Meet the Mayor Who Totally Transformed His City
James Brainard is stepping down after leading Carmel, Ind., for 28 years. He’s best known nationally for building roundabouts and promoting local climate efforts, but his legacy rests with how he rebuilt the Indianapolis suburb.
James Brainard doesn’t care about consensus. During his 28 years as mayor of Carmel, Ind., he has completely reshaped the city’s landscape. What had been a set of subdivisions breaking up farmland and prairie has become a national model of city planning and design. When he ran into opposition to his numerous development projects, which was often, Brainard persevered and almost always got his way. He knows there are people in town who think he’s a dictator, or at least complain that he’s ruled with an iron fist. One Carmel resident describes the situation more kindly as “benevolent one-man rule.”
Brainard openly brags about how many things he got done not by winning over the whole of the City Council, but cobbling together bare, one-vote majorities. He frequently bypassed the City Council altogether, funding projects using a quasi-public redevelopment commission instead. “We don’t require consensus in this country,” he says. “We require a majority vote. If we required consensus, nothing would get done most of the time.”
Brainard’s growth plans kept running into doubters. Some members of the City Council believed the government had no business financing a luxury hotel. Others objected to the price tag for a European-style concert hall. Brainard is often proud to show off an old black-and-white photograph of people protesting his idea for extending the Monon Greenway, a walking-and-hiking trail that now connects Carmel to downtown Indianapolis, 15 miles to the south. Brainard not only had to overcome protesters but ended up suing 95 homeowners to use portions of their property as rights of way. Even his idea for a German-style Christmas market, where signs explain dishes such as Lebkuchen and Räucherschinken, had its detractors.
No matter the controversies at the time, it’s hard to argue with what Brainard’s accomplished. During his tenure, the city has tripled in size, to more than 100,000, while its taxable property base has grown six times as large. The city’s park system has grown from 41 acres to 750. For all his borrowing and expansions, Carmel’s tax rates remain among the lowest in the state. Median home values have gone up 30 percent just since 2020. Carmel has become a magnet not only for affluent residents of Indianapolis but newcomers from all over the country who’ve noticed Carmel’s repeated appearances on lists of the “best places to live.”
“He has transformed pretty much everything about this community,” says Sue Finkam, who will succeed Brainard as mayor when his seventh term expires at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. “He’s put Carmel on the map for quality of place, our built environment, our transportation network, the arts. His fingerprints are on everything in this community.”
It’s not hard to find people who complain that Brainard was too cozy in putting together his many private-public partnerships with particular developers or law firms. There are some residents who are still cranky about the city’s famous collection of European-style traffic roundabouts, or complain that there’s already been too much growth. And Carmel, with its $2 million townhomes, has gained a certain snobbish reputation. There’s a la-di-da cake shop downtown where a single slice will set you back $17. According to a local joke, in Carmel even the dollar stores are made of brick.
But as Brainard wraps up his long stint in office, even the detractors admit that he left his city in far better shape than he found it. “A lot of the things that Mayor Brainard did, people didn’t get it right away. Maybe they didn’t understand it until it was done,” says Adam Aasen, a member of the City Council. “But time has been very kind to Mayor Brainard.”
Finding Out About Pipes
Brainard, who is 69 and a bit sad-eyed, played French horn as a kid and wanted to be a musician. Not surprisingly, his mother thought that was a bad idea. He doesn’t dispute that, but ruefully notes that his schoolmate ended up playing the instrument for the New York Philharmonic. Brainard ended up taking an easier path. He got a law degree and started practicing in Indianapolis. After a few years, with his family growing, he moved to Carmel. “It was cheaper back then,” he says. “It isn’t now.”
Brainard had only lived in Carmel for about seven years when he ran for mayor. That was only possible, he says, because so many other residents were in the same boat. Carmel, founded as a 19th century Quaker village, still had just a few hundred residents at the end of World War II. Like so many suburbs after the war, it grew rapidly, tripling in size during the 1960s and doubling again between 1974 and 1990.
Brainard won the Republican primary in 1995, which back then was all it took. Since Democrats didn’t bother fielding a candidate, Brainard had months to prepare for his new job. He needed it. After winning, he rode around town with a friend who noticed a bunch of pipes stacked up along the road and asked what kind they were — cable conduits? Sewer pipes? Water? Brainard — a history major before law school — had no idea. But he realized he had to get smart about such things, quick.
He wrote to the heads of urban planning programs in universities around the country, asking for copies of class syllabuses. The books that were assigned everywhere, he made a point of reading. He passed out copies of his favorites around City Hall. He’s kept up the habit, devoting six hours each week to reading books.
It hasn’t been an academic pursuit. Walking and driving around Carmel feels like entering an architectural rendering. Carmel has the most roundabouts of any city in the nation, but it also has raised crosswalks and bike lanes and lots of streetscaping including flower pots and plentiful sculptures. The letters on street signs are 6 inches high, meaning drivers can actually make them out as they’re passing by. Then there are the things the eye doesn’t see but people can feel. There are no billboards in Carmel and most of the parking in the dense developments has been driven underground.
“I think everyone loves the roundabouts — once you get used to them, it’s terrific,” says one resident visiting Carmel’s airy public library. “My hometown has metastasized into strip malls. Carmel has grown mostly in good ways.”
Underground parking can cost twice as much to build as surface parking and way more to maintain, but Brainard believes it’s necessary to achieve maximum density. He wants builders to use up all the space to the sidewalk. He’s the rare suburban leader in love with density, recognizing that every mile of road will cost him, on average, $12 million, not to mention the costs associated with having fire stations and other services available to cover homes that are too spread out. Including miles of extra pipes.
