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The Biggert-Waters Act

Posted 2:54 PM by

I spent a couple of hours last night at Congresswoman Brook’s office in Carmel with a group of realtors and neighborhood leaders discussing the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act.  If you’ve never heard of it, you probably don’t live in an area designated as a flood plain.  Biggert-Waters was intended to stem the bleeding  (now around $650 billion) from disaster relief due to flooding by eliminating subsidies to older homes flood insurance premiums.


The effect of that Act, which is just starting to be felt locally, is to raise flood insurance premiums, sometimes, as was noted anecdotally last night, by as much as 500%.  Flood insurance is required by mortgage companies (in addition to regular insurance) , on properties in flood plains, assuming you have a mortgage, and, if you don’t have it, but do have a mortgage, the mortgage lender can purchase it, and bill you for it.


The Act, which became effective in October, is already effecting home sales in flood plain areas, not only locally, but state, and nationwide.  Realtors who attended last night’s meeting told us that so far there have been about nine sales of property that would be impacted by the bill.  Seven were cash sales (meaning there’s no mortgage, so no insurance required), one that’s in the process of fighting their designation of being in a flood plain, and one more, wherein the purchaser announced they so loved the house that they were willing to pay the additional $10,000 annual flood insurance premium.  It’s hard to estimate, because they won’t be recorded, how many potential home sales will simply fall though because potential buyers won’t love the house enough to pay an additional $10,000 annually.  


Some homeowners, who weren’t planning to sell, simply won’t be able to afford flood insurance.  We were told, again anecdotally, that right now, mortgage companies aren’t foreclosing on these homes, but most are adding the new premiums on to their escrow bills, which should mean, in fairly short order, that whatever equity the homeowner had in the home will disappear, and the mortgage company will end up owning the home anyway.


As previously noted, this is causing a national uproar, and there are Bills in congress proposing to do something about it, including, interestingly enough, one from the author of the original Act.  We were told that these Bills, which would send the program back for an ‘affordability’ review and delay implementation for at least four years, center around the fact that changing the Bill would be considered a ‘spending’ bill, thus requiring congress, under a self-imposed restriction, to come up with savings, elsewhere, equal to the costs of the changes, and it’s a pretty expensive bill.  We were also told that changes are going to require, to get passed, that a majority of both parties support the changes, and there’s little the two parties agree upon right now.


Locally, there’s some prospect that this will eventually  (and eventually could mean a decade) be resolved by the completion of the White River flood wall, which as noted in previous posts, exists, mostly, to just north of the Riviera Club.   There seems to be a congealing plan to extend the wall south along the existing towpath, to a point just south of Butler’s campus where it would tie in to higher ground and presumably eliminate the Washington Township portion of the flood plain.  I say probably because, as noted below, the Corps., which builds, and FEMA, which designates flood areas, really don’t communicate.  There’s still some argument about who  (the Corps. or the City) would pay for what, but it’s resolvable if cooler minds prevail.  That alternative, also noted previously, would eliminate the silly proposals to build mechanical walls across the City’s water supply.


What’s also interesting is that the northernmost areas within the floodplain, are probably already protected by what’s already been built (assuming there’s not another 1913 flood wherein we’d flood from Iowa to Pennsylvania, irrespective of our wall) but it has no effect on current insurance problems because, oddly, the Corps. and FEMA, the two Federal agencies which are always mentioned together in discussions of these issues, simply don’t ever work together.  Meanwhile, my basement, which isn’t in or near a floodplain, has flooded more recently than Warliegh.


Because it’s a national problem, I’d like to talk a little about this issue in a broader perspective.  Flood insurance probably ought to carry its own weight, but the larger problem is that American’s seem to continue to build where they shouldn’t be building.  Oceans are lovely, but that doesn’t mean you should need to live next to one.  Mosly, flood insurance ought to serve as a major deterrent to new construction in these areas where billions get spent on a regular basis repairing damage that was anticipated and predictable.  My grandparents had an uninsulated shack on the Jersey Shore in the early 1900’s that was expected to be damaged fairly often.  It’s now part of a community of permanent homes.  On the other side of my family, another set of grandparents had an equally disposable shack on the shore of Lake Michigan, also now a part of a permanent community of year round homes.  But, both are entirely different than areas of the Midwest which last flooded when the Cubs were in the World Series.


New Orleans, except to keep the Mississippi delta open, probably shouldn’t have been rebuilt in its original location.  Rocky Ripple shouldn’t have been allowed to develop beyond its original incarnation as prime farmland.  Our shorelines ought to be destinations, not residences.   Yet we protect our bad decisions of the past because they did develop, and the scale of injury, once they were developed, is such that, unless we can really protect the injuries from recurring over an over again, we ought to prevent.


Insurance companies have traditionally created risk pools based upon reasonable likelihood of occurrences.  Flood insurance programs ought, but aren’t, be made to operate the same way.


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The Explicated Floodwall

Posted 4:43 PM by

Reprinted, with permission from the premiere issue of Midtown Magazine courtesy of the author, Bill Beranek, and Midtown's editor and publisher, the esteemed Tom Healy of Apple Press.



White River Flood Risk Management — Final Stage

Where and how should the flood project along the left bank of the White River at Broad Ripple and downstream be completed? The answer will affect future vitality of Midtown neighborhoods.

How you feel about the project depends in part on where your property is situated. You may want to be freed from the federally mandated flood insurance and building code restrictions of the 100-year flood plain as soon as possible, or you may want reduced risk for flooding events. But all Midtown residents want to avoid any negative impacts that a permanent, intrusive structure could have on neighborhood vitality.

