But after decades of being overshadowed by the other Carmel to the west and by big city Indianapolis less than 20 miles to the south, this little-known Midwestern suburb is gaining prominence.
Carmel is forging a national reputation because of its embrace of the arts, European-style street design and urban housing — all of which have given this former Quaker village and sleepy bedroom community a cosmopolitan flair unusual in suburbia.
It's a trend emerging in an increasing number of commuter suburbs from Texas and Colorado to Alabama, continuing to blur the lines between urban and suburban. Small suburban communities that have no downtowns and are dominated by sprawling housing subdivisions are transforming themselves into cities where people can live, work and play.
These small but growing towns are applying some of the most forward-thinking planning tenets to create true downtowns, arts districts and new traffic patterns that alleviate congestion and encourage walking. They're changing zoning to build city-style condos and apartments above stores. And they're getting away from big parking lots and strip malls by putting parking underground and behind stores. Often, the downtowns are created around a new city hall, transit stations, arts center — or all three.
"We've got to start designing our cities for people first and automobiles second," says Carmel Mayor James Brainard, a lawyer who picked up some European design sensibilities while studying in England.
Brainard — the city's first five-term mayor — is relentless in his campaign to turn Carmel into a first-class city.
"We don't have oceans or mountains, so we have to work a bit harder if we're going to attract the best and the brightest," he says.
It has paid off. This year, Money magazine ranked Carmel (the Indiana one) the No. 1 best place to live because it has low unemployment (5.2% vs. more than 8% statewide and 7.8% nationally), good schools, arts and culture, reasonably priced homes (median listing price $320,000), nature trails that stretch all the way to Indianapolis and a huge community recreation complex with parks, pools and gymnasium.
It's what inspired Jim and Joyce Winner to build a house here after Jim sold his minority share in a Pennsylvania steel company six years ago.
"We just instantly fell in love with it," says Jim, 58. "We just love going downtown and walking around. It seems like everything they're doing is right. It's just a good place to call home."
Most of the suburbs going through this transformation are affluent (Carmel's median household income is above $100,000). But the pursuit of young professionals and creative talent also is pushing cities to develop more multifamily housing.
There are 4,850 apartments in Carmel, about 18% of all housing. More than 1,300 apartments have been built since 2007 and an additional 1,450 are planned.
That has helped companies such as Software Engineering Professionals recruit young workers.
"We compete against Google and Microsoft, and I don't have an ocean and it's not 68 degrees all year," says Jeff Gilbert, president and CEO.
Andrew Moore, 22, was entertaining offers in Seattle and Palo Alto, Calif., after he graduated from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology but came here instead. He lives about a mile from the company's offices in City Center — Carmel's new downtown — where concerts and farmers markets are held in the summer. Loaner bikes are available for workers.
"It's smaller than where I grew up (in Owensboro, Ky.), but it does feel like its own city," Moore says.
"You now have residents who live in parts of metropolitan areas, and they expect what used to be thought of as just downtown shopping, high-end restaurants and a performing arts center," says Robert Lang, urban affairs professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "The difference from the '70s and '80s is that suburban downtowns you see now would've only been in central cities a generation ago."
The transformation is happening in:
Homewood, Ala., pop. 25,000, borders the southern edge of Birmingham and has turned from an aging suburb of small single-family homes into a destination popular for its urban shops and restaurants.
The city tore down its old city hall and built one to anchor a new downtown, Mayor Scott McBrayer says. Parking is underneath. Upscale condos top shops and restaurants. A hotel is across the street.
"You can walk to grocery stores and shop downtown," he says.
Homewood's average age dropped from 60 to under 40 in about 10 years as a result.
"When I came in to the City Council in 2000, the only thing we were discussing was building senior centers," McBrayer says. "Homewood was known for its starter homes with two bedrooms, one bath, and as soon as (people) started having children, they felt they had to move," McBrayer says. "Now families are coming in and purchasing those homes and may invest $300,000 to tear it down and build a $600,000 home in its place."
