Safe from democracy

David Hoppe

It used to be so easy. Indianapolis, as someone once said, was "a give-away town." It wasn't just that everything here was for sale - hell, that was true most places. It was that it was so cheap.

But as we saw at the City-County Council meeting last week, that's changing. That meeting, you will recall, pitted a cranky bunch of chronic complainers, otherwise known as the people of Broad Ripple, versus condominium developers Kosene and Kosene and, it turned out, the powers-that-be in the City of Indianapolis.

Somebody must be losing their grip. That things were ever allowed to get to this point, I mean that the will of the people around here almost prevailed ... well, it goes to show you: A little learning can be a dangerous thing.

How else can you explain a business-as-usual deal like this running into so much difficulty? Here you had Kosene and Kosene, ready and willing to ride to Broad Ripple's rescue. Why, they were so intent on saving that neighborhood they were willing to ignore the planning document approved by the Metropolitan Development Commission in 1997 that recommended limiting building in Broad Ripple to five units per acre or less. No, as far as K and K were concerned, that would never do. Instead, these heroic risk-takers would put 28 units on an acre and a half. Dream no small dreams!

And so Kosene and Kosene politely asked for a zoning variance so they could go ahead with their plan to save Broad Ripple from itself. Needless to say, they expected no problems. When developers ask for zoning variances in Marion County, guess what? They almost always get them. Fifty-seven out of 63 requests were approved in the first 10 months of 2005.

So imagine K and K's surprise when they found that, instead of gratitude, their plans were met with disapproval in the very place they care so much about: Broad Ripple. The Broad Ripple Village Association, an organization of Broad Ripple merchants and residents, came out against the plan. Then the Greater Broad Ripple Community Coalition, a group that was formed by residents who thought the BRVA was too soft on developers, followed suit. Yard signs, the tragic indicator of a neighborhood in decline, started showing up throughout the village, protesting over-development.

Undeterred, the Kosenes took their proposal before a hearing examiner for the zoning board. Incredibly, this public servant had the temerity to pay attention to the 1997 planning document, and denied their petition. The Kosenes were then forced to appeal to the full zoning board, where force of habit was able to reassert itself with a 4-3 vote in the Kosenes' favor.

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it. The Kosenes knew they could count on Broad Ripple's City-County councilman, Jim Bradford, for support. Bradford's favorite animal, it's been rumored, is the bulldozer. But Joanne Sanders, councilor-at-large, lives in Broad Ripple, and she used her position to "call down" the petition for a variance, in effect forcing the case to go before the City-County Council, a step that is rarely taken.

On Feb. 28, a town hall meeting was called to order in Broad Ripple. Over 200 people showed up. I was there to beg people to raise their hands when they wanted to speak, which, to an extraordinary degree, they were willing to do. Although the Kosenes were not there, nor was Councilman Bradford, there were representatives from the Department of Metropolitan Development and the Mayor's Office in attendance. This was the first town hall meeting held in Broad Ripple in recent memory. The people there turned out by way of expressing their opposition to the favor K and K were trying to do for their community. The meeting was orderly and public comments, while often passionate, were expressed in tones suitable for most family gatherings. This looked dangerously like democracy in action.

That spirit carried over to the City-County Council meeting the following week. The chamber was packed with Broad Ripple citizens, who apparently had nothing better to do than go downtown on a week night to show how much they cared about their neighborhood. Among the people who spoke were the neighborhood's Republican committeeman, who said his canvassing indicated a vast majority of people opposed the development, and the head of greenways, who said the development would encroach on the Monon Trail.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. It would have taken 18 votes to stop the Kosenes building their new condos. The effort fell four votes short. Once again, Indianapolis was made safe from democracy.

But let this be a lesson to us all, particularly in an election year. It's one thing to talk about the importance of citizen participation, about getting people off their duffs and into the voting booth. And it's all well and good to say we need better education, so that people will take the time to learn about things affecting their communities. But heaven help us if they actually do these things. They could make it awfully difficult for those who know better to go about the business of the city's business, which, after all, is none of their business. Got that?


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