Far be it from me to quibble when the Indianapolis Star actually engages in journalism. And it did so last Sunday, twice on the front page (!)–with a report on charter schools (they get more money per pupil than public schools, and on average perform more poorly. I know, it’s a shock…) and a lengthy and informative piece on the pros and cons of the Justice Center proposal.
Kudos on actually digging in and reporting on matters that should concern taxpayers.
That said, the report on the Justice Center missed a pretty critical issue: its design. IBJ columnist Bruce Race has been all over this, as has IndyCan, a local civic group concerned about the impact of the proposed design on criminal justice issues.
Design isn’t just about the way buildings look–although that’s important, too. It’s about the way they function, about what architects call “the program.” In your house, the program addresses things like storage, “flow,” and convenience based upon the way you live. In public buildings, the program needs to take all these things into account, plus the specific ways in which the public entity operates; it also needs to consider the impact of the building or buildings on the city and surrounding neighborhood(s). One reason an earlier proposal to locate the Justice Center at the old airport was so roundly criticized wasn’t just that it would have been incredibly inconvenient for the people most likely to use it, but that the location would have had a substantial, negative effect on occupancy of office buildings in the downtown core, and on the vitality of a downtown we’ve spent years and billions of dollars reinvigorating.
We need a Justice Center. But it needs to be thoughtfully designed to complement our long-term strategy for downtown, to integrate court and jail functions in the most seamless possible fashion, and to enhance the aesthetics of the surrounding area.
I’ve previously raised concerns about the financing mechanism, the secrecy of the process, and the nature of the incentives involved (the Administration says that placing responsibility for long-term maintenance on the developer will encourage the use of better materials, but it’s just as likely to encourage corner-cutting decisions made for the convenience of the developer rather than the public tenants). And what happens if–after obtaining payment for the construction phase– the developer defaults? (Toll Road, anyone?) What are our options?
My point is not that the deal is a bad one. My point is: we don’t know.
A deal this complex and expensive, intended to span this long a time-frame, needs to be done right. That means it needs to be thoroughly vetted by all stakeholders. I get suspicious when we’re given a short window within which to commit vast amounts of public money, and when the purported need for speed is based upon dark warnings that we need to move quickly in order to “lock in” benefits we aren’t even sure are there.
We can’t afford another parking meter giveaway.