Neighborhood revitalization transforms streetscape, relationships

Show up in the parking lot of the Robinson Community Learning Center on game day, and you’ll see young people carrying hand-lettered signs: “Game day parking $20.”

What the signs don’t tell you is the extra service you’ll receive from the budding young entrepreneurs, who have worked with the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business students to polish their business plan.

“Here’s what your $20 gets you here,” says Marguerite Taylor, lifelong neighborhood resident and director of adult learning for the Robinson Center. Football fans can park their cars in the center’s spacious lot, she says, “then we shuttle you over to the game. We don’t know of anyone else who’s doing that.”

The signs also won’t tell you of the long journey the neighborhood, city, institutions and university have taken together to make such a thing possible.

‘There was a collective gasp’

The story begins in a way that has become all too familiar in cities and towns across the country. A once-thriving, tight-knit neighborhood begins a slow decay as children grow up, find jobs elsewhere and move away. What remained by the late 1990s was a group of longtime residents who could remember what the neighborhood had once been, and who dared to believe in what it could become.

And the gap between the two realities was growing ever wider.

At the same time, across the street there was a growing awareness among Notre Dame leadership that to attract top faculty, the environment off campus would need to provide the features they wanted.

“Faculty moving to South Bend didn’t want to live in the suburbs,” says Jeff Gibney, executive director of the Department of Community and Economic Development for the City of South Bend. “They wanted to live in an urban environment that was closely tied to the university. The trustees said, ‘We’d better get out and look at what other universities are doing.’”

What they discovered, as they visited other top-flight universities to see what they were offering, was that they needed an appealing environment surrounding the campus to draw top-notch faculty, who often will specifically seek universities and towns that offer an urban environment with strong ties to the university.

A plan for revitalization and expansion into the adjacent neighborhood on the city’s Northeast Side began to form in their minds.

It was a plan that was met with immediate suspicion and mistrust among the residents of that neighborhood.

Marguerite Taylor vividly recalls the newspaper story that announced the university’s creation of a position specifically designed to oversee community outreach.

“I can still remember the headline,” says Taylor, who serves as an officer with the Northeast Neighborhood Council, the city’s oldest continuously meeting neighborhood association. “It said something like ‘University hires outreach director to turn his attention to northeast neighborhood.’

“Well, we didn’t want anybody at Notre Dame to ‘turn their attention to us,’” she says. “My mother raised eight kids in this neighborhood, of whom I was the oldest. Many of my neighbors had also lived here all their lives. We have a real stake in the neighborhood. So there was this collective gasp when we saw that story.”

But there were also residents living in the neighborhood who had ties to the university. Slowly, nearly imperceptibly at first, they began reaching out in small ways, seeking and gaining acceptance. Notre Dame students began attending worship services at Olivet AME Church. Residents who worked at Notre Dame began asking their neighbors what they wanted to see in their own neighborhood.

Finally, the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization was formed.

The initial committee consisted of seven residents, including Taylor, and seven representatives of institutional partners in the NNRO: the City, the University of Notre Dame and healthcare organizations in the neighborhood, including Memorial Hospital, Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center and Madison Center. The South Bend Clinic has joined the NNRO in recent years.

“Karl King (then serving as councilman from that district) did a really good job of putting the NNRO together,” she says. “There was a good cross-section of people.”

The committee met regularly and talked. There were a lot of smart people, Taylor says, and everybody brought good ideas to the table.

“But we didn’t really know what to do with all those good ideas. It wasn’t until we went to the South Bend Heritage Foundation and said ‘Help us’ that things started falling into place. Jeff Gibney [then executive director of the foundation] is really good at bringing people to the table with all their diversity and molding that into something workable.”

‘First, we became friends’

Jeff Gibney, executive director of the Department of Community and Economic Development for the City of South Bend

NNRO hired South Bend Heritage Foundation to manage outlining strategic planning and development.

“One of the very first things we did was we all became friends,” Gibney says. “That might sound corny, but it was absolutely necessary to be able to move forward. We said to the institutional groups, ‘If you don’t do this, the neighbors will fight you every step of the way, and this will never work.’”

To begin, the way the group became friends was by hosting numerous meetings. At first people simply showed up to vent their frustrations. Over time, they realized they were being listened to and heard, and an atmosphere of mutual trust began to develop.

“Some parts of the neighborhood were blighted; others were very strong,” Gibney says. “But there had been no real investment there for 50 years. Notre Dame gets the credit for being the engine bringing these institutions together. They wanted to create a stronger, more diversified neighborhood for faculty and students, and for the city.”

