Historic downtown South Bend apartments pulled “back from the brink”

Originally Posted: May 31, 2018

Written By: Ed Semmler, South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A little more than a year ago, the historic Washington-Colfax Apartments were in imminent danger of becoming another photo memory of South Bend’s past.

Located on the near west side of downtown and surrounded by landmark buildings such as Tippecanoe Place, the Oliver Inn Bed & Breakfast and others, the historic apartment buildings — built in the mid-1920s in the Chicago courtyard style — were suffering from decades of neglect.

There were complaints about heat, petty crime and bugs.

Structural and mechanical issues resulted in water damage, mold and so many other problems that the unit facing Washington Street was deemed uninhabitable and vacated in early 2018. The few remaining tenants were relocated to the building facing Colfax Avenue.

“A lot of developers looked at the buildings and walked away,” said Pat Lynch, project manager and staff architect for South Bend Heritage Foundation.

With rehab estimates as high as $7 million, the apartments were deemed too complex and expensive to save.

But South Bend Heritage, a nonprofit that was organized more than 40 years ago to fight the decline of the city’s neighborhoods, worked out a plan to purchase the apartments in July from the Detroit-area owner and quickly set about reversing the decline.

First the buildings were renamed Gemini — the Latin word for twins — since the two buildings are repositioned copies of one another. Moving forward, officials hoped the new name would separate the three-story apartments from the stigma it had developed

The building facing Washington was gutted; plumbing, mechanical and electrical problems were addressed; the exterior masonry was repaired; and a roof was replaced. Without the improvements, officials believe the building would not have survived the winter.

Now after about 10 months of work, South Bend Heritage plans to show off a couple of completed units during an open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday for those who might be interested in leasing or are simply curious about the project, said Elizabeth Leachman, director of marketing and strategic initiatives for South Bend Heritage.

The organization hopes to have 16 to 18 units ready for occupancy this summer with the remainder coming on line in the two buildings over the next year or so, said Lynch, adding that the project was slowed a bit by bad weather and the high demand for contractors, especially those willing to take on a challenging rehab.

“Buildings like this are inherently complicated,” he said, pointing out how corners aren’t always square and floors might have a slight slant.

When the project is completed there will be 60 units in the two buildings, ranging from a few 518-square-foot studios to one bedroom units as large as 1,026 square feet. Prices are expected to range from $600 a month for a studio to up to $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit.

Similar to when the apartments were first occupied by downtown office workers, the revamped units are expected to attract those who work in the city center or are attracted by the urban lifestyle, said Leachman.

Considered upscale when they were built in the 1920s, a decision was made to stick with the original layout of each apartment because South Bend Heritage wanted to preserve the building’s historic feel, said Leachman.

In order to accomplish that goal, for example, ornate oak entry doors were replicated and brass wall sconces inside the apartments were restored, rather than replaced, said Lynch. And rather than just using cheap fire escapes on the outside of the building, the old ones were replicated by Nappanee-based fabricator PWI, which began installing the new 30-foot steel structures on Thursday.

Except for modern bathrooms, kitchens and heating and cooling systems, the apartments will have as close to the same feel they did when they were built.

The project will add to the hundreds of apartments that have come on line over the past year or so in the downtown area, but South Bend Heritage officials believe there will be a market for the Gemini units because of the historical charm of the building, the price point of the apartments and even the dedicated 50 parking spaces the completed project will have.

Neighbors are enthusiastic about the renovation and the prospect of getting residents back in the building.

“It’s such a beautiful building, and they’re doing a wonderful job renovating the exterior,” said Alice Erlandson, who owns the Oliver Inn with her husband Tom and is looking forward to getting a sneak peek inside the building. “It’s really going to improve the neighborhood.”

South Bend Heritage, which will actively manage the property, is paying for the Gemini project with a $2.1 million loan, $1 million from the West Washington TIF District and grants from various partner organizations, said Marco Mariani, executive director of South Bend Heritage.

And saving the buildings was accomplished on a streamlined budget because South Bend Heritage has its own architect and is serving as general contractor and property manager on the project, said Mariani. In addition, the nonprofit is taking a conservative approach unlike a private developer that might be more focused on quick profits and it wasn’t trying to convert the space into more luxury apartments.

“Our goal was to first get these buildings out of the hands of an absentee landlord and then stabilize them for the community,” said Mariani. “As the apartments come back on line, the neighborhood will benefit as well as people who are looking for unique, affordable downtown apartments.”

Only time will reveal the success of the project.

But one thing is certain, said Lynch. “We pulled it back from the brink.”