I recall clearly the day that I knew the pandemic had taken a turn and things were about to get worse. It was Tuesday, March 10, 2020 and I was sitting in a meeting when an email from the university’s president came through notifying students, faculty, and staff that the campus would be closing and classes were going online. There was talk of flattening the curve and social distancing and hand washing and Zoom. The balance of the week following that Tuesday was spent closely watching the news to see how the pandemic was developing as COVID 19 came toward Indiana. I had an eye on how the government was going to respond. I work in state government and have an office in the Indiana Government Center (IGC) in downtown Indianapolis. I was concerned that I was going to have to go to the office and be in close proximity to people even while we were being cautioned to social distance. Fortunately, before the next work week began the governor called for all state employees to begin working remotely if possible.
While many people had to work in public spaces and be exposed to this dangerous virus, the Indiana Government Center sat empty for months and months. Acres of offices and public spaces were vacated as everyone figured out how to work remotely. It was a challenging transition but one that we learned soon enough was completely feasible. A year into this pandemic we are realizing how much can be done over the phone or a video call or by email.
The IGC complex centers around two main buildings that each take up roughly a city block. One stands fourteen stories high and the other, only four stories tall, takes up a larger footprint than its taller counterpart. Both of these buildings represents massive amount of square footage that sat empty for months. A year later and these buildings continue to be used at much less than capacity because most IGC employees are still working remotely. The Government Center was once a hive of activity. Now, when I go into the office one or two days a week, it’s possible for me to pass most of a day and hardly see another person. Once upon a time it was nearly impossible to get a spot in the parking garage if you arrived after 8:30 or 9:00, especially if the General Assembly was in session.
Nowadays, the parking garage sits mostly empty any given weekday.
With this in mind, I ask: is there a better way to make use of this vast amount of indoor space that could serve the greater good and the needs of the unhoused? What would it look like to reimagine these large public spaces, these nearly empty government office buildings, in a way that more directly benefits the public?
It’s been made clear that operating the functions of state government do not require state employees to be in a physical office space. With so many state employees working in the virtual office, this pandemic could present an opportunity to address the housing crisis by transitioning these
publicly-funded spaces into affordable housing.
Across the nation, there was an uptick in evictions linked to the pandemic, which were fortunately stopped temporarily. However, the moratorium will end soon and evictions will likely begin again, causing further social upheaval. In an article by Emily Benfer, et al titled “Eviction, Health Inequity, and the spread of COVID-19,” the authors discuss the housing crisis caused by the pandemic as people lost their jobs and consequently faced evictions. The article points to this crisis and the potential public health impacts caused by people forced into unsafe housing situations. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. People don’t have to be homeless and at high risk of exposure to COVID and other diseases.
If we are serious about addressing these social crisesthen we need to think radically about how governments use their tax-funded spaces. The IGC could be transitioned to a large public housing complex that would make the downtown area much more walkable for a large number of people. Paris, France is leading the way when it comes to rethinking urban planning. According to an article about how Paris is leading the way in the movement toward developing 15-minute cities, there are urban areas in the United States that are beginning to think this way, too. In terms of creating more walkable and livable 15 minute cities, this idea could certainly be a step in the right direction.
Indianapolis and its environs are clearly designed for the vehicular age, unlike older cities in Europe or along the east coast of the US that developed inthe days before cars. Retrofitting Indianapolis to a 15 minute city would take a radical reimagining of its urban plan. However, I do believe that converting the IGC to public housing would aid this city in a shift toward a 15 minute city concept, making the entire downtown area much more walkable and accessible to a large number of people.
In a piece from 2008 by Jeffrey Zimmerman on the development of downtown Milwaukee the author shows that by following Richard Florida’s suggestions for redevelopment intended to attract what he calls, ”the creative class,” housing values skyrocketed followed by accelerated gentrification. In an economic system that prizes development, growth, and prosperity at hands of the “creative class” often the people left out are those who need affordable housing. Indianapolis has been no different than any other mid-sized city in terms of downtown development projects that make housing less affordable and gentrification all but certain.
In a Jacobin article by Glyn Robbins, the author writes about how “the past and future failures of the developer-led city” can guide us to rethink the city in a post-pandemic world. Robbins also points out that we are likely to have lots of unusedoffice space even after the pandemic. The question will be what to do with these vacant spaces. If the answer to this question is driven by the public good rather than private capital, then maybe we can take a step toward addressing ongoing housing issues.
Benfer, E.A., Vlahov, D., Long, M.Y. et al. Eviction, Health Inequity, and the Spread of COVID-19: Housing Policy as a Primary Pandemic Mitigation Strategy. Journal of Urban Healthvol 98, 1–12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00502-1.
O’Sullivan, Feargus and Laura Bliss. “The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia.” Bloomberg.com, 12 November 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-11-12/paris-s-15-minute-city-could-be-c oming-to-an-urban-area-near-you.
Robbins, Glyn. “How the Pandemic Is Creating New Urban Wastelands.” Jacobin, 26 March 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/03/covid-urban-wastelands-housing-cities. Zimmerman, Jeffrey. “From brew town to cool town: Neoliberalism and the creative city development strategy in Milwaukee.” Cities volume 25, issue 4, 230-242 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2008.04.006