Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Double Trouble

Property Lines reports that the Metropolitan Development Commission tabled a proposed apartment development [dead link] by Buckingham Cos. along the Monon Trail in Broad Ripple. Some local residents were complaining about the proposal, just as most non-single family home developments are frequently opposed, even in the central city.

This is an important test case for the new Ballard administration. As recently noted, the city’s financial condition is dire. The need for increased assessed valuation, especially inside the IPS district, is critical. The question is whether or not the city has the will to do the right thing, or whether it will continue giving free reign to a minority of NIMBY’s who continue to hold back development in the city.

I am not per se running a development blog, but I do comment on projects of interest, particularly those that illuminate strategic choices the city has to make, and those which have a major impact on the city. This clearly falls into the former camp as I believe it offers a microcosm of the type of choices the city is going to continually be called on to make, ones that will shape the future competitiveness of both the central city and the region as a whole.

I’m not going to outright support the proposal since I haven’t seen enough detail. The rendering posted didn’t blow me away. It looks a bit too suburban apartment complex for my take. But as a concept – and believe me, it is as a concept that these NIMBY’s oppose it – it has so much going for it as to be a veritable slam dunk.

  • It is badly needed taxable investment inside the old city limits, that is, the IPS district. As an apartment complex, it is doubly beneficial since that is subject to a 2% property tax cap instead of 1% for other residential. Growth is good.
  • It is a market driven development with no subsidies or abatements requested. Even better.
  • Unlike what opponents seem to suggest, building developments that cater principally to people without children is actually a good thing. There’s a double benefit for the city. First it reaps the taxes. Then it doesn’t have to shell out to pay for school for more kids. When I lived in Evanston, Illinois, I attended a public hearing very much like that one to argue in favor of a condo midrise. The leader of the opposition group was a single family home owner with three kids. The property taxes coming from her house didn’t even cover the cost of educating one of those kids. That’s not to say children are bad. But to pay for the educational costs, it takes a mixture of single family homes, apartments, condos, and businesses. The city and schools can’t be funded solely on the backs of single family homes.
  • It is a great example of market-driven densification in the old city. This isn’t planner driven, top down change. Rather, this is bottoms up free market forces driving higher densities in line with modern trends towards more people wanting urban living. This is better for the environment, doesn’t require expensive sewer lines and the like to be installed like greenfield development would, and adds to the critical mass in Broad Ripple. This is exactly the sort of thing the city needs to be allowing to happen.
  • This allows the city to reap the harvest from the Monon Trail investment and maximize the use of that amenity. This is the R on the I the city made in building the Monon. This is beachfront property, and it is time to take advantage of that.
  • Strategically, it adds to the attractiveness of Broad Ripple as a place for the 21st century labor force. Let’s face it, Indy isn’t exactly overrun with neighborhoods that are havens for recent college grads, who are the subject of fierce competition between cities and regions. If Indianapolis isn’t able to attract that labor force of the future, it will fall behind in the long term. The opponents claim they are for the children. Caring about their kids also means caring about whether there will be a place for them in Indiana when they grow up. Indianapolis needs to be working hard to build up its attractiveness as a place for younger singles and couples. This is a great way to do that.

This gets again to the heart of the strategic choices cities have to make. As I noted in my “What Business Are You In?” post, traditionally Midwest cities have all been selling more or less the same value proposition: a good place to raise a family with many urban amenities without the big city price tag. But trying to be attractive to families with children means you are implicitly (or in the case of the opponents here, explicitly) hostile to anyone else. The 21st century economy, the knowledge economy, increasingly relies on people who don’t fit that profile such as younger college grads who have not yet married, those who have put off having kids, gays, etc. If you want to change the value proposition to more closely target those people, you end up angering your current customer base. This is a bit of a dilemma.

Fundamentally, I do not believe that the central city of Indianapolis has much of a future trying to be a family friendly commodity player. It is simply at too much of a competitive disadvantage (higher taxes, worse schools, more crime) versus the collar counties and its own suburban reaches. That’s a loser’s game. Trying to play it is a recipe for stagnation and slow decline as those with roots in a neighborhood die off or move out, and few newcomers are attracted in.

Instead, the city needs to follow the economic law of comparative advantage and try to specialize in the areas where it is best positioned to compete. This is in the type of development that the market is trying to bring to Broad Ripple and downtown, but which is all too often stymied or watered down by NIMBY’s. That’s why I say a great city needs a diversity of neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and towns, each with its own target market. Across regions of course, Broad Ripple is nothing special, so the challenge is still out there to figure out a differentiator versus other competitor cities.

I was just in Nashville, Tennessee, where you see significant densification taking place throughout the city. Nashville has some of the feel of an incipient boomtown. The amount of in city development outstrips Indy significantly based on my own cursory survey. Why is that, given that Nashville doesn’t appear to have anything on Indy and in many ways is inferior? Why did a lot of these Sunbelt towns take off while the Midwest stagnated? One reason is simply that they want it more. Places like Nashville are unabashedly pro-growth. They’ve got their complainers to be sure. But public policy clearly favors letting developers put in developments like this. (Heck, Atlanta, a city whose central core was built out on much the same scale and model as Indianapolis, even has skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in town). The Midwest has always been much more oppositional to change and progress, a hallmark of its famous conservatism. This is a huge deadweight drag on the city’s development and future economic growth. Eventually businesses like Buckingham tire of it and move on to greener pa$ture$ where they are actually wanted.

