RACE: Justice Center facility is a lost opportunity

urban-design-race-bruce.jpgThe architecture isn’t the biggest problem with the WMB Heartland Justice Partners’ proposal for the consolidated justice facilities on the former GM stamping plant site. What’s worse are its higher-level urban-design policy failures.

How can we move a traditional landmark facility from our downtown to a poorly planned site without evaluating the economic impact?

Indiana has a tradition of locating courthouses as landmarks in courthouse squares. Hoosiers celebrate courthouses as a symbol of democracy and city status as an administrative center.

In my April 2014 column, I identified national peer communities that have developed high-profile justice centers as part of their central district revitalization strategies to shore up Class A office markets and support downtown restaurants and businesses.

Counter to our history and actions by our peer communities, we are proposing to move thousands of jobs, court patrons, jurists and attorneys outside of downtown, away from our new transit center. That seems to have been the objective all along. No downtown sites were studied. None.

Economic impact

The city-county public safety budget is a real concern for Indianapolis. The fiscal projections are not pretty and are largely fueled by the state’s relentless pursuit of “fiscal prudence.” It is nearly impossible to pay for our most basic public services, providing a clear motivation for pursuing a public-private partnership, known as P3, for our justice and jails facilities.

Lowering the facility and operational costs of courts and incarceration is a laudable goal. However, the negatives associated with moving such a large operation out of downtown can easily eclipse those savings. In fact, I cannot understand why Downtown Indy is not flipping out about moving the courts out of downtown.

In lieu of a study that should be done for this type of project, I have used rule-of-thumb multipliers to estimate some of the economic impact of removing the justice facilities from downtown. Imagine an annual loss to restaurants of $3.75 million in owner revenue and worker wages, continued sagging rents and vacancies in Class A office space, and more than $12 million in reduced retail sales and services. And there will be lost parking revenue from all those people who once drove downtown but will now drive to the new facility.

Today’s courts patrons are parking on future development sites of the proposed Cummins office building and future mixed-use housing projects. The private projects that fill those sites will add to the capacity of the downtown TIF district to underwrite other private development projects. This raises delicate questions regarding the socioeconomic class of courts patrons and the marketing of downtown exclusively to upscale businesses and residents.

Poor site planning

The complex of courts, jails and ancillary uses is to be developed on about 40 acres of the 105-acre GM site. The justice center is toward the west side of the site, leaving room for a potential outdoor entertainment center and other development on the river. However, the proposal itself is suburban and resembles the dog’s breakfast. There is no apparent master plan for the larger, 105-acre site to connect the $500M of investment to the surrounding community.

As drawn, the half-billion-dollar project is just a facility plan. It is a cluster of buildings in a parking lot. This project could have gone anywhere.

Missing are five of the most basic urban design elements: a long-term street and open-space framework that the justice facility fits into; a land-use plan; a transportation plan; an infrastructure plan and related financing action plan; and community participation in creating the plan.

These omissions are at such an elementary level that it is difficult to critique the winning proposal as a design. I am sure it is the cheapest—and most expedient. It has to be.

P3 downtown

If done properly, the city could have benefited from a P3 process that delivered a more affordable consolidated justice facility that also optimized the project’s economic benefits. It could have been located downtown, perhaps south of Washington Street.

Working around the heliport approach zones from the southeast, the courts could have been aligned with the City-County Building, East Street or New Jersey Street and become a visual terminus and landmark. The jails could have been developed along the railroad tracks. The site is adjacent to the new transit center and has access to existing downtown parking, so we would not have had to purchase 25 acres for parking lots on the GM site.

Locating a new courthouse development is not just a market decision to be punted to the private sector. It is a critical economic development policy. Our peer communities have created compact, visible and efficient justice facilities as integral ingredients of a contemporary city.

Investing in a beautiful downtown courthouse can signal that a city has high expectations. In Indianapolis, that is an opportunity lost.•

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Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, PhD, is an award-winning architect and urban planner, owner of RaceStudio and recipient of the Indiana Sagamore Planning Award. He lives in a historic Indianapolis neighborhood and teaches urban design at Ball State University’s Downtown Indianapolis Center. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at br@racestudio.com.

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