The bigger the elephant, the harder we work to deny he's in the tent. I'm no exception. For years I've prattled on endlessly about all the second-tier chronic abuses of the public's capital, goodwill, and spaces. The Thompsons, the Whitehalls, the Renwicks, etc. But I've kept relatively quiet, ignored is actually a better term, about the biggest abuse of all.

But at least I'm not the only one. At lunch yesterday I threw out the subject of today's column, asking my fellow gourmands about the subject and asking why neither we, nor anyone else, ever talked much about it. There were a few opinions thrown out but no matter what, the conversation quickly and inevitably switched to a different subject. We just weren't going to "go there."

Today, I decided then that today I would "go there."

Fertilizing the tree of growth

Ok, so this is a tale of land development. You probably guessed that already, most of my tales are. Actually, I despise the term "land development" because it implies not only that "undeveloped" is inherently less virtuous than "developed" land but, more importantly that land can even have an "undeveloped" state. All land is inherently developed no matter what its condition. We don't develop it when we slap down a Meijer's and a parking lot. We simply convert the land from one form of development to another. Land can be developed from a strip mall into an open field, i.e. it can be converted from built to natural capital, just as it can be developed from an open field to a strip mall, i.e. converted from natural to built capital.

Over a decade ago, the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) made one of the arbitrary decisions that it routinely makes, namely that it was time to build another road. I'm sure that, at the time, they had all kinds of fancy justifications for it; traffic free-flow, capacity improvement, safety, whatever. They have a million boilerplate excuses but the reality is that INDOT builds roads because, like the scorpion story I related some columns back, that's "their nature."

This time they decided to build their road between Bloomington and Ellettsville, two areas already adequately served by road connections. During all their deliberations it was inevitable that the private road companies that actually do the road building would become aware of the plan, far in advance of the public at-large.

One of those companies was a giant little outfit called "Crider and Crider," a 50-plus-year-old Monroe County-based construction company that specializes in earthmoving and road building. In the road plan, Crider realized the opportunity to play the role of what Logan and Molotch called the Structural Speculator. Structural speculators actively arbitrage the "extraordinary price impacts of government actions ... through the use of government to fix for themselves a unique locational advantage" (Urban Fortunes, University of California Press). Don't you just love how academics write?

Having been created by INDOT, the locational advantage was already there. It was just up to Crider, with its elite knowledge of the road's plans, to take advantage of it. That they did by going on a shopping spree, ultimately purchasing nearly 500 acres of the land surrounding the road corridor.

And they got one more thing.

Not only did they put themselves in the catbird seat through their excellent application of structural speculation, but they put a cherry on the top by getting INDOT to award them with the contract to build the road itself! The resulting confluence of elite knowledge (the kind you only get by making a career of skulking the hallways of INDOT and glad-handing every government bureaucrat you find), providential land ownership, and the brilliant coup-de-grace of getting the government to pay you to put a giant arterial road through your own land, resulted in what is best described as a perfect storm for the urban growth machine.

A perfect storm

But even as that storm bore down on the hapless area northwest of Bloomington, an area now colloquially known as "Criderville," even as it left a signature trail of utter and total devastation through the flattened and ruined town of Ellettsville, even as we continued to ignore the flapping weather pennants, it was growing. It was perfect indeed but it could be more so. It could become the storm-to-beat-all-storms, it could result in the largest pointless conversion of natural capital to built capital in the entire county's history with just one more little addition of the "extraordinary price impacts of government actions."

And it got that addition when, like sending a rainmaker into a hurricane, the Monroe County Government decided to send a TIF to Criderville. And with that our storm of speculation became as perfect as perfect can be.

A little background, please

Back in the 1950s, California's government was struggling with a way to spur urban renewal in the cities destroyed by the same government's funding of suburbia. One solution proffered was to change the tax structure in the inner cities such that any increase, or increment, in property tax revenues — the increments coming about as the result of improvements to the property and land in the inner city — would remain in the inner city itself. In other words, increased revenues collected from property taxes in south-central LA had to be spent in south-central LA. They weren't available for a school project in Beverly Hills.

That system, whereby increased property tax revenues can be spent only in the same area in which they were collected, came to be called Tax Increment Financing, or TIF. The area in which the revenues were collected, and could only be spent, was called a Tax Increment District, or TID. The hope was that, by establishing a TID, private developers would be more comfortable about making property improvements in the inner cities because they would be assured that the additional tax revenues that would result from those improvements could only be spent on public facilities, such as roads and schools, close to their property improvement — thereby helping to guarantee that their investment would work.

Indiana didn't have any similar program until the 1980s when it was forced to create TIF programs as the result of declining government revenues, the result of federal and state tax cuts, combined with increasing government expenditures brought on by "development" and "growth."

But Indiana's problems weren't confined to the cores of its handful of large cities. Even if they were, private real estate developers realized that there was even more money to be made not redeveloping Indianapolis' west side but in developing greenfields in all of the suburban asteroid belts that now encircle any town or city larger than a few thousand residents.

As a result, when Indiana designates a TID, chances are that that TID will define not an inner-city area but rather an area of "undeveloped" natural capital, or "green space." Moreover, the money raised from the TIF on that area will not be used to break up old concrete, tear down obsolete buildings, and replace them with new but it will be used to build out road and other infrastructure for retail establishments, especially the so-called "big box" franchise retail anchored by large and distant corporate tenants. In fact, in Indiana, over 70% of all TIF designations go not to redevelop existing built land but to subsidize the next installation of a WalMart where a forest or field used to be.

The same-old same-old

And that's how it's playing out in Criderville. An enormous TID has been designated over what was, just as recently as a couple of years ago, fields and fallow quarry land; an area serving an immensely valuable role as, if nothing else, a buffer between what will soon not be — namely the distinct enclaves of Bloomington and Ellettsville. Through the machinations of the TID, because of the needs and desires of the growth machine, the two entities will smear together and the soul-crushing entropy of Anyplace, USA, will increase by a palpable amount.

Why should you care? Start with the utter pointlessness of the whole thing. Why was it necessary to build the new arterial road in the first place? Just so that access to cheap housing in Ellettsville is even more accessible to those who will work and shop in Bloomington, to turbocharge yet another bedroom community while promoting residential flight from an urban employment center? Who exactly does that help? You know the answer to that.

After all, it's not like there's any population pressure. Both the various Chambers of Commerce, as well as the newspaper, have repeatedly informed that the present population growth rate of less than 1% a year is equivalent to no growth at all. We've established the pointlessness and negative utility of the road that started it all, let's move onto the planned retail, employment, and residential conversion planned for and funded by the public for the private Criderville. What unmet demand, exactly, will all those millions of government money and infrastructure meet?

Hopefully, if you sit and consider for a while, as I have, you'll think these things through. You'll think about the impetus for the road that started it all, and you'll think about the structural speculation of a firm that, occupationally, was in the right place at the right time to have manna from Indianapolis fall into their lap.

And you'll think of how a local government supposedly by, of, and for the people witnessed that manna fall and made the decision that it was not enough, that although Crider could not possibly still be hungry, nevertheless there was even more that could be done for it, at the cultural, environmental, and economic expense of every other resident of the county.

And if you think about it long enough you just might see that elephant in the tent. Better, yet. You might just get mad.

CIVITAS is a weekly column of civic commentary by Gregory Travis. Contact CIVITAS at