A flood wall now extends from the north side of Broad Ripple Village south to Kessler Boulevard. A new section is under construction along the river to the northern edge of the Riviera Club (see red line on map). If the barrier is not continued to high ground, flood waters could overtop the river banks near 56th Street and flow back into some low areas behind the wall. 

The US Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) describes its position in a June 7, 2013, Final Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. The public comment period ends September 6, 2013. The City of Indianapolis must then make a choice before the Corps completes its Record of Decision.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is focused on 100-year flood protection, the Corps has determined that 300-year flood protection is feasible for this project and has identified two alternatives to accomplish the goal:

1.     Westfield Boulevard Flood Wall Alternative ($15.6 million)

A flood wall would continue south along the river bank on the west edge of the Riviera Club, cross the Central Canal public water supply with a flood gate, and continue south from Capitol Avenue with a 3,100-foot wall between Westfield Boulevard and the canal, until ending in the hill behind Holcomb Gardens at Butler University (see yellow line on map).

2.     Illinois Street Flood Wall Alternative ($13.8 million)

A flood wall would extend along the northern boundary of the Riviera Club, then south along the west side of Illinois Street, cross Illinois Street with a mechanical gate, extend south between Westfield Boulevard and the canal, cross Westfield Boulevard with a mechanical gate at the north edge of Chase Bank, and extend to the hill behind the bank parking lot (see turquoise line on map).

The Westfield Flood Wall Alternative protects the entire Warfleigh Flood Plain from Broad Ripple to Butler-Tarkington. This is the Corps’ first choice but due to public opposition, the City of Indianapolis last November told the Corps that it would not participate in that option. City participation is required for the Corps to proceed.

The City prefers the Illinois Street Alternative. Although this option provides no flood risk reduction for businesses and residences south of the Riviera Club that the Westfield Alternative would protect, the City administration considers this to be the quickest path to increased property values and tax revenues from development of structures on the properties in a substantial part of the Warfleigh and Broad Ripple neighborhoods.

The Corps has described three variations on these options that it could participate in if the City paid all of the excess costs. The preferred option has been the 56th Street Flood Wall, which places a wall along the Riviera Club river bank, turns north along the tow path, crosses the canal with a flood gate at 56th Street and bisects the 56th and Illinois streets commercial district with walls and gates (see pink line on map).

Two others options are variations of the Westfield Boulevard Flood Wall. One places a canal flood gate at Graceland Avenue instead of Capitol Avenue, using a flood wall to protect the canal along that section (see orange line on map). The other is the original Westfield Boulevard alignment but using removable panels for the top sections of the wall. The base would be built to the height necessary to remove Warfleigh from the 100-year floodplain, and the top panels could be added to capture a 300-year flood, which the Corps needs for its engagement. 

Concerns About the Proposals

Opponents have raised the following objections to these alternatives.

A.    Flood Gate Across the Canal

All alternatives include a large flood gate across the canal, which is a focus of opposition for three reasons.

1)    Recreational Use: Supporters of the canal as a key social and cultural amenity for nearby neighborhoods claim that the canal flood gate will physically split the canal greenway into two distinct pieces: one section north to Broad Ripple and another section south to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The canal’s function as a unifying agent in Midtown will be lost.

2)    Canal Operations: A canal flood gate increases the difficulty of managing weeds, sediment, and water flow in the canal.

3)    Reliability: Maintenance of the flood gate would be the responsibility of the Indianapolis Department of Public Works or an outsourced contractor, rather than the canal owner. Any malfunctions during the coming decades of operation could shut down Indianapolis’ largest water source. Passive flood risk management (such as a wall or levee) is more dependable than flood control that requires ongoing funds for special maintenance, trained staff available to take action, and a steady source of electricity.

B.    Vulnerability of Flood Damage to the Canal

Neither of the Corps’ two alternative recommendations protects the physical integrity of the canal at the 56th Street river bend. The rushing current of the flooded river could weaken the canal berm by overtopping with a level as low as a 50-year flood. A prolonged overtop condition could cause erosion of the inside of the berm and collapse of a section of the canal. Depending on the damage, flow of water to the main downtown treatment plant could be halted, followed by a period of reduced flow to the system while the damaged portion of the canal is rebuilt.


C.    Westfield Boulevard Flood Wall

Opponents of the Westfield Flood Wall say the height and length of that wall would physically and visually isolate the Town of Rocky Ripple and the canal itself from the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. They worry that the long wall could attract graffiti and create an unsafe environment for walkers and joggers. In this alternative, the road crossings at 52nd and 53rd streets will not use mechanical gates but instead rely on construction of a three-foot-high sand bag wall, blocking the roads well in advance of any predicted flood event. Emergency response officials are concerned about the danger to both the residents and the rescue workers in a situation where people are fighting to save their properties while vehicle entrances and exits are being sealed behind them.

Opponents note that the Westfield Flood Wall would divert 56th Street river bend flood waters in the direction of the canal. That water could spill over the dip in the towpath near 52nd Street, flooding Rocky Ripple from the east. Such a result would prevent Butler University and Rocky Ripple from realizing containment for the same 100-year flooding events coming directly from the lower elevations of the river.

D.    Illinois Street Flood Wall

Opponents note that the high Illinois Street flood walls create a significant visual barrier from Illinois Street north of the bridge, across the canal, and south along the canal on Westfield Boulevard opposite homes north of Chase Bank. This also visually separates the 56th and Illinois commercial center and the Riviera Club from areas northward. While Corps hydraulic studies show that flooding of the unprotected areas south of the wall will not increase because of the wall, opponents note that this configuration contains no components that could help future flood risk reduction for the Butler University/Rocky Ripple Flood Plain or for Butler-Tarkington.


