Lawyers, bail bonds firms weighing whether to move with courts

In a city spread across 360 square miles, three miles may not seem like many.

That’s how far Marion County’s courts will move by December 2021, when employees finish relocating from the City-County Building downtown to the $580 million Community Justice Campus in the Twin Aire neighborhood.

But the 15-minute drive brings new worries and could take away old customers for the attorneys, bail bonds firms and restaurant owners who have spent years in buildings steps away from the courts’ downtown base.

Now, they face new choices: stay, follow or move elsewhere. Relocating is a no-brainer to some businesses that rely on walk-ins. But skepticism about the new site and a shift to remote court meetings outweigh or erase a need to move for others.

Court employees are expected to relocate in phases during the fourth quarter, according to Sarah S. Riordan, executive director and general counsel at The Indianapolis Local Public Bond Bank, which has been handling many of the project details. The new courthouse is still under construction, but will be fully operational by Dec. 31, 2021, Riordan said.

Old friends, new trends

History runs deep downtown, where a community of court-centric businesses has developed over decades.

“My thought process at the moment is to remain where I’m at, because that’s where all the attorneys are at … since I’m known for being at this location,” said J.P. Penn, owner of J.P. Bail Bonding. He’s been at 114 N. Delaware St. for more than 15 years, since 2006.

John Townsend III, an attorney at Townsend & Townsend, has only been in his current spot at 151 N. Delaware St. since 2016, but said that the firm has been located nearby since his great-grandfather founded the business in the 1940s.

“I literally stand up from my desk, walk into the City-County Building and I can be in the courtroom in less than 10 minutes,” Townsend said.

“The reason why I’ve come downtown for work every day for the past 25 years is because it’s where the courts are,” he added. “I can park my car and walk everywhere for lunch or for court, court reporters’ offices, other attorneys’ offices, if we need to do meetings or depositions.”

One building, at 110 N. Delaware St., houses a group of attorneys that went to law school together in the early 1970s and now practice law just doors away from each other.

Joshua Levin, an attorney at Levin & Diehl, is a newcomer there. He’s been at 110 N. Delaware St. for about three years, and isn’t willing to leave a place packed with experienced attorneys.

“Right now, we are in a building with … guys who have been doing this for 40 years, who have a wealth of experience between them,” Levin said. “With that kind of foothold in the legal community, I would be making a mistake by leaving that.”

Industry changes could make it easier to avoid a change.

The increasing prevalence of virtual meetings, a pandemic-driven shift, means there’s often no downtown driving involved to get to a meeting.

It “depends on the court’s willingness to have virtual hearings whenever possible,” Levin said. “If there was a silver lining from this whole pandemic era, it’s that we were able to show that remote hearings are absolutely more efficient. If those continue, I don’t think location is going to be a huge issue.”

The new reliance on technology can be stressful for the older attorneys, said Tom Kuntz, an attorney at Kuntz Law Office, who’s been at 110 N. Delaware St. for more than 45 years.

“I have to balance my lack of computer skills,” he said, but joked, “I guess it keeps me from getting Alzheimer’s.”

And though some bail bondsmen worry about losing walk-in business, Penn said changes in the bail industry have already had a bigger impact than the move will. Marion County is relying increasingly on pay-in-full cash bonds over the surety bonds that businesses like Penn’s provide. That means word of mouth centered on a stable location might mean more.

Tough choices

At Indianapolis City Market, which has been surrounded by construction for more than a year, some businesses have already fled.

The market is negotiating the terms of a lease buyout with two tenants, Executive Director Keisha Gray said at a board of directors committee hearing in early May.

Michael Gomez estimates that before the pandemic, three-quarters of his City Market barbecue joint’s customers were linked in some way to city-county government.

Many of those customers started working remotely during the pandemic. And now half of all employees at the City-County Building might never return. After the new justice campus opens, the downtown building will be left about 50% empty, according to the city.

Many of Gomez’s customers were “lawyers, admin[istrative] people, people that are going to court, people that are associated with the people going to court—all those things. That’s a lot of people, over and over again, every day,” he said. “That is what held the City Market together. That’s what kept us making money.”

“Without the courts, there’s no customers,” Gomez added.

His lease at the market is up in December, and he’s not sure whether he’ll stay or pack up.

City Market vendors expect to lose customers when the courts move to Twin Aire. (IBJ file photo)

Other businesses are considering heading out, but not to the new Community Justice Campus in the Twin Aire neighborhood.

Townsend said he’s thinking of putting an office in a northern suburb, to be closer to home, when his lease on North Delaware Street is up in 2023 or 2024.

Mark Applegate, an attorney at Applegate Law, who rents a space with Townsend, said he may follow to an office northward—or work from home in Broad Ripple. Even if there’s a court hearing, the commute could be a few minutes or a room away, Applegate said.

“I don’t think there’s any place there [in Twin Aire] to even have an office,” said Timothy Burns, a lawyer who’s been in his Delaware Street office since the 1970s. Burns is among those with no intention of packing up and is one of several co-owners of the building.

