The View Down Notre Dame Avenue

Author: Erin Blasko

Two decades ago, the area south of the University of Notre Dame, encompassing Notre Dame Avenue and South Bend’s Northeast Neighborhood, was less than welcoming. Years of disinvestment, combined with the loss of many longtime residents to the nearby suburbs, had left many homes empty or abandoned. Curbs and sidewalks crumbled from age and neglect. Weeds grew in empty lots. Crime sprouted. Property values plummeted.

The Five Points intersection at Eddy Street, Corby Boulevard and South Bend Avenue, once the epicenter of off-campus student activity, languished. Gone were the old hangouts. The grocery store. The thrift shop. Left were vacant buildings and empty lots. A former destination reduced to another point on the map.

“It was aging. The housing stock was aging,” says Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A., then the president of the University. “The neighborhood was not a center of crime, but there were pockets of crime. It had some good housing, but not enough. It was not the kind of place, when new faculty and staff arrived, where they wanted to live.”

Greg Hakanen, director of Northeast Neighborhood development for Notre Dame from 2004 to 2019, puts it more bluntly.

“It was a blighted neighborhood. And when I say blighted, I mean blighted in the fullest possible sense of the word,” says Hakanen, now retired. “Even Notre Dame Avenue, the street named for the University.”

But with support from Notre Dame, and a buoyant economy, the neighborhood has undergone a significant transformation over the past 19 years, marked by a boom in mostly single-family residential construction.

Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

With leadership from Malloy, the University launched the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Program in 2001. It bought and cleared run-down properties, then offered the lots to faculty and staff for redevelopment with owner-occupied, single-family homes. Today, more than 50 such homes have been built along Notre Dame Avenue and Francis and St. Peter streets as the program winds down, making way for public and private investment.

“The properties Notre Dame bought were bought defensively,” Hakanen says. Some had suffered simple homeowner neglect. But many, he adds, were “in large part awful because they had been rented to students.”

To promote housing character, the program set standards for design and construction — traditional architecture, quality materials — and rules on use. The houses were not to serve as rentals or second homes.

At the same time, the University joined with residents and local businesses and nonprofits to form the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO), which mustered support for zoning and other changes aimed at preserving the character of the neighborhood and ensuring attractive, orderly and equitable residential development.

It also worked with the South Bend Heritage Foundation, a community development organization, to reconceive The Triangle, a blighted neighborhood bounded by Eddy Street, South Bend Avenue and Napoleon Street, with a mix of market-rate and affordable single-family homes and town houses.

And it organized support for the realignment of South Bend Avenue to improve safety and traffic flow and encourage investment.

Notre Dame’s roots in the Northeast Neighborhood run deep. In the 1870s, Father Edward Sorin, CSC, platted a 120-acre real estate development in that area that came to be known as Sorinsville. The subdivision became home to campus workers and their families, prospective students and others.

These days, Colonial Revival, American Foursquare, Tudor and Craftsman homes line Notre Dame Avenue and nearby streets, framing picture-postcard views of the Golden Dome. Residents, including students, faculty and staff, walk to campus or to Eddy Street Commons, a Notre Dame-backed, mixed-use development south of campus. Kids play at Kelly Park, a neighborhood playground updated with new facilities and equipment in collaboration with students from Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC).

Farther south and west, private developers have joined the effort. New and renovated houses and apartments line Howard Street and Corby Boulevard, Hill Street and St. Vincent Street, as investment inches closer to the revitalized East Bank area and downtown, further knitting Notre Dame to the broader community. Property values continue to rise, pouring millions into city coffers as well as a special tax district designed to support infrastructure and other public improvements.

Along the southern edge of the neighborhood, a new Saint Joseph High School replaced the old Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in 2014, complementing the existing Saint Joseph Grade School across the street and further strengthening the neighborhood.

As a result of such improvements, the total value of all property in the neighborhood has increased from $11.6 million in 2003 to more than $133 million today, according to data kept by the city and the state. Vacant and abandoned housing is nearly a thing of the past. From 2013 to 2020, more than 1,600 homes across the city were deemed vacant or abandoned based on outstanding code violations. Currently just one property in the Northeast Neighborhood meets those criteria.

“The progress of efforts in the Northeast Neighborhood have been a result of the community working together, between neighbors, institutions and city government,” says Caleb Bauer, director of communications for the city of South Bend. “The hard work over the years by the many different stakeholders has led to improvements in quality of life within the neighborhood, increased demand in the housing market and subsequent property value increases. The last 20 years . . . have reinvigorated an important part of our city.”