A Different Alternative for Consideration

The Corps initially considered an alternative without a canal flood gate to protect the entire Warfleigh flood plain but thought it more problematic to construct than the Westfield Flood Wall. The City owned the canal at the time of this decision, and so agreed to a canal flood gate that it would own and operate. (Citizens Energy Group now owns the water company and the canal.) Therefore, an alternative without a flood gate never received the rigorous geotechnical and engineering study that might have shown it to be economically competitive with the alternatives that include a canal flood gate.


This 1996 alternative had a flood wall along the river bank at the Riviera Club and between the river and the canal to Canal Boulevard to close the river bend gap.  From this point south it used a reinforced right bank of the canal as the flood barrier. (See purple line on map.)


The towpath berm would likely need to be strengthened and widened in places. The top may need to be raised two feet at its dip around 52nd Street. An important question asked by those opposing the flood gate alternatives is what it would cost to transform the berm into a flood barrier suitable for both a 300-year flood plain and FEMA approval to eliminate Warfleigh from 100-year flood plain map. Could a plan be crafted to meet the needs of all the affected neighborhoods and institutions while harming none?


I.      Riviera Club

The Riviera Club is in the middle of all options. A flood barrier for the rest of the community works equally well with a wall along the club’s river bank property or a wall completely around its perimeter. Club members should indicate their preference, as there are consequences for either path and ways to reduce the impact of each one.


II.    Butler University/Rocky Ripple Flood Plain


The initial 1990s proposal by the Corps for flood risk management included a barrier protecting much of the Butler University/Rocky Ripple Flood Plain. The Rocky Ripple Town Council voted against the proposal because of the impact on some properties. Since that vote, Rocky Ripple residents have elected a new town council that has repeatedly requested inclusion in the flood project.  


The Corps process, meanwhile, has proceeded with protection of the Warfleigh 300-year flood plain alone as its focus. Expansion of that focus with a wall and levee around the low, sandy Rocky Ripple flood plain to contain a flood at 2.1 feet higher than the 300-year flood makes little sense hydraulically and financially. However, many Rocky Ripple residents believe that it does make sense to improve flood protection for the Butler University/Rocky Ripple flood plain with less intrusive means for floods of 100-year magnitude and smaller. Reasonable flood risk management plans for both flood plains should be coordinated by the City and committed to simultaneously.


III.  The Decision

The Corps and the City must agree on the design of the project. FEMA will make the decision whether to change the 100-year flood plain map. The Corps must be confident the structures meet its standards and that the City will be able to maintain them in perpetuity. FEMA must agree that the structures are appropriate (and maintained) and the Warfleigh trees removed in order to withdraw the area from the 100-year flood plain.

The City must be confident of a flood risk management strategy that will safeguard the vitality of and do no harm to each affected Midtown neighborhood.

William Beranek Jr., Ph.D., of Beranek Analysis LLC, has served in Indianapolis as an environmental mediator since 1975. 

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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Flood Wall

Posted 3:43 PM by


If you’ve been hopelessly engrossed in the drama surrounding the Shell station development in Broad Ripple, you might have missed  DPW’s “announcement” that  they’d been “made aware” that the US Army Corps of Engineers was about to release their latest proposals regarding the White River Levee Project.  In fact, those plans have now been out for a few days, and if you’re a glutton for punishment, can be found at:  http://www.lrl.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/ProjectPlanning/IndianapolisNorth.aspx.  


This time around, the Corps. is deciding between two proposals, supposedly.  One proposal is essentially the proposal from last year that would construct a removable (in part) wall along the canal that would separate Butler Tarkington folks from a view of the canal, while at the same time separating Rocky Ripple from, well, just about everything.


The alternate proposal would construct a flood wall north of the Riviera Club which would run east, cutting across the canal, until it connects with higher ground just past the Chase branch, while making Chase a specialist in waterproof safe deposit boxes.


You can pretty well ignore the first proposal.  It was so resoundingly lambasted in its prior incarnation that even with minor tinkering, the only reason it’s even mentioned is to  make the second proposal look good by comparison.


Truth be told, a couple of DPW engineers have been making the rounds of local neighborhood associations for the past few months, trying to sell the second proposal, so any shock & awe that it exists probably relates more to their amazement that they could convince the Corps to front the idea.


Before continuing, a bit of history, in case you’re new to all this.  Indianapolis and the Corps have been messing around with the concept of a White River Flood Wall in this area for at least two decades and probably more.  Two things messed up the concept.  One was the Town of Rocky Ripple, which at one point rejected the idea of a flood wall about a decade ago, and seems to have both the Corps and the City thinking that dealing with the Town is never going to be easy.  They’ve since reversed course under new management.  The second was Hurricane Katrina, which got the government talking about the specter of 300 year floods.That last part relates to the question of who has to buy flood insurance, but doesn’t relate to living on one of the coasts.  At least one of the City’s engineers has been dealing with this issue since he was hired and since he had hair.


That’s as much sympathy as I can offer.  The problem with the new wall configuration is that it only offers protection to areas north of Riviera and Chase, which means it does nothing for Rivi, most of Butler-Tarkington, all of Rocky Ripple, and Butler University.    It also leaves the canal, south of there, open to flooding, which Citizen’s may, or may not, mind.  The City engineers who met with the various players individually, not collectively, allowed as to that the City might, perhaps, someday be able to do something that would offer some protection to each of these areas.  They were unable to specify what they might do, when they might to it, or how it might be funded.  Since they were meeting with groups individually, they were happy to note that they hadn’t heard any opposition, or at least not vociferous opposition, from any of the other groups, all of which, including Warleigh  (which basically has requested something be done yesterday) are now opposed.


