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IU and its bad relationship with real estate

July 27, 2011

Some time around 1980, give or take a year, I was a college student here in Bloomington, Indiana. At that time a line of old houses stood along east Sixth Street near the university and were slated for demolition on the following day. My boyfriend and I were curious, and we entered one of the houses. It was unlocked, for there was nothing to steal and the bulldozers would arrive in the morning. Inside was a wood-paneled foyer, a handsome wooden staircase, and a set of French doors with beveled glass between the foyer and the adjoining parlor.

“Why are they tearing this down?!” was my immediate thought. I was poor and had been living in a series of squalid rentals. To my eyes, this old house with its wood paneling, oak floor and beveled glass was a thing of beauty even though it was horribly scarred by misuse over the years. It had been a long time since the house had been a family home; it had probably served for many years as a student rental or as an inadequate series of offices for graduate assistants. I grew angry as I looked around the foyer, for I would have loved being able to live in a house like that. If I had been a little older and a little more financially situated, I would have eagerly embraced any opportunity to buy it and rehabilitate it myself.

The reason why this entire row of houses was being demolished was simple: Indiana University needed additional parking. On the day after I viewed the foyer of this handsome old house, the entire block was demolished and the space turned into a gravel parking lot. Eventually the gravel lot was paved, and that’s how it remains to this day. It’s striking to consider that this block of approximately ten houses was more valuable to the University as parking space than it was as student rentals or office space.

To be blunt, ownership of real estate by Indiana University is the kiss of death. The University has torn down probably a hundred attractive older houses in Bloomington, if not more. Handsome and once-elegant homes once stood everywhere that you see a parking lot today around the edges of campus. I  can easily remember from my student days dozens of homes that stood along east Sixth, East Fourth and the entire northern side of Atwater.  Any houses that the University retains as rentals are not treated well; they endure heavy wear and tear but receive only the basic minimum physical upkeep necessary to pass the housing inspections. Whenever IU purchases a house, it further impoverishes the city tax base, as the University is not required to pay taxes on its own real estate. They have no tax responsibilities toward these properties; they abuse them for decades; and then when they can squeeze no more drops of usefulness from them they tear them down for parking lots .

In all of the years that I have lived in Bloomington, the University has only rehabbed two houses, both times under intense pressure from the city of Bloomington. These two are the historic Legg House inside the curve of Atwater near the southwest corner of campus, and the outstanding large bungalow on the southwest corner of Fourth and Dunn. Both houses were originally slated for demolition; both stood vacant and rotting for years before any action was taken. The city of Bloomington has no legal power to compel the University to rehab or to restore, or even to prevent demolition; it only succeeded in these two instances because of the architectural or historic importance of these houses. And although these two were saved, at least a hundred others were bulldozed.

I wish there were a legal mechanism that would prevent the University from purchasing any additional houses or other real estate in Bloomington, for it has proved itself a most unworthy steward of its own properties. It has destroyed once-vibrant neighborhoods all around its perimeter and utterly changed the landscape of Bloomington. It would have been far better for the city if these hundred homes had remained within the tax base and provided families and renters with good-quality places to live. Instead, they have become vast expanses of paved surface. Any benefit from demolition is purely IU’s, not the public’s.

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From → Houses

One Comment
  1. Derek permalink

    Great article. I wish I could say it wasn’t true, but sadly it is. The most horrifying thing over the years is the total lack of concern and knowledge that this “liberal arts” University has for the great historic homes of Bloomington. The great homes provide character to the community…And one of the reasons that E 4th Street with all its nice restaurants is so appealing.

    One of the homes you spoke of here, the one on 4th, near Siam House, was in a horrible state. It was boarded up and looked destined for demolition. I’m sure the patrons eating at the local restaurants, as well as the business owners themselves, truly appreciated the eyesore growing in front of them on one of the most attractive stretches of street in Bloomington. We took pictures of it when it was slated for demolition–I’ll have to post them sometime.

    But why should the University care if they were letting a historic local mansion crumble before our eyes so they could demolish it later? After all, they have no legal responsibility to the community. There are no checks and balances here. There are no standards that they have to live up to. The city has done very little complaining over the years about the “parking lot fever” that has afflicted the University. And the more and more you look, the more and more the University owns of our great town. They are the kings of what they own, and the rule with the coldness of a wicked tyrant. And this tyrant speaks by his actions, not his words. He sneaks up in the night when no one is looking, and before you know it, it is all too late: a whole block of homes has been eradicated buy the stroke of a bulldozer.

    So, If a whole block of historic mansions needs to come down to build another parking lot behind Acacia and Delta Chi, so be it… Let there be parking lots! Thus the fate of around 25 old homes that once lined the northern side of Atwater from Fess Street to Hawthorne Drive. All gone: homes once owned by the Showers family and many other historic and prominent Bloomington citizens; homes that spoke of the past, created community character, told a story, and for all intents and purposes, were still useful and livable.

    And while some Universities are encouraging more students to bike, bus or walk to classes, IU continues to build more and more parking lots–almost imploring students to keep driving in and around campus. How many parking lots does one University need? And have you looked around lately at some of our young people? They could use the exercise that a little walk or bike ride would provide.

    I’m still surprised when I drive around Kirkwood of how much parking space is for the University ONLY. I don’t own an exclusive University parking pass–but from the look of the empty parking spaces, it doesn’t look like many other people have them either–especially during the summer. But don’t worry, if we run out of IU parking space, there are always more houses they can neglect and then tear down.

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