by Michael McKillip
Change either happens to you or for you. After decades of having change happen to us—and not always in a positive way—Midtown and its partners have dedicated themselves to be proactive.
We are managing change and harnessing it in a way that strengthens our community. In 2015 we built on the momentum of the previous decade with significant progress occurring in four overlapping initiatives.
The combined plans for Great Places 2020, the Midtown Anchor Coalition (MAC), Midtown Economic Development Area (EDA) and Tax Increment Finance Allocation Area (TIF), and the Red Line Bus Rapid Transit line cover three-quarters of Midtown’s land mass [see illustration]. This creates strategic opportunities for the entire district.
Great Places 2020
The goal of Great Places 2020 is to transform six Marion County neighborhoods into dynamic centers of culture, commerce, and community. In late 2014, community leaders and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) selected the half-mile block surrounding the intersection of 38th and Illinois streets as one of the first three Great Places.
During 2015, more than 27 organizational partners joined residents and neighborhood leaders in a series of planning sessions. This resulted in a comprehensive plan that will guide ongoing efforts. Action committees based on the LOVE framework (Livability, Opportunity, Vitality, and Education) have been established and will meet monthly in 2016 to coordinate next steps.
This Great Place, at a confluence of neighborhoods in the heart of Midtown, is a critical part of our 100-year-old community. But decades of disinvestment have led to population loss, blighted properties, and abandoned houses. The ensuing loss of tax revenues to the City means that funds are lacking for necessary infrastructure—from sewers to sidewalks to transit.
Public safety is a real and perceived challenge in Midtown just as it is a problem facing our entire city. We have one crime hotspot in Midtown, but there are five others in other parts of the city. What those five places have in common are decades of disinvestment, high unemployment, deteriorating housing stock, crumbling infrastructure, and limited food and health care access. The communities most affected by crime right now are not thriving, sustainable places. They are places with hundreds of vacant City-owned homes and residents with 20 percent unemployment rates and a median income half of the Marion County average.
Midtown Indianapolis Inc. recognized this problem 10 years ago and began strategic efforts to reverse the trend. Over time these investments have and will continue to strengthen our neighborhoods. The most effective steps Midtown allies and partners can do to stem public safety challenges and create better quality-of-life opportunities is to keep doing what we have been doing: inviting new investment, attracting and retaining residents, improving schools, fixing broken streets and sidewalks, and replacing empty houses with stable homes.
Projects like Phase 1 of Tarkington Park, to be completed in 2016, will help to transform this Great Place. A $500,000 façade improvement grant in 2015 for businesses along Illinois Street north of 38th Street began the process of investing in existing businesses and upgrading the area’s “look and feel.” Redevelopment projects are under consideration for several key properties in the Great Place impact zone. Once financing is secured, you can expect 2016 to be a year full of dramatic improvements.
Midtown Anchor Coalition
In 2015, a group of Midtown organizations undertook a strategic planning effort to collaborate for mutual benefit. Called anchor institutions, these nonprofit organizations are major landowners and employers, purchase millions of dollars of goods and services, and attract millions of visitors to Midtown.
Members of the Midtown Anchor Coalition (MAC) include the International School, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Crown Hill, and Butler University. Midtown Inc., Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association, and Citizen’s Energy Group round out the membership.
After six months of effort, the Coalition has agreed on a Plan focusing on six key areas:
- attraction and identity
- collaboration and engagement
- connectivity and infrastructure
- safety and security
- neighborhood and housing
When those six initiatives are overlaid with the goals and aspirations of the Midtown FuturePlan, the MAC Plan essentially becomes Midtown FuturePlan 2.0.
The MAC has identified the key, most beneficial projects—waterways, infrastructure, and economic development priority nodes—and is aligning those priorities with long-standing focus areas within Midtown. Anchors own 20 percent of the real estate in Midtown, so the combined impact potential of these projects is tremendous and can help boost existing efforts.
Part of the purpose of the MAC is to help create attraction to and identity within Midtown. The Plan identifies challenges and opportunities within each of the six areas and proposes specific actions for engagement. And, most important, representatives of each of the MAC institutions have pledged to take responsibility for one or more of these strategies in 2016 and beyond.
Midtown TIF District
Quick action by Midtown Inc. and the City of Indianapolis averted catastrophe that threatened the Midtown TIF district’s ability to finance new development.
The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which manages property tax calculations, adopted a policy in October 2013 requiring TIF districts that include residential parcels to make up any losses in individual assessed value (AV) even if the district as a whole showed a net gain in AV.
The policy interpretation meant that despite a $3.5 million net gain in AV in 2015, the Midtown TIF stood to have $4.65 million deducted from commercially generated AV to offset residential parcel losses. This would have meant no funds for new projects and no funds to cover current obligations for the two TIF projects already in progress.
When it was created in 2013, the Midtown TIF district included residential parcels along key commercial corridors within the Midtown EDA. City planners and neighborhood leaders agreed with the inclusion as those parcels seemed likely to become commercial properties at some point in the TIF’s 25-year working life. Residential property was considered “invisible” to the TIF because state law stipulated that increases in residential AV not accrue to the TIF’s benefit.
The DLGF policy interpretation held that residential property within a TIF district was not invisible. Any decline in residential AV had to come from the TIF district even though TIF generates increment only from new commercial development.
After realizing the implications of the policy. City staff undertook a thorough analysis of all parcels within the Midtown TIF district and identified nearly 900 residential parcels to remove from the TIF map. Councillors Will Gooden and John Barth—who had co-sponsored the original TIF legislation—co-sponsored new legislation to modify the TIF district’s base maps. Their proposal won unanimous approval from both the City-County Council and the Metropolitan Development Commission.
While this effort stopped the hemorrhaging of funds, it will take time for the increment to build up sufficiently to underwrite projects. Meanwhile, until increment is generated, projects within the Midtown district that seek TIF will require the developers to back any bonds.
How the incoming administration will address economic development and manage the Midtown TIF is an open question that Midtown allies will be seeking answers to in the coming months.
The Red Line
Connectivity and mobility are crucial to Midtown’s success. Access to jobs, education, and health care are at the top of the list of community aspirations.
During 2015, Midtown Inc. and its neighborhood allies worked closely with IndyGo to examine impacts of the first electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in the country—the Red Line. Slated to begin at 66th and College in Broad Ripple, the Red Line’s dedicated center lane will run south to 38th Street, then west to Meridian Street on its way to the Downtown Transit Center and the University of Indianapolis.
Midtown FuturePlan identified connectivity as a key goal, and the Red Line will make that possible by offering fast, efficient transit service to the streetcar suburbs that are now part of Midtown. Stations will be located at half-mile intervals where, historically, commercial development had occurred at trolley stops. The same is anticipated for the Red Line.
Transit, public safety, community development, attraction, and identity: For the first time in decades the community is taking this geography that has become Midtown and creating and supporting and breathing life into a universal brand. People are beginning to recognize what Midtown is, why it’s special, and what it offers to the City.
It takes a long time to build consensus. What has been most successful about the Midtown strategy is that it was more than just a good plan. We have deliberately made it our exclusive business to follow that plan, to maintain focus on it, and to strategically advance each and every one of its priorities. These four overlapping and complementary initiatives will help accomplish that. We invite you to join the effort.
Michael McKillip is the executive director of Midtown Indianapolis Inc. A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 edition of the magazine.