It may well be that there is no financially reasonable way to offer protection to areas south of the new proposal, or at least not protection up to the 300 year standard.  At the same time, there is apparently no clear cut agreement with Homeland Security, that building according to the proposal(s) would remove any area from the requirement to purchase flood insurance (and there’s a political element there that ought to be further explored).  It’s as if the necessity to do something immediately is taking precedence over formulating a master plan for the area, and selling it.  Perhaps the Tea Party is right, and we’ll be shutting down all forms of government in the near future.


Immediately after the reaction to the east-of-canal wall last year, the City started off on what seemed to be a reasonable path, which was to gather the constituent parties and attempt to reach some sort of agreement as to the next step.  An environmental mediator was even enlisted to help work the group through the process.  Dave Sherman, former DPW head, who famously announced the last time through that there were “lots of things the city could do to offer protection”  was even brought back into the discussion.


All this changed about six month ago with the engineer’s Rivi to Chase wall idea, which apparently coincides with approximately the current federal funding for the project, or at least the last proposed stage thereof.


It’s impossible for me, since I don’t build flood walls, to offer an opinion about whether the proposals work, or whether they could at some future point be tied into further protection for the unprotected areas.  But it’s not beyond me to suggest that without a specific plan for those unprotected areas, it’s probably equally hard for the people who actually do that stuff to answer the question either.


My advice to the City engineers was to let the mediation process play out,and to come back eventually with a plan that did at least something for all the area.  Maybe it wouldn’t be 300 year protection for everyone, but at least they’d have something that everyone could wrap their arms around as something that could and would be done along some sort of schedule.  I still think that approach makes the most sense, absent the pending collapse of the federal government.  The argument for getting this done tomorrow seems to be weak at best.


There are folks in the proposed unprotected area who are already floating the idea that this is the result of a City conspiracy to build more stuff in Broad Ripple, and to build it cheaper because it won’t require flood plain protection, and also tying it into having paid for the parking garage and perhaps the Browning proposed development.  Personally, I think that’s just political talk, but if political talk gets traction, elections get lost.  The administration would do itself a major favor by slowing this down and developing a comprehensive plan for the area.  It’s called leadership, and right now this idea is being led by mid-level City employees who shouldn’t be in that position.  Immediately, the City ought to hold a public meeting on this  -  it will give them a better picture of the level of opposition.  Secondly, the City needs to continue meeting with folks in the unprotected areas, as a group, and at a minimum, come up with a scheduled plan for the remainder of a project that seems to have left the house without putting on its pants.


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New Development In Broad Ripple

Posted 11:42 AM by


Browning Investments is proposing an 88 Unit Apartment Building, perched mostly on over 30,000 sq. ft. of retail, and a parking garage, on the former Shell Gas Station site just north of Westfield & College, and also encompassing the current apartments located along the canal and to the north.


The immediate issue up for consideration is whether to rezone the property.  That issue comes before the MDC in early June, and primarily involves the specific Shell Station area, which is currently zoned residential, but is also the subject of an enforceable agreement with IDEM which prohibits it from being used for residential.  If it doesn’t get rezoned, it will simply remain an underutilized  (apparently Shell, who owns it doesn’t like the word “abandoned.”) forever.  Despite all the noise surrounding the project, that’s the only issue currently at hand, and the only issue that the Broad Ripple Village Association is being asked to evaluate.


That said, most of the noise around the project seems to relate to the size (and look) of the buildings, the proposed retail tenant, and of course, how the project gets financed, which now that there’s a TIF District in place that includes the area of this development, becomes the 900 pound gorilla in the room and thus seems to be drawing the most conversation despite the fact that it’s not formally being decided by any entity that has the power to decide it right now.  I’ll talk about that part in a little more detail further down, but right now, I’ll start with the other two issues.


The project, as noted, is pretty tall, starting with something about the height of the Fresh Market closest to College, and rising to about five stories further to the east.  Over the past six years, Broad Ripple has been the subject of an extensive process which began as “Envision” Broad Ripple, and evolved into a neighborhood master plan.  There were at least 60 different public meetings held to let the public weigh in on how the Village should evolve architecturally, over the coming decades,  Since I attended most of those meetings  (they usually involved free pizza from Union Jack’s, and UJ makes fabulous pizza) I know they were very well attended, and equally well publicized.  If you weren’t there, you made a conscious effort not to be there.


The consensus opinion that came out of those meetings, was that, folks wanted more “density” along College Avenue.  (Density is mostly urban planning lingo for height packed with people.)  The reasons given for that conclusion were that College was likely to evolve into a transit corridor (assuming State government ever realizes that State legislators from  rural areas aren’t the true governing body of Marion County), and, that Broad Ripple was going to be a lot more sustainable if more people lived there, as opposed to just driving there to tie one on weekend nights.   Under those assumptions, the proposed project actually fits pretty well.


As for the proposed retail tenant, which is Whole Foods  (perhaps the most leaked bit of information in Indiana history) the furor seems to relate to its impact on the Good Earth Natural Food Co., which is a couple of blocks away and, which has a storied history in the Village (not to mention being part of a somewhat larger story that deserves to be made into a major motion picture, but not until after Evan Bayh’s batteries run down).  Still, most of that noise began with those who run Good Earth, and people who argue against what they see as competition don’t always make the best point men for arguments.   Having been to Good Earth, and to other Whole Food stores, I tend to think there’s a place for both in the Village and that competition is aways good for the market,  (Having just said that, I’m a bit worried about impact on Fresh Market, which is a Meridian Kessler business that’s done very well and would have made a lousy Walgreen’s, so my free market instincts are as easily swayed as the next guy’s.  I’m also partial to the argument in favor of ‘local’ businesses, but I’m not sure either that we’ll ever see a ‘local’ grocery again, or that everything needs to fit that mold.).  It’s worth noting that there seems to be an agreement that if the super-secret Whole Foods doesn’t make it there, no future tenant could be larger than a third of the proposed retail space.   I like that part, because buildings always seem to out live their tenants, so it’s always important to concentrate on the building first.  (I wish we’d gotten a concession like that on Fresh Market, since on days I forget to clean my glasses, I think it already looks a little like a Walgreens)


OK, on to the money.  Browning is going to ask for money from the TIF, but it’s asking in a slightly different way.  Without totally boring you with how a TIF works, newly create property taxes from new construction (also known as the ‘increment’) flow into the TIF.  If nothing is built, nothing flows.  The money that’s in the TIF is used to spur the creation of other bright and shiny things in the district, which in an ideal world, gets ever brighter and ever shinier.  The noblest dreams of this particular TIF are that the least bright and shiny areas of the District receive the bulk of the increment.


