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Friday, September 24, 2021

Library, property owners continue battle over proposed branch

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Groundbreaking for a new Brightwood library branch, the east-side community’s first freestanding library facility, was scheduled to take place at some point this year. Given the continued battle between area property owners and the Indianapolis Public Library administration, that timeline may be more than a bit out of reach.

The proposed location, on the corner of 25th Street and Sherman Drive, has been a source of contention. While some owners have agreed to sell their property, there are some who have opted to continue negotiations in hopes that the Library will choose a different location or present a more favorable offer than what has been on the table. Though the Library continues to negotiate with owners, a proposal is up before the City-County Council to exercise eminent domain. Proposal 279, introduced to the Municipal Corporations Committee last summer, lays stagnant, pending consideration from the committee.

Councilor Monroe Gray (D), chairman of the Municipal Corporations Committee, said there is no timeline by which he plans to have the proposal considered, adding that the general consensus of the committee is that there is no reason to pursue eminent domain unless there is no other solution. Gray said he would like to see a compromise.

“Eminent domain is not something that you want to do. It has affected Afro-Americans in a negative way,” he said. “I don’t want to negatively impact the community. … You don’t want to start a precedent of this and everyone will come to you wanting that.”

Councilor Zach Adamson (D), a co-sponsor of the proposal, said that while he understands the historic context and delicate nature of heading in that direction, he thinks invoking eminent domain in this case would be a “useful tool.”

“There is no greater value in that area than to have something in the community that will benefit them to that degree. It’s frustrating to me to know that in the heart of the area, there are minority businesses that are holding this hostage. It breaks my heart,” he said. “The library could be game-changing for this part of city.”

Sheena Schmidt, who owns Harvey Adhesives and some of the land that the Library wants to build on, has been outspoken about her disagreement, going so far as to order a billboard that reads “Say No to Eminent Domain” in bold lettering. Underneath the phrase is a phone number that rings directly to her. Schmidt referred all inquiries to her business partner Pete Murphy.

“They continue to beat the same old gong,” Murphy said. “They are the ones who have damaged Brightwood with their actions and intimidation. The City-County Council knows that this is over the top and shouldn’t be happening. This is very frustrating.” 

Murphy alleges that an out-of-state developer who was looking to bring retail businesses to that area was “chased away” by IndyPL President and CEO Jackie Nytes and the Library through threats and intimidation.

Murphy added: “We have spent over $50,000 in attorney’s fees, and now they’re starting the same old things: ‘Oh, the poor residents of Brightwood need a library.’ Well, we agree and we want them to have one. Not at this location.” 

Murphy said the Library’s offer of $35,000 for the land is an insult, as it is actually worth much more. He added that his desire to fight for higher compensation is not based on greed but rather ensuring Schmidt is not taken advantage of.

“Mrs. Schmidt is an elderly widow. This is left behind to help her with retirement,” he said. “It’s an abuse of government power and an abuse of some librarians’ desire to have a high-profile showplace.”

Andy Buroker, the attorney representing Schmidt, said his client would like to see more community organizations agree with their stance.

“The other part is, just settling with the Library, if they want to go there this (amount of money) is what it will take for us to relocate. We’ve had reasonable discussions with the Library about that and continue to have that discussion.” Buroker did not disclose the amount of money.

When asked if he feels an agreeable negotiation can ever take place, Buroker said it would be up to the Library.

“I don’t have the answer to that; that really is on Jackie (Nytes). That’s a Library question.”

Nytes said the process has been a complex one, but she is not looking to stop fighting.

“We spent a lot of time trying to find the best place and the discussion has been hard. … Sometimes people will say, ‘Why are you so obsessed with having it here?’ It’s a fair question,” she said. Nytes and the Library’s board, at the suggestion of some City-County councilors and property owners, spent nearly two years considering several different locations, including sites on 26th Street, behind the shopping center where it is currently located and on Massachusetts Avenue south of the railroad tracks. A co-location within Martin University was also considered. Ultimately it was decided that 25th and Sherman would be best for several reasons, such as the high visibility of the area and safe access for residents.

Nytes said negotiations with Schmidt have been significantly more difficult than those had with other parties and that money is the root of it.

“The Library hired an appraisal company and had them do an appraisal on all the properties we were targeting to purchase and made first offers based on the appraised value, and in the case of several of the other property owners, they made counter offers and negotiations happened,” she said.

The original offer made to Schmidt, according to Nytes, was $35,000, as Murphy stated. However, she added, the offer has been adjusted twice since then. The current amount (which Nytes declined to share on the record, only sharing that it is well beyond the appraised value) is still not enough to seal the deal.

“The negotiations haven’t been based in real facts of business. We will go back and keep trying to negotiate out of respect for the Council. We appreciate that the Council has kept the question open and haven’t voted the proposal down,” she said.

“We would be making a $5 million-plus investment in Martindale-Brightwood. If you’re going to make that big of an investment, you have to be strategic in where you make it. You have to put it where it makes the biggest difference and stimulates the biggest long-term change within the community.”

Nytes noted that the new branch will not only serve its basic functions, but would also be a community anchor. Library leaders are already involved with nearby Martin University’s plan to build an education zone within the area.

“We have a chance to take a pretty scruffy looking half a block and really raise the game for the neighborhood,” said Nytes.

Elaine Bolden, who has lived in the Martindale-Brightwood area for nearly 60 years, agrees.

Bolden served as the president of Brightwood Concerned Citizens for almost a decade before ending her tenure in 2016. She shared that among residents she’s spoken with, there are concerns over what the “hold up” is in making the library of their dreams a reality. In her assessment, that responsibility lies on the city officials.

“We’ve been working for sometime, and it seems that the Council is the hold up. Now if it was something that downtown needed, they would quickly bring eminent domain, like they did with Interstate 70.” 

Bolden said that although eminent domain use has harmed communities of color, this is one time it could be put to good use.

“I believe that once it’s built … it will be a catalyst for change,” she said. “That’s what we really need.”

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