By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune Aug 21, 2019
SOUTH BEND — After hearing 10 people speak against a proposed apartment building for the chronically homeless on the city’s near west side Tuesday, while two people spoke in favor of it, the St. Joseph County Area Plan Commission sent a rezoning request needed for the project on to the South Bend Common Council with no recommendation.
The arguments against the project, a partnership between the city and the nonprofit South Bend Heritage Foundation, were reminiscent of the city’s difficulty a year ago in siting a gateway center for the homeless on the near southeast side, a project the city finally decided to drop, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced Monday.
In both cases, people living near the proposed sites said they recognize the need for the projects, they just want them built somewhere else because they feel like they have enough poverty and homelessness in their parts of the city.
But after the meeting, Marco Mariani, executive director of South Bend Heritage, said he remains convinced that the site, three empty lots in the 1500 block of West Washington Street, is the best place out of 21 sites around the city that were considered to build the 20- to 22-unit permanent supportive housing development. The nonprofit Oaklawn would deliver mental health and addiction services to the tenants.
Mariani said he will continue to argue for the state-funded $3.5 million project before the South Bend Common Council, which should vote on it at its meeting Monday.
“From South Bend Heritage Foundation’s perspective, we’ve said everything there is to say, the process has been very open,” Mariani said. “This is a good proposal. It’s the right thing to do for the community. It’s a difficult location anywhere you go in South Bend to create permanent supportive housing units. Whether it’s a single site or scattered site, you’re still going to see neighborhood opposition to this.”
Opponents, all of whom live nearby, essentially made three arguments before the 10 plan commission members who attended the meeting:
- their part of the city has long been ignored when it comes to infrastructure investment, such as street lighting and repaving, so the city and South Bend Heritage think it’s the easiest and cheapest place to build the project.
- South Bend Heritage’s first such project, the Oliver Apartments, built two years ago in the Rum Village neighborhood, has not gone well – an assertion Mariani refutes.
- South Bend Heritage and the city didn’t seek input from neighbors until late in the process.
The commission voted 7-3 to give the council a favorable recommendation toward rezoning the site from light industrial to mixed use, but that was a vote short of the eight votes (a majority of the 15 members) needed to send the council a recommendation. Voting against the rezoning were commissioners Oliver Davis, who is also a council member; Martin Madigan, of Roseland; and Harry Dudeck, of New Carlisle.
Davis said he didn’t think neighbors were notified early enough, and that Mariani only made a presentation to the Near Westside Neighborhood Organization after he suggested doing so.
“I was starting to get emails from all over the place that neighbors weren’t being talked to,” Davis said.
“I agree with the people out there that it’s moved forward awful quick,” said Dudeck.
“I just think changing the zoning would be detrimental to that area,” Madigan said. “It’s vacant land. How are they going to develop if they approve this rezoning.”
“It’s three empty lots,” commissioner Dan Brewer replied. “You’re suggesting it’s better to leave it vacant?”
“I would say yes,” Madigan said. “Get something positive and constructive thing in that neighborhood.”
Commissioner Robert Hawley said he hopes that if anything comes from the discussion, the city “gets together and somehow helps this neighborhood. I voted to move in favor because I think we’ve got to move along.”
Madigan said he would not want “to have people sitting out on my porch or defecating or urinating all over my neighborhood.”
Brewer said he’s heard that’s already happening in the neighborhood, with homeless people squatting in abandoned industrial buildings.
“This project is targeted toward people who are seeking a way out of homelessness,” Brewer said, “so the problem you are citing in the neighborhood is something that would be remedied by this rather than intensified.”
The commission ultimately voted 9-1 to send “no recommendation,” with commission President John Leszczynski casting the only “no” vote on that motion.
“What swayed me was the comments by Ms. (Pam) Meyer that the city is now taking notice and is going to spend the money and the effort to upgrade the neighborhood.”
But Meyer, the city’s director of neighborhood development, shook her head from the audience as Leszczynski said that.
“I didn’t say that,” she told The Tribune after the meeting. “What I said was we’ve heard the concerns and are willing to sit down and talk about that. Get real, I don’t have the authority to commit money. I think he just was talking about the fact that he assumes that’s the long-term outcome of the conversations.”
Separate from this project, Meyer noted there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for more city investment in distressed neighborhoods, the subject of as series of public meetings that Common Council Member Karen White has been leading.