Twin Aire waits to see what Community Justice Campus will bring

Indianapolis broke ground on its nearly $600 million law enforcement and judiciary hub nearly three years ago. Now, seven months before the bulk of the Community Justice Campus opens in the Twin Aire neighborhood southeast of downtown, residents are waiting to see if the promise of accompanying redevelopment comes to pass.

A new courthouse, jail and sheriff’s office are set to be fully open by December, according to Sarah S. Riordan, executive director and general counsel at The Indianapolis Local Public Improvement Bond Bank. A 60-bed Assessment and Intervention Center, an alternative to jail for low-level, non-violent arrestees struggling with mental illness or addiction, opened last December.

Neighborhood leaders, not-for-profit executives and Hogsett administration representatives alike applaud a collaborative development-planning process focused on community engagement, with the hope of attracting more businesses and jobs to the area. But talks to address overnight jail releases have taken months, and as development in the neighborhood grows, residents worry about potential gentrification.

The campus is set to unify the city’s law enforcement and judiciary operations, currently scattered among two jails, several floors of the City-County Building and a range of other buildings. Mark Bode, spokesman for Mayor Joe Hogsett, said in an email that the original $575 million in bond proceeds for the courthouse and jail will be spent by the end of the year, along with additional money for non-bondable and operational costs.

It’s a massive addition to and major investment in the Twin Aire neighborhood and has already sparked interest in the community.

“We were once very invisible,” said Jude Odell, a 30-year Twin Aire resident who founded the neighborhood’s community group more than a decade ago and still leads it today. But the neighborhood is becoming more visible, she said, due in part to the Community Justice Campus.

The Indianapolis branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. picked Twin Aire to be one of five neighborhoods in its Great Places community development and investment initiative in December 2016, according to LISC Communications Officer Megan Bulla. A month later, the Hogsett administration announced it had chosen the former Citizens Energy coke plant at 2900 Prospect St. as the CJC site.

A Great Places strategy for Twin Aire, released in 2018, included a development plan built around the campus, outlining dozens of potential commercial, transportation and infrastructure projects.

Odell, like other neighborhood-group and not-for-profit leaders, said she originally hoped the deal would bring businesses and jobs to the neighborhood, plus infrastructure improvements, more walkable streets and amenities like child care. Annual median household income in the 46203 ZIP code, where Twin Aire is located, was more than $10,000 below the rest of Marion County in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Engaging a community

Six community groups came together to form the loose Twin Aire Neighborhood Coalition in 2015, coordinated by Southeast Neighborhood Development, a not-for-profit community development corporation. In keeping with SEND’s focus on resident-led work, coalition heads, as well as not-for-profit and city leaders, meet regularly at both public and leadership-only meetings to talk things through and get community feedback.

And that feedback has been used. When neighborhood leaders and residents balked at the project’s original name, it was switched.

“In the beginning, they were calling it the Criminal Justice Campus,” Odell said. “I was like, ‘Excuse me, but we don’t want to be ‘Twin Aire Criminal’ anything.’ And it changed to Community Justice Campus, which is much better.”

Local leaders also got to weigh in on designs for the exterior of the Assessment and Intervention Center, said Harlon Wilson, a former My Christian Park Neighborhood Association president. Christian Park is just east of Twin Aire, and both community groups are part of the coalition.

Wilson called the process “one effort where I, as a community leader, felt my contribution of ideas was translated into reality.” He is also a real estate broker at his company, Home Real Estate Solutions, and is founder, president and CEO at sister investment company Home Redevelopment Solutions.

Developers also appear serious about meeting city goals to hire local contractors owned by underrepresented groups. IBJ reported last July theindianalawyer.com/articles/justice-center-project-hitting-minority-contracting-targets-but-are-they-too-low that the campus was on track to hit the contracting targets for certified Indianapolis businesses owned by non-white people, women, veterans and disabled people.

The organizations behind an upcoming Community Justice Campus project are going further, aiming to pick up contractors based out of Twin Aire specifically.

“What we want to do is be purposeful, and make sure everybody in the Twin Aire area of Indianapolis knows about the project,” said David McMath, a project manager at Browning Investments, which is developing an office building at the northwest corner of the campus in a joint venture with Davis & Associates. “… We want to make sure that those neighborhoods have that opportunity to participate.”