Changing that will take leaders with courage. People who aren’t thinking about appeasing a few noisy critics in the short term, but about building a long term future for the city. I’ve frequently cited Mayor Jim Brainard in Carmel as just this sort of person. His vision for that city may yet be proven wrong by events. But one thing he hasn’t lacked is the stomach to take on exceptionally vicious and vocal critics who have savaged his every proposal in his quest to densify central Carmel. Mayor Brainard was willing to lay it on the line at the ballot box, where his critics were roundly exposed as a disaffected minority who didn’t speak for most folks in Carmel.

I’m sure Mayor Ballard isn’t spending his days worrying about whether individual developments get approved through the zoning process. But how these choices play out will be a major part of the legacy of his administration. Will he set a policy where avoiding noise and opposition leads to a lack of development in the central city? Or will he embrace a policy of championing the future and the changes that are needed to be ready for a 21st century that’s very different from the 20th? I think it is important to set the tone from the top, and to articulate a strong public policy presumption in favor of market driven modest densification of the central city, especially downtown in and in already urbanized districts like Broad Ripple. I believe that, as with Carmel, the opposition has far less popular support than its leaders would credit. The 150 or so people who will live in these apartments likely outnumber the opponents.

That’s not to say that quality should be ignored or that clearly out of character developments such as downtown strip malls should be approved. I’d argue the bar needs to be set much higher on the quality front. Again, as I said, the specific proposal that was brought forward looks like it could use improvement. But the city should set down a marker for what it expects developers to bring to the table, then be aggressive in supporting projects that are basically in line. Key to this is updating the comprehensive plans and creating a urban zoning ordinance for the old city area.

We’ll just have to see how it plays out.

The other story in my mind is a proposal to install a digital billboard at 82nd and Allisonville Rd. My preferred public policy for any city anywhere couldn’t be clearer: no more expansion of billboard advertising, period. This would include allowing people to convert traditional billboards to digital. Those digital billboards pump out more light than the Second Coming. They are literally visible for miles if you have line of sight to them. No other development, not even a baseball stadium, would be allowed to pump that much light onto adjoining properties. Plus, digital billboards are brighter, allow frequent ad changes that attract attention, and require no effort to change. This means putting them in simply allows huge windfall profits for the billboard company with no corresponding public benefit. Digital billboards are currently not allowed in Marion County, and the shouldn’t be. Think again about the competitiveness of northern Marion County versus Hamilton County. How many billboards are there in Hamilton County? Not many, and there won’t ever be any new ones. Think about that.

That’s not that I think all signage and advertising is bad. I’m on record as saying that the sign ordinance in Indy is in many respects too restrictive. An even illuminated advertising can be good. I think about all those big commercial arteries in Asia lit up in crazy neon. Or Times Square. At some point in the future I’ll write up my thoughts on this. But generic billboards aren’t the answer. These are pure urban blight.

Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Indianapolis

8 Responses to “Double Trouble”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree completely with your thoughts in regards to the BR development. Hopefully the mayor and planners read your blog.

  2. Kevin says:

    Good post U-phile. I wish I could write like you do.

  3. Lord Peter says:

    Cory’s blog said the proposal was “tabled,” but it seemed like it was really just postponed until (IIRC) June 24. Also, while I wasn’t at the meeting, I got the impression the meeting was postponed so that the developer could address problems raised by the city, most notably: (1) as designed, the entire project would be vinyl; the city wants brick on most of the apartments; and (2) to address certain parking issues.

    There were several other issues raised by the city wrt the development as well.

    The comments in Cory’s blog were mostly anti-NIMBY/ BR will shrivel up and DIE!!! – but, again, it didn’t look like the postponement had anything to do with the people from the community.

  4. Donna says:

    Great post, Urbanophile, and I also appreciate your info, lord peter. I agree that the rendering as shown at Property Lines looks pretty boringly suburban. One would hope that higher quality building material – vinyl siding really should become extinct as a building material – would bring in a bit more rent; brick would definitely make the project look more appealing.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Nice post esp about the digital billboards. The boards that have digital boards that have gone up in north Johnson Co. (Greenwood) along I-65….can be seen for miles…the are blight of the worse kind. Cool technology gone terribably bad.

  6. SpeedBlue47 says:

    I am with you on 95% of this post, but I think that you dropped the ball when it comes to digital billboards. Particularly this statement: “This means putting them in simply allows huge windfall profits for the billboard company with no corresponding public benefit.”

    I’m sorry, but it is that sort of sentiment that is used to justify every government intrusion of people’s voluntary affairs. If you want to base your argument against these billboards on the “coming of the nuisance” principle, then fine, but using “social calculus” to decide how public benefit a project brings and how it corresponds to the project owner’s bottom line is simply nonsense. You seem to favor market solutions and smaller/more efficient government, but then fall back on the sort of talk that politicians love to spout to bloat their respective body of government.

    When local government is spending roughly 9% of median household income, the state adding a similar amount, and the federal government adding on quite a bit more, I think we need to look at ways to step away from such calculations and let the individuals in society vote with something they hold more dear than their bi- or quadri-annual votes: their hard-earned money. Let’s enable projects to get built that can support themselves economically and let the buying public say yes or no with their dollars.

    I’ll talk about the part that government can play for my post. Keep up the good writing!

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    anon 10:12, Alas, I don’t believe the mayor reads my blog. If he did, I’m sure I would have been offered the position of Design Czar by now! :)

  8. Anonymous says:

    U-phile, I’ll have to strongly disagree with your post on the BR development. You believe that the the IPS district cannot compete as a family friendly environment. I sure hope you are wrong for the schools, churches, business, and the families which reside and support them.

    You also state that this type of incredibly dense development is good for the Monon trail. How about the safety of the people entering and exiting the trail? What about people who use the trail to enjoy the natural setting?

    Lastly, I’m curious. Do you have children and if so, you would feel and act differenty when it comes to looking our for their safety and your family’s quality of life.

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