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Interactive rezoning aims to transform cityscape

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If city planner Tammara Tracy has it right, Indy is on the cusp of a radical process of transformation, akin to historical innovations such as architect Alexander Ralston's original blueprint of the Circle City in the 1820s, George Kessler's Park and Boulevard Plan in 1909 and UniGov in 1970.

The reason for her excitement: Indy Rezone, an effort to nurture growth in the city's sustainability and livability through a revision of zoning and development regulations.

The effort aims to modernize antiquated zoning codes that at times stymie urban core revitalization efforts by adhering to 1960s-era policies designed for the auto-centric culture (think requirements for large parking lots or large setbacks).

"The built environment affects virtually every aspect of life, your health, economic development, property taxes, crime," Tracy said.

"The quality of the physical environment, it can help how you live life and what you think about it because the built environment is what we're all in every single day."

A city's design can enhance feelings of safety or fear, calm or stress, Tracy said.

As one example, she cited a study of 192 cities the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this summer that found people were less obese in environments considered conducive to walking and biking.

"Zoning isn't exciting; it's what you can accomplish with zoning that's exciting," Tracy said.

City officials are not only soliciting as much involvement with the community as possible, they are bringing remote-control technology to their meetings. Arming every public participant with a remote, officials can gauge in real time and with great response rate, the crowd's reaction to a series of questions to determine local residents' opinions.

The interactivity also forces participants to understand that each regulation carries tradeoffs, such as increased costs that mandated design requirements might seek in pursuit of greater public safety (such as more windows in buildings where vast walls face the streets) or environmental and aesthetic improvements (as requirements for greater tree plantings at new home sites would offer).

So-called "neighborhood invigoration" meetings will be held throughout the fall and winter with the goal of developing draft proposals next spring and summer. The goal is to finish by March 2014.

Officials are interested in working with all sorts of community groups to provide as many meetings to as many city residents as possible.

Because these policies affect everyone's quality of life, Tracy said she hopes to see a wide variety of ideas proposed and constructive criticism levied.

"Every voice can make a difference," she said.

In conjunction with ordinance updates, the city will also revise the development regulations for government projects. A group of 45 officials from the police department, the prosecutor's office and the department of metropolitan development took intensive seminars in crime prevention through environmental design.

The Indy Rezone effort sprang from a $1.19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. Indy provided a 40 percent match totaling just under $2 million in in-kind services.

Only 42 communities of the 586 that applied received HUD awards.

The website indyrezone.org contains a wealth of information on the project, including opinion poll questions and a calendar of meetings.

In related urban environment news, City-County Councilor John Barth, an at-large Democrat, will host a hearing on a draft proposal crafted by the young attorneys section of the Indianapolis Bar, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and members of the City-County Council to address the blight of vacant lots and abandoned homes that continues to scar sections of the city.

The hearing is set for 5:30 p.m., Monday, Aug. 20, in the John H. Boner Community Center gym, 2236 E. 10th St.

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