The City of Carmel has hired an international design firm to help develop a concept for expanding the Monon Trail between the Carmel City Center and the Carmel Arts & Design District.
The $170,200 contract with Gehl Studio Inc., a branch of a Denmark-based firm, aims to study the Midtown area and look at possibly widening the multi-use trail to accommodate more users at a time.
Old Town Design Group is working on more than $100 million in development in the Midtown area along the Monon, including a new headquarters for Allied Solutions and new parking garages. A city market has been announced along with eateries and establishments for coffee and spirits.
Those in favor of the expansion believe that the future development will bring more employees, businesses and customers to the area and lead to greater congestion along the nearby trail. Solutions could include a wider trail or two separate trails that split, an idea in a 2012 plan by Jeff Speck, renowned urban designer and city planner.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said this part of the trail, which doesn’t have many trees or natural landscaping, is already overcrowded at times. He recalls a recent Monon excursion that made him think widening it would improve the experience.
“The traffic was so much that it almost wasn’t enjoyable anymore,” he said.
But Ron Carter, president of the Carmel City Council, is expressing concerns that the expansion could go beyond the treeless part of the trail and threaten the mature tree canopies, specifically south of The Mezz building near The Palladium all the way to 116th Street.
Previously, City Engineer Jeremy Kashman looked at modifying the natural landscape in that area to improve drainage. Carter insisted that the city find other ways to make improvements rather than cutting down those trees. Changes were made and Brainard pledged to find another route to carry water from Midtown in the Arts District without removing or killing vegetation.
But now Carter is concerned that these trees could be threatened again by talk of widening the Monon.
“The Mayor and I are not in accord right now over the Monon and its tree canopy,” Carter said. “He and I have talked about it on more than one occasion.”
Carter said he thinks many in the city still believe that using backhoes and trailers to clear out the area and prevent flooding is the best option. Carter said he has suggested using inmate labor to clean debris by hand, which he said is no more work than mowing grassy medians, which county inmates already sometimes do.
Carter recalls that there was a green canopy running all the way from 96th Street to City Center Drive, but part of it was cut down to help connect the Center Green outside The Palladium to the Carmel City Center. Carter said he understands why it happened, but he expressed concern at the time because he believes removing tree canopies makes the trail unattractive and very hot in the summer.
“I don’t want that to happen wherever there is a tree barrier along the Monon and (the mayor) wants redevelopment on both sides,” he said. “I simply don’t agree with (Brainard) when he says, ‘We can plant good trees, not the shrubs, invasives and vegetation that are there now. It will look so much better. They will grow.’ We have to think more deeply about this and find a solution that keeps the trail serene, cool and somewhat isolated from everyday distractions.”
Brainard said he doesn’t disagree with anything that Carter is saying about the need for trees. He emphasized that he’s only talking about widening the trail where there aren’t any trees. He also noted that the design firm hasn’t come back with its recommendations yet.
“You always study a wider any area than you want to fix,” he said.
City Councilor Bruce Kimball, an advocate for local cycling and founder of a group called Carmel Pedals, said “smart expansion” is a necessity, especially with developers lining up to build along the Monon.
“We’re not really talking about a huge expansion,” Kimball said. “We’ve just loved the Monon to death where it’s getting so crowded. But the mayor has repeatedly said we’re not cutting trees down.”
City Councilor Sue Finkam said she doesn’t think it’s likely that trees will be removed.
“I’m concerned about protecting our tree canopies where it makes sense,” she said. “But we also have the competing objective where we make sure the experience on the Monon is safe and enjoyable for the hundreds of thousands of people who use it every year. Where the Monon Trail hits the urban section, it’s heavily used and we need to make sure that the plan that is put forth allows for the visitors to use the trail safely. If it ends up taking a few trees in a couple areas, I would be open to that, but I want to see the plan first. We deliberately changed the storm water plan to protect the trees further south so we are doing all we can to protect as many trees a possible.”
Despite his disagreement, Carter, a longtime ally of Brainard and supporter during elections, said there are no hard feelings with the mayor.
“We are still good friends, this is just one area where we disagree and that’s OK in government,” he said. “We can disagree in a respectful manner.”
Brainard still said he’s not disagreeing with Carter. When he saw Carter’s comments, Brainard responded that he won’t be cutting down trees.
Carter said the best solution to alleviate congestion along the Monon is to make other parts of Carmel more bicycle friendly, namely Range Line Road. Range Line has several new roundabouts planned and Brainard is looking at turning the road into a two-lane street with a landscaped median in the middle. He said with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, two lanes would work fine if not better. If the current center lane is eliminated, that could allow for multi-use paths, bike lanes or other options. Carter is suggesting a bike path in the center median.
“If the median is wide enough a bike path could be place in the median of Range Line as is done in Europe,” he said.
Gehl’s Monon study will take three months and will include Range Line as well. Funding for the Monon and Range Line enhancements are already included in the $242 million in bonds passed by the City Council in January.
Other nearby municipalities are also working on Monon expansions. Westfield will extend the trail in several places and add lighting and landscaping. Hamilton County will extend the trail three miles from 216th Street to Sheridan. Brainard said he can imagine a day many years in the future where the Monon Trail could extend all across the state, even up as far as the Chicago area.