Browning is asking, essentially, to take 80% of it’s increment, and use it to finance what it proposes to build.  The theological underpinning of that, which is why I’m starting there, is that Browning says it wouldn’t build anything without that arrangement, so if you don’t believe that, everything that follows is rubbish, and, conversely, if you do believe that, you also understand that if nothing gets built, nothing new flows into the TIF and less gets done for the less bright and shiny areas of the District.  


While the numbers are still sketchy, Browning noted that this is a $25 million project, which ought to mean that it will, also roughly, throw off $750K in property taxes annually, assuming cost and AV are close.  If 80% goes back to the project, that’s around $600K annually, which, depending on interest rates, ought to support a bond of at least half the project costs.  The remaining 20% that flows into the TIF should increase the Districts ability to bond for other projects somewhere in the range of one to two million.


A couple of closing thoughts.  If you had the misfortune to attend the BRVA informational meeting on this project, you saw both the best of neighborhood associations, and the worst of public discourse.  BRVA’s efforts to provide information are more than commendable, while the behavior of a good portion of those who attended the meeting makes you a little afraid to walk the streets of Broad Ripple during daylight hours, let alone after the bars close.


The Star’s reporting on the meeting was ridiculous.  While their web version features a video interview with a competing developer, who has been floating a similar project with similar tax breaks for at least six years, all without ever mentioning that tidbit of information,.  their lead quote in the print  version dealt with someone who lives about 3 blocks away, who’s supposedly worried that residents of the proposed apartments will be peering into his backyard.  At least with the blog reporting, you begin wit the assumption the writer is crazy, and of course, I am.


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Posted 5:46 PM by


Once again, the IPS Board has caused a bit of local furor due to a proposal before that Board to relocate both the proposed International Baccalaureate program tentatively set to open next fall in Broad Ripple High School, and the current Gambold Prep program, currently located on west 38th St., to Shortridge High School.


The argument, if I understand it, in support of locating both these programs at Broad Ripple High School instead of at Shortridge, is that it would increase ‘community participation at the local high school.‘   Presumably that means that more students from the ‘community’ would attend BRHS if these programs were relocated there, than would atend Shortridge HS if the same programs were located there.  The basis for that argument is that the ‘feeder’ schools for those programs are located closer to BRHS than to Shortridge. That’s where the argument starts to fall apart.


There are, in fact, three pre-International Baccalaureate K-8 schools in Indianapolis.  One is located at 57th & Central, another at  725 N. New Jersey, and a third at 545 E. 19th St.  All are magnet schools, which means that in order to enroll, one must apply and be chosen in a random lottery.  If it were even a remotely valid argument that all students who graduate from those K-8 programs would choose to enter, and win, another lottery to attend a high school international baccalaureate program within IPS, it’s worth noting that only one of the three is in fact closer to BRHS than to Shortridge, and, that admission to the high school baccalaureate school is in no way preconditioned on attending one of those three K-8 schools.   More important, however, since it is entirely possible that some higher percentage of graduates of those three schools might choose to apply to high school IB programs, none of those three schools are in fact places where their students actually live.  All return home to parents who also do not live in those schools.  Taken as a whole, only a tiny percentage of the students of those three schools even live in the Washington Township portion of IPS.


Admittedly, the percentage of students at CFI 84 at 57th & Central from Washington Township is somewhat higher.  That’s true because when people who actually lived around School 84 noticed that the school at the time contained only 6 students from Washington Twp., and was about to be substantially enlarged, their initial suggestions that the school be burned down were resolved both by creating the pre-IB program there, and offering a preference in the lottery to local students.  Since the preference isn’t absolute, the majority of its students still don’t live in Washington Twp., and under the current system, never will.


Since the majority of students in pre-IB schools in fact live closer to Shortridge ann BHRS, and since it’s presumed that both they, and their parents, would prefer shorter bus rides, you have to assume most would prefer to attend Shortridge.  Even among Washington Twp. students, it’s worth noting that Shortridge is in fact closer to most of Washington Township than is Broad Ripple. 


Now, the schools that are supposed to be ‘feeder’ schools for the Gambold program (which could seemingly also include all of the pre-IB schools, include the IPS Montessori Schools, of which there are three.  School 356 is located at 2353 Columbia Ave.  School 367 is located at 653 Somerset Ave.  School 391 is located at 5111 Evanston Ave.  Only that last school is in fact closer to BRHS than to Shortridge.  All, as with the pre-IB schools are magnet schools, none have a majority of Washington Twp. students, and in fact all of my previous commentary relating to pre-IB schools applies here as well, except that none were able to negotiate a preference area.


The last ‘feeder’ is the Merle Sidner Gifted Academy, located at Kessler & Keystone.  It is very, very close to BRHS.  It’s roughly 300 students in 8 grades come from everywhere in IPS, and, unlike other magnet programs, carefully chooses its students.  As with BRHS, it sits on the outer edge of the IPS District, and if local news accounts are to be believed, there is some complaint among its parents that it is located too far from their homes.


