500 Block Facade Killer Sought in Terre Haute

“Why, oh Lord God? Why?” Even with an act of God, there’s someone to blame: “Why, oh Lord God? Why?” illustration by Sasha-K

We are still puzzled over exactly what happened to cause the imminent destruction of the 500 block on Wabash – buildings with unique architectural features and ties to Terre Haute history. We’ve looked at a wide variety of sources reporting on the project and recording public meetings about it.

Nowhere to be found is a definitive statement such as “We won’t fund this project unless you tear those old buildings completely down.” Call us suspicious as well as sardonic, but it seems as if the information disseminated by ISU and Thompson Thrift was carefully managed first, to lull anyone who wanted to preserve at least the facades of the buildings into a false sense of security, and second, to make it seem there is no one to blame. We can’t buy into that. Even with an act of God, there’s someone to blame. If an earthquake swallowed up the buildings, we could shake our fist to the heavens, and wail, “Why, oh Lord God? Why?”

Let’s start with where it all seems to have ended: the State Budget Committee: four legislators – one Democrat and one Republican appointed by the majority leader of the House and Senate, with the minority leader being able to nominate the member from his party, plus four alternates with the same political distribution. Tim Skinner, Senator for District 38, which includes Vigo County and most of Clay County is currently an alternate member.

The minutes of this body are publicly available on the Indiana Government web site. Looking at them, we were struck by the lack of detail. In general, they consist of one or two brief paragraphs which state that the chair asked if there were any objections to any of the projects on the agenda, and then the agenda – list of projects being voted on, their cost and the fund they will draw on – follows.

Here is the agenda item, regarding the 500 block, as presented at the July meeting:

5. Indiana State University (770) $33,600,800 Downtown Terre Haute Student Housing Lease Project No. C-1-13-5-03 The trustees of Indiana State University request approval of a 30 year lease for student housing in downtown Terre Haute. The facility will be owned by a private developer and consist of retail space on the first floor with student housing on the upper three floors. Annual lease payments for the facility are estimated to be $1,053,360. In addition to the annual lease payments, ISU is responsible for the operations and maintenance of the residential areas and will pay for costs associated with the preservation of existing historic facades of the building, estimated at $2 million. Total expected cost over the 30 year lease term is $33,600,800.

This 103,547 GSF/84,236 ASF project is expected to house 228 students in four bedroom units with common living and dining areas. Funding will be provided by the University’s Residence Hall System Operating budget, which has a current balance of $34,787,513.

If you’ve been following the fate of the 500 block in the Terre Haute Tribune, lots of that information will be familiar to you, since it has been mentioned in article after article about the topic, along with a statement about how the facades, aside from the Rogers building, would be preserved at ISU’s expense. On April 30, 2013 Dave Taylor, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff wrote:

“The agreement with Thompson Thrift also honors the history of the site, said Diann McKee, vice president for business affairs and finance. ‘The historic facade of five existing buildings that will be incorporated into the new housing and retail development will be preserved,’ she said.”

The news on the Thompson Thrift website was more circumspect, a posting on May 10, 2013 saying only “Plans are being developed to preserve the façades of the site’s existing buildings (except for that of Rogers Jewelers).”

Apparently, nobody thought to ask how exactly this preservation would be ensured. Of course, Taylor is not an independent journalist. Maybe other reporters figured, if you can’t trust your local institution of higher learning and your local building contractor, who can you trust, right? And these Thompson Thrift guys aren’t your ordinary contractor.

They have a “distinctive business philosophy [that] stems from John and Paul’s embrace of the principles of ‘servant leadership’ [achieving] results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.”

Hey, these guys sound like disciples, don’t they?

And they are award winners. Locally, Thompson Thrift was the 2013 Business A Level Above winner, “recognized for its achievements in sustainable planning” – whatever that means. Among previous winners were Sony DADC and Pfizer, so it certainly can’t mean sustaining local jobs, or the environment.

