Shelbyville Square is a stellar example of the essential connection between economic vitality and investment in public space and identity, regardless of the size of the community.
Indianapolis-based RATIO Design is the urban designer and landscape architect for this project with Shelbyville-based Genesis Property Development as developer and project manager. RATIO took inspiration from the site’s historic configuration – platted in 1823 as a walkable public square. The updated design returns the priority of the place over to pedestrians and street life, enhancing universal accessibility and calming car traffic while accommodating contemporary vehicle movement.
“This project is part of an overall comprehensive strategy for the city that goes back a ways,” said DeBaun. “We looked at population data, we looked at the various demographics in that data, and we determined that we were an aging community. In the context of being able to provide services to the community, we felt like it was a real problem that we were not attracting young families or retaining our kids as they went to college.”
Shelbyville sought input from local industry leaders and found that area companies shared concerns that the city was not growing fast enough to create a sustainable labor force.
Ball State University helped Shelbyville conduct surveys using the Community Readiness Model to determine shortcomings in the Shelbyville community and suggest opportunities for growth. Experts found that Shelbyville’s most immediate need was an improved educational system that prepares young residents for the workforce.
“Shelby County has about 45,000 individuals, and we had about 5,000 who didn’t have a high school diploma,” said DeBaun. “So, we wanted to create that opportunity.”
Rose Hulman, the top-ranked undergraduate engineering school in the country, partnered with Shelbyville to establish programs for local high school students to learn mechanical engineering skills. Shelbyville also entered a public-private partnership to create a charter school for adult students in the heart of the community. A new downtown three-story building hosts a charter school for adult students, senior housing, and administrative offices for the company that owns the building.
By transforming a once-blighted area into an architecturally sympathetic community resource, these partnerships kicked off a holistic downtown redevelopment campaign in Shelbyville.
Shelbyville then created a program called Advantage Shelby County to fund local high school graduates in pursuit of a college degree at Ivy Tech. Since its founding, Advantage Shelby County has expanded from funding four areas of study to 24 – including subjects such as advanced manufacturing, robotics, mechatronics, and paramedicine.
Shelbyville’s post-secondary educational attainment level has risen by 10 percent in the six years since initiating these educational programs.
“Downtown hadn't seen any meaningful renovations in a number of years,” DeBaun said. “There were vacant storefronts and, quite frankly, it was unattractive. It was a football-field-sized parking lot surrounded by dead trees and crushed red brick... not someplace you would go to spend a great amount of time.”
Shelbyville native and RATIO Principal Tim Barrick described the previous public square layout as a “traffic circle” unfriendly to pedestrians. A principal objective for the redevelopment of downtown Shelbyville was to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment by eliminating traffic conflict points and implementing multi-modal trails.
“We re-envisioned this project to pay homage to the original design while calming traffic, adding to walkability, removing heavy truck traffic, and adding abundant green space,” Barrick said.
Shelbyville formed a group called Livable Communities Coalition comprised of citizens of all ages and abilities, including people in wheelchairs, elderly folks, and adults with young children in strollers. The Livable Communities Coalition expressed to city officials that people with limited ability have similar needs as do citizens with young children.
To get from point A to point B, coalition members said downtown Shelbyville must be walkable and accessible, and residents must be able to use a curb ramp or zero-depth walking spaces to freely maneuver around the space.
DeBaun said suggestions from the coalition along with input from local health experts drove many of the walkability components of the Shelbyville Square project.
“The hospital is one of our major employers, yet nobody really included them in the early basic-level policy decision making,” Mayor DeBaun said. “To bring those folks in and ask, 'What are the social determinants of health?'…Well, if we have an obesity, smoking, and diabetes problem, maybe we need a more walkable community; let's talk about trails, let's talk about passive equipment for exercise, let's open up the community so those people who don’t have cars have better opportunities to walk and bike.”
Four plazas with ample green space are now connected by widened sidewalks and surround a fountain in the center of the square, which was restored and turned on again as part of the redevelopment.
With no curbs or stairs separating public spaces from downtown storefronts, Barrick compares the new zero-grade Shelbyville Square to an Italian piazza where pedestrians are prioritized ahead of vehicles.
RATIO Principal Tom Gallagher said the minute differences between each quadrant make the spaces stand out. Designed to host live performances, pavilions stand on the edges of two quadrants to give residents the chance to enjoy live music in the heart of their city. Additional quadrants feature flexible layouts to allow for combined events or separated functions.
Shelbyville is already experiencing increased interest from performers who want to bring their music downtown. DeBaun said the local farmer’s market now holds concerts every Saturday, while one local restaurant – Capone’s Downtown Speakeasy – hosts live music almost nightly.
Limestone planters and benches outlining the edges of each quadrant are architecturally sympathetic to existing downtown buildings. Red brick from previous iterations of the public square has been replaced with a darker, almost-purple brick – emphasizing Shelbyville’s commitment to investing in the best materials and finishes to create long-lasting public spaces.
“For us, it's about showing the pride that we have in our community,” DeBaun said. “Our motto is ‘Pride and Progress’, but we weren't really living it. Shelbyville Square is a tangible, concrete example of that motto.”