Finally, it’s absolutely worth noting that very few Washington Township students attend Broad Ripple High School.  In sheer numbers, very few Washington Twp. students attend any IPS school.


OK, so what’s going on here?  My best guess is that, at least in the northern part of Washington Twp. IPS, there’s a decent sentiment in favor of neighborhood schools.  There are also, living within Meridian Kessler, more than a few people who attended schools here some time ago, back in the era of purely neighborhood schools, so there’s a strong instinct towards protecting places like School 84 and BRHS, especially from alumni.  There are also a lot of parents of younger children who want their kids attending school that are closer to their homes, and who would also rather bank some of the tuition they’d have to expend to achieve that goal without going the provate or parochial route.  All of that seems perfectly understandable.


My guess is that, in the poorer areas of IPS, there’s some equally strong instinct towards getting children out of their neighborhoods for school.  That would seem to explain the popularity of both magnet schools, and of charter schools, and also why there was substantial opposition to the only charter ever proposed in Meridian Kessler.  At a minimum, it’s safe to say that there are some really diverse constituencies within the IPS District, and that trying to please all of them makes being on the IPS Board a really difficult job.


There’s a raw materials aspect to public education that’s awfully difficult to discuss.  What IPS lost over the past few decades were families that could give their children tremendous advantages.  They went either to the suburbs or to local private and parochial schools.  Advantages are, after all, advantages, and you can still see those advantages playing out in the test score of the places those kids landed.


There’s also a need, in urban areas to attract families with advantages back again.  Advantaged people can pay more for their homes, and that means increased property taxes.  It also means jobs, since there are probably more advantaged job creators than there are disadvantaged job creators.  That’s a part of the IPS experiment with magnet schools, since pre-law, pre-med, and performing arts magnet schools  at least offer the fantasy that your child will become a doctor, lawyer, or famous performer.  (there are too darn many layers these days, but that’s another article altogether).  But magnet schools, inherently, run contrary to neighborhood schools, and there’s some truth to the fact that the further away from your child’s school you live, the less likely you are to be involved with the school..


It took a few decades to muck up public education, and, it will likely take a few decades, at least, to make it work well again.  One of the positives of having reached an advanced age is having children of a (somewhat less) advanced age.  That means I don’t have, or remotely claim to have, solutions, just a perspective on the problems.  It’s going to be an interesting, albeit bumpy, road.


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Once More, Into the TIF

Posted 2:12 PM by


The North Midtown Tax Increment Financing District was finally approved on March 6th.  Money will begin to flow into the TIF from new construction within the District in about a year, since what the TIF captures is the tax revenue from new construction after the previous tax assessment date.


Generally, the TIF District had broad support from the major neighborhood associations within the District.  What opposition there was came from the eight person group in Meridian Kessler known as MKNHN, and from Pat Andrews, who is a longtime Board member of McANA.  Since Pat’s position, essentially, is that all TIF’s are bad, a philosophical position that you can accept or reject as it relates to all TIF’s, the main argument against this specific District, made by MKNHN, was that the District should have excluded Broad Ripple, Meridian Kessler and the majority of Butler-Tarkington, and been limited to Mapleton-Fall Creek.


MKNHN’s reasoning, which I think I understand because their testimony before MDC was identical across the five who spoke, is that there is likely to be continued development in the areas they sought to exclude, and conversely not likely to be development in the areas they were willing to include.  While I think that’s perfectly true, I also think it completely misses the point of establishing this TIF District in the first place.


Essentially, a TIF District captures the tax revenue generated by growth due to new development, and uses those funds to create even more growth.  I’ll leave it to Ms. Andrews to present the contrarian argument, but from a philosophical basis, government allows this because it needs growth to increase its tax revenues, and it needs increased revenues to fund local government.  


If, however, you limit a TIF District to an area that is not likely to experience growth in development, little or no money flows into the TIF District, and you never accumulate money with which to fund new growth.  You perpetuate the status quo.


One significant piece of the North Midtown TIF was the creation of the Midtown Economic Council, which consists of representatives of the five major neighborhood associations within the district.  The MEC wasn’t originally intended to be codified into the ordinances creating the TIF District, but the City-County Council so liked the idea, that it was.  The MEC is supposed to act as an advisory group to the Metropolitan Development Committee  (which has final authority on how to spend funds accumulated in the TIF) and to present to the MDC a unified, albeit non-binding view on how those funds ought to be expended.   If successful, I expect this process might be incorporated into future TIF Districts.


Could there be problems?  If the neighborhood representatives disintegrate into a “me first” mentality  -  sure.  If it becomes a rubber stamp for city administration projects  -  sure.  It’s going to be awfully hard to eliminate the base  (apparently Pat’s biggest worry).


The sense I’m getting from what membership of the MEC I’ve met, is a recognition that all of Midtown is in this process together, and, that in the long run, Midtown is only as good as its weakest link.  Right now, the weakest link runs south of 49th St. to the southernmost part of the District in Mapleton-Fall Creek.  That’s not to imply that the rest of the District doesn’t have needs, or that there aren’t potential projects in other areas that would obviously allow additional funds to flow into the TIF, but rather that there exists a potential to develop a severely under performing area of Midtown, and if it’s done, we can increase the tax base across the entire area.  That’s good for Midtown, and good for Indianapolis.  


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Bent Rail Requiem

Posted 4:35 PM by


A few days ago the Metropolitan Development Commission approved the rezoning of a former fitness center, currently zoned so that it could be used as a metal stamping plant, in the 5300 block of Winthrop Avenue to eventually house a coffee shop and brewpub with an outdoor beer garden that will have indoor seating for around 300, outdoor seating for another 150, and presumably, if you packed in a standing-room only crowd, an additional 100 people.   The site plan that was eventually approved, with the support of MDC Staff, substantially shrunk what was proposed initially, and both eliminated outdoor amplified music and added more parking than will be available at the Broad Ripple Parking Garage.


