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P3s and Placemaking: Shaping the Future of Indianapolis

February 1, 2017

Indianapolis’ first ever deputy mayor for community development, Jeff Bennett, recently addressed members of ULI Indiana at its 2017 Breakfast Series, hosted by Katz, Sapper & Miller and presented by Krieg DeVault.

Forty years ago, Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut coined the phrase, “You cannot be a suburb of nothing,” highlighting Indianapolis’ lack of a strong identity and vibrant downtown and using it as a motivator for growth. The last four decades of subsequent downtown development have been wildly successful. Today, Jeff Bennett and his colleagues are pressing forward with the idea that “you cannot be a downtown of nothing.” The task now at hand for the city’s administration is to take the tools used to revitalize downtown and put them to work in the city’s underserved areas.

Public Private Partnerships and Targeted Development

A key tool in the city’s toolbox is public private partnerships, or P3s. Outside the many technical nuances of these agreements, Bennett says one unique approach the city and its partner developers have recently taken is to involve the community in the discussion and planning surrounding the execution of these deals. For example, the now-vacated General Motors stamping plant site has been proposed as the location of several developments that haven’t taken wing. Recently, the city and the entity that owns the land started asking members from the surrounding community what they wanted to see on the site. The response has been powerful and enlightening. “You get a very different result when you ask communities what they want, rather than forcing them to fight you for it,” Bennett said.

The city is also leveraging P3s to target development of key areas. “If you focus intense investment in a tight geographic area for a period, people will buy in,” Bennett said. Despite that buy-in, he pointed out that decision-makers and developers see the needle moving more slowly than they would like. “Sometimes year-by-year you are just moving the market one street in each direction,” he said. To spur growth, perhaps at a faster rate, it is important for Indianapolis to strategically leverage assets like the $55 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation the city received from the federal government on Jan. 24. Applied to the right census tracts through the right avenues, Bennett and his colleagues believe the improvements in at-risk areas from that credit could attract triple the amount or more in private investment.

Maintaining a Healthy System

Bennett touched on several types of development that are critical to the sustained health of a community, among them parks, venues for the arts, and a robust public transit system, all areas Indianapolis is emphasizing in its plan for the future. The city is also toying with the idea of planning some urban developments on non-zoned parcels with input from the community. That way, the sites can take whatever shape the community, the city, and the developer agree is best for the future of the area.

While some might hear all this and cry “gentrification,” Bennett revealed that only two percent of residents in the city have been impacted by gentrification in neighborhoods in and around downtown Indianapolis, and these are neighborhoods where extensive redevelopment has already occurred.

Far more concerning, he continued, are the 30 percent of Circle City residents whose home values and incomes are declining. “It used to be you could walk out of high school in Indianapolis and have a good paying job. Today, that is no longer the case. Tens of thousands of jobs have left this city.” Bennett says answering this problem requires an “everything approach.” Clearly, he and his colleagues in city government are well on their way to developing one.

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