- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - As a boy growing up on the west side, Jerry Niezgodski recalls riding his bike from his home near LaSalle High School, down Lincoln Way West to the Dairy Queen near Lincoln Way and Allen Street.

At the time, Lincoln Way West remained a major commercial corridor in the city. Businesses thrived, and the surrounding neighborhoods benefited. Crime was low, and the scourge of vacant and abndoned housing had not yet become a major problem.

Fifty years later, LaSalle is a high school no more, Dairy Queen is closed and Lincoln Way West is, by most measures, among the most blighted corridors in the city, marked by crumbling streets and sidewalks and large numbers of vacant and abandoned properties.

“You can basically say it went from pretty much the grand entrance to the city to its current state, which is less than ideal,” Niezgodski told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1i7gCB4 ) of the street, which stretches about two miles from Bendix Drive to LaSalle Street downtown.

But that could be about to change.

In an effort to revitalize both Lincoln Way West and Western Avenue, Mayor Pete Buttigieg last year set aside about $2 million in the current budget to develop a comprehensive master plan for the two corridors.

To oversee the process, the city has assembled an advisory committee consisting of various stakeholders — residents, business and community leaders, elected officials — including Niezgodski, who chairs the Lincoln Way West Gateway Association.

“I’m sure there are people who, no matter what this administration or any administration does will be suspicious or question it,” Niezgodski said. “But the fact this administration is reaching out to stakeholders of all different backgrounds … and being logical in its approach to this, stating up front that it will be a multiyear project, with that understanding, I am truly optimistic. It’s just a matter of time.”

To serve as a foundation for future planning decisions along the two corridors, the city, in partnership with the Urban Enterprise Association, has hired the consulting firm of Torti Gallas and Partners of Washington, D.C., to conduct a market study at a cost of about $160,000.

The study is intended to provide data on current and projected supply and demand for residential, commercial and industrial uses along the corridors, and to help determine the proper types, density and location of uses in the final plan, which is expected sometime before the end of the summer.

“The … strategy we have is sort of a data-driven plan, a land-use plan driven by economic analysis,” Scott Ford, the city’s executive director of Community Investment, said.

“In many ways, the west side is the heart of South Bend,” Ford added, “and some of those areas have been without a plan for a long time.”

Input from residents also is being collected via CityVoice, a location-based call-in system for collecting, sharing and understanding community feedback.

And two public planning workshops — one for Lincoln Way and one for Western — are set for later this week, on Wednesday.

“We need to raise the bar,” Niezgodski said. “We cannot have more of the same. … We need higher-quality housing, higher-quality investment, and we can’t just assume it’s all for social services or things of that nature, government stuff.

“Without that we’re not going to succeed in making this as great as it can be,” he said.

Among other things, Niezgodski thinks the city should consider including one or both of the corridors in a tax increment finance area as a way of generating the necessary revenue to pay for improvements.

He also would like the city to do a better job enforcing city code in the area.

Committee member Juan Hernandez Jr., president of the local Latin American Chamber of Commerce, agreed on the need for better code enforcement.

But he also suggested the city take steps to slow traffic and provide more parking along Western Avenue as a way to improve business in the area.

“The traffic that comes through there, they’re just flying by and not really driving slow enough to see what’s there, where they can stop and catch a meal and go to local stores and stuff,” Hernandez said.

‘A vision’

Efforts related to the corridors master plan dovetail with other efforts by the city to improve the west side, Ford said, including the vacant and abandoned housing effort and a new street lighting program.

Both corridors, stretching about two miles from downtown to the far west side, are marked by vacant and abandoned houses and buildings, deteriorating streets and sidewalks and other signs of neglect.

That’s especially true along Lincoln Way West, the primary corridor leading from the airport into downtown — and often the first glimpse of the city for visitors arriving by plane or the South Shore commuter railroad.

Previous efforts to revitalize the two corridors, dating back to at least the 1980s and consisting of spot infrastructure and streetscape improvements and various business development efforts, have met with only modest success.

Citing the broad-based nature of the current strategy, though, Ford expressed optimism that this time will be different.

“It’s a vision along Lincoln Way West and Western Avenue, and it will be an action plan as well,” Ford said. “So we’re looking for near-term things in the area, and then long-term development.”

“The other part,” he added, “is … finding a way to create a sense of place and pride of place that will attract investment.”

Some of those “near-term things” may include streetscape improvements — lighting, landscaping, curbs and sidewalks — matching façade grants or property acquisition, demolition or rehab, Ford said.

He stressed the entire effort is likely to take many years.

“Some of the challenges in those neighborhoods have been accruing for 50, 60 years,” Ford said, “so they’re not going to be solved overnight.”

Hernandez, the Chamber president, agreed.

At the same time, he expressed some doubt about the city following through on the plan.

“I would like to see that this administration is true to their word that they are going to make things happen,” he said. “But also I have a lump in my throat that something could cause them to go another way.”

Common Council member Henry Davis Jr., D-District 2, described a similar lump.

Davis’ district includes parts of both Western Avenue and Lincoln Way West, and he has long pushed for more planning and investment in the area.

“I just hope the money out there is not misappropriated or spent loosely and there’s no gain at the end of the day,” he said.

Davis also complained about being excluded from the planning process.

“I think I’ve been left out to a certain degree,’ he said. “However nothing really has been accomplished to this point.”

Regardless, he he’d like to see the city focus on business development along the two corridors, he said, citing a lack of retail clothing and grocery stores in particular.

“We can’t get anywhere in this city if we don’t expand the tax base and create more jobs,” he said.

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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