When does an asset become a liability?
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is one of our city’s shining jewels. The largest children’s museum in the country, it has been a lure for tourists and a favorite gathering place for natives. But over a period of years, what we might call “organizational megalomania” has developed. As my grandmother might have put it, in many ways it’s gotten “too big for its britches.”
Admission now ranges from $12 to $35—far more than most low-income families and children in its neighborhood can manage, and there are few free days.
A drive past the museum on Illinois Street takes you past its parking garage and a seemingly endless string of parking lots on real estate purchased and cleared by the museum. (Among the structures demolished in the neighborhood was the Whitestone, an architecturally notable—and affordable—apartment building.)
The bleak transformation of the neighborhood surrounding the ever-expanding museum is one thing; the museum’s total indifference to the significance of Meridian Street and the transit goals of the city is another.
The museum built a “Sports Legends Experience” (a children’s playground) fronting Meridian Street. What the somewhat garish “Experience” has to do with the mission of a museum is a legitimate question (and a number of people have asked it), but a far more pertinent one is why the museum thought this was an appropriate use of this particular real estate.
Meridian isn’t just the primary north-south street in Indianapolis; it has long been considered one of the most prestigious residential streets in the state. Even the decades of suburbanization didn’t dim its importance. As this is written, significant sums are being spent to upgrade the stately Buckingham and Balmoral apartments directly across the street from the unfortunate playground; just a few doors down is another architectural gem, the Drake, which the museum has purchased and intends to demolish for yet another parking lot.
On Meridian Street.
Where the Red Line just began service, and the city is prioritizing residential density.
Why the museum acquired the Drake and an adjacent structure is unknown. It certainly doesn’t need more parking (and if it did, it could build another garage on one of the multiple lots it owns). Museum officials say they issued an RFP, but no developers responded; however, the last time I checked, the museum was still ignoring efforts by the city and Indiana Landmarks to see that RFP.
The city and local community development corporations have offered to participate in rehabilitation of the Drake. Historic Landmarks has identified potential bidders who might buy and restore the building. A developer with capacity and a track record wants to convert the Drake into a boutique hotel. They have all been rebuffed.
Why the museum is so determined to demolish the Drake—especially in the admitted absence of plans for the long-range use of the real estate, and despite contrary needs and priorities of the city—is mystifying.
For many years, the Children’s Museum has been an important asset to Indianapolis. But its status as a local treasure has allowed it to act with impunity—to dominate its neighborhood, demolish built environment, engage in competitions with for-profit venues, and generally go about its business with little or no regard for the priorities and interests of the city and its residents.
Demolishing the Drake and further mutilating the Meridian streetscape should be a step too far. Indianapolis is entitled to transparency and good citizenship even from its assets.•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.