City Government and Opinion and Development/Redevelopment and Editorials

EDITORIAL: City should plan for what comes after demolition

September 10, 2011

It’s not often that government can be accused of acting rashly—especially with money at stake.

City-county councilors have been discussing a stronger Indianapolis smoking ban for years. State lawmakers debated for even longer before adding charter schools to the education landscape. And mass transit has been the subject of deliberative study for so long that commuter jet packs may be en vogue before significant progress is made.

So it was baffling to discover that the city of Indianapolis is launching a $20 million war on abandoned houses without a plan for dealing with the properties after the wrecking-ball dust has settled.

As Francesca Jarosz reports on page 1 this week, the city doesn’t own most of the 2,000-plus homes targeted for demolition by Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration, leaving the future of the ground underneath uncertain at best.

Sure, tearing down eyesores may help eliminate urban blight, cutting crime and boosting property values along the way. Then again, mass demolition also could result in a glut of overgrown lots littered with empty Colt 45 bottles.

As we see it, the most important part of a redevelopment plan is the plan. It is not enough to have high hopes that the initiative will work, that negligent property owners will suddenly see the light—or fail to pay taxes, handing control to the city. There are just too many question marks for that to be more than wishful thinking.

Will neighbors seize the chance to expand their yards? Maybe. Will not-for-profits plant urban gardens or create pocket parks? Perhaps. Will developers snap up lots for in-fill projects? Possibly—if the property becomes available. Likewise, will the city’s land bank take ownership and shop properties around to all of the above? Your guess is as good as ours.

Uncertainties abound even before delving into things like the possible architectural value of some neglected homes, or the potential impact of cracker-box replacements on resurgent neighborhoods.

As former economic development administrator Jeff Bennett told Jarosz, “It’s almost like throwing darts at a map with no thought of what happens next.”

Details make the difference, and the stakes are high. There are an estimated 14,000 abandoned and vacant properties throughout Marion County—a pervasive problem that demands a comprehensive solution, not an expensive Band-Aid.

The city has earmarked up to $20 million for demolition, using some proceeds from the sale of municipal water and sewer utilities. Spending that money before coming up with a plan—and a strategy for executing it—is a colossal waste that could do as much harm as good. And that’s just bad public policy.

We’re not advocating the endless-study approach that ensures we’ll still be discussing this problem—along with mass transit—generations from now, but Ballard and his staff need to stop and think.

After all, if wishes were horses, we all could just saddle up for our morning commute.•

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