Commercial Real Estate and Elected Officials and Mixed-Use and Greg Ballard and Proposals and Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Government & Economic Development and Government and Public-Private Partnership and Economic Development and Real Estate & Retail

UPDATE: Mayor picks GM site for criminal justice complex

March 13, 2014

The former General Motors stamping plant west of downtown is Mayor Greg Ballard's preferred location for a new criminal justice complex.

That recommendation will be presented to stakeholders and neighborhood groups, and their feedback will be incorporated into a final analysis, Indianapolis Director of Enterprise Development David Rosenberg said Thursday evening.

Contrary to information released by the city earlier Thursday, Rosenberg said there's no decision yet on what site to include in a request for proposals that will be issued to a short list of three developer groups on March 27, he said.

The project, which will replace existing facilities in disparate locations in the southeast quadrant of downtown, might cost as much as $400 million.

The project is meant to bring together and consolidate Marion County courts, jails and related offices and agencies.

Ballard's office also said that it would hold three public meetings to gather input about the complex. While choosing the GM site over an airport-owned tract near the Hendricks County line might satisfy critics who insisted that the new facility remain centrally located to Marion County residents, it raises another thorny issue.

How can the 100-acre GM property, which overlooks the White River and downtown, live up to its potential as a signature redevelopment site with other major features if it hosts the county jail?  

“Is it really going to get built out if there's a criminal justice center there?” asked City-County Councilor Jeff Miller, a Republican whose district includes the GM site. Miller was one of several stakeholders whom IBJ had asked to weigh in on the site before Ballard's announcement Thursday.

Jeff Gearhart, executive director of the West Indianapolis Development Corp., said he was certain a jail would ruin the GM site for future housing, which is his organization's priority for reuse. That's not to say, however, that the neighborhood wouldn't welcome a justice center.

“I have no difficulty with it being in the neighborhood at all,” Gearhart said. “I don't want it at that site.”

Although Ballard's office already has announced its preferred site, it still will take public comment on the airport site and the complex in general. The first of three public meetings will be 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Mary Rigg Center, 1920 W. Morris St., and will focus on the GM site. A second meeting will be Wednesday to discuss the airport site, and a third will be hosted by the City-County Council on March 24.

Ballard announced in December the plan to search for a private development partner to build a new complex, which would house the courts, jails, community corrections and legal offices that now are scattered in and around downtown. Led by Rosenberg, Ballard's deputies moved quickly. 

They already have chosen three groups to bid on developing the complex. The request for proposals is set to be issued to the groups on March 27.

Ballard's team chose the GM property from a list of 14 potential sites, some suggested by the administration and others identified by a consultant, Gordon Hendry of CBRE. Using city-imposed criteria, Hendry analyzed and ranked each property.

The airport property southeast of Raceway Road and West Washington Street received the top rating, and the GM site had the second-highest score. CBRE gave the airport property a perfect 10 on size, suitability for use and speed to development, and a 9 on highway and bus access. But lawyers and judges lambasted that choice because it's inconvenient to them and most Marion County residents.

Circuit Court Judge Louis Rosenberg, who oversees court operations, said recently that the mayor's office hadn't made a good case for the airport site.

On the GM site, the city might have to compete with other developers that submitted proposals to the RACER Trust, a court-created entity that owns and is charged with cleaning up multiple old General Motors properties.

The RACER Trust received a fifth, unsolicited proposal within the past month, Redevelopment Manager Bruce Rasher said. The contents of the proposals are confidential, but all five have merit, he said. At the same time, Rasher said there's nothing to prevent the trust from continuing to market the property or even striking a deal with the city.

Several other urban brownfields were on the list of potential sites, and community redevelopment executives have wondered why the mayor's office didn't explore those more thoroughly. One is the former RCA television-components factory on Sherman Drive, about three miles east of the City-County Building downtown.

Near east-side neighborhoods wouldn't necessarily oppose the criminal-justice complex, said John Franklin Hay, executive director of Indy East Asset Development. The jail would be a turn-off for residents who are fed up with existing jails and a privately run halfway house, he said, but others just want to something to happen at the RCA site, which is in the heart of the community. They might see daytime traffic from lawyers and other professionals as beneficial, he said. 

Hay is disappointed that no one from the mayor's office has contacted him or other neighborhood groups to talk about having the justice center on the RCA site.

“We welcome the courtesy of discussion,” Hay said. “I think there is a much better way of even considering sites than what is currently being done.”

Before announcing the plan to seek bids on a new complex, Ballard's team worked with a task force that included a representative of the Marion County Sheriff's Office and other criminal justice system stakeholders.

The meetings announced Thursday were the first so far to include the general public.

The criminal justice site is going to face detractors, no matter where the mayor’s office zeroes in, said Abbe Hohmann, a veteran commercial real estate broker and president of Site Strategies Advisory.

“There would be maybe a greater confidence level with the decision if they could demonstrate a broad-based analysis of the sites on that list,” she said prior to Thursday's annoucement.

Hohmann, who sat on a Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee group that studied the relocation of courts and jails in 2011, said it's not clear how the 14-property list was created.

Almost every site on the list is at least 35 acres. Rosenberg said via email that the acreage requirement stems from a plan for low- to mid-rise buildings, which are less expensive than high-rises, so the complex can be built at “no new cost to taxpayers.”

The low-rise construction also would provide transportation efficiency, increase safety and keep costs down in a future expansion, Rosenberg said.

Hohmann said the list seemed heavy on properties that the city or other governmental entities own and wondered whether the mayor's office overlooked more suitable locations.

“A free site in the wrong place might be more costly than a site you have to pay for in the right place,” she said.

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