Thursday, December 12th, 2013

My Master Plan to Win the War For Indianapolis Government Buildings

The Marion County Jail in Downtown Indianapolis. Source:

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that Mayor Greg Ballard is championing a plan to relocate the jail out of downtown. This is an idea I’ve been touting to anyone who’ll listen since at least 2009, so obviously I’m a big fan of the concept. Though let me hasten to add I’m not endorsing any particular plan as I haven’t seen one.

I’ve always encouraged people to think about public transit investments first as about transportation. But also to ask what it is that implementing an expanded transit system like IndyConnect would let you do that you couldn’t do before. This is one of those things.

More about that in a moment. But first, this is only one part of what I see as a long term reconfiguration of city government space in downtown Indianapolis. I call it my “master plan to win the war” because I see it as game changing for the east and southeast parts of downtown. The components are:

  1. Relocate the jail and criminal courts to a new complex on an old industrial site on the near West Side in proximity to the proposed Washington St. transit corridor. (I was thinking the former GM site originally).
  1. Relocate the civil courts into a new downtown state judicial complex. (The state supreme court already wants one of these, so include the appeals court and local courts as well).
  1. Renovate the old City Hall as, well, the new City Hall housing the Mayor, Council, and executive functions.
  1. Move the rest of the office users into leased space. (I was thinking originally about using this to anchor the MSA site redevelopment and add an office component to the mix of use because the site was so close to the old City Hall).
  1. Implode the City-County Building, demolish the jail, and redevelop Marion County Jail II and Liberty Hall. (I kid you not, one of the jail locations is called Liberty Hall. I think it is used for work-release today, so may be viable as that if managed properly and there’s a particular benefit to locating it downtown for access to employment).
  1. Put all the land used by these facilities back onto the tax rolls by selling for development.

The benefit of this is eliminating multiple significant barriers to development, ones that keep the various districts undergoing redevelopment from feeding off each other. And while it wouldn’t fully pay for the projects, it would put large amounts of prime downtown land back to taxable use.

I’m not suggesting that the city should go do all this right away. Nobody has this kind of money laying around. Rather it’s vision to be implemented as the components reach end of lifecycle and need replacement or hugely expensive upgrades. Though to some extent they are all already there.

First the jail. The sheriff claims a new modern jail could be run with his existing staff. This would save money by allowing the city to dump the private contractor that runs Marion County Jail II. (News reports have criticized the sheriff’s spending. So if even the guy who is accused of spending too much money says it can be done for less, take him up on the offer).

And why put a jail on your city’s most valuable real estate? That doesn’t seem to make much sense today. New York and Chicago don’t have their jails downtown. (In fairness I should note the federal government has remand facilities in both CBDs however). A message board commenter noted that even in Indiana, Evansville’s Vanderburgh County Jail is away from downtown.

I actually got this idea when I was living in Chicago and was summoned to jury duty. The Cook County Jail and a criminal court building are located at 26th and California near Little Village. I had some time to kill while waiting around during a recess so I found myself walking down 26th St. spending money. I’m like, if I’m spending money, maybe other people are spending money too.

Downtown, jails inhibit development. But at an old industrial site near a transit served commercial street, a jail could actually inject life into a struggling neighborhood while still being reasonably centrally located. That’s a win-win.

It’s understandable why the jail would be downtown now for historical reasons. And downtown is the one area that’s reasonable to get to with transit today. That’s important when 10% of households don’t own a car. Those families should not be burdened with an inaccessible jail and courts, particularly when the poor are alas too often involved with the justice system. That’s why enhanced transit service on Washington is so important. It’s the link that enables people to get to the new jail. In this case, transit actually facilitates de-centralization, not centralization.

Some will no doubt say this is a waste of money and the jail doesn’t need to be replaced yet. It would not appear that there’s a burning platform to do this immediately. And it’s easy to point at Wayne County, Michigan as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong. But let’s be realistic. Anybody who’s been around Indy a while knows that there’s always at least one nine figure public construction project going at all times. With the new Eskenazi Hospital just wrapping up, it’s time for the next installment, and this looks like it’s the one. If a nine figure project is going to happen regardless, it might as well be something that’s actually great.