The plan, in all its iterations, had both support and opposition, none of which is either unusual or unexpected, since there will always be those who are either wildly supportive, or wildly terrified of any form of change.  What does bother me, however, is the reaction of those, following the Commission’s decision, since it seems to represent a microcosm of all that’s wrong with any form of political discourse in America these days.  Not only was it widely decried amongst those in opposition that the decision was the result of graft and corruption, but was also the result of actions taken by a neighborhood association that had somehow come to represent all that’s evil in the world.  A local Association Zone Representative who had spent endless hours distributing hundreds of flyers in the area surrounding the proposed development announcing public meetings regarding the proposal was essentially told that she ought to move away.  And, it was further suggested that there ought to be a new neighborhood association formed that would somehow be more supportive of the needs of those in opposition.


We’ve had winners, and losers, in political discourse for as long as we’ve allowed free and open political discourse in America, which by the way coincides with as long as we’ve had America.   Winners are happy, although perhaps not for long, and losers are unhappy, and on the whole, life goes on.   What seems to be a relatively new manifestation, however, is the need not only to vilify the other side of whatever argument that’s happening, but also to maintain that vilification for a seemingly endless period thereafter.  OK, I’m ignoring such things as my father’s lifelong dislike of dimes once Roosevelt’s picture appeared thereon.  Still, there seems to be an ever lessening distinction between having lost a political argument and having your entrails ripped from your body, to the point that both require generations of jihad.


You can find enough information about the Bent Rail operation elsewhere in this website that it’s not worth discussing further, although I admit I’ll miss the on-site fish farming operation that was eliminated to provide additional parking.  What is worth discussing, however, is the process by which MKNA  makes a decision on whether or not to support a Land Use variance.


First, it’s worth noting that neighborhood associations don’t control land use decisions within their respective boundaries  -  that’s reserved for the Metropolitan Development Commission.  Still, good associations usually have an interest in what’s proposed within their areas, and MKNA does that.


Neighborhood Associations can register with MDC to receive notifications of zoning variance requests within their boundaries.  There is, in fact, such a minimal threshold for so filing that there’s a guy in MK who has formed, literally, hundreds of them, city-wide, and receives so many pieces of mail that the US Postal Service sends him thank-you notes.  It’s such a low threshold that two guys and a truck can qualify, thus explaining how we got burdened with MKNHN, but that’s another subject.  For your purposes, if you want a lot of mail, pretend you’re a real association and sign up.


OK, so MKNA gets its piece of mail saying that Fred wants a variance to build something.  Contemporaneously, MDC requires Fred to both put up a sign on his property telling folks that there will be a zoning hearing downtown and also requires Fred to give MDC the addresses of surrounding landowners  (usually only very, very close landowners) but all that really doesn’t relate to MKNA.  MKNA gives the notice to its Land Use Committee, which now consists of a fairly large group and is populated by folks ranging from attorneys, to architects, to land use planners, etc.


If there’s a remonstrance filed with MDC  (a remonstrance is basically something filed with MDC from one of the folks MDC notified stating that the subject of the variance sucks) or, if the variance is thought to be something of a fair amount of significance to the area, the Land Use Committee will schedule its own meeting  (completely separate from what’s going to happen before the MDC).  The Land Use Committee will provide its own notice of its meeting, probably by distributing flyers, over an area that’s always a whole lot larger than what MDC requires for its hearings.  That involves getting people who aren’t getting paid to walk around dropping off flyers at people’s homes, even in February, and none of those folks tend to get thank you notes from the Postal Service.


So, MKNA hosts a meeting.  The folks who want to get a variance to build something get to talk about what they want to do.  The folks who filed the remonstrance get to talk.  Everyone who shows up gets to talk, to ask questions, and basically to interact.  Sometimes the matter gets resolved, everyone gathers in a circle and sings folk songs.  Other times, it doesn’t get resolved and the Land Use Committee has to get together and decide what it thinks.  It makes its decision, and lets the MKNA Board know it, at which point the MKNA Board has to ratify or reject the decision.  Sometimes there are follow up meetings, more flyers distributed, more negotiations between all involved, and so on straight until morning, second star to the right.  In the perfect world, you still get to the folk singing part, but the world isn’t always perfect.  Still, all involved are getting more face time, and more touchy-feely than they’ll ever get from MDC.  All of this gets posted on the MKNA website.


Eventually, if there wasn’t folk singing, the MDC decides the matter.  Sometimes MKNA Land Use shows up to explain how it feels.  Sometimes MDC agrees with MKNA Land Use, and other times it doesn’t.  Either way, the sun comes up the next day and the world moves on (except when Illinois beats IU, but so it goes).  


Now if you lost your argument, you can, certainly, go out and find a new neighborhood association.  You might want to note that the one that’s currently lurking in the shadows of Meridian Kessler doesn’t hold any public meetings, consists of a few folks who aren’t known to the public, decides what they’re going to gripe about without public input, and whose biggest, self-announced claim to fame is opposing two extra seats outside an ice cream shop.  Then, if even those guys ever disagree with you, you can file something with MDC and become another neighborhood association, and so on, straight until morning, second star to the right.  More power to you  (or maybe less?).   But telling someone who just spent a huge hunk of the past month trying to let you know about meetings about things you would never have heard about otherwise, for free and on her own time, that she ought to move away?  Give me a break.

