Midtown: The Original Place of Opportunity

Midtown Indy photo.

by Michael McKillip

The idea behind Midtown as an organization and as a place is that the community can create opportunities to invest in itself. The North Midtown Tax Increment Finance District is the primary example of that.

Prior to the Midtown TIF district’s establishment in 2013, the City projected $50 million to $80 million in new investment in the TIF’s first five to seven years. We now know that in its first seven years of existence, the Midtown TIF has surpassed $220 million in new investment.

That means $8 million in subsidy for two TIF projects—the Coil and Riverhouse—leveraged $220 million in investment. This return demonstrates that once early barriers are removed, investment follows. That initial investment inspired confidence in the market and spurred private investments in developments like the Line, Park 66 Flats, the Win, G Block, the MK, and many others.

Two TIF projects—the Coil (top) and Riverhouse (bottom)—leveraged $8 million in subsidy for $220 million in private investment. They also helped fund public amenities along the Central Canal, White River and Tarkington Park. IMM photos.

For pennies on the dollar, the community also received significant investment in key public space priorities: an upgraded Tarkington Park, a new Canal Esplanade, and a section of the new RiverWalk, complete with intersection and drainage improvements as well as lighting along the Monon Trail. Because the market follows investment, the district has seen enough growth to sustain and support key corridors like 38th Street and College Avenue.

In 2014, the TIF increment account balance was zero. Recently, the Midtown Economic Council recommended that the City spend $1 million of increment for infrastructure to support transit, residential, business, and park/greenway access. The TIF district was intended to inspire or encourage catalytic new investment in Midtown. You can’t have functional transit if people can’t access their garage from their alley or get to a bus stop if there’s no sidewalk. In years past, it was unthinkable to consider spending $1 million on infrastructure from new increment, but with over $220 million of private investment within the Midtown TIF district, we can began to think more strategically about infrastructure investment going forward.

Since 2007 the district has seen unprecedented residential and commercial investment totaling three-quarters of a billion dollars. And for the first time in two decades, Midtown saw 10% population growth! People are moving back. The 800 new multifamily housing units serve a market segment that previously didn’t find anything attractive. We’re now seeing an influx of young families and early career folks saying Midtown is a great place to live.

Such successes demonstrate the power that anchors, neighbors, and businesses can leverage together for the political, social, and economic communities that Midtown depends on.

Midtown Indy photo.

EQUITY

Success is not without challenges.

For all of the momentum we’ve created, some Midtown families are still facing serious challenges. Overcoming those will require the same level of engagement and collective impact that has brought the success of the last decade.

Midtown is an extraordinarily diverse place overall—geographically, racially, and socially. Depending on where you live in Midtown, that may look different to you. SAVI, a community information system from the Polis Center at IUPUI, analyzed food access data in Marion County Census tracts and found that the blocks east of Crown Hill Cemetery are a food desert: neighborhoods with limited access to affordable, healthy food. Nine of 19 Midtown Census tracts have unemployment rates that exceed 14%, with three showing unemployment as high as 19%. Midtown’s average home ownership rate is 51%, but home ownership rates in some Midtown neighborhoods remain at or below 20%. Among the most disturbing statistics is the life expectancy gap. For example, whether you live north or south of 38th Street can determine how long you live, with a 16-year gap in longevity spanning the corridor.

Education is an additional challenge. We’ve made progress in the last decade. IPS has invested in its magnet programs and we now have two Butler lab schools, two Center for Inquiry schools, a Montessori option, and the Sidener Academy, plus Shortridge International Baccalaureate High School. Nevertheless, where you live in Midtown determines the quality, content, and character of your education, and that’s not acceptable. At one of Midtown’s two boundary schools, out of 215 students, only 14 students had passing scores on math and only 11 students passed English standardized tests.

All of Midtown’s magnet schools were once boundary schools that all students in their neighborhoods could attend. Now access to a high-performing neighborhood school is determined by lottery. Families not lucky enough to win the lottery are left with few options: place their child in an underperforming school and hope that it will improve; or, if they have access to the resources needed, place their child in a private school or move to a place where they can access a high-performing public school. This choice that families face remains the number-one reason they move in or out of Midtown each year. For the many families who can’t move, the struggle is real. It is time as a community to show we can do better.

Many of the challenges cited here date back to the earliest days of our district’s history. “Redlining,” an unethical practice of denying some residents financial or other services based on race or ethnicity, excluded minorities from purchasing property in certain defined neighborhoods. A 1926 City ordinance prohibited African Americans from owning or living in property in a predominantly white area (and vice versa). Racially restrictive covenants in some Midtown neighborhoods limited ownership and/or occupancy to “members of the pure white race.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive covenants in 1948, the impacts of those historic policies on our neighbors remain in the form of disinvestment and significant economic disparities. When you compare parts of Midtown east and west of Meridian or north and south of 38th Street, you realize inequity still exists.