The office building will house the Marion County Superior Court’s Probation Department and Public Defender Agency, according to Riordan, of the bond bank. Food and beverage retailers are expected to fill space on the first floor, said Browning developer Kim Reeves. Plans for a second office building, meant to contain the Prosecutor’s Office and privately leasable office space, are still up in the air, according to Reeves and the mayor’s spokesman.

Representatives for Browning Davis have regularly attended community group meetings before and during the pandemic, McMath said, in an effort to spread the word to neighborhood businesses.

Owning problems

Some issues have been stickier than the campus name.

Residents don’t want bail-bond locations close to their homes, but the offices need to be accessible to people at the Community Justice Campus. The Great Places development plan for Twin Aire suggested putting the bail bonds in retail space north of the campus, but in interviews, neighborhood leaders still brought up the businesses as concerns.

Even thornier are overnight jail releases, and the possibility that a lack of transportation options could strand people in Twin Aire, potentially adding to the neighborhood’s growing homeless population.

“We’ve talked with the sheriff’s office, and they sent us a lot of graphs of how many people are released during those hours and it came out to an average of about 70 a week,” Odell said. “And they did not think that that really presented a problem.”

The number of overnight releases varies throughout the year, according to Bode, the mayor’s spokesman, but could hit a dozen people daily “at the height of the busy season in the summer.” Many have cellphones they can use to get a ride, or can get access to a phone call through the jail.

But it’s harder to get a ride from a friend or family member overnight, Odell said, and some newly released people might not have anyone to call.

Bode said a one-way cab-voucher program has been available to take people released from jail outside of IndyGo service hours to a homeless shelter, but he added that it was “used a handful of times per year” and has been inactive for “some months.”

The city is exploring additional transportation options, he said in an email to IBJ. 

What could help is more information and continued coordination, said Prospect Falls Neighborhood Association leader Tom Jackson, since the Sheriff’s Office said it hasn’t traditionally tracked what happens after people are released from jail. Prospect Falls lies southwest of Twin Aire, though it’s sometimes lumped in with Fountain Square. The community group is a Twin Aire coalition member organization.

“Really starting to understand the problem and getting better visibility to how big this could be is, I think, one of the steps that, in conjunction with the city and the sheriff’s department, that neighborhoods need to work closely on,” Jackson said. “That’s what we’re starting to put more pressure on, because, ‘We don’t know what happens after (a release)’ isn’t good enough for us.”

SEND Executive Director Kelli Mirgeaux said her organization has convened months of meetings, still ongoing, among residents, city officials, elected leaders and others.

Neighborhood leaders were conflicted on the progress.

“The city has definitely done a good job of engaging the community from a communication standpoint, and there have been consistent meetings since this project was inaugurated between the neighborhoods,” Jackson said. “… I think at times, there’s, ‘Oh no, that’s the sheriff’s issue,’ ‘Oh no, that’s transportation.’ The ownership, and trying to get resolution when you have multiple parties involved, at times it’s been difficult.”

“I told them (at) the last (leadership) meeting, ‘I know I sound like a broken record and you’re really tired of hearing me talk about this, but I’m not stopping,’” Odell said. “Different people are supposed to be doing different things, but nothing is happening. It’s absolutely current and it’s going to stay current until we come up with some kind of a plan.”

Development in progress?

Economic development was a major motivator for neighborhood acceptance of the Community Justice Campus, and two sites were consistently top-of-mind for neighborhood and not-for-profit leaders: a nearly 96,000-square-foot strip mall across Pleasant Run Parkway from the campus, anchored by a Kroger, and the former drive-in site southwest of the strip mall.

The Great Places strategy for Twin Aire called for an expanded grocery and an “updated” strip mall layout with more pedestrian-friendly rear parking. Kroger was the third-biggest employer in the study area with 65 employees, according to the report.

But, as IBJ reported in 2018, that recommendation hinges on the worn strip mall’s out-of-state owner, Mervyn Dukatt, principal at Chicago-based Mer Car Corp. Records from the Marion County Assessor’s Office show the property’s value dipped more than $33,000, from $2.88 million in 2019 to $2.84 million in 2020. The company did not return a request for comment.

