- By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune
- Aug 27, 2019
SOUTH BEND — One council member cried. Another cursed. Yet another seemed to be reluctantly condoning a sort of political extortion.
In the end, after four hours of debate that ranged from academic to dramatic and stretched into the early morning hours of Tuesday, the South Bend Common Council voted 7-2 to reject a proposed apartment building for the chronically homeless on three empty former industrial lots in the 1500 block of West Washington Street.
“We’re not going anywhere, we will pursue this,” South Bend Heritage Foundation Executive Director Marco Mariani told the council near the meeting’s end, shortly before they voted but well after a majority had made it clear with their comments that they wouldn’t be supporting a rezoning the project needs.
Echoing a situation a year ago, when southeast side residents organized to beat back the city’s plans to convert donated portable buildings into a homeless gateway center on South Michigan Street while acknowledging the need for such a facility, many near west side residents told the council they agree there should be permanent supportive housing built for the homeless.
They just want it built somewhere else.
“The purpose of PSH (permanent supportive housing) is wonderful,” Alfonso Mack, whose Cherry Street home abuts the site, told the council. “It is a great idea. We need to help the homeless but we need to make sure we take care of taxpayers first in this neighborhood. How is it helpful for the neighborhood? It’s not going to bring us a grocery store, it’s not going to bring us a bus line, it’s not going to bring us any retail.”
Mack said he pays $20 a month for a street light outside his home so that his 10-year-old son can play outside at night. He was one of many site neighbors who said that for years, decades even, they’ve pleaded with the city to improve lighting, streets, curbs and sidewalks in their neighborhood, and to do something to spur economic revitalization of an area that once thrived. If those things come, they said, they might be more willing to consider supporting such a project.
At many points during the debate, as well as at last week’s Area Plan Commission meeting, the neighborhood’s blight eclipsed a discussion of chronic homelessness and ways to combat it, a fact that council member Regina Williams-Preston, in whose 2nd District the site lies and who voted against the rezoning, said left her feeling “really sad.”
“I feel like this might be the only way our community can get some investment in that neighborhood because maybe we have some leverage this time that can make the city actually allocate dollars to put that money there,” said Williams-Preston, “because we have been asking and asking and asking and asking, and it feels like diplomacy is dead. Like we’ve got to draw the line in the sand and said, alright well, if you want this, you’ve got to give us that. I don’t feel like that’s the way I want to be making the decisions … but it feels like maybe this is the only way we can do it. Maybe that’s how politics works, I don’t know.”
Mariani has said the $3.5 million project would be paid for with $2.2 million from the state of Indiana and $1.3 million from the city — $800,000 in federal grant money the city receives and $500,000 in tax incremental financing money, which comes from property taxes. Construction would be slated for completion in summer 2021. The two-story building, on a two-acre site, would provide “permanent supportive housing,” including mental health and substance abuse treatment by mental health care provider Oaklawn to those willing to accept it — people who are homeless and have been screened by Center for the Homeless staff through a city grant.
Oaklawn staff spoke in favor of the project, saying, contrary to claims made by near west-side opponents, the two-year-old Oliver Apartments, in the Rum Village neighborhood, has been a success despite some early challenges.
“Over time this (Rum Village) neighborhood has begun to engage the folks,” said John Horsley, vice president of adult services at Oaklawn. “They’ve incorporated this group of people into their community … and began to see them as members of their community.”
Kaine Kanczuzewski, a project opponent who lives in the 500 block of west LaSalle Avenue, last week alerted council members to potential soil contamination at the site from past property owners, based on documents posted on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s websites. IDEM officials were not available for comment Monday, said IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed.
But before their vote Monday night, Pam Meyer, the city’s neighborhood development director, told the council that South Bend Heritage cleaned up the site in 2006 with city funding. If any more cleanup is needed, South Bend Heritage would make sure it happens before it opens to tenants, Mariani told the council.
Council member Oliver Davis, whose district contains Oliver Apartments, was among the most vocal opponents of the project on the council. He said South Bend Heritage didn’t talk to neighbors or council members early enough in the process, an allegation Mariani disputed.
At one point during the meeting, Davis angrily confronted city neighborhood development director Pam Meyer for telling a TV news station that his concerns about potential soil contamination at the site were “overblown.” Davis repeatedly asked Meyer when she had sent the council documentation that the site had been cleaned up, and Meyer said she had never done so.
Council member Jake Teshka voiced frustration, saying he has a “heart for the homeless” that began when his mother worked at the Center for the Homeless as he grew up.
“But I’m also privileged to represent the 5th District, where Marco and I live, and we don’t have to deal with a lot of things that these fine people do,” Teshka said, then paused a few seconds. “Damn it. Time and time again … these discussions have come down to engagement with the neighborhood. And not just the neighbors but this council. I didn’t get a call from Mario but my email box has been flooded by residents. But I’ll tell you, we’ve got a lot bigger issues when our residents feel like they have to come to a zoning hearing to talk about racial segregation and equity and all these other issues.”
Council member Jo Broden, who with Gavin Ferlic voted for the rezoning, agreed that “disinvestment” in the neighborhood must be addressed. But she became emotional when recounting recently riding bicycles with her husband John, who is St. Joseph Circuit Court judge, when they came upon a man who was considering jumping off the Michigan Street bridge.
“That’s a common occurrence in our community. It took six individuals for us not to have that death in our community that night two weeks ago. We have got to come to real solutions that everybody can have a part in. Time does matter so let’s not jerk around as a council on this and pretend that there hasn’t been enough public education. Let’s have that engagement. We need these services. We need this in our community.”
Mariani said losing the state grant for the project could also jeopardize state money for 40 “scattered-site” permanent supportive housing vouchers that has been secured. At the Aug. 12 council meeting, Mayor Pete Buttigieg urged the council to approve the rezoning.
Buttigieg was campaigning for president in California on Monday. His administration spokesman, Mark Bode, issued a written statement saying, “The administration is concerned that tonight’s decision could interrupt South Bend’s progress on homelessness strategy. In the coming days we will reassess our options and discuss a way forward with council and community leaders…”