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State to scope downtown block for new offices, parking

July 18, 2014

Gov. Mike Pence’s administration is in the early stages of a land-use study for a hot piece of downtown property north of the Statehouse.

The study, required under Senate Enrolled Act 367, is to consider the feasibility of a new building to house the judiciary, provide more legislative office space and offer parking for employees and visitors. The act requires the Office of Management and Budget to complete the study by Dec. 1, 2015.

This would be the third time since the late 1980s that state government has considered expanding its presence to what’s now a parking lot northwest of Ohio Street and Capitol Avenue.

Judges and legislators say they—and the public—are working with cramped quarters. The administration last fall solicited “creative” proposals for additional state-employee parking on the state-owned block and ended up with developers pitching multi-use buildings.

The Indiana Finance Authority, which issued the request, isn’t acting on the responses partly because of the pending land-use study, Finance Director Kendra York said. Senate Enrolled Act 367 passed earlier this year.

Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said OMB is in the early stages of reviewing the request for a study and will work with the Department of Administration to gather the “necessary data.”

It’s hard to tell whether Pence and legislative leaders are serious about developing the downtown parcel. Senate Enrolled Act 367 dealt mainly with property tax issues and was amended by Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, to require the land-use study.

Turner was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I don’t know why he did it or why he put it in there,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville and one of the co-authors of the bill.

Kenley said it’s “questionable” whether Indiana has the money for a new state-government facility, but noted that the state’s cash position—a $2 billion reserve—is good and interest rates are low.

While he said he’s “not too enthused” about conducting another study, Kenley said it’s better than giving up the asset to the private real estate market.  

SEA 367 also requires the feasibility study include ways to enhance public access to the legislature and judiciary, including additional space for legislative hearings. The Legislature conducts important committee hearings in rooms barely large enough to accommodate members, their staff, people scheduled to testify and the press. Lobbyists and citizens who may also want to speak observe proceedings on monitors in the halls of the Statehouse.

The study is to include ways to enhance security while also enhancing public access and might include past architectural studies, according to the act.

One question OMB should ask is whether it’s cheaper to build than for the Indiana Supreme Court and Indiana Court of Appeals to continue renting office space downtown for some functions, said appellate Judge John Baker.

The Legislature has twice approved plans for a capitol expansion, but both times they were squashed by governors. The first plan, drawn up in 1988, was vetoed by former Gov. Evan Bayh. That plan called for a neo-classical style building, complete with a copper dome, that would have been twice the size of the Statehouse. Bayh, a Democrat, later oversaw construction of the south wing of the state office building.

The late Gov. Frank O’Bannon vetoed the plan for a judicial center that the Legislature approved in 2001, and no one has picked up the ball since, said Baker, who sat on the committee that crafted the 2001 plan. The state spent about $4 million on those plans, he said.

Baker is not reading much into the forthcoming land-use study.

“I think I would be encouraged if I knew there was the political will to do something with a study," he said. "I don’t know if I’m in favor of spending taxpayers’ money on a project that is doomed to fail. “

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