A Place to Be: the Julia M. Carson Transit Center

Axis Architecture Blog Post

This weekend, the long-awaited Julia M. Carson Transit Center opened to the public. The 14,000-square-foot facility is sleek and sculptural, and it includes 19 bays for IndyGo buses. But the transit center is more than just a place. It’s a place to be.

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The transit center is located in the Market East Cultural District, an area described by the Indianapolis Business Journal as a “modernist mecca.” The neighborhood includes the Artistry apartments, Cummins Inc.’s $30 million global distribution headquarters, and the City-County Building.

With neighbors like those, we at Axis knew the transit center had to be clean, comfortable, and contemporary. We knew it needed to inspire action and provide dignity to riders, and that it would serve as a portal to downtown Indianapolis.

Before we started the design process, our team collaborated with members of IndyGo, including IndyGo president and CEO Mike Terry; former-Mayor Greg Ballard; and Adam Thies, the former director of the Department of Metropolitan Development for the City of Indianapolis.

The goals? To build a facility that enables riders to feel comfortable and respected, and to use modern design to transform what individuals think about IndyGo.

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“Architecturally, it was a challenge,” said Drew, one of our founding partners. “The transit centers you normally see are just big, covered volumes. We wanted to make something sculptural with a lot of natural light. We wanted to promote and enhance the entire experience of a rider … and had to ensure that a person was never going to be in the elements.”

So how did we do that?

By constructing canopies over the bus bays, which shelter riders. By building a fully accessible site that allows for a seamless transition between the interior and exterior spaces. By incorporating free Wi-Fi and public restrooms, courtesies that are often taken for granted. We created curbside rain gardens, planted trees, and designed, as Drew called it, “a glass box” that complements the landscape.

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The transit center’s glass walls—and the amount of natural light that streams through them—are possibly our favorite feature. As the sun rises, climbs to high noon, and cascades behind the horizon, shadows shift within the transit center, and each corner has its moment in the sun’s spotlight. The benches and décor Kathleen selected for both the lower and upper levels of the transit center encourage individuals to stay awhile, make themselves comfortable.

Practically every seat was taken at the June 21 ribbon cutting, which U.S. Rep. André Carson attended. Mr. Carson is the grandson of U.S. Rep. Julia M. Carson, for whom the transit center is named. Ms. Carson represented the 7th District in the U.S. House for 10 years and, before her death in 2007, she helped secure funding for the facility.

At the ribbon cutting, Mr. Carson talked about his grandmother’s passions, and her mission to connect downtown with other Indianapolis communities.

“It symbolizes everyone having access to everything,” he said.

Transit ambassadors and IndyGo riders also attended the ribbon cutting, and talked about the building’s openness:

“I like how airy the building is,” said Liz Cleland, an IndyGo transit ambassador. “Clean lines, neutral tones … all perfect for this site.”

Dr. Toby Malichi, who has been an IndyGo rider for three years and knows routes 18 and 34 “like the back of his hand,” echoed Cleland. “There’s a lot of great light and great spaces for those who … may not have been exposed to a lot of modern things,” he said. “It strikes a new balance. Someone can feel great to be [at the transit center] but not feel overwhelmed.”

The feel-good sentiment Malichi described was something Drew, Eric, Geoff, Kathleen, IndyGo, and all of the partners took into consideration when designing the transit center. We knew it needed to be more than a bus station—it needed to be an urban park where cyclists, pedestrians, and passersby would feel inspired to become riders themselves.

As Cleland said, “Indianapolis’s potential to grow has increased exponentially with the addition of [the transit center].”

Michael Bricker from People for Urban Progress also had a few things to say about the transit center, describing it as a place where people can gather, connect, and explore everything Indy has to offer. “It is architecture without judgment,” he wrote.

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We had our challenges, though. We had to accommodate an underground tunnel connecting the City-County Building with the Marion County Jail. While we could put down paving or install lighting above the tunnel, we were unable to build any sort of structure on top of it.

We also designed the building to be fully accessible and environmentally friendly. There are ADA-accessible curb ramps, bridges, and flush-finished flooring. The amount of natural light that flows into the building reduces the overall need for electricity. We used white thermoplastic olefin (TPO) roofing, on-site plantings, and high albedo (light-colored) paving to reduce the urban “heat island” effect. And recycled materials were used throughout the transit center, which will be LEED Silver Certified.

Together, those materials and features make up a building that is modern, accommodating, and iconic. But the Julia M. Carson Transit Center isn’t just a building that looks good on a postcard—it functions as a day-to-day piece of the urban environment, and encourages us to experience transit and explore the city.