The Justice Center, Again

Far be it from me to quibble when the Indianapolis Star actually engages in journalism. And it did so last Sunday, twice on the front page (!)–with a report on charter schools (they get more money per pupil than public schools, and on average perform more poorly. I know, it’s a shock…) and a lengthy and informative piece on the pros and cons of the Justice Center proposal.

Kudos on actually digging in and reporting on matters that should concern taxpayers.

That said, the report on the Justice Center missed a pretty critical issue: its design. IBJ columnist Bruce Race has been all over this, as has IndyCan, a local civic group concerned about the impact of the proposed design on criminal justice issues.

Design isn’t just about the way buildings look–although that’s important, too. It’s about the way they function, about what architects call “the program.” In your house, the program addresses things like storage, “flow,” and convenience based upon the way you live. In public buildings, the program needs to take all these things into account, plus the specific ways in which the public entity operates; it also needs to consider the impact of the building or buildings on the city and surrounding neighborhood(s). One reason an earlier proposal to locate the Justice Center at the old airport was so roundly criticized wasn’t just that it would have been incredibly inconvenient for the people most likely to use it, but that the location would have had a substantial, negative effect on occupancy of office buildings in the downtown core, and on the vitality of a downtown we’ve spent years and billions of dollars reinvigorating.

We need a Justice Center. But it needs to be thoughtfully designed to complement our long-term strategy for downtown, to integrate court and jail functions in the most seamless possible fashion, and to enhance the aesthetics of the surrounding area.

I’ve previously raised concerns about the financing mechanism, the secrecy of the process, and the nature of the incentives involved (the Administration says that placing responsibility for long-term maintenance on the developer will encourage the use of better materials, but it’s just as likely to encourage corner-cutting decisions made for the convenience of the developer rather than the public tenants). And what happens if–after obtaining payment for the construction phase– the developer defaults? (Toll Road, anyone?) What are our options?

My point is not that the deal is a bad one. My point is: we don’t know. 

A deal this complex and expensive, intended to span this long a time-frame, needs to be done right. That means it needs to be thoroughly vetted by all stakeholders. I get suspicious when we’re given a short window within which to commit vast amounts of public money, and when the purported need for speed is based upon dark warnings that we need to move quickly in order to “lock in” benefits we aren’t even sure are there.

We can’t afford another parking meter giveaway.


  1. I understand the NEED for a new justice center in this city; and it should meet the needs and requirements for those who will be employed within the system and the public it is SUPPOSED to be serving. My own case has me questioning what is currently going on in and outside of the City-County Building regarding the Criminal Justice System. As many of you know I was attacked, injured and robbed on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning last April 21st. The fourth continuance date is now August 17th; one year and four months later. Victims have no rights – but that is another issue. My confusion begins with the lack of reasonable charges regarding all four elderly victims of Mark and Lindsey Jones and the current system overseeing this case and others in the Prosecutor’s Office. The primary deputy prosecutor on this case is located downtown on Ohio Street; who now occupies what used to be the Prosecutor’s Office in the C/C Building convenient to the courts? The supervisor of this deputy prosecutor is located in the former Eastgate Shopping Center at East Washington Street and Shadeland Avenue; am I the only one who questions this system? Necessary contact and communication must be difficult and slow between employees of the same branch of local government when located miles apart. How much of our tax dollars is being wasted on the current system and how is it effecting criminal justice in general?

  2. Were we to stop locking up people on Marijuana charges, maybe we could get by with a smaller, cheaper facility?

  3. I plead ignorance about Indy’s problems. It sounds like it’s hard enough for those of you actual stake holders to be informed.

    It strikes me though that vetting the design should be part of the design or development contract. That professional engineers ought to be paid to work with the community to propose and get feedback on their ideas and work towards consensus on all major aspects of the design while they’re computer models and not concrete and steel.

    I wonder why that doesn’t seem to be the case?

  4. The whole idea on the “Justice Center” and the ROC was Night and Fog, and Smoke and Mirrors. The process on both of these projects lacks transparency. The Ballard Regime and his fellow travelers seem intent on taking on the role of the Wizard of Oz.

  5. One of the problems is the “pay to play” system that is used at both the state and local levels. Bidders are selected on the merits of their political donations.

  6. Builders and architects do a much better job when they constantly engage the future users of the facility to be built. Attention to function first, then form as well, serves everyone better.

    My niece is a school principal in California. When her old school was to be replaced by new construction, she engaged her staff and local parents on what would make the building MOST functional, cost-effective, and safe for them and the students, and she was very assertive that the architects and builders address the considerations of those who would use the building the most. As a result of her efforts, the building made very efficient use of square footage; it was more functional and convenient; it enabled better monitoring and flow of students and visitors which also increased security; it was easy to clean, maintain, and climate-control; and everyone took pride in and loved working in and coming to their new building. It was also a lesson in democracy. When more stakeholders were engaged and respected, more stakeholders benefitted.

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