Tag Archives: Red Line

How Important Do You Think You Are?

Every once in a while, we all run into someone who has been successful at something, generated some positive PR, and let it go to his head. (I say “his” advisedly–although I’ve encountered a few women like this, it generally has been a dude.)

It’s a bad idea to believe your own media hype. It can foster a misplaced sense of entitlement.

It isn’t only individuals who fall into the trap of thinking that–since they have earned praise for doing X–they are entitled to do Y and Z (and sometimes A,B and C…) Organizations can be equally self-important.  My last column for the Indiana Business Journal considered an Indianapolis example: the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

For those of you who live elsewhere, I should explain that the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has long been one of our city’s points of pride. It’s the largest children’s museum in the country, and it has been a lure for tourists and a source of bragging rights for locals. But as my grandmother might have put it, over the years it has gotten “too big for its britches.”

The museum is located in a low-income neighborhood on the near north side of the city. These days, admission fees range from $12 to $35—far more than most of the low-income families and children in its neighborhood can manage, and there are few free days.

The museum’s structure fronts on Illinois Street, a one-way north thoroughfare, and backs onto Meridian Street, a parallel and immensely significant north-south corridor. A drive past the museum on Illinois takes you past its massive parking garage and a seemingly endless string of parking lots on real estate it has purchased and cleared over the years. (Among the structures demolished in the neighborhood was an architecturally notable—and affordable—apartment building.)

The bleak transformation of the neighborhood surrounding the ever-expanding museum is one thing; the museum’s total indifference to the significance of Meridian Street and the transit goals of the city is another.

Most recently, the museum built a “Sports Legends Experience” (an enormous children’s playground) fronting Meridian Street. What the garish “Experience” has to do with the mission of a museum is a legitimate question (and a number of people have asked it), but a far more pertinent one is why the museum thought this was an appropriate use of this particular real estate.

Meridian isn’t just the primary north-south street in Indianapolis; it has long been considered one of the most prestigious residential streets in the state. Even the decades of suburbanization didn’t dim its importance. As this is written, significant sums are being spent to upgrade the stately apartments directly across the street from the unfortunate playground; just a few doors down is an architectural gem, the Drake, which the museum has purchased and proposes to demolish and replace with–wait for it!– yet another parking lot.

On Meridian Street. Where the Red Line–Indianapolis’ first effort at a modern and efficient rapid-transit line– just opened, and where the city administration is prioritizing residential density to support it.

Why the museum acquired the Drake and an adjacent structure is unknown. It certainly doesn’t need more parking (and if it did, it could build another garage on one of the multiple lots it already owns). Museum officials say they issued an RFP, but no developers emerged who wanted to buy and restore the Drake; however, the last time I checked, the museum was stonewalling efforts by the city and Indiana Landmarks (our historic preservation organization) to see that RFP.

The City and local Community Development Corporations have offered to participate financially in rehabilitation of the Drake. Indiana Landmarks has identified potential bidders who could buy and restore the building. An architect friend of mine is working with a developer who has demonstrated capacity and a track record, and who wants to convert the Drake into a boutique hotel.

They have all been rebuffed.

Why the museum is so determined to demolish the historically-significant Drake—especially considering the professed absence of plans for long-range use of the real estate, and despite incompatible priorities of the city– is mystifying.

For many years, the Children’s Museum has been an important asset to Indianapolis. But over the years, that status has encouraged it to act with impunity—to dominate its neighborhood, demolish much of that neighborhood’s built environment, engage in various competitions with for-profit venues, and generally go about its business with little or no regard for the priorities and interests of the city and its residents.

Demolishing the Drake and further mutilating the Meridian streetscape should be a step too far.

The museum’s arrogance  is a textbook example of how an asset becomes a liability.

Ideology versus Scholarship

One of the most irritating aspects of contemporary policy debates is the lack of respect for evidence, and the willingness–even eagerness– to cherry-pick information. (This intellectual dishonesty can be treacherous for academic researchers who are increasingly approached by ideologically-motivated funders wanting to buy specific results rather than honest analyses.)

In Indianapolis, we are seeing an example of this tactic in connection with the proposal to improve our public transportation system, beginning with a bus rapid-transit project called the Red Line.

Let me be clear: people who oppose the project may have perfectly good reasons for that opposition. I happen to support the Red Line, but I am certainly not suggesting that all opposition is dishonest or disingenuous.

Some, however, is.

The Indianapolis Star reports that opponents of the Red Line commissioned a “study” from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Cato, of course, is a libertarian think-tank opposed to much of what governments do. I find them congenial on issues of civil liberties, but disagree with their resistance to virtually all regulatory efforts and social welfare programs. (I might note that the largest financial supporters of Cato have been the Koch Brothers.)

Mr. O’Toole comes with a “point of view” and a reputation as an opponent of mass transit; he makes his living speaking and writing as an “anti-transit expert.” That wouldn’t disqualify his argument if he had tendered an accurate report, but apparently this was a “cut and paste” job. It certainly displays a lack of familiarity with Indianapolis.

A few observations:

  • He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile. The Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, which tracks these numbers, finds that in just the 2.8 square miles around the Circle, there are more than 120,000 workers  (an employment density of 42,000 per square mile). The total number of downtown workers is actually 137,000.
  • He says that IndyGo has “not made any effort” to determine the feasibility of this effort or the possible alternatives. Had he done even a cursory investigation, he’d have found that this proposal is the end result of decades of study–including a 2013 analysis of alternatives.
  • He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now, and the additional thousands who are flocking to new housing options in the urban core (in contradiction to his assertion that there is “little demand” for urban living). Ten percent of those moving into the booming downtown housing market do not own cars, and have expressed a preference for public transportation.
  • His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient. (As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority  supporting this facile dismissal.)
  • He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.” (If you don’t happen to be one of those lucky folks, well, tough. File that one under “let them eat cake.”) Actual scholarship supports a rather different thesis: current routes and too-long headways discourage use by people who would opt for transit if it was more frequent and dependable.
  • He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal. He has only been in Indianapolis twice in 30 years, so perhaps he didn’t hear that IPL’s Harding Street plant recently switched from coal to natural gas. Or that IndyGo has access to solar arrays to power its electric fleet.) It’s just more of those pesky facts about Indianapolis that are inconvenient for his “analysis.”

I could go on. And on.

Suffice it to say that Mr. O’Toole is a propagandist, not a researcher. (Interestingly, O’Toole recently argued against light rail with a commentary titled “Rapid-Bus Systems a Smarter Investment Than Light Rail in U.S.” Blatant inconsistencies were easier to hide before Google.)

What O’Toole does provide is an example–as if we needed another one–of today’s “spin it to win it” approach to policy argumentation. It’s an approach that can be particularly effective when, as here, an honest debate requires accurate data and background information that most citizens are unlikely to have.

What was that famous line from Pat Moynahan? We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. Someone should tell Mr. O’Toole.