One of the more exciting discoveries the various entities made was how much they had in common in terms of the overall vision for improving the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood is our backyard,” says Timothy Sexton, who has been involved in the project at various levels: as Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization board president, in his former role as the director for community relations at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, and now as associate vice president for public affairs at Notre Dame. “The neighborhood was going through significant decline. From the get-go, the plan was that this needed to be a partnership with the neighborhood residents. The city was a big part of moving that forward by making a significant investment in the project and by offering expertise.”

In the meantime, the foundation and NNRO had been working on acquiring properties for low-income residents. The City and other institutional partners invested more than $3 million as seed money. At that point, residents could see the changes that were taking place. They began to see their own ownership.

“People saw early evidence that a genuine transformation was taking place,” Gibney says. “By the time we got the whole plan approved, everybody was on board.”

Dramatic changes and positive signs

Craig Tiller, pictured with his family, was pleased to move in to the revitalized Northeast Neighborhood eight years ago.

As one of the first buyers of new property, Craig Tiller was specifically seeking out an urban neighborhood.

“I got involved in revitalization efforts because we became residents,” Tiller says. “I saw an opportunity to become a part of something that was effecting positive changes.”

In his eight years in the neighborhood, Tiller has seen an improvement in the neighborhood’s housing.

Less obvious, he says, is the willingness of homebuyers to invest their hard-earned money in the neighborhood.

“It’s a pretty significant investment in what could have been a huge financial risk,” he says. “That’s a huge positive sign.”

The number of young families and large families that have moved in is another improvement he’s seen in the neighborhood. Finally, he says, there is a noticeable difference in the way people look out for one another and report unusual activities in their midst. That heightened sense of awareness and community, Tiller says, contributes greatly to the safety and security in the neighborhood.

Perfect timing creates powerful momentum

Eddy Street Commons

Today, the Northeast neighborhood shines as a model of a complete, modern urban community that is diverse, attractive and appealing. Components include:

• The Robinson Community Learning Center. Established in 2000, the center represents the first tangible result of the collaboration. Some 500 participants come through the doors of the center each week for regular programming. In addition, programs in partnership with area schools connect with an additional 8,000 youths every year.

• Eddy Street Commons, a $215-million mixed-use development. The City invested $35 million in infrastructure to put in streets, sewers, sidewalks, lighting and a parking garage.

• A new face for the neighborhood, in the form of 60 low-to-moderate-income and market-rate homes southeast of Eddy Street Commons.

• Infill housing incentives for faculty and staff to build 30 new homes and rehabilitate 60 others.

• The creation of a $20-million cancer research center.

• Innovation Park at Notre Dame, part of a dual-site, state-certified technology park.

• Plans to redevelop the former Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, now under consideration as the future home of a new Saint Joseph’s High School.

“Sometimes timing is everything, and the timing certainly could not have been better in terms of various projects developing all at the same time,” says Patrick McMahon, executive director of Project Future.

Project Future, working closely with university and city officials, was instrumental in the development of the technology park concept that eventually led to the creation of Innovation and Ignition Parks.

“The creation of Innovation Park, and all of the structure that supports it inside and outside the university, is critical to where our community ends up long term,” McMahon says. “If you look at some of the more successful tech parks, you find that not only is there a facility with close proximity to research at a university, but also all sorts of other attributes nearby to make them more attractive: housing, retail and hospitality developments are all present in the vicinity of the more established parks.”

The fact that the Northeast Neighborhood revitalization and Eddy Street Commons emerged just as Innovation Park began to take shape gives the city enormous momentum.

“Our attributes came together at the same time,” McMahon says. “They support each other and create an even stronger presentation to someone who’s considering where to go with the development of a new idea. That will be a strong plus in attracting people from outside looking for partnership opportunities.”

A true partnership

For Gladys Muhammad, associate director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation, the revitalization represents a journey of empowerment.

“The residents realized they had more power than was perceived,” she says. “Nothing was going to happen without their agreeing to it. They wanted respect and to be a part of that process. They had a real voice.

“It’s awesome to see those buildings there,” Muhammad says. “Once upon a time no one believed it could happen. And there they are. That might have been the first time all those institutions got together. It shows people that you can do this by working together. It feels good to know that the process works. Most of all, I like to see diverse groups of people, from across economic lines and from all walks of life, working together. It’s a true partnership, and it works.”

Publication Date: 
December 2010
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