He and some other area attorneys say there’s a lack of commercial space immediately surrounding the Community Justice Campus. Much of the area nearby, outside a strip mall and a few commercial buildings, is residential.

There aren’t any formal plans to make zoning changes near the campus, according to the Department of Metropolitan Development.

“Due to the proximity of major arterial and connector streets—there is an existing mix of neighborhood and regional commercial uses that will border the Indianapolis-Marion County Community Justice Campus and ultimately revitalize the commercial nodes and support neighborhood goals for enhanced retail amenities,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Metropolitan Development in an emailed statement.

The campus may have office space available in the second of its “professional buildings,” but plans for that structure “are still fluid,” according to Riordan.

The buildings are being privately developed, so the city will be among those renting a space.

“The developer is contemplating leasing out to private tenants,” Riordan said.

Several attorneys said they considered relocating to Twin Aire, but dismissed the thought after driving through the area.

“I grew up not far from there. … It hasn’t gotten any better in the last 60 years,” Kuntz said. He recalled starting his paper route at East Raymond Street and South State Avenue, about two miles from what will be the campus.

“Our office is getting up in years. I thought, if I want to keep doing this, maybe I’ll relocate and buy a place there,” Kuntz said. “So I drove around and looked at the place, and said ‘No, I’m not doing this.’”

For Kuntz, the 15-minute drive to Twin Aire from downtown will be a personal inconvenience, but transportation could be a bigger issue for clients who can’t drive. While the City-County Building is a block and a five-minute walk from the Julia M. Carson Transit Center, options at the new campus appear more limited.

“What if they’ve got a DUI case and they’re not allowed to drive, or the person has a suspended license?” Kuntz asked. “Maybe there’ll be some buses there, but I’ve got a lot of clients who can’t afford to Uber places.”

The city is planning to build an IndyGo bus stop to serve the campus, but there isn’t a location or timeline for it yet, said Mayor’s Office spokesman Mark Bode in an email.

Filling vacancies

John Mavrikis, owner of Grecian Gardens, has been at City Market for 19 years. Mavrikis plans to stay, although he estimated that half his daily customers, pre-pandemic, came from the City-County Building.

“It’s going to hurt us,” Mavrikis said. “That’s obvious. … Unless they fill the City-County Building up with other agencies, and unless this [road] construction gets done somehow pretty quick.”

Construction on East Market Street is scheduled to wrap up in November, but plans to fill the City-County Building are still in the beginning stages.

The city is conducting an assessment on the building, alongside evaluations of the City Market and the old city hall, City-County Controller Ken Clark said. The assessment will be done by the end of June, and the city will start soliciting ideas from developers later in the summer, according to Clark.

The City-County Building vacancy, Clark added, “poses an opportunity for us to determine if this is still the best place for city-county government.”

Asked if the rest of the government could also leave the building, Clark said the decision will come down to a cost-benefit analysis. The City-County Building’s parking garage alone has about $8 million in deferred maintenance, he said. It would take even more to fix the rest of the structure enough to house local government for the decades to come.

Michael P. Sloan, owner and principal broker at Meridian Group Realty, also sees opportunity downtown.

“I think it’s going to give an opportunity to be much of the peripheral real estate of a City-County Building being backfilled with other, more traditional retail uses, restaurant uses or service uses that are not court-related,” Sloan said.

Sloan is a land broker that generally operates further north, but is also a co-owner of the 110 N. Delaware St. building.

“I could’ve put my office anywhere, but I put it downtown because I wanted to stay downtown,” Sloan said. “I moved there, to 110 N. Delaware, three years ago, and six months later, I bought into the building … because I believed in downtown.”

Compounding challenges

Across the street from Sloan, at the City Market, construction continues to cut vendors off from people who have come back downtown. Community Justice Campus relocation won’t be a concrete threat until the end of the year, about the time road construction is scheduled to let up.

“Restaurants in here are literally making $100, $150 a day,” Mavrikis, the Grecian Garden owner, said at a City Market board meeting May 17.

The board approved a new rent deferment program that day, which would let tenants pay either half their rent or 10% of their monthly gross revenue from June to December 2020. The board also passed a motion to seek financial help, like a loan, from the City-County Council if the program wipes out the organization’s cash flow.

In an interview, Mavrikis said he believed the board was being proactive and responsive, but that he was worried about taking on a loan.

Still, Mavrikis was all in, saying he would sign a 10-year lease for the investment stability if the City Market let him. Mavrikis has no other locations, and isn’t planning to open another, pandemic or not.

“Even now or a year from now, I’m not looking to open anything else,” he said. “I’m happy there.”

The uncertainty has other merchants working on their back-up plans. Gomez, for example, soft-opened another barbecue spot on East 10th Street in late April while he reconsiders the feasibility of staying at the market.

To cope with the courts’ relocation, Mavrikis planned to start a delivery service for downtown offices, run regular discounts for different companies or buildings and ramp up his catering.

“I believe in the City Market,” he said. “As a kid, I grew up there … and I know the potential that it has. It’s my livelihood and that’s where I want to be.”•

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