistance that Indiana needs roads, roads, and more roads. This is sprawl-development which is distinct from economic development the same way 100 calories of doughnut is distinct from 100 calories of broccoli.

Kroger suing Plainfield

In the “best interests of the economy of the Town of Plainfield,” Kroger Corporation is suing the Town of Plainfield. Thus is the reasoning presented in a mailing I received from Kroger (I’m going to try to scan an image of the front of the mailing because it is hilariously inept – a gas nozzle morphing into a fountain pen – very strange.) explaining their response (a lawsuit) to the Town of Plainfield’s denial of Kroger’s request to build a gas station in the parking lot of their store on US 40. Given that there are already a dozen or so gas stations along Plainfield’s stretch of the National Road, and that the Kroger parking lot is notorious for its poor layout, I urge town residents to call or email both the Kroger Corporation and the Town Plan Commission (to register your disapproval and support, respectively). Even if the idea of yet another service station doesn’t fill you with loathing, the supreme arrogance manifested by Kroger in their lawsuit should. Towns have a right and obligation to carefully manage development; towns that do not exercise this right end up like Avon – an ugly, congested, sprawled mess of a community. Help keep Plainfield slightly less sprawled!

John Elliot, Kroger public affairs: john.elliot@kroger.com

Plainfield Plan Commission: 317.839.2561