Survey shows downtown slips on safety, cleanliness

A view of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The annual meeting of Downtown Indy Inc. was intended as a celebration of everything that makes the Mile Square a vibrant place to live, work, shop and visit while providing the, “economic engine for the state.”

Such goodwill, though, was tempered by a DII survey that showed a bit of tarnish on the “crown jewel of Indianapolis” as Mayor Joe Hogsett likes to refer to the downtown area.

“Residents aren’t feeling as safe downtown,” read a DII report. “The perception of safety fell to 55 percent.”

“The rating of Downtown’s perception of cleanliness dropped again this year, to an all-time low of 59 percent. The historical trend in these ratings has been on a slow decline. In an open-ended, follow-up question, those who gave low cleanliness ratings say that it is because of trash.”

Justin Akers said he often visits and works downtown and agrees with those findings.

“If you go down to the canal late at night, there’s always people down there and they’re always robbing people, stealing people’s purses if they leave them on the benches.

“The canal always has trash in it. Downtown it’s the same thing. People will just walk up to you and try to start a fight with you.”

Akers said the prevalence of panhandlers and the homeless downtown adds to the perception that the city’s core can be a dirty and unsafe place.

“Its all you see around here. I think they should have a zero tolerance for the panhandling downtown. If you can give somebody a ticket for a seat belt, why can’t you give someone a ticket for panhandling? Everybody’s able to go out and put an application in and get a job.”

While panhandlers possess the same civil rights as the people who give them money, downtown Indy’s reputation as a haven for those seeking a handout is having a detrimental effect on the city’s convention business.

“We have also seen a dip in that clean and safe piece and that’s predominantly tied to the professional panhandling epidemic,” said Chris Gahl of VisitIndy which facilitates the attraction of 550 conventions a year to Indianapolis and does follow up interviews with meeting planners when they leave town. “When you start picking up on two or three times when visitors are saying, ‘Hey, why are there so many homeless in downtown Indianapolis?’ Our comeback to that right now is, ‘These are professional panhandlers.’”

A new approach to panhandling and the homeless and downtown maintenance and improvements and marketing are the goals of the proposed Economic Improvement District by DII.

The district would raise $3 million annually through a targeted levy on property owners in the Mile Square.

Launched last summer, the EID campaign is several months behind completion, stalled at 45% approval and facing a May 11 deadline.

“Well, the city’s not taking an official position and I wish Downtown Indy well in their efforts to come up with this funding,” said Mayor Hogsett after his keynote address. “The efforts that they’re making have not been completed yet.”

EID proponents say the fund would supplement, not replace, city spending, which Hogsett said might improve now that he has balanced the municipal budget.

If DII fails to reach its 51% approval threshold by the middle of next month to at least gain a hearing before the City County Council, any campaign reboot would result in an even higher goal as a new state law taking effect July 1 requires similar EIDs in the future to garner at least 60% support.

Thwarting passage of the EID is the refusal of several large downtown property owners, including hotels, corporate headquarters, apartment complexes and office buildings, to support the referendum.

One of those, the recently opened 360 Market Square complex on E. Market St., was built with $25 million in tax breaks and incentives to the developer Flaherty & Collins.

“I think it’s a sad state of affairs when they can so easily turn their back on the city that has given them so much,” said Councilman Zach Adamson, a democrat who routinely votes against such subsidies to builders. “My response always is, ‘What does the city get back in return? How does this translate to a benefit to the city?’

“I think it is a sad state of affairs when an entity can put the city in a bind for that kind of subsidy and then on the return side decline participation in maintaining the area that they are occupying.”

Hogsett said he is banking on the good corporate citizenship of property owners who refuse to support the EID, despite their insistence of tax breaks in the tens of millions of dollars before breaking ground on their projects.

“I hope that if that is in fact the case that they on their own are doing what is necessary to keep their own properties beautiful and invest in our city in other ways.”

Gahl of VisitIndy is in daily contact with Indianapolis’ leading hotels and is aware of which chains have endorsed EIDs in other cities but won’t lend such support here.

“An EID would help secure not only the future of downtown but help us grow and race ahead of the competition,” said Gahl. “Our downtown is the economic engine for the region, for the state. 42% of everyone who visits the state, visits Indianapolis, specifically the core of downtown.”

While some of the opponents of the Indianapolis EID have their national and international corporate headquarters located downtown, they support similar districts in other cities, according to Gahl.

“So there is a case to be had that these companies and corporations and hotels are participating in other cities, why not in Indianapolis?”

Lynne Peterson, President of the Indiana Apartment Association, represents Flaherty & Collins and other downtown apartment complex owners.

In response to a request for comment, in February Peterson wrote:

“Downtown Indy’s proposed Economic Improvement District (EID) has not demonstrated a real need for this new tax that will have an impact on affordability of rental properties within the mile square. The Downtown Indy EID petitions were sent over five months ago, and they have failed to gain the support needed. IAA has expressed concerns with the Downtown Indy proposal and question if organizers appropriately gauged community support prior to petitions being sent. Similar efforts to establish Economic Improvement Districts around the state have received overwhelming support and have been able to wrap up their petition drives in much shorter amounts of time. It is disappointing that Downtown Indy has yet again extended their deadline to achieve a minimum level of support within a small area of the city.”

Adamson, who represents the city’s near east side on the Council, echoed Peterson’s sentiment that the proposed EID supports only Downtown, a relatively small part of Indianapolis.

“They’re already getting a disproportionate amount of the resources from the city not only in police protection but street sweeping and maintenance and beautification,” he said. “A lot of neighborhoods don’t have a Downtown Inc. that will pick up the slack where they’ve left off.”