To get back to that July Budget Committee meeting…here’s what the minutes say:

“After each agenda item was presented and discussed Senator Kenley asked if there were any objections to any of the projects on the agenda. Senator Tallian raised reservations towards the University Project for Indiana State University – Downtown Terre Haute Student Housing Lease. After a brief discussion among the members, Senator Tallian made a motion to remove that item from the agenda. Representative Goodin seconded the motion. The motion to remove University Project #5 was taken on consent from the committee.”

Why would Karen Tallian, State Senator from District 4, and practicing attorney in Portage, have objections to this project? Those sketchy minutes don’t give us a very full picture. It certainly wasn’t the overall nature of the project — leasing housing for students from an outside provider — nor the overall cost. (You should see the kind of money IU Bloomington gets for building and renovation projects.)

An examination of the last five years of Budget Approval Committee minutes shows this ISU lease was the only item in that time period (and possibly longer) to be removed from the agenda. Well, that seems odd, doesn’t it?

Not being able to glean any insight from the parties involved at the state level, we have to come back to Terre Haute, specifically to the City Council. Apparently having more savvy with 21st century technology, they post audio of their meetings on their website. Therefore, we can hear exactly what happened at both the sunshine and regular meetings in July, when there was discussion of the bond issue that the city council needed to pass related to financing of the project by Thompson Thrift and ISU.

Cliff Lambert, Executive Director of Redevelopment, spoke at length. He seems fond of metaphors, one of which was to compare the housing project on the 500 block to “planting a money tree.” Lambert also referred to the project as a way to replace “that horrid landscape that we have on the north side there.”

Councilman Norm Loudermilk brought up the fact that the State Budget approval Committee had just tabled the project, and expressed interest in knowing why that was. After praising Senator Kenley (sycophancy is generally widespread at these meetings), Lambert told the council that “the State Budget Authority was looking at a precedent setting situation.” He expressed assurance that all the members of the committee supported the project, but that they were probably concerned that such projects usually involve a four-year lease between the private business and the state university, followed by a buyout. Asking for a thirty-year lease was therefore the sticking point.

Whether by design or a lucky coincidence, State Senator Tim Skinner happened to be in attendance, and Lambert asked him to shed some light on the matter; after all, he’d actually been at the meeting.

In spite of that first-hand perspective, Skinner’s light was dim. He reported that, as he was on his way to the July State Budget Committee meeting, he was called by the Senate Democrat who holds the voting seat. This colleague had some questions. Skinner did not report exactly what these questions were, he merely speculated that “there was a communications link that was broken somewhere along the line.”

Then Skinner himself breaks off communication about what actually happened at the budget meeting and picks up describing how he spoke with ISU officials Diann McKee and Greg Good after the meeting. Skinner reports, “They said that information was sent to the Budget Committee, which did not filter out to the committee members for some reason or another. When we went into the meeting, we basically had cursory information from an e-mail.”

At this point, Loudermilk asked Skinner just what we would have asked, “What were the concerns the committee had?”

Listening, you have to wonder what happened to Skinner because it was Lambert who answered, reiterating that the lack of a buyout was the problem. At least it’s considered a problem for the state; it’s actually a plus for the city. Once the property belongs to ISU, it is exempt from property taxes.

Lambert was adamant about this buyout issue being the cause for the hold up on the project. He said, “The state really has only this one concern… a month from now it’s gonna be good and it’s gonna go… I believe I’ve fairly told you the extent of the concerns and reservations. I don’t think it’s a serious one.”

Aside from Lambert’s disparaging reference to the historic buildings – including their facades – as a “horrid landscape” we still get no mention of possible objections to the two million dollar expenditure for keeping the facades.

At the regular City Council meeting a week later, the bond issue was up for a vote. Lambert brought along Eric Wojak, Project Manger for Thompson Thrift who presented some architectural renderings of the site. At this point, preservation of the facades, as shown in the renderings, was directly mentioned. Wojak, referring to visuals he had, spoke of “clearly worn buildings and facades” and said “what we hope to do is take these…these facades and these buildings and that vacant block…” and construct a building “complimentary to existing downtown architecture… We can be sure of that… and doing a brand new construction with façade preservation.”

