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EDITORIAL: Mass Ave project needs city in charge

April 30, 2016

The latest delay in the redevelopment of Indianapolis Public Schools’ 11-acre property at Massachusetts and College avenues is a welcome one and could provide a high-profile test for Mayor Joe Hogsett’s economic development team.

As IBJ reported April 27, the IPS board declined for a second time to select a developer from among the four vying to buy and redevelop the site. The reason: the board’s desire to give the city a bigger role in determining what will go there.

This is common sense. Though the site is the school district’s to sell to whomever it pleases, it seemed odd from the beginning that the city had no formal role in vetting the development proposals.

The property, which houses the district’s school bus fleet and an architecturally significant former Coca-Cola bottling plant, is considered by many the most significant development site downtown. And all five of the redevelopment proposals ask for at least some public subsidy. City boards and commissions will ultimately authorize the subsidies and approve whatever designs are put forth, so it only makes sense in this case for the city to manage the process of picking a developer.

The IPS board, which by its own admission has little experience vetting commercial development deals, could have selected a buyer whose plan encountered significant roadblocks to city approval. Those obstacles could still crop up with the city in charge, but they seem less likely.

How smoothly things go now will depend upon what form the city’s involvement takes and how it executes its new role.

IPS and the city acknowledged the city is considering buying the property and assuming full control over its redevelopment. That would seem the proper course, allowing IPS to get its money out of the property sooner and putting the city squarely in charge. Up to now, it’s been unclear exactly what role the city would play in selecting a developer. If the city stops short of buying the property, those process questions will remain.

Regardless, watching what happens next should prove instructive for taxpayers and developers.

Just four months into Hogsett’s term, little is known about how his administration will manage the significant task of steering downtown development, which has been a priority for Indianapolis mayors going back to the late 1960s. Politicians who run for mayor typically prioritize neighborhood development and question subsidies for private development projects downtown. Post-election, the necessity of guiding and spurring downtown projects becomes clearer.

Upon taking office in 2000, Bart Peterson quickly showed some vision for development by putting the brakes on plans encouraged by his predecessor, Steve Goldsmith, to build a small commercial building at the bustling corner of Washington and Illinois streets, where The Conrad Indianapolis now stands.

If Hogsett’s team takes control of the IPS site, as it should, we’ll soon learn a thing or two about the new mayor’s vision for development.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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