Community by Design
Architecture students help reimagine South Bend neighborhood
William Street in South Bend was primarily residential until about 1940, when the city decided to extend it north to Portage Avenue. Designed to establish a new commuter corridor linking downtown to the far north side, the decision would have lasting consequences. Almost immediately, traffic increased, altering the historical character of the street and hastening its decline. Homes became apartments or businesses and then parking lots, as people abandoned the area for the suburbs. Property values plummeted, until urban renewal drove the final nail into the coffin.
Today, the formerly quiet, tree-lined street is a sterile corridor of vacant land and parking lots, of narrow sidewalks and substandard commercial buildings. A liminal space dividing downtown from the near west side. Devoid of charm and character.
For developers and investors, this presents a challenge in the form of an “appraisal gap” — a negative relationship between the cost of a newly constructed home or building and its ultimate value. Currently, absent tax incentives or other public support, the return on investment in the area is negative.
“The primary deficit of this part of the city is the absence of a coherent, friendly and generally attractive public realm. Because the streets are devoid of streetscapes, and the carriageways are very wide, encouraging drivers to speed, it is impossible for a visitor to say ‘This is a civilized place,’” said Stefanos Polyzoides, the newly appointed Francis and Kathleen Rooney Dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture.
“So you have decades of change, but with little thought about what it should look like and how it integrates downtown to the near west neighborhood.”—Tim Corcoran
Tim Corcoran, director of planning and community resources for the city of South Bend, described it as “the middle of nowhere,” a “no man’s land,” blaming a confluence of historical factors as well as poor or no planning on the part of the city.
“The street changes to the detriment of the residential nature of the place; that leads to the neighborhood not wanting to be residential in nature any longer. Thus demolition starts to happen and it starts to convert to a quasi-business area. So you have decades of change, but with little thought about what it should look like and how it integrates downtown to the near west neighborhood,” Corcoran said.
But a plan is afoot to reverse the mistakes of the past, close the appraisal gap and lure new investment to the area. And not just large investment, but small investment, so that people with a history in the area can contribute to its growth as well — for example, by purchasing and redeveloping the vacant lot next door or rehabbing the home down the street.
In collaboration with the city and other campus and community partners and stakeholders, students and faculty with the School of Architecture spent a week in January reimagining the section of William from Lincoln Way West to Western Avenue downtown based on new urbanist principles of planning and design that create human-scale, walkable, functional and sustainable urban communities.
The result: the outlines of a plan for rejoining downtown, with its dense mix of high-rise buildings and apartments, parks, restaurants and cultural venues, to the near west side, with its museums, community organizations and historic homes and buildings, along a mended William Street.
The exercise was part of a new tradition within the School of Architecture: the Dean’s Charrette — an attempt by Polyzoides to redirect the school’s focus on classical architecture and urbanism outward, into the wider world, and thus engage students in “learning by doing.”
“We’re starting a new journey,” said Polyzoides, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a partner in Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, an award-winning global design and planning firm based in Pasadena, California. “We’re trying to expand our presence in the city and world through teaching by learning in place.”
From the French for “cart,” as in one used for transporting the work of architecture students at the École des Beaux-Arts in 19th-century France, a charrette is an intense period of design or planning activity aimed at solving a particular problem with input from all stakeholders.
In this case, in addition to students and faculty from the School of Architecture, that included new urbanist consultants in landscape architecture, mobility, economics and civil engineering, and leaders and stakeholders from the city of South Bend, the new west neighborhood, the local development, business and architectural communities and the campus community, among others.
The city has committed to a second Dean’s Charrette.
Moving forward, the plan is for two School of Architecture charrettes annually, one each at the start of the fall and spring semesters.
“I’ve participated in about 50 charrettes, so I know how valuable they can be from the perspective of getting a lot of work done in a short amount of time,” said Corcoran, who shares views regarding the importance of classical and vernacular architecture within traditional urbanism. “So for the student who will probably be working for a firm that uses this type intense workshop to generate ideas, it’s a great thing for them to learn.”
‘A Swiss cheese neighborhood’
The city has been eyeing William for redevelopment for some time. It returned the street to its original two-way orientation under then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg in 2014, and it controls significant property at the south end of the street, around Four Winds Field, the city’s minor league baseball stadium. The area is part of a special taxing district for redevelopment projects that includes downtown and the near west side.
“So there are a lot of opportunities to look at a whole variety of planning, urban design and architectural issues there,” Corcoran said.
In preparation for the charrette, the students and faculty surveyed the 10-block study area, documenting an existing network of streets and blocks well-suited to redevelopment, as well as a number of noteworthy buildings, such as the First Presbyterian Church and the former Central High School. At the same time, they documented a lack of well-defined public spaces, a glut of vacant property and a “shocking” number of parking spaces — more than 2,200 between the streets and surface parking lots.
“It’s sort of a Swiss cheese neighborhood — all the infrastructure in place, half built and half unbuilt.” —Stefanos Polyzoides
To remedy this, the students and faculty proposed interventions aimed at calming traffic, improving walkability and increasing density, starting with the transformation of William from a traditional two-way street to a boulevard with a landscaped median to slow traffic, reduce crossing distance and facilitate the transition from the denser, more commercially oriented downtown to the quieter, more residential near west side.
