The Breakwater fire: Luckily there were no injuries, but are we REALLY sure the deity favors subsidized luxury?

Courtesy WHAS.

Some of us have spent a great deal of time and effort debating the merits of the Flaherty and Collins “luxury” apartment complex at the former Coyle block. These long hours might have been devoted to martinis, books and heavy metal; it’s a dirty job, but one that remains sadly necessary in the absence of responsible local journalism.

The overall question has been phrased somewhat like this:

To what extent (if any) should City Hall subsidize private, for-profit development with an array of sewer tap-in waivers, tax abatements and other incentives — enticements generally unavailable to smaller business entities, who must sink or swim by their own merits — especially when the objective is high-end housing in a locale where poverty is rampant?

Yesterday morning the unoccupied, about-to-be-completed wing of The Breakwater, comprising two-thirds of the development’s residential space on the west side of the block (Elm and 4th), caught fire. The sprinkler system had not been activated because construction was ongoing. The result was an arduous daylong firefighting battle in adverse conditions.

It is far too early to judge, but the likelihood is high that the wing is a total loss, and the developers already have publicly committed to a rebuild, at least in statements to local media. There’ll be an investigation into the cause of the fire. Presumably insurance will impel Flaherty and Collins forward to completion, while local taxpayers get the bill for fighting the blaze.

But it might have been far worse. We’re all grateful that the building had no residents, and as usual in these cases, our first responders deserve comprehensive kudos. Fire fighters were on the job yesterday at 5:00 a.m. on a windy and cold day. They were joined by compatriots from Jeffersonville, Clarksville and Georgetown, and some of them probably are still there more than 24 hours later.

If I were Flaherty and Collins, there’d be 100+ area first responders enjoying complimentary steaks at Brooklyn and The Butcher.

Beyond all this, one point needs to be reiterated. I overheard a discussion at a recent meeting, in which The Breakwater was being discussed, and its luxuriousness praised. There were oohs and aahs, but without any meaningful context (how did this come to be?), it’s impossible to arrive at a balanced conclusion.

City Hall obviously picked a winner in The Breakwater; conversely, it let “losers” languish. Discussions about propriety are by no means concluded, and the unfortunate fire doesn’t change the parameters of this debate one single, solitary bit.

Civic engagement is not zero-sum. There are more options than all/none, and more angles of discussion than this/that. Assuming the developers rebuild, a finished and fully occupied apartment complex also won’t change the parameters of the debate.

That’s because it is perfectly legitimate to continue to ask questions about the applicability of taxpayer subsidies, the precedent of sewer tap-in waivers, the quality of construction techniques, the use of union versus non-union labor, the applicability of giveaways in the cause of “economic development” — to name only a few issues.

In summary, profuse thanks are due our firefighters and first responders. It’s a good thing residents weren’t in the building. Decisions having already been made, the fire is a setback (see CM Knable’s video and comments) and probably nothing more.

We’ll be watching to see what happens next, and those questions? There is no reason to stop asking them, is there?