The South Bend Common Council approved a $25 million plan on Monday night that would convert two of the city’s main thoroughfares from one-way to two-way traffic. The Smart Streets initiative would convert both Michigan Street and Main Street.
The plan also calls for the construction of new roundabouts and various other street improvements. It has already been approved by the Redevelopment Commission. The city will issue a $25 million bond to finance the project. The bond will be repaid over 20 years.
Scott Ford, the executive director of South Bend’s Community Investment Department, said that a similar approach in Louisville yielded a 39 percent increase in property values, as well as reduced crime and accidents.
“It’s safer for pedestrians. It would improve the [grid] network. It’s one of the strongest tools we can make for improving economic development,” Ford said in remarks before the Common Council.
Ford noted that a 30 percent increase in property tax revenue along Michigan and Main Streets would result in over $4 million in new property tax revenue over 5 years.
But the $25 million price tag that drew skepticism from Councilwoman Valerie Schey, who also serves on the Redevelopment Commission, was a target of criticism for Councilman Henry Davis Jr., who announced last week that he is running for mayor.
“Why not this type of infusion of dollars into the neighborhoods?” asked Davis Jr., who represents the city’s 2nd District on the west side of South Bend.
“We are,” Ford responded, noting investments along Lincolnway West and Western Avenue. Ford says that the neighborhoods off of Ewing and Sample, as well as other areas along Michigan and Main Street would benefit from the project.
“That’s part of a portfolio of projects we’re working on to improve the neighborhoods,” Ford said.
Davis Jr. pointed out that the west side neighborhoods were receiving only a few million dollars versus $25 million for the downtown core. Davis Jr. also questioned whether downtown was in good shape.
“I don’t know where we got off thinking that downtown is flourishing. It’s not,” Davis Jr. said, adding that he was willing to walk around downtown with anyone who thought the downtown area was doing well.
“Henry, I hope you take that walk downtown with [DTSB Executive Director] Aaron Perri,” Councilman Tim Scott offered when it was his turn to speak, noting that downtown had a high occupancy rate.
Seventeen local residents came out in favor when it turned to public commenting. Supporters included community activists, business owners and members of the city government.
Among those speaking in favor of the plan was Willow Wetherall, a local activist who says the plan would continue the city’s revitalization.
Andrew Wiand, a fellow at South Bend-based consulting firm EnFocus, compared investment in the downtown core to a living organism that needed a healthy core to survive.
Not everyone was on board. Four spoke in opposition to the plan, including South Bend resident S. J. Szabo.
“There’s no reason to spend $25 million on the mayor’s re-election campaign,” Szabo said, questioning whether the plan would succeed in its ultimate goal.
Sharon Banicki also spoke in opposition, raising concerns over clogged traffic. Others cited concerns that the plan mirrored failed downtown redevelopment efforts from the past, including the former College Football Hall of Fame, which still remains empty.
Scott Ford returned at the end of the public comment period to respond to some of the criticisms.
“This will not disrupt traffic,” Ford argued, citing a traffic model that the city conducted. “In the future traffic demand, this will fully accommodate the traffic to be had.”
Ford said that Smart Streets was an investment but not a “silver bullet.”
“This is not a gimmick; this is going back to fundamentals,” he concluded.
Ultimately, the plan won the Council’s approval in a 6 to 1 vote. Henry Davis Jr. was the lone dissenting vote. Valerie Schey and Fred Ferlic were absent.
Even with the Council’s approval, the plan still requires state approval to sign over the rights to the road. The state controls both Michigan Street and Main Street, which are part of the state highway system.
Eric Horvath, the director of the city’s Public Works Department, says that the city hopes to have an agreement with Indiana Department of Transportation by the end of the year.
“Jurisdiction transfers are not uncommon,” Horvath said, noting that part of the transfer agreement would include funding for a certain number of years, typically around 10 years.
The city is also considering a permit with the state that would allow for the conversion without transferring ownership. Under that scenario, the state would still be responsible for ongoing maintenance.