Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is Ersal Ozdemir's Attorney Board Shopping For Controversial Zoning Variance For Broad Ripple Parking Garage?

An attorney for Keystone Construction sought and obtained a one week continuance on a hearing for its requested variance for the controversial Broad Ripple parking garage project being financed by taxpayers as a payoff to one of Mayor Greg Ballard's largest campaign contributors. A previous study indicated that the site chosen was not well suited for a parking garage. Since the Ballard administration announced the awarding of $6.3 million to Ersal Ozdemir's company to build the parking garage, the developer has sought and obtained numerous variances that were not originally proposed. The latest variance petition seeks approval to build four feet below the flood plain, a move that is opposed by city planners.

Indianapolis taxpayers were told they were getting a 350-space parking garage. After the deal was announced, the public learned that it would include significant retail development on the ground level that will require the use of many of the parking spaces in the publicly-financed garage. As a consequence, the project will do little to alleviate the parking problem in Broad Ripple by adding even more retail development within an area some feel is already over-developed. Despite taxpayers kicking in $6.3 million for the private development project, Ozdemir's Keystone Construction will get to keep 100% of the revenues generated by the developed property.

Community activist Clark Kahlo strenuously objected to the request of Joe Calderon, Ozdemir's attorney, for a one-week continuance. Kahlo argued that Calderon was simply board shopping. The recent public corruption trial of former Indianapolis City-County Councilor Lincoln Plowman revealed testimony from an undercover FBI agent who secretly recorded Plowman where Plowman described the practice of zoning attorneys requesting a continuance if you believed you did not have the votes to obtain approval of a petition pending before one of the three board of zoning appeals so the case could be reassigned to a board the attorney viewed as more friendly to his client. By requesting only a one-week continuance, Calderon succeeded in getting his case transferred from Board II to Board III.

According to the city's website, Board III currently only has two board members both appointed by Mayor Ballard, Fred Hash and Mindy Westrick compared to the five-member board make-up of Board II. At least three votes are required for approval, which means floating members would be assigned to fill in for any vacant board spots on Board III. Hash is Vice President of Great Lakes Capital Fund, a private equity fund that helps finance real estate development projects for low-income housing throughout the Midwest. Hash also serves as President of Riley Area Development Corporation. Westrick is a lobbyist/attorney for Faegre Baker Daniels and is reportedly a friendly acquaintance of Ozdemir through her political involvement in the Marion Co. Republican Party. Ozdemir serves as finance chairman for the Greater Indianapolis Republican Finance Committee. During Plowman's public corruption trial, the City-County Council's clerk, Melissa Thompson, appointed by then-Council President Ryan Vaughn, was called as witness and claimed credit for Westrick's appointment to the BZA, although Plowman sponsored the resolution approving her appointment. Thompson claimed she met Westrick while working on former Marion Co. Prosecutor Carl Brizzi's campaign staff. You're asking for nothing but trouble when you appoint political hack lobbyists to zoning boards, something Ballard promised he wouldn't do when he was first elected mayor in 2007.

Calderon resisted Kahlo's implication that he was board shopping. He claims Keystone is prepared to break ground on the project within the next couple of weeks and cannot afford to delay the project until Board II's next meeting. Cough, cough. It's so obvious what is taking place here. The Board II members should be holding their heads in shame for allowing this last-minute continuance. Keystone's attorney has known about this hearing for a long time. This issue just didn't surface. Pat Andrews has been blogging about this variance request since she first learned about it two months ago.

The bottom line is that Ozdemir purchased a $6.3 million gift from Indianapolis taxpayers in consideration for about $50,000 in campaign contributions to Ballard and a six-figure job for Ballard's former chief of staff, Paul Okeson, to boot. He's now using the enormous power he exerts over the Ballard administration to reduce his own financial risk in this project as much as possible. By hook or crook, he'll get what he wants. Mayor Ballard and Deputy Mayor Mike Huber will make sure this project is carried out completely on his terms regardless of how much they screw the taxpayers. Pay to Play, after all, is the Ballard way.

UPDATE: Sure enough it turns out that Board III is the go-to board if you're wanting a variance. Those who track these matters say the denial rate for Board III is less than half the denial rate of the other two boards and the board most likely to ignore staff recommendations.

UPDATE II: A helpful reader has provided an updated link with Board III's current members, which you can view here. The three additional members are: Sally Cook, Jennifer Keefe and Sarah Lyons.

UPDATE III: I just received word that Mindy Westrick has recused herself from participating in the hearing next week on the pending variance petition for Ozdemir's Broad Ripple parking garage project. The staff has informed the interested parties that it believes there will be a sufficient number of members present at next Tuesday's hearing to decide the petition without her participation. In an e-mail to the board's staff, Westrick wrote: "While my firm does not represent the petition in 2012-DV2-006, my firm does represent Keystone Group and Keystone Construction Development. Due to the connection with the Keystone groups and the petitioner, I am recusing myself from a vote on the variance. In addition, I will not preside or participate in a vote for a continuance or a transfer to a different board if one party sho chooses to make a request."


Scott Coxey said...

I watched online. I immediately looked at the membership of board 3- here is what it says:

Member Information

# Last Name First Name Position Expiration Date Appointer
1 Cook Sally Member 12/31/2010 OTHER
2 Hash Frederick Member 12/31/2012 MAYOR
3 Keefe Jennifer Member 12/31/2012 CCC
4 Lyons Sarah Member 12/31/2012 CCC
5 Westrick Mindy Member 12/31/2012 MAYOR

They could still be shopping, but the board does appear to be full.

Oh- and the entire board should not be hanging their heads- it was a three- two vote. One democrat and one republican voted against it. Just saying.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Not sure where you are looking. If you follow the link I provided to DMD's website, it only lists Hash and Westrick as appointed members. I don't doubt your information, but can you provide a different link than the one I found?

Scott Coxey said...

Hi Gary,

Here's where I look for board appointments:


Gary R. Welsh said...

Thanks for sharing, Scott.