The merits of spending can of course be debated. But I’d like to suggest one benefit of these projects that’s often overlooked. I’m totally speculating with this, I’ll admit. But I see the implicit commitment to keep these construction projects going as a way to bind organized labor into the governing consensus. Indy has had remarkably few organized labor problems and I suspect this is one reason why. Labor is being taken care of. It also means labor is invested in keeping the city healthy, because a broke city means no more projects which means no more jobs for union construction workers.

Apart from purely debates about dollars, I suspect the most controversial part of my master plan is imploding the City-County Building. It’s a classic modernist era structure on an entire city block much of which is devoted to a plaza (with I think underground parking). Notably, the gorgeous historic Marion County Court House was demolished when the CCB was built. Here’s a picture:


There’s not exactly a plethora of this type of modernism in Indy and demolishing it would be a loss. However, in my view it’s not a great building. It’s a massive development barrier/dead zone where it stands. And it needs huge money spent in renovations and is probably costly to operate. In the summer, even the 25th floor (where the mayor’s office is located), has insufficient air conditioning, for example. I say implode it and redevelop the block in the private sector.

Here are pictures of some other buildings I mentioned:

Old City Hall, empty and with the windows closed up. Source:

Marion County Jail II (Source:

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Safety
Cities: Indianapolis

26 Responses to “My Master Plan to Win the War For Indianapolis Government Buildings”

  1. Anonymous says:

    My question on the private-public “partnership” though is how it’s cheaper for the city to do a 30-year lease-purchase from a private developer (who has higher borrowing rates, tax considerations and profit requirements) than it is to build it with 30-year bond issues.

    The Regional Operations Center (a 25-year lease without ownership) has been a boondoggle, perhaps government should get back to owning government assets.

    I agree that a criminal justice center is needed, but the funding model seems (at least as first glance) bizarre.

  2. Chris Barnett says:

    I’ve been agreeing with you on this topic for at least four years. I wrote an opinion piece for the Indianapolis Business Journal in 2011 specifically advancing the GM site as a location for the Justice Center if it didn’t attract manufacturing operations…which it hasn’t.

    The GM site has the advantage of actually being the next logical extension of the downtown core; putting a core government function there would be a good thing.

    We disagree regarding the CCB, not least because no one would build anything modern with that level of finish in the public spaces for a government building today. There is something stately about the stainless steel, terrazzo, and marble, compared to anodized-aluminum storefronts with drywall corridors. Imploding the CCB would be as big an historic-preservation mistake as demolishing the old Courthouse, IMHO.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    Also, don’t forget the “APC” (Arrestee Processing Center, or central booking/holding facility) just north of Jail II in a matching old warehouse. Both of the old warehouses should feature downtown loft living, not three-hots-and-a-cot accommodations.

  4. Anonymous, I am writing only about the locations of facilities here, not financing. However, you raise a very good point about the Regional Operations Center. That hardly inspires confidence that the city will get this one right.

    I agree that there’s isn’t an intuitive benefit to a 3P construct. I discussed this a bit with regards to Chicago’s infrastructure bank:

    I do see here one solid, real benefit from 3P. The contract could require the private partner to maintain the structure at high quality levels over the lifetime of the deal. This is what the public sector has done a terrible job of: maintaining assets. The state of infrastructure in Indy tells you that. (It’s the same across the country). The fact that the Cultural Trail folks raised a maintenance endowment I think is a testament to their lack of confidence that the city would be able to maintain the trail.

    If high quality maintenance and upgrades are built into the deal up front, that would be a big win. There might also be some federal tax gimmicks involved.

  5. Chris, I agree it’s not a slam dunk. But the CCB is in a strategic location and is currently a black hole on an entire city block.

    The CCB offices themselves are nothing to write home about. The old City Hall would provide a suitably grand public space to serve as the people’s home. I do like the CCB lobby and some of the lanscaping, but there’s not much that’s outstanding about it.

  6. Brent says:

    You mean implode it all and redevelop it like the Market Square Arena site? Obviously, the only demand there is for more parking.

  7. Brent, keep in mind this is a longer term vision. I’m not saying do it today. And I think one of the problems with the MSA site is the way that the CCB puts a barrier between the Wholesale District and the northeast part of downtown that has actually made the MSA site less viable.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, I must disagree with the “black hole” characterization of the CCB. It is one of the busiest buildings in downtown for pedestrian traffic. I agree that the Washington Street side (a windswept plaza) is not inviting. But the Market Street side is the one most people use, and it presents a proper urban street face that is active beyond the business day (many public meetings are held after normal business hours).