The city does now own the former Twin Aire drive-in site and “looks forward to collaborating with residents on envisioning a future for that space that makes it an asset for the community,” Bode said.

The city plans to issue a request for information later this year, he added, in collaboration with community partners.

The attention on Twin Aire is bringing other long-awaited fixes.

Wilson credited the new focus for his neighborhood group’s success in launching an initiative to clear a decade’s worth of overgrown, invasive foliage from the 5.5 acres of land alongside the Pleasant Run waterway. Begun in 2019, the plan grew into an almost $20,000 project involving EcoLogic, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Reconnecting to Our Waterways and other community, city and business partners, according to a Patronicity crowdfunding page.

As part of CJC-related infrastructure investments, a two-lane roundabout is set to replace an accident-prone intersection at Southeastern Avenue, English Avenue and Rural Street that local residents call “dysfunction junction.”

Throughout this year and early 2022, residents will see sections of nearby roads repaved, widened and even reconstructed, along with a multi-use path along Southeastern Avenue, sidewalks, an enclosed sewer system and underground stormwater retention, according to a project newsletter.

American Structurepoint is designing the infrastructure improvements, with Indy’s Department of Public Works overseeing.

Big programs are also in the works. Neighborhood services provider Southeast Community Services landed a nearly $4.1 million Lilly Endowment grant in March for a Twin Aire-specific “Family Success Initiative,” including housing referrals, job training and early childhood education. The not-for-profit is also planning a workforce reentry program, set to launch early next year, to help people learn how to build a resume, look for jobs and prepare for interviews after release from jail, said Executive Director Peggy Frame. SEND is running a feasibility study for a business incubator or accelerator program to give area entrepreneurs a boost, according to Mirgeaux.

Some projects have timelines, but other plans exist mostly on paper for now.

“Nothing is concrete, really,” Odell said about the Twin Aire development plans in general. “Besides the big campus going in — that’s pretty amazing — everything feels about the same,” except for what she described as speculative housing prices.

How to ‘age in place’

Back in 2018, “you could buy a duplex in that area for ($30,000 or $40,000). Now, the numbers are more like ($70,000 or $80,000), or more, for a duplex or a small single-family (home),” said Ryan Rominger, who owns property management and leasing company Intrigue Indy. Rominger is also a real estate broker at Plat Collective.

Phil Kirk, another Plat Collective broker, recently joined forces with a longtime friend to create more affordable-housing options in the area. Kirk’s team raises money through its network to acquire dilapidated, unlivable properties, fix them up and sell them in the $125,000 to $175,000 range to keep them accessible to buyers who can’t keep up with rising property prices.

But already, Kirk sees a time limit on the work. He anticipates major changes in the area in three to five years.

“It seems like almost every neighborhood goes through a cycle where the entry point is low and then that number begins to climb and climb as demand increases,” he said. “… We do feel a sense right now of urgency to try to capitalize on the opportunity we have, to provide as much affordable, quality and safe inventory for buyers, specifically buyers who are below the median-income household thresholds.”

Others with less equity-oriented intentions are already targeting residents. Over the last year and a half, Odell said, she’s been inundated with postcards and phone calls advertising quick home sales for cash. She and Wilson both said they throw the mass-produced letters away but worried that less-informed, cash-strapped homeowners could get taken advantage of.

The key is educating homeowners so they can make informed decisions, neighborhood leaders said, because their houses are often their biggest financial asset.

A primary goal of Twin Aire revitalization is helping residents “age in place.” But without careful planning, longtime inhabitants could see themselves pushed out by gentrification, like nearby Fountain Square.

“When developers kind of swoop in and level homes, or pour a lot of money into them, it can not only have a negative impact on some of these long-term residents’ property taxes, but it can also feel like the culture and identity of a neighborhood is being destroyed,” said Kirk, who lives in the Kennedy-King neighborhood north of East 16th Street and loves the sense of history and community there.

Despite the uncertainties and long problem-solving processes involved in the new development, Odell ultimately decided to stick it out.

“I was going to move a few years ago. … I did some house-hunting and looking, but I decided that I’ve been here all this time and put all this work into this house and yard, and I’ve been through all the really hard parts of Twin Aire,” she said. “Now, everything’s coming here. … I’m going to stay and see what happens.”•

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