“The first thing is for the city to recast and redesign the street in a way that attracts people to want to live and invest there,” Polyzoides said.
Two blocks east, the city made similar improvements to Main Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2016, improving safety and helping to attract more than $100 million in private investment downtown.
To support and complement William and promote a sense of place, the students and faculty also recommended:
Medians, bike lanes and other traffic-calming measures and more street trees along Washington, Colfax and other cross streets.
Three public squares: between the First Presbyterian Church and former Central High School on Colfax, behind an existing garage structure on Wayne Street, and across from St. Patrick Church on Taylor Street.
A pocket park where LaSalle Avenue joins Lincoln Way West, creating a small triangle of land.
A market hall in an expanded median at the south end of William, across from Four Winds Field, with stalls for local vendors. Such halls have helped revitalize neighborhoods in places like Oakland.
Excluding the market hall, these interventions would fit within the existing rights of way to reduce cost. In some cases, they could be done simply with new traffic markings.
From a land use perspective, they proposed zoning for commercial uses toward the north and south ends of the study area and for residential uses toward the interior of the study. They proposed a wrapped parking structure at the southeast corner of William and LaSalle Avenue where a parking lot exists now, and taller residential structures mid-block along William, up to three stories, to increase density.
Finally, they developed a housing toolkit based on existing lot sizes, with detailed elevations and floor plans for detached two-, three- and four-bedroom single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes, multi-plexes, townhouses and commercial blocks with on-street or private parking and shared or private green space.
‘Like finding a wallet with $500 in it’
All told, the plan would add up to 450 units of housing, a market hall, a school or community center, several squares, parks and monuments, 30-40 stores and a parking structure to the 80-acre area — at a fraction of the cost of the same outside of the city, since the underlying infrastructure already exists.
In fact, even in its current state, that infrastructure — the streets, curbs and sidewalks, the power and communications infrastructure, the storm and wastewater sewers along and around William — is incredibly valuable in both real dollars and development potential.
“The greatest problem we have in development is we cannot find money to build infrastructure. So when you find a place that already has all of it built, in addition to a remarkable number of (historic) buildings, we’re completely crazy as a society to not be rushing back and reoccupying a place like this,” Polyzoides said. “Not from pride and culture alone, but from sheer economic interest.”
He added, “You see a place like this that is not in good shape, and in fact, it’s like finding a wallet with $500 in it.”
All in all, the students and faculty contributed 2,000 hours to the charrette, equal to one person working full-time for an entire year, prompting Polyzoides to note, “The difference between one person working for a year and this number of people working all together in one place for a week is really what the magic of charetting is all about.”
Learning by doing
For students, the experience was an opportunity to work side-by-side with licensed architects on a real-world design problem, one with the potential to influence how people see and interact with a place and inform millions of dollars in future investment.
To learn by doing, but also by observing.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Maggie McDonald, a fourth-year architecture student from Iowa City, Iowa. “It gave us a taste of what it would be like to work in an office. It felt very much like what I want my career to be.”
McDonald worked on housing type and design, including floor plans. This included research around land ownership, division and zoning.
“We’ve designed different housing types as studio projects, but what I really liked about the charrette was its fast pace,” McDonald said. “It really forced us to understand the purpose and essence of particular housing types and what they had to offer to the community.”
“The professors say architecture is a lifelong education, and we really saw that in the way they interacted with us and each other.” —Christian Johnson, graduate student
In addition to such direct learning, the charrette offered students the opportunity to observe faculty engaged in the collaborative process — the basis of all good design and planning and a source of lifelong learning.
“The professors say architecture is a lifelong education, and we really saw that in the way they interacted with us and each other,” said Christian Johnson, a graduate architecture student from suburban Toledo, Ohio, who lives just west of William Street.
Like McDonald, Johnson worked on housing type and design, in addition to rendering and coloring.
“Overall, I was impressed with the student work, given that they’ve probably never participated in something like this before,” said Corcoran, the director of planning and community resources for the city. “It was a very good first charrette.”
Polyzoides described it as a “miracle.”
“There were 13 students and 11 faculty members. Just to get 30 students and 11 faculty members working together, I would qualify as a miracle,” he said.
‘It’s going to be done’
The next step is for the students and faculty to take the ideas from the charrette, refine them and incorporate them into a final plan, which the city can then consider for adoption.
Among other things, this will signal to developers the city’s commitment to the area.
To that end, Polyzoides recommended the city move ahead with improvements to the public realm as quickly as possible, and at the same time solicit proposals for the redevelopment of the two blocks of city-owned land at the south end of William Street.
With any luck, this will help kick-start redevelopment and narrow the appraisal gap so that investors of all types can return to the area with confidence.
“It’s a tall order, but I’m completely convinced it’s going to be done,” Polyzoides said of the overall plan. “There’s money to be made, there’s glory to be had and there’s service to be rendered.”