    I will agree about the offices inside the CCB. Aside from the views, they are indeed nothing to write home about. But the first and second floor lobbies and small public-meeting rooms, as well as the elevator lobbies, are very cool MCM spaces. The Public Assembly room is something unique both inside and outside.

    I think the CCB is far less of a drag on the east side of downtown than the three jail facilities and the crazy traffic configuration of the Washington/Maryland east split (see

  9. When a new jail was discussed in Cincinnati several years ago some of the opponents suggested that a jail located away from the courthouse would add new costs to the various public safety departments throughout the county using the facilities. Mainly through the transportation of people from one facility to the other. I’m not sure how much weight that holds, but it was something that came up. Generally speaking though, I would agree with what you’re saying about downtown jails.

    Also, it’s a shame the old city hall building in Indy isn’t used. You’re absolutely right that political functions should return there. Not sure I know enough about the City-County Building, so I’ll pass on that one.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Randy, the concept in Indy is of a “justice center”, combining courts, jails, sheriff, police, prosecutor, court clerks & records, public defender, and even youth corrections in a single site. No transferring among facilities (other than walking).

  11. flavius says:

    Given the proposed Market Square site development to the east, City Market could become a focus of activity day-and-night. Much of the daytime traffic would by contributed by the many pedestrians that, as Chris points out, enter and leave the north side of the CCB every day.

    Regarding the other side of the building, the south side of the CCB block is to be incorporated into the proposed transit center. This could potentially bring a lot of energy to this side of the block, if the designers of the transit center make a goal of doing so.

  12. Yes, the City Market’s struggles for years and years is living proof that the CCB’s Market St. frontage isn’t generating vitality.

  13. flavius says:

    I meant to make the opposite point: the CCB helped keep City Market on life support on-and-off for decades, and will contribute to its comeback once the Market is the center of a mixed-use, 24/7 neighborhood.

  14. John M (Indy) says:

    I’ll stick up for the CCB as well. First, it’s not a bad looking building. I’m not a huge fan of MCM architecture but it’s way better than brutalism in my book. Working out at the Bike Hub YMCA and staring out those big windows while I’m on the dreadmill has increased my appreciation for the building at street level. I think it works better from up close and at ground level than from a distance or up high. Certainly, it is in need of renovation, but the biggest problem, overcrowding, would be resolved for the foreseeable future by the removal of the criminal courts and most of the MCSD. I would hope that with security concerns eased, something could be done with the circle drive dropoff area that is the worst feature of the Market Street frontage today. As others have noted, the plaza south of the building is a bit of a wasteland right now, but there is no reason it can’t be improved.

    As Flavius notes, were it not for lunch crowds during the Market’s “glorified food court” days (we can debate whether those days are over) it may well have met the wrecking ball by now. The notion that the CCB has harmed the City Market seems to be a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    The notion of a combined Marion County/Supreme Court/Court of Appeals courthouse is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Any state appellate courts building is likely to be immediately north of the Statehouse because the Supreme Court does not intend to vacate its historic courtroom. I can’t think of any efficiencies that would be gained by having the two in the same building, particularly when the equation involves imploding the CCB.

    Finally, perhaps this is a hidebound rationale, but the block where the CCB is located has been the courthouse square since Indianapolis was platted nearly 200 years ago. I’m not sure I can really line up behind a “blow it up and build a Trader Joe’s!” mentality.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    If the point of jail is to allow rehabilitation, rather than acting as a rape center for people the middle class prefers wouldn’t exist, then it should be conveniently located for family and friends to visit. Not knowing Indianapolis well enough, I don’t know whether the proposed location allows relatives of prisoners to visit easily without owning a car. Rikers, for example, is too inconvenient. How easy is the old West Side site to get to from the rest of the city?

  16. Alon, I think it’s worth noting that rehabilitation doesn’t even apply in most cases as many if not most people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime, they are merely being detailed awaiting trial because they can’t post bond.

    Today there’s no place that’s particularly convenient by transit. The GM plant location I mentioned would be about a five minute bus ride from downtown – if there were a bus. There is, I believe, but it only runs like once an hour. Hence my view that upgraded transit is required to make a relocation happen.

