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How Mayor Pete used good urbanism to revitalize South Bend

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Behind the Rust Belt renaissance overseen by the Dem hopeful is a focus on placemaking and development policies

Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks with an AP reporter as he walks in downtown South Bend, Indiana, on Thursday, Jan. 10.

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and his underdog campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, gets noticed quite a bit these days. He’s fluent in multiple languages, comfortable talking about his religious beliefs, married to a man with an excellent Twitter presence, and part of a “generation that is stepping forward right now.” He’s a young, intellectual candidate catching fire as he slowly ascends the rankings of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But for a breakthrough politician known to a growing fanbase as Mayor Pete, his specific record and policies as a two-term mayor aren’t as familiar a part of his biography. One of Buttigieg’s advantages in the race—his eight years of executive experience in office—don’t just play to the narrative of a Rust Belt renaissance, but touch upon core issues of the upcoming campaign: economic development, making the tech boom more inclusive, and building community in a polarized political environment.

Buttigieg’s supporters often lionize him for helping to revive a dying town—a characterization many locals take issue with—or getting people to believe in South Bend again. But his impact on the northern Indiana city, known by many as the current home of Notre Dame and the former home of Studebaker, has been a little more nuanced.

An analysis of his time in office does shows the millennial mayor adopting, and often successfully implementing, the contemporary strategies experts point to when advising locals on how to (re)build better urban communities. Here’s how Mayor Pete used a data-driven approach to urbanism and development to reshape the narrative about his hometown.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana.

Placemaking and street redesign helped revitalize downtown

Before Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor, there wasn’t a lot of “there” there when it came to downtown South Bend. Underdeveloped and sometimes abandoned buildings, and a series of four-lane, one-way roads, more highways than city streets, made it more of a place people drove through than visited.

“You could shoot a cannon downtown and not hit anybody,” Jack Colwell, a longtime local newspaper columnist, told Curbed. “It was really a desolate place after work hours.”

One of Mayor Pete’s signature initiatives, the $25 million Smart Streets plan, reshaped downtown with new streetscapes and pedestrian areas when it was completed in 2017, turning the one-way roads into two-way streets lined with trees, bike paths, and decorative brickwork.

Buttigieg’s redevelopment initiatives come straight from the pedestrian-friendly urbanism playbook. During his time in office, the city invested in road calming measures, parks, and placemaking, and created a River Lights arts installation to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday.

As Tim Corcoran, city planning director, told the South Bend Tribune, Mayor Pete’s moves began to reverse the damage wrought by postwar suburban flight. “South Bend was probably far more of a new urbanist place in the 1940s than it is today. We essentially tore down half the city. That means there’s half the city waiting to be built.”

Business leaders told the South Bend Tribune the improvements added up: Hotelier A.J. Patel said the plan helped clean up the whole area and improve downtown, while local real estate developer Ed Bradley believes “it’s had a significant impact on people’s desire to be downtown.” Colwell says the subsequent redevelopment of two old abandoned downtown hotels into new apartments, condos and stores, has been a big boost.

The density of people who come to First Fridays events downtown is a “visible representation of some of the progress that’s been made,” says Dustin Mix, a local tech entrepreneur. Buttigieg claims that the city saw $90 million worth of downtown investment due to the more walkable urban core. “We’ve restructured our streets and downtown to make for a more vibrant city life,” he wrote.

“I think it really was can-do attitude; that’s Pete’s biggest achievement,” says Colwell. “He didn’t do all this development single-handedly, but he played a big role. In the past, developers coming to City Hall would hear ‘we don’t have funds, we can’t support infrastructure,’ excuses why they couldn’t do things.’”

Turning vacant lots into new development

Like many former industrial strongholds in the Midwest, like Gary, Indiana, and Detroit, South Bend had a shrinking population, one of several factors that led to blight. Once a city of 130,000, South Bend has contracted by more than a quarter to around 100,000. Buttigieg’s plan to tackle the issue grew out of his observations from campaigning door-to-door, as well as a city report on the issue in 2013, which looked at the root causes of the issue and recommended a data-driven approach to reclaiming or knocking down homes. With the recommendations of the task force in hand, Buttigieg announced he would rehabilitate or demolish 1,000 properties in 1,000 days, a signature initiative from his early days in office.