Our mission is to ensure that all Midtown stakeholders who live, work, play, or visit the district have access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. Our work today is place based but people focused. This requires investing in job creation and training, access to diverse and affordable housing options, public spaces, entrepreneur and local business support in all of our commercial nodes, and making streets safe and accessible for users of all ages and abilities.

Midtown Indy photo.

Everyone in Midtown should make it their business to address inequities where they exist. Midtown is a fairly small, 12-square-mile box. We’re all neighbors. When our neighbors are suffering the impacts of disinvestment, poor school performance, blighted/vacant housing, unemployment, lack of transportation, or lack of food access, we all suffer.

Systemic inequity and its effects are burdens we all bear. In 2020 we’re going to be sharing these stories about the impacts of inequity on our neighbors and community. We’re also going to begin the hard work to:

  • make it safer and easier to navigate key commercial corridors on 38th Street and College Avenue, which support access to key community assets, businesses, jobs, parks, and transit;
  • focus on initiatives that help to build community wealth by partnering with organizations like the Kheprw Institute and supporting the work of organizations like the Martin Luther King Community Center to directly serve folks in need;
  • create pathways for residents and stakeholders to own their own business or own their own home; and
  • activate public spaces, like Tarkington Park, in a manner that reflects the diversity and beauty of all of Midtown.

Those are things we can do despite Midtown’s history and structural impediments. We can speak up, share stories, and call out racist, classist policies when we see them. The first thing is to identify that there is a problem and make people aware of the consequences of the problem. In 2020 we will work to lift up the voices of those who have been drowned out by those policies and strive to create a truly inclusive community.

Midtown Indy photo.

INVESTMENT

In a 2016 presentation about neighborhood change in Indianapolis, Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, noted that while displacement is of legitimate concern, disinvestment contributes more to neighborhood decline by creating polarization, inequality, and instability.

Midtown Indianapolis was organized to combat disinvestment: poorly performing schools; damaged or inefficient streets, sewer lines, and bridges; and aging parks. We missed the opportunity to stop disinvestment when so many people left the area in the 1960s and ’70s. But we began to take note as the exodus continued through the 1990s and 2000s and all the way to 2010. At that time Midtown Indy resolved to address the symptoms of disinvestment.

Our challenge going forward is to address the root causes of disinvestment, and to find a way to embrace and encourage investment that it is inherently equitable.

Organizations like the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and IFF, and community development organizations like Midtown Indy, Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corp., and Near North Development Corp., are all working in our neighborhoods to increase access to affordable housing, particularly along transit routes.

Today you will find affordable housing adjacent to the new Red Line and the planned Purple Line and Blue Line bus rapid transit corridors. Based on what we have seen in other cities, there is reason to believe that access to affordable housing along these routes will change. So it is imperative that we continue to focus on housing options, particularly near transit.

REVITALIZATION

Its FuturePlan goals identified Midtown as a place of investment, opportunity, connectivity, and education. Those remain our baseline goals, but now we’ve got to figure out how to reap the rewards of those early investments for more significant and focused impact. TIF proceeds can help remediate brownfields and tackle the divide of 38th Street and make it safe and walkable. But we need to ensure that there’s enough land in the hands of people who will contribute to the revitalization of the communities we serve.

Part of this idea is accepting the consequences of the choices you make about where to live, and making it a rational decision to stay in urban areas where you can catch a bus. Midtown recently received one of the earliest and biggest investments in transit in the City of Indianapolis. There are 135,000 jobs that Midtown residents can now get to without a car. Between the expansion of Pacers Bikeshare, the development of the Red Line, the future Purple Line, and more than a dozen local bus routes that run through Midtown—it’s a real possibility to choose to move here without a car, or to choose to forego a second car. The idea is to ensure that people have easy access to the resources and amenities they need to thrive, and transit is a big component.

Transit has arrived but it’s not done. We still have a lot of work to do to make this new system fulfill the promise that was offered. Transit and land use are correlated. We still have too many parking spaces consuming valuable land and resources that could be better directed to affordable housing and retail opportunities or new businesses.

We are now part of a city that has fully embraced the idea of economic mobility as a priority, and to breaking down barriers to that mobility. Midtown is a vital part of a citywide strategy to compete for residents; we have nowhere to go but forward from here.

Midtown continues to be such a place of strength and opportunity that people want to be close to our residents, our employers, and our transit options. You can see the signs that the larger economic picture in our city is changing. It was hard to imagine 10 years ago that Tarkington Park would host a gathering of 6,000 people at its first annual festival, or that investment in a park would spark the level of renewed investment we are seeing in the surrounding area.

Study after study shows that people want walkable neighborhoods and access to parks, historic housing, and local businesses. They want to know their neighbors and they want their kids to go to neighborhood schools. It’s easy to go to the reproduction, but some people want the original. Midtown is that original place.

Michael McKillip is the executive director of Midtown Indianapolis Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of the magazine.

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