  17. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, on a somewhat ironic note, the proposed city transit center location is a parking lot adjacent to the current jail…one of the reasons movers and shakers want the jail moved.

  18. flavius says:

    If the courts are moved along with the jails, then they will need to be convenient to everyone. The city owes it to not only those accused of crimes and their families, but everyone who gets pulled for jury duty–which is probably over 100 people a day? Once the transit center is built, there will be one place that most of the growing 10% of carless Marion County adults* will be able to reach in less than 90 minutes’ travel: the courts’ current location.

    *Not to mention the likely much higher number of those whose family owns a car, but which car is not necessarily available on the day they have to go somewhere other than their usual routine.

    BTW, Aaron, thanks for all of the attention to Indianapolis lately.

  19. Paul K. Ogden says:

    There is nothing “stately” about the CCB. It is an example of the worst type of architecture. I’m all for imploding the thing.

    I know Indy though. The idea for a judicial center, which has long been needed, will be turned into a way to make a profit for a private vendor. There is no reason to bring in a private company to build and run the facility. (And it sure as heck shouldn’t be CCA which runs Jail II terribly.) It would have to raise the cost above what we’d pay bonding it out and paying back the loan. I totally agree with the first commentator.

  20. Chris Barnett says:

    I find myself agreeing somewhat with Paul. Indianapolis-Marion County already has a Building Authority, which owns and manages the CCB, and which has bonding power. Why not do a lease deal the same way as the last one?

    The Sheriff should operate the jail(s), which is among his/her duties under the State Constitution.

    I’m all for contracts with private developers to put additional commercial and office facilities around the site (assuming that the Justice Center requires only 35 acres of the 100-acre GM plant site).

  21. guy77money says:

    Wow these are all nice possibilities. The problem is the city of Indy just had their bond rating dropped from triple AAA to double AA. All these silly (Renn and I do mean silly) moves you propose will keep the city’s bond rating in the dumps. It used to be that city government could make the changes you talk about and keep it at a reasonable cost. The changes you talk about are coming at one incredible cost to the taxpayer. Open your eyes Chicago is in one heck of a financial mess and Indy is getting to be in the same boat. The graft, bad one sided contracts (see Cincy cable cars, Indy and Chicago Parking contracts)are killing city government. Throw in the badly managed tiff districts and things are going to hell in a hand bag.

    Open your eyes people city government is getting as bad as the Federal government. So do we keep raising taxes to bail us out?????????????????????????

  22. guy77money says:

    Raising taxes are the only way out! Except in Indy they keep expanding the tiff districts! What politician want to raise taxes? The only true way to do this correctly would be to

    1. Have an honest law firm draw up the contracts with the city’s best interests at hand.
    2. Have an honest ex FBI or law enforcement official police each project to eliminate graft and corruption.
    3. Have a honest construction representative oversee each project to eliminate cost overruns.

    This would work!!!! Oh ya Renn do you believe in SANTA!!!!!

    MEERY XMAS ALL AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. guy77money says:

    As I told my brother about global warming!

    You have been DEBUNKED!!!!!!!!!


  24. John R says:

    I like a lot of this. Some of it seems likely to even happen (specifically the centralized justice center outside of downtown*).

    *Paul’s concerns about privatization are well founded and almost certain to happen. Corrections Corporation of America has already been mentioned as a partner in the development, which should make anybody gag a little bit

    I can’t get behind demolishing the CCB. It does need a lot of work and it does pose a bit of an obstacle within downtown, but moreso than a dozen other city blocks that house office workers who commute in. The criminal justice center is already looking like a half a billion dollars. If you want to renovate and restore the old city hall, that’s another big check to write, at least the same size maybe bigger.

    Quick question: If they were to move the executive functions to old city hall and all of the courts and court-related offices to the justice center, how much more office space would that actually open up for relocation of other city and county workers who are in leased spaces in other parts of the city?

  25. guy77money says:

    Used to be (in god we trust) the FBI, Prosecutors office,the sheriff and city police used to police all of these bad projects to make sure the projects were on the up and up.

    I challenge all of these departments (and the people that work in them) to make 2014 the most up and up and honest and just year 2014 ever!!!!!

    Throw in the Honest lawyers and councilman that can make a difference in 2014!!!!

    Let make this our 2014 resolution!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  26. guy77money says:

    We can’t afford not to……

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