West Jordan, Utah, went from small farming town to bedroom community to a thriving city of 110,000 south of Salt Lake City. Big employers such as Oracle and Dannon Yogurt settled there and attracted development. It sits along the light-rail line that connects Salt Lake City and its suburbs. Plans are in the works to develop retail, commercial and residential properties near the six stops in West Jordan. A proposal to redevelop the downtown is on the table.
"We never had a downtown," says City Manager Rick Davis — not until City Hall was built across the street from one of the six stations. "We want to redevelop the area into mixed use — hotel, office, meeting space and residential and a performing arts center. It will give us a 'there' it will bring a destination sense to our downtown."
Lakewood, Colo., the third-largest city in the Denver metropolitan area, has about 145,000 people and was the site of Villa Italia, the largest enclosed mall west of the Mississippi until the 1990s. Colfax Avenue, the main drag, stretches through town and was lined with gas stations, motels and subdivisions.
Things changed in 2004 when the mall was replaced by the first phase of Belmar, a pedestrian district that aims to re-create the feel of a village square. There are homes, shops, restaurants and a 1-acre plaza that can be a skating rink or concert stage.
"Belmar is our downtown now," Mayor Bob Murphy says. "You no longer have to commute somewhere else. Residents are identifying more with their hometown. It's not 'I live in a suburb outside Denver. I live in Lakewood.'"
Denver's light-rail line makes six stops in Lakewood and is spawning neighborhoods and an arts district.
Southlake, Texas, outside Fort Worth and Dallas, was a farming town that had only two-lane road access until the '80s. That's when sewer lines were put in and development boomed. The city began building a downtown in the late 1990s — called Town Square — around a town hall that houses Tarrant County offices. There are stores and restaurants, and the second residential phase of The Brownstones, pricey (from the $600,000s) three-story brick homes that evoke old-world urbanism, is in the works.
Developers "worked with city and county in order to bring together a mixed-use development that was more than just a strip mall," city spokeswoman Pilar Schank says.
RE-CREATING A CITY
Carmel, where no billboards are allowed, grew from a population of about 1,000 in 1950 to more than 80,000 today. The number of residents has more than doubled since 2000.
Brainard's plan was ambitious: Take the 1-square-mile "Old Town" heart of the old Quaker village and rebuild the streets, add brick sidewalks and antique-style street lighting and create the Arts & Design District. The Indiana Design Center — a decorators' showroom for trade buyers and the public — opened and draws people from Indianapolis and beyond. Art galleries, restaurants and lifelike J. Seward Johnson sculptures line Main Street. Upscale condos occupy second and third floors.
Evan Lurie left art galleries in Los Angeles and Miami to open one here, where his in-laws live. His 5,200-square-foot gallery, topped by four luxury condos, brings contemporary abstract art and monthly art walks to Carmel.
"What we try to do is bring in the work here so that people in Carmel have an opportunity to see what's going on in the marketplace worldwide," says Lurie, who does 60% of his business internationally.
Stoplights and stop signs are gone from 80 intersections, replaced by "roundabouts" — small traffic circles that slow traffic and help it flow with little interruption in one direction around an island.
They're safer: The rate of accidents with injury fell 80% since roundabouts were put in, Brainard says. And they're prettier: Sculptures and landscaping adorn some of the traffic islands.
Carmel's redevelopment is the result of an $800 million public/private partnership. More than $300 million was used to create City Center, home to City Hall and the Center for the Performing Arts, including the 1,600-seat Palladium concert hall and two theaters. A hotel is coming soon.
"It is an achievement that I think is so rare to be almost unheard of for a city this size to develop a major performing arts center and see it through from beginning to end," says Willem Brans, vice president of Arts Consulting Group, a national company that advised the city.
Cities, rather than private arts groups, are pushing for arts projects because they "see the arts as a way of meeting all types of municipal goals like revitalizing downtown," he says.