Hakanen compares it to steering a wayward tanker back on course. “Once you get it in the right direction,” he says, “then things kind of take care of themselves.”

“It’s pretty remarkable if you look at some before and after photos,” says Mike Hastings, Hakanen’s successor at Notre Dame. “If you look at the quality of the homes and the vibrancy of the neighborhood,” he adds, compared with 20 years ago.

Also remarkable: the improvement in relations between Notre Dame and the neighborhood.

The University committed to preserve and enhance diversity in the neighborhood and avoid the undesirable effects of gentrification.

To begin with, the University and its major initial partners — Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, Memorial Hospital, South Bend Clinic and the former Madison Center — invited residents to participate in the NNRO as equal members, resulting in programs and projects such as the RCLC and, later and in other parts of the city, Notre Dame’s Center for Civic Innovation and the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem. These efforts, in addition to the University’s support for older initiatives such as the Center for the Homeless and the Sister Maura Brannick CSC Health Center, helped to mend the town-gown relationship and convince skeptics of Notre Dame’s commitment to the community.

“The improvement in communication and trust between Notre Dame and residents, and between Notre Dame and the city of South Bend, is now much better than it was in the early 2000s when all this got started,” Hakanen says. “And that has to do with the process, which is realizing that people and entities other than yourself are important. You recognize that, you invite them in and collaborate with them, and as a natural process of doing that you talk to each other and learn things. It’s a very organic learning and growing process.”

At the same time, the University committed to preserve and enhance diversity in the neighborhood and avoid the undesirable effects of gentrification. It accomplished this in two ways, Hakanen says. First, it sponsored scattered-site affordable housing in the neighborhood. Second, it reserved one-third of the new home sites in The Triangle for affordable housing. Both were done in collaboration with South Bend Heritage.

From 2002 through 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the NNRO helped build or rehabilitate 146 single-family homes in the neighborhood, of which 48 were affordable or income-qualified. Many of those homes include a deed restriction preserving affordability on the property for 15 years.

“Longtime residents of the neighborhood who have been part of the NNRO, they know that this was not a gentrification effort,” Hakanen says. “It was an effort to certainly improve the neighborhood, but to improve it while preserving diversity.”

He believes any failure in that regard is the result of the “unique distorted dynamic of the market and its relationship to Notre Dame,” as demand puts upward pressure on home prices and encourages lower-income homeowners to cash out and pocket or reinvest the profits.

Still, apart from the apartments of Eddy Street Commons, the NNRO has opposed multifamily housing, which supporters argue would increase the neighborhood’s housing supply and lower costs. Perhaps as a result, it’s been helpless to control the skyrocketing cost of single-family housing, too. Even a tear-down costs upward of $100,000 these days.

It wasn’t always this way.

LuElla Webster, adult programs coordinator with the RCLC, grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was stocked with modest, single-family homes. She, her parents and her 14 siblings lived in a two-bedroom house on Howard Street. She lives at the same address today, in a new home.

“It was a neighborhood where families knew each other. They talked with each other,” Webster, 68, recalls. “We didn’t have a whole bunch. It was not a rich neighborhood. But we didn’t know we were poor, because we were happy. And that’s what the neighborhood was all about.”

That started to change in the 1980s as older residents died or moved out, she says. “The property was sold to whoever, and there was no interest in maintaining it. So the neighborhood really started to go downhill.” At one point, she notes, the post office refused to deliver mail to a particular apartment building because it was considered too dangerous.

Today? “It’s a neighborhood of families once again.”

Webster gives Notre Dame, especially Father Malloy, credit for working with longtime residents to reach this point, both in terms of the built environment and the improved relationship between Notre Dame and the community. That includes people like Marguerite Taylor, a friend of Webster’s and retired RCLC administrator who has been an advocate for the neighborhood her entire adult life.

“When Monk Malloy became president, his thing was, ‘We’ve got to build a relationship with our neighborhood. This just isn’t right. We have to do something to show our commitment to the neighborhood,’” Webster says. “And he did.”

Today, plans call for redevelopment of the former grocery store building that housed the RCLC for many years. The center, which offers youth and adult educational programming, will soon move into a new building across the street as part of Eddy Street Commons Phase II, a mixed-use project featuring hundreds of graduate-student and market-rate apartments, town houses and restaurant space. Separately, another mixed-use building is under construction across South Bend Avenue, part of a privately financed project.

“It’s been a remarkable transformation over a long period of time,” said Hastings. “We view it as a success. And, at least anecdotally, the community views it as a success as well.”

Erin Blasko is an assistant director of media relations at Notre Dame.