The effort met its target early, addressing 1,122 properties by knocking down 60 percent and fixing the rest, identifying homes based on code violations, foreclosures, and abandonment. Setting an ambitious goal to change the look of the city, and meeting it, “really lifted the morale in the city,” Buttigieg would tell David Axelrod. Colwell said the plan was “amazing” and really helped the impacted neighborhoods.

The plan wasn’t met with universal praise: Local leaders like Regina Williams-Preston, a city council member now running to replace Buttigieg, said the program was moving too fast, pushing people out of their homes and potentially sowing the seeds of gentrification. “Homes were coming down blocks at a time,” she told the Indianapolis Star. She would later convince Buttigieg to alter the program to include a $2 million program for home repairs and $2 million in affordable housing assistance.

According to Tim Scott, a city councilmember elected with Buttigieg in 2010, there was a great need to right-size the city. But now, especially after the downtown received focus from city hall, many programs are turning to other neighborhoods. Community development corporations are focused on new and infill development where vacant lots once stood. And the West Main Street Corridor Plan has helped streets like Western Avenue, where more storefronts are starting to take root. After starting with downtown, the city is turning more attention to the neighborhoods.

This Oct. 14, 2015, photo shows the long-shuttered Studebaker assembly plant in South Bend, Indiana, that was later turned into a center for innovation and entreprenurship.

Building an economic base for the future

In a TEDx talk on innovation, Buttigieg talks about the fate of the long-gone South Bend Watch Company, and goes on to say that cities like his need to reinvent themselves, and more importantly, find new uses for old assets. During his time as mayor, he focused on local innovation. The shadow of Studebaker, the famous automaker that was a core part of the city and region until closing shop in the ’60s, has hung over the area, but Buttigieg didn’t go chasing large corporate HQs or doling out economic incentives to Fortune 500 companies. Instead, he focused on building and supporting local talent.

“When Mayor Pete started talking about assets in a futuristic way, what they could be, not what they once were, that’s what inspired people,” says Mix. “He’s opened the conversation about what South Bend can offer, and what can be used to create a forward-facing future for the economy.”

Buttigieg promoted the city as the perfect place to test out new business ideas and startups, claiming it was just large enough to have the kind of problems and challenges of big cities, but small enough that the community was accessible. He supported the creation of tech hubs like Building 84, a former Studebaker factory (where he officially launched his presidential bid on April 14), Ignition Park, and the Notre Dame-affiliated Innovation Park. The right-size city concept was the basis for Invanti, a startup hub Mix co-founded that invited budding founders to test out their social impact ideas in Indiana.

Buttigieg’s vision includes connecting downtown South Bend to the regional economy; he’s pushed to extend the South Shore Commuter Rail, which runs to downtown Chicago, into the city’s core. The establishment of a 90-minute rail trip to the Windy City, which is still being decided, would bring $400 million in economic impact over a decade, analysts predict.

He may not have solved the city’s crime problem, reformed the city’s poorly performing schools, or erased the significant economic inequality (a quarter of residents, and 40 percent of the black population, live below the poverty line). But unemployment has dropped from 13 to 3.2 percent since he took office, and as many residents and politicians will tell you, the city is growing and doing better than it has in years.

James Mueller, the Executive Director of Community Investment during Buttigieg’s second term, and a candidate to succeed him, says that South Bend made planning and economic development work in tandem. The combination of placemaking and community development has brought in investors who had previously written off South Bend.

“We’re not in a managing-decline mindset,” he says. “This opens up a lot of opportunities for development in the neighborhoods. My vision is that every neighborhood has access to the services they need within a reasonable walk and commute.”

According to Colwell, Buttigieg is at the height of his popularity; when he delivered his last State of the City addressed, he received a standing ovation and was treated like a “rock star.”

“We’re nowhere near helping everyone and everywhere,” says Scott. “But South Bend is a lot better off than we were eight years ago.”