City trammels public process The Simon Property Group recently revised the design for the exterior of its office building, which is slated to occupy part of Capitol Commons Plaza, just south of the state Capitol. This comes just prior to the start of construction, and was recommended by Simon’s new local architect, who replaced an Atlanta-based firm. The façade was redesigned to better conform to the existing character of nearby landmarks.
Yet at an Oct. 6 public hearing, the Metropolitan Development Commission (MDC) was broadly assured by a Simon executive, his architect and city officials that the building’s design was fully sensitive to the Statehouse and surrounding buildings. Thus the design change comes as a major surprise. It also invites a look back (and forward) with respect to citizen involvement in development issues in our city.
Beginning last June, many citizens wrote to the newspapers and to Mayor Peterson to protest his plan to give part of the public plaza to Simon for its 15-story building. Many also signed petitions opposing the giveaway of the priceless open space plaza (which connects the Statehouse and the Convention Center) and $20 million in other public subsidies.
This most recent public land giveaway well illustrates how our city officials have failed to provide an open, inclusive and reasoned public process. Instead, they opted to cater to the highly profitable Simon company, which is the largest owner of shopping malls in the country.
Despite the opposition, Simon’s corporate headquarters was on a fast-track for city board approvals from the very beginning. The city’s planners and architects weren’t even allowed by the mayor’s economic development staff to review the proposed project before the deal was publicly announced by Peterson.
Here’s another example. In June, just two days after Mayor Peterson announced the deal, the development commission hurriedly adopted an amendment to the new Regional Center 2020 Plan for the downtown. The amendment authorized an office building in the public plaza, which is shown on the city’s new plan as a “public park.”
While the city may have technically complied with the legal requirements for publishing the notice of the June 2 public hearing in the Legal Notices section of the newspaper, it’s clear the public was not aware of the significance of that commission meeting, the city’s hasty action to amend the official plan or the plan’s connection to the Simon deal. Thus there was no opposition present at the hearing.
On Oct. 6, the MDC met again to hear an appeal filed in response to the city planning agency’s approval of the initial design for the Simon building. The Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations and Citizens for a Better Future raised concerns about the proposal, including strong objections about the taking of the public plaza, which, by the terms of a previous agreement between the city, the Capital Improvements Board (a city board) and the Westin Hotel developer, was to remain an open space vista and public plaza linking the Convention Center and the state Capitol. These objections were rebuffed and the MDC unanimously supported the design.
In addition, the Indiana Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects complained in a letter to Mayor Peterson that allowing Simon to build its headquarters on prime urban parkland sets an “unfortunate precedent.” Referring to the lack of public input in the process, the group also asked, “Would this be the preferred decision if opportunity had been given to the citizens of Indianapolis to provide input on the potential loss of this public space?”
The group also urged Mayor Peterson to immediately reinstitute an ordinance invalidated by the Republican administration of Steve Goldsmith that required a public hearing for any city proposal to dispose of major public open space or right-of-way. The mayor denied their request.
It’s ironic that in 1996, Councilor Steve Tally, a Democrat who is now president of the City-County Council, proposed a measure which would have required a public hearing before public property disposition by a city agency. That proposal was voted down by the then-Republican council majority. But now that Councilor Talley’s Democrat Party controls the council, and now that he’s expected to support the mayor’s plan to give prime public land to the Simons, he has conveniently forgotten the need to provide an open and fair public process.
In fact, he restricted public comment at his June 28 committee hearing on the Simon matter. He rudely cut off the testimony of the representative from the Indiana Alliance for Democracy who attempted to cite a university study about the limited value of tax abatements and other corporate welfare by municipalities. Chairman Tally told Dr. Jack Miller that he didn’t think the study was relevant to the Simon matter. However, Tally hadn’t even given Miller the chance to describe the study.
Indianapolis citizens don’t deserve such shabby treatment from their elected representatives when they try to question the continuing corporate giveaways and parkland takeaways. Simon’s recent changes to the façade will not compensate the public realm for the loss of this priceless plaza land and the loss of part of the soul of the city.