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Posted 2:50 PM by


Last year’s idea of having a referendum to see whether votes in Marion and Hamilton Counties want to be taxed to pay for an improved public transportation system in the two counties is once again before the Indiana legislature.  The biggest problem, at least for me, is that the real debate in the legislature seems to be over whether Marion and Hamilton County voters ought to be able to vote on a proposal.  You might think that our legislature assumes voters are idiots, or, perhaps just that voters, on the whole, actually think a lot differently about individual issues than  about the stuff that these legislatures came up with for campaign issues.  I suppose you do have to worry, if you, as a local legislator, voted against letting your constituents decide something for themselves, and it turned out that you were wrong.    It’s a lot safer to let folks vote, and if the vote goes against you, there will be plenty of time, before your next election, to criticize their choice. 


The idea certainly has more local support than it did last year, but it still has some detractors, mostly among more conservative Republicans and more than a few Libertarian commentators.  Mostly, the detractors believe that government shouldn’t do much that the private sector could do, and even if it does some things that private companies don’t do, that stuff ought to somehow pay for itself.  The military is pretty much exempt from this argument, though it would be nice if we’d turn some of the places we’re fighting in, into profitable colonies.  Anyway, since public transportation isn’t turning a profit, anywhere, the idea of expanding it, and paying to expand it, isn’t ever going to be a popular idea for folks who feel that way.


So, if you’re starting from the idea that public transportation is a bad idea, it’s reasonable to look for reasons why improving what you already have  doesn’t make sense, other than just being fundamentally opposed to anything that doesn’t make a profit.   In this case, that turns the argument to the fact that not many people use the current system, or that there are plenty of alternatives out there (like using cars) that work just as well, or, the newest one, that central Indiana has too many places people want to go (and too many places they’re starting from) so improving public transportation isn’t ever going to work.


Now it’s true that unless the Superbowl is held here, not many people use public transportation.   Well, given the “it ought to pay for itself” mentality that applies funding for the current system, it’s a wonder anyone uses it at all.  Almost all routes currently take you to and from downtown (only) and even the most travelled routes don’t run very often.  As long as the wait for a bus is longer than the ride you’re waiting t take, the alternatives are going to be a lot more popular, and it’s going to limit ridership to those who don’t have access to alternatives.  and you’ll still lose those folks who simply can’t get to where they need to be in the timeframe that they’re required to operate under.  If you’ve found a job in a place where transportation either doesn’t go, or doesn’t go during the times you need to be there and leave there, you’re not going to use it, and you’re probably not going to take that job unless you own a car.  So, if we can just make the current public transportation system bad enough that no one uses it, maybe it will be cheaper to buy the remaining fools who do try to ride it, cab rides, and actually save some money.  The ones who’ve given up trying to use it can just stay home.


Yup, with just a little less effort, we could have an even worse transit system that absolutely no one used, and we’d have the perfect argument to eliminate it altogether.  Those people we’re trying to attract to Indianapolis, the young, bright college graduates who are the job creators of tomorrow and don’t particularly want to own a car, are by definition, young.  They can walk or bike, since it hardly ever snows here, and it certainly never gets cold.  And, they’ll stay in great shape hiking from where they live to wherever they want to go, unless it’s say, Carmel.  If they’re at all interested in places like that, they should just live there.  


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Posted 3:21 PM by


Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day.  When I was a kid, we celebrated both George Washington Day and Abraham Lincoln Day.  Both of those are now subsumed into .  President’s Day, because, as our nation grew older, there was some debate about celebrating other President's birthdays.  Rather than extend the debate into just which past President’s were worthily of having a national day of celebration, we came up with the far less divisive idea of a day that would commemorate all of our past presidents, and if individual citizens chose to remember one more highly than all the others, well, it is done privately.


I’d like, here, to make the argument that it’s time to do the same with this holiday, which ought to be renamed Melting Pot Day.  Is that meant. somehow, to denigrate Dr. King’s accomplishments?  Certainly not, but Dr. King is part of a line of champions for freedom that extends back to the country’s founding and which will doubtless extend forward as long as we as a people are capable of seeing the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ without also acknowledging that ‘we’ are ‘them.‘   Dr. King’s accomplishments are exceptional, but they stand as part of, not alone from, all of those who have stood up and fought for their rce’s, for their ethnic group’s, right to be part of that dream he so eloquently described.


Almost all of us came here, or are descended from those who came here, from elsewhere.  Admittedly, few outside of African Americans are descended from those who came here kicking and screaming, but, honestly, all of the rest of those who, in various periods of time, came here, wouldn’t have come if life in the place where they immigrated from, was an ideal place.  It’s been said, time and time again, that we are a nation of immigrants.  


It appears that the role of immigrants, here, is to melt into society, and, having done so, to make life difficult for other batches of immigrants from elsewhere who follow..    Life is always difficult for new immigrant groups, and more so if each have more identifiable physical characteristics that others.  How those who were assimilated here have treated African Americans is despicable, but so too is the way those here first treated the Irish, or the asians, or the arabs.  


We recognize ourselves as descending from those who came from elsewhere, and we choose to celebrate, on a thousand different holidays, as being such descendants.  Those who remember, or have family who remember, know that it was never an easy time to come here.  For some, OK, for many, it still isn’t an easy time.  Still, I doubt very much that there’s an immigrant group, or the descendants of an immigrant group, as a whole, that deeply, really, wants to reverse migrate..


No matter where your people came from, and for a huge amount or us, “your people” constitute an already melted pot of ancestors from varying places.  For others, in a generation, or two, or three, or four, the same will be true.  Tomorrow I’ll be celebrating the melting pot that ended up with me, here.  I was found on the doorstep of a Chicago hospital, and won’t ever know what things conspired to bring me here.  Still, I’m part of a never ending progression of those who came from elsewhere, and became part of here.  


Happy Melting Pot Day.



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