Irvington Plaza represents an ethical dilemma akin to the Louisiana Purchase

In 1803 the young United States purchased the Louisiana Territory. The purchase doubled the size of the country, at 828,000 new square miles and pushing the boundaries of the US beyond the Mississippi River for the first time. Except it almost didn’t happen because President Thomas Jefferson wasn’t convinced he had the authority to spend the $15 million.

This dilemma was eventually set aside, mostly out of national security fears. Jefferson knew he needed to decide quickly because waiting for a constitutional amendment would take too long. More importantly, Spain signed a secret treating with France in 1801 ceding the territory to France. If we didn’t buy the land, it could lead to war with a potentially hostile (and much stronger) nation.

A little closer to home, there’s a shopping center where the old Marsh used to be in Irvington Plaza. It’s on Washington Street on the eastern edge of Irvington. It’s likely an understatement to say everyone hates it. No one in the current City Council, Irvington Community Council, or Mayor’s office likes this place. IMPD is annoyed by it and frustrated by all the police runs. If there’s a shooting in Irvington, odds are it happened in that parking lot. You’d be hard-pressed to find a resident who likes the place.

And, let’s be blunt: there’s a lot to dislike about the Plaza. It is the perfect example of “things moderately wealthy people don’t like”: pawn shops, tobacco shops, a beauty school, check cashing, a flea market, furniture rental, and fast food. Urbanists hate it because it’s a big, ugly, squat building that was clearly built for a different time. The parking lot, which is almost always 100% empty today, is massive and pushes the one thing people might like (the Dairy Queen) so far back in the corner you’d barely know it’s there.

The Urban Land Institute used the Plaza as a training exercise in what not to be doing. Their report is available online now with suggestions and includes everything from a skating rink to a performing arts center (take that, Carmel!)

Further still, the current property owner is…uncooperative. He lives in Florida, wants unreasonable sums of money for the property at twice its market value, won’t sit down for conversations, and doesn’t have any interest in doing anything significant with the Plaza.

The City is moving ahead with a process that is clearly designed to lead to eminent domain, or a variation of eminent domain so the City can lease or sell it to a new developer to do literally anything else.

This poses a huge ethical dilemma similar to Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase: does the City have the authority to reclaim the property? And even if it does, should it?

“Justin, this seems to cut and dry, how is there any ethical issue?” you ask. Well, the current Plaza property owner pays his taxes. He’s not behind on any debts as far as I know. The property is continuously cited by Code Enforcement for things that probably impact every property in the City, like trash not in dumpsters. Then it’s picked up and the fines are paid.

The property owner can hardly be at fault for the actions of people on the property who result in a police-run. There’s probably a McDonald’s somewhere in the city as you’re reading this where the police are screaming toward the front door to break up a fight or a combative person. Does that mean all the McDonald’s need shut down? And it’s also not illegal for a property owner to be a jerk.

Irvington Plaza is our community’s Louisiana Purchase. It’s enormous, someone else owns it, they’re hostile to the community, and everyone wants to do something with it because it represents such a lucrative possibility. And like Jefferson, we could acquire it, but at what cost? There’s more than just money here.

Obviously Jefferson came down on the side of purchasing the Louisiana Territory, albeit reluctantly. That worked out well in the long-run. I don’t doubt that the City will come down on the side of purchasing the Irvington Plaza property, hopefully reluctantly. And if and when it does, it will probably work out well in the long-run by the community’s standards.

If I had a vote on the Council right now, I’d probably take every step up to eminent domain. Yes, I would prefer to see Irvington Plaza as a mix of homes, retail, and office space. Yes, I’d love to see new restaurants and connections to the Pennsy Trail there. But I do not want to see the City setting the standard of taking other people’s lawful property because “we don’t like it”. I don’t like when my neighbor revs his engine loud, but I don’t run out and confiscate his truck or send the City-Council down a path of seizing it.

It might not be the Louisiana Purchase, but it is a precedent for the near east side for better or worse.

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Justin Harter for District 12