“I’ve learned there are essentially three types of mayors,” says Jeff Speck, a well-known city planner based in Brookline, Mass. “Some you can’t teach design, some you can, and some teach you about design. I’d like to think that I’ve taught Jim Brainard more than he’s taught me, but it’s close.”
If You Build It
Brainard walks out of Carmel’s City Hall — neocolonial in design, but completed in 1989 — and heads north toward the concert hall. Taking the Monon trail, he quickly spots other projects he made happen. Where there had once been parking for the fire station, a row of new townhomes is nearly complete. In the City Center complex, the frames are up for a pair of apartment buildings that will complete the development. Then there are the little touches, generally based on ideas he picked up as he’s traveled to other countries, such as benches honoring Indiana authors and a lending library shaped like a British telephone booth. A sculpture that blends the shape of a heart and the symbol for infinity draws selfie-takers and has provided the setting for a few marriage proposals.
Brainard ducks into the $59 million hotel he got built, using it as a handy cut-through on his way to lunch. He recalls that restaurant owners in the downtown area objected to the Christmas market, believing it would take away their business. “Of course, the opposite is true,” he says.
Carmel still has plenty of mid-century ranch houses, but he wanted the denser areas — City Center, Midtown, the Arts & Design District — to include townhomes. Not that long ago, banks wouldn’t finance the projects, believing there would be no buyers for townhouses in the Indianapolis suburbs. It reached the point where Brainard insisted builders bring their bankers to meetings with him, to be sure they’d actually secured funding. Townhomes in City Center and along Main Street are now selling for anywhere from two to five times as much as developers had hoped a couple of years ago.
Brainard was able to maintain confidence in his ideas when he faced opposition for a simple reason: He didn’t care about re-election. He loved being mayor but recognized that, as a lawyer, he could always make more money in the private sector. If he was going to be mayor, however, he wanted to do bold things.
Brainard is constantly citing examples from history about how long-ago events are still shaping the physical environment. He recognized that Carmel — flat, with no mountains or oceans and lousy weather much of the year — had nothing to offer but what could be built. “We push for things that are going to be lasting,” says Aasen, the City Council member. “Really, you’re creating a history that will outlast all of us, if it’s done right.”
Finding Funding for Sidewalks
Traffic always seemed to back up along Smoky Row Road. People coming off Highway 31 could get stalled for as much as a mile making their way to the high school. With more than 5,000 students, it’s one of the largest in the state. Things only grew more frustrating over the past year with the road closed for construction.
But now, drainage has been improved, there’s a new bridge and Carmel has installed some of its famous roundabouts. Traffic is moving more smoothly, as happened with earlier roundabouts. In Carmel, fatality rates are way down and cars are not emitting fuel as they idle at red lights. That’s always been a key concern for Brainard, one of the leading voices within the U.S. Conference of Mayors — and among Republicans generally — in trying to find ways to address climate change.
Carmel barely had sidewalks when Brainard took office. He went back and pored over old town board minutes, coming across authorization for spending on sidewalks from early in the 20th century. Along Smoky Row Road, he put in sidewalks that are 10 feet wide. That’s not only comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists but particularly helpful for some residents of Carmel’s latest major development, known as the North End.
Forty out of 168 apartments in the complex are reserved for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The apartments are private but there’s an onsite coordinator to help residents gain access to services. They also get early notice when there are job openings at the coffee shop or other North End businesses. Those services were worth a tax break that helped the complex happen.
Justin Moffett, whose company built North End and led the way on office construction that revitalized Carmel’s Midtown, says Brainard always encouraged him to do things that were risky, to recognize that while people might initially oppose ideas, that shouldn’t make him afraid. When he decided to move his initial Midtown projects through the traditional planning and zoning process, rather than take the redevelopment commission bypass, he says that Brainard warned him that he was “signing up for pain.
"My conviction was the council wouldn't say no if it's supported by the community," Moffett says, "and it was really welcomed."
Credit Where Due
“The man with an idea is a fool, until the idea succeeds,” Mark Twain said. Not the real Mark Twain, but that character in a movie. It may be a fake quote, but it sums up a lot about Brainard’s career. Constantly beset by naysayers, Brainard kept his focus on a longer view. Since his ideas not only worked out but have made his city a roaring success, over time residents did grow more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Absolutely, the community is better prepared for big ideas,” says Finkam, the incoming mayor.
She says she’s learned from Brainard’s example that it’s a good idea to swing for the fences, to try out new and different approaches in the hope they’ll improve life for residents. At the same time, she notes, there’s already been a good deal of transformation and growth in Carmel. The many newcomers don’t have the same appreciation or understanding of all Brainard has been able to do. As in any place that’s experienced growth, a lot of people feel like enough’s enough, that it would be better to hit pause and keep things the way they are when it’s already going well. And, Finkam notes, higher interest rates are going to put a natural damper on development. “The next 10 years are going to be much different,” she says.
Like any good politician, Brainard is careful to credit lots of people for his success. He had his critics, but he also had help from plenty of partners in the private sector, as well as a generally first-rate staff at City Hall. Still, he’s not above feeling proud as he walks through a town that in many ways was the product of his own imagination.
He thinks about the Palladium, the concert hall he built, where he just had the chance to play French horn in a holiday show with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. Everyone knows it’s the House That Jim Built, or one of them. Still, it bothers him that people may get a wrong impression when they enter the hall and see the plaque listing the names of the entire civic leadership from when it was built.
“It always bugged me a bit that somebody fought and fought and fought against a project, and then you put up the plaque for eternity, and their name would be there,” Brainard says. “So we’re redoing the plaque for the Palladium. And we’re gonna have the yeses and noes there.”