Community development and City Government and IMPD and Fire department and Redevelopment and Government & Economic Development and Public Safety

Property shuffle aims to connect police, fire services with neighborhoods

August 7, 2010

Real estate development fact boxThe city’s Department of Public Safety is finalizing plans to open police-and-fire hubs in two former IPS schools, retrofit a former Eastgate mall department store into an Emergency Operations Center, and build at least two fire stations.

The moves are part of a real estate overhaul led by Public Safety Director Frank Straub to better connect police and fire services with the neighborhoods they serve, consolidate office space to save on lease expenses, and help spark revitalization in parts of the city that have been starved of investment.

The historic east-side Indianapolis Public Schools buildings that housed School 78 and School 97 had been considered at risk of demolition, but new public safety tenants could help save them. The Emergency Operations Center at Eastgate would bring new customers to an area where only the hardiest of retailers and restaurants have survived.

Another upshot of the realignment: Prime sites along Massachusetts Avenue and 16th Street could be sold to private developers, raising money for the city and potentially adding to the tax base.

Straub, on the job seven months, has taken several steps to integrate Marion County’s public safety agencies, including the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Indianapolis Fire Department, and Animal Care and Control. Among the moves: combining legal and disciplinary units, merging finance and human resources functions across agencies, and creating a new division of homeland security.

Arranging for public safety, community and social agencies to work side-by-side within walking distance of the most troubled neighborhoods is a logical next step, he said. The changes will be funded mostly with grants and existing budget sources.

“It’s bringing public safety services into the community instead of having them in industrial parks that aren’t really accessible,” said Straub, a former commissioner of training for the New York City Police Department.

Neighborhood ties

The reuse plan for the former Minnie Hartmann School 78, just west of Sherman Drive on Vermont Street, is among the most innovative.

Neighborhood organizations including the John H. Boner Community Center would partner to buy the building from Indianapolis Public Schools and renovate the property, all with financing help from the not-for-profit Local Initiatives Support Corp. City agencies and neighborhood groups would lease space.

The IMPD East District, which has offices in an industrial park at 3229 N. Shadeland Ave., would move into the first floor of the former School 78, Straub said.

And the Indianapolis Fire Department would move its headquarters from 555 N. New Jersey St.—along Massachusetts Avenue next door to the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre—to the second floor of School 78. Fire Station No. 7, which shares space with the fire department headquarters, would move to a smaller firehouse to be built a few blocks from the current one.

The move would allow more members of the fire department headquarters staff to work out of the same offices, IFD Chief Brian Sanford said.

Almost half of the roughly 40 sworn fire department employees not assigned to a particular fire house work outside the IFD headquarters. Fire prevention and inspection functions have offices at the Julia Carson Government Center, the training division rents space in the Warren Township Government Center, and the arson team’s home base is an IMPD training center.

“We’d like to get them all together in one area,” Sanford said. “Instead of having to set up collective meetings or sending e-mails, we can just be sitting in the same building.”

The Department of Public Safety also hopes to partner with neighborhood groups to develop a training center for first responders in the former James E. Roberts School 97, at 1401 E. 10th St., next door to Arsenal Technical High School.

The former school, which opened in 1936 to serve children with physical disabilities, made the Indiana Landmarks list of the state’s 10 most endangered structures in 2008 after IPS announced plans to demolish it. The building could be saved as part of the Super Bowl 2012 legacy initiative.

The Department of Public Safety hopes to develop a feeder system to recruit future police officers and firefighters in the former school, offering classes to IPS high school students in partnership with Ivy Tech Community College.

The academy could open by the end of 2011, Sanford said.

“We like the idea of moving and being a part of the community,” he said. “It gives public safety people a chance to serve as role models, and recruit more minority candidates.”

Emergency ops

The new Emergency Operations Center is scheduled to be up and running by next summer. The 6,500-square-foot center in the former Eastgate Consumer Mall will bring together special operations units from both the police and fire departments, including SWAT and K9, along with public health and emergency preparedness functions, and branches of the FBI and ATF.

The city plans to lease the space, part of a long-vacant J.C. Penney store, for about $12 per square foot including the cost of buildout, said Straub, who expects to sign off on the plans this month. The department is applying for FEMA grants aimed at improving disaster preparedness in major metropolitan areas.

Other parts of the realignment plan are more tentative. The department wants to move the IMPD Downtown district office from a building at 25 W. Ninth St. near the Central Library to somewhere in the Central Business District. Officials are considering space the city already owns in Union Station.

“The idea is to put the district where the people are,” said Maura J. Leon-Barber, a department spokeswoman.

The department also wants to build a fire station, most likely near 16th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, to replace stations No. 23, along Fall Creek Parkway at the White River, and No. 5, at the southeast corner of 16th Street and Capitol Avenue, across the street from Methodist Hospital.

If sold, the former station No. 5 likely would become part of a new medical office complex.

Meanwhile, the fire headquarters and station No. 7 moves would free up the prime Mass Ave real estate for redevelopment.

The property would be ideal for retail space, apartments and a parking structure, said Jim Crossin, vice president of development for locally based Flaherty & Collins Properties.

Flaherty & Collins is working on a similar project across the street in front of the Barton Apartments, in partnership with the Indianapolis Housing Agency. That project, likely a year or more away from ground breaking, calls for 100 upscale apartments and street-level retail.

“The current use isn’t the highest and best for that property,” Crossin said. “It really cuts off everything from the south from everything to the north. You’ve got great residential and retail on either side of those blocks between Michigan and North street, but nothing in between.”

‘A real win’

The public safety functions in both former schools could play a role in rebuilding and revitalizing neighborhoods, said Bill Taft, executive director of the LISC Indianapolis office.

He pointed to the construction of the IMPD Southeast District headquarters at 1150 S. Shelby St. in the late 1990s as a turning point in a comeback for the Fountain Square neighborhood.

“If you can take what’s already a publicly owned building that’s vacant and make it into a positive with public safety and other compatible uses, it’s a real win for a neighborhood that had a negative in losing a school,” Taft said. “It’s very consistent with what we’re trying to support—a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization.”

But while the new strategy could help stabilize neighborhoods, it’s no panacea, said Neil Websdale, a criminal justice professor at Northern Arizona University who has studied the integration of public safety functions into neighborhoods.

Ultimately, he said, people who live there won’t see conditions improve without more jobs to replace lost blue-collar positions, along with improved options for education and training so they can compete for those jobs.

Police departments for more than 20 years have attempted to get a handle on crime problems by reaching out to neighborhoods and collaborating with other agencies—with varying degrees of success.

“Until the conditions that create crime are addressed, I don’t think we’ll see much difference,” said Websdale, who wrote the book “Policing the Poor” based on his study of a similar effort in Nashville, Tenn.•

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