Councilman Jim Chalos asked if the brick used on the buildings would be red to blend with some existing brick, and Wojak said he thought that would be the case. Loudermilk commented, “I don’t quite understand why we’re keeping the front of those buildings. We have a brand new building behind them; we’re keeping the front to the tune of two million dollars. It really makes absolutely no sense. Is that your idea or…”

Loudermilk’s last sentence here was on top of Wojak trying to explain that someone else could better answer the question, and Lambert intervened to ask Greg Goode, Executive Director of Government Relations for Indiana State University to come forward. Goode spoke of how the university wants to “align [Terre Haute’s] history with the needs and demands of the twenty-first century college student, and how “Indiana State University was very interested in wanting to protect and preserve the historic facades.”

Lambert interjected with a statement about how “ISU has developed a very special relationship with Indiana Landmarks.” After further soothing remarks and mutual appreciation for everyone involved, the bond issue passed unanimously.

Next, the state and local level briefly coincide because the August 2013 meeting of the State Budget Advisory Committee was held on the campus of Indiana State University. The ISU/Thompson Thrift housing project was not back on the agenda, but an August 3 article in the Terre Haute Tribune by Sue Loughlin reported that the Budget Approval Committee had visited the site of the proposed housing. Loughlin quotes both Tallian and Kenley regarding their concerns. Again, the thrust of their comments refers to ISU eventually owning the building. Neither senator specifically mentioned the cost of the facades.

ISU President Bradley is quoted in the article saying McKee and Thompson Thrift are working on changes to the agreement, and that State Budget Committee members “are concerned about costs.” Bradley was “still pretty confident” that the housing would be ready for occupancy by fall 2015. No one involved suggested a specific change was, or might be, dropping the two million dollar cost of preservation.

The next segment of the saga occurs in November 2013. Typically terse State Budget Approval Committee minutes say:

Senator Kenley asked for an update on the Indiana State University (ISU) Downtown Housing lease project. Dianne McKee noted that ISU has submitted a revised lease with additional information and they are prepared to bring the project back in front of the committee in December. Ms. McKee noted that there is a buyout schedule included in the lease agreement, and per statue (sic) the building would be exempt from property taxes.

The reference to the buyout schedule here shows Lambert was correct about this concern. However, there seems to be a significant omission in McKee’s comments. If the $2 million dollars for renovation was going to be taken out of the project (as the December agenda item shows that it was), why didn’t McKee mention that? Wouldn’t you include all of the changes involved in the project if you were asked for an update? Isn’t giving all the new information pretty much the definition of an update? Is it possible that Ms. McKee didn’t want the elimination of the funding for the facades to be a matter of public record yet? Maybe it just slipped her mind? Or maybe, because the minutes of this particular committee seem to be as terse as possible while fulfilling the legal obligation for transparency, McKee did speak up about it, but her statement didn’t get into the minutes. We’d just like to know, for the record.

Maybe Ms. Tallian’s objections to the July version of the project had included opposition to the cost of façade preservation. Maybe, after seeing the site in August she, or another committee member had the same opinion as Lambert on how awful the buildings looked. Maybe like Loudermilk, someone thought there was no value in the old fronts.

Maybe these folks all like everything to be shiny and new. Back at that July meeting when preserving the facades mysteriously had to be “defunded”, a $750,000 dollar appropriation for new paint, carpets and office furniture in the House and Senate offices was unanimously approved. Two million dollars to preserve historic buildings is a cost that can’t be borne, but three quarters of a million dollars for our elected representatives to redecorate is okay. Are they using some mathematical formula, or just self-interest as a basis here?

We realize we’ll probably never get the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Looking at the press releases and news coverage since the revised project was approved on December 20, you would never have an inkling that preserving the building facades had ever been planned. The whole idea has simply disappeared.

A statement from Tim Skinner on Dec 23 is typical:

“I greatly appreciate the work that ISU, the contractors, labor community and members of the State Budget Committee have put into the contract itself,” said Sen. Skinner. “This project is a giant step forward in the revitalization of the old downtown area of the city and I think our local leaders will be pleased.”

No doubt the local leaders, promised a “money tree” are pleased. But anybody who’s interested in preserving the history, aesthetics and unique character of Terre Haute is disappointed, sad, maybe even pissed off.

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