(Editor's clarification: James Edgar's opinions expressed below are his own. The Indianapolis Bar Association has not taken an official position on proposed sites for the Criminal Justice Complex.)
Indianapolis International Airport may be officials’ preferred location for a proposed Criminal Justice Complex, but attorneys who work in the system are critical of the idea.
“It cannot work,” said James Edgar, Criminal Justice Section chair for the Indianapolis Bar Association. He noted the logistical challenges of a roughly 40-minute commute from downtown and the difficulty of transporting defendants and court users to a site almost in Hendricks County.
“You’re going to take those 2,500 jobs and plop them on the doorstep of Plainfield,” Edgar said of attorneys, court and jail staff and the supporting workforce that he estimated would be displaced from downtown by the move. That equates to about $5 million a year just from those workers buying lunch, he said.
Edgar said the Criminal Justice Section’s membership of about 260 was largely unaware of the proposal and the favored airport site when he emailed them about it recently, but their responses were uniform. “None of them like the idea of going out to the airport. … The concept of moving it that far from downtown is just alarming to many people who make their living in and around the City-County Building.”
Marc Lotter, spokesman for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, said the airport site hasn’t officially been selected for the complex, though it did score highest among sites the city evaluated.
Lotter said what’s clear, though, is that the complex won’t be downtown.
“It’s too costly to build a new facility downtown and also wouldn’t be the best use of real estate downtown,” he said.
“The airport site has a lot of attractive features. It’s off the tax roll and it’s already municipally owned,” Lotter said. The airport also has room for expansion with ample room for construction of private businesses that would be needed to support the complex, and could be connected to downtown with enhanced mass transit.
Lotter said potential developers aren’t drafting proposals with a particular site as a guide.
Edgar said IndyBar long has advocated for a Criminal Justice Complex that would combine jail and court facilities along with prosecutor, public defender, probation and other criminal-court-related offices.
“Everyone I’ve talked to wants to be part of the process of building something great, and no one’s talking about shutting down a good idea,” he said. “Everyone is alarmed at the prospect of being that far away.”
Initial formal responses to the city from potential development teams were due Feb. 11, beginning a period of review culminating with selection of a developer in September, according to a project timeline released last year.
David Rosenberg, director of enterprise development for the city, told a meeting of the general term of Marion Superior judges Feb. 3 that, “as far as location, no decision has been made” with regard to the complex. He told judges the city expected “solid teams from all over the world” to answer the city’s request for qualifications.
The airport ranks as the preferred site in a market survey of 14 potential sites conducted for the city by the real-estate services firm CBRE.
“Given criteria outlined previously and the site specific pros and cons, and pursuant to a scoring matrix – it is CBRE’s recommendation that the Indianapolis International Airport be identified as the preferred site for the Criminal Justice Complex.”
The site identified is 35 acres on the airport fringe near West Washington Street, east of Raceway Road. CBRE said the site’s strengths include current control by a municipal corporation, immediate availability and room for future expansion. Its location far from the city center is the chief weakness listed, and the survey notes the development could require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The CBRE study said it would provide a “backup” preferred site if the city requested. CBRE noted the survey was preliminary, and no property owners had been contacted as part of its analysis.
The former GM stamping plant site is the second-highest scoring of the 14 that CBRE rated on a scoring matrix. An attorney who attended a recent presentation about the proposed complex to the IndyBar said most attorneys favored the stamping plant site.
CBRE graded each site on a scale of 1 to 10 for size, location, use, access, speed to development, limitations and impact. A site near the Marion County Fairgrounds ranked third, closely followed by the South Grove Golf Course site and another site near the fairgrounds along Southeastern Avenue. The former Indiana Women’s Prison site rated lowest.
Ballard, Marion County Sheriff John Layton and other city and county officials announced plans for a Criminal Justice Complex in December.
Marion Superior Executive Committee Chairman Judge David Certo said at the Feb. 3 general term meeting that judges want to understand the needs of the practicing bar and also noted that the IndyBar for years has been calling for development of a criminal justice complex.
It’s unclear how much a proposed complex could cost, but officials have said the reduction in duplication of services and efficiencies that would be gained would allow for construction of the site without a tax increase.
The request for qualifications sets out parameters for the complex, calling for total construction of facilities covering 1.4 million square feet, or roughly the size of seven to eight typical Wal-Mart Supercenters.
A timeline for the project calls for the City-County Council to receive a proposal from the selected developer in September with groundbreaking early next year and opening in late 2018.
“The process appears to be moving quickly,” Certo said.
Edgar said the speed of the process was concerning to bar members, some of whom feel their voices aren’t being heard.
“Part of the perception is … if (the jail, courts and related offices) could just be removed, it would open up downtown for development,” Edgar said. But, he added, that ignores the value those services provide, their current impact on the economy, and the impact it would have wherever those service are located.
Downtown businesses, Edgar said, also would be “impacted by the loss of hundreds of jurors and defendants who eat and shop around the City-County Building. From my dialogue with several businesses, they do not feel they can survive without us.”
Lotter, though, said the city isn’t concerned about filling the void created with the departure of the jail, criminal courts in the City-County Building and affiliated offices and businesses.
“Indianapolis is growing exponentially. It’s anticipated by Indianapolis Downtown Inc. that 3,500 new residential units are online to come into downtown in the next three to four years,” he said. “We believe because of the influx of residential and continuing growth of the business sector that transition will be quickly absorbed.”
Edgar, though, said the city may not have calculated fully what it may lose.
“My hope is that we can start using the phrase ‘criminal justice industry’ and view ourselves as a valuable economic asset,” he said. “We should receive the same level of consideration given to any other major employer in our city.”