This is the man who will fix South Bend

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Photo of David Matthews by Matt Cashore

Predicting the future is a deadly business. One year ago a dying magazine, Newsweek, proclaimed South Bend a dying city — No. 8 on its lethal list of the “top” 10 — based on U.S. census figures showing the city’s precipitous and unexpected drop in total population (down 3.9 percent since 2000 to 104,215) and in residents under age 18 (down 2.5 percent). To the dismay of the city’s outbound mayor and residents young and old, the statistical pairing put South Bend in the familiar company of troubled neighbors like Cleveland, Detroit and Flint, Michigan.

Back then, Newsweek expressed doubts that South Bend would ever recover.

But predictions are the lifeblood of magazines, so here comes another dangerous prophetic dalliance in the darkest days of the dead season: Should reports of South Bend’s death prove greatly exaggerated, the first signs of its revival will be found half a block from the Saint Joseph River at the corner of Niles Avenue and Washington Street.

Today that weedy, empty parking lot is in the hands of a 29-year-old Notre Dame graduate architecture student, a proud product of South Bend’s struggling public school system who also happens to be one of the leading land developers in north central Indiana.

David Matthews doesn’t look like your typical builder — least of all in the era of Donald Trump. His slight frame shows no evidence of a lunchtime steak habit; the blue oxford shirt, dark denim and black dress shoes mostly suggest an afternoon of teaching John Updike to undergrads. Yes, those are Ray-Ban frames, but they have clear lenses that convey the alert, unorthodox mind behind Matthews’ green eyes.

The fact is, Matthews isn’t your typical builder. He broke ground on his first confirmed real estate success, the innovative Ivy Quad development that rises across Twyckenham Drive from the varsity lacrosse and soccer fields, the year the housing bubble popped, when he was 26. He pays more up front for durable, high-end materials (3-cm granite countertops for instance are standard at Ivy Quad because “it’s more affordable to pick a higher standard and buy a whole bunch of it than to go a lower standard where you can pick anything”) and superior construction methods. He hires Amish framers (“They don’t build the fastest, they’re never in a hurry. And they’re very consistent and really easy to work with . . . and, yeah, they’re good”). He handles all sales himself so he can catch the body language that communicates prospective buyers’ inarticulate likes and dislikes.

He’s never known a housing boom, and yet he just moved in to one of his own units at his second venture, the profitable, downtown East Bank development, with its attractive brick and limestone facades and its exhilarating views of the falls and the Morris Performing Arts Center. And he doesn’t harbor anxieties about that uncertain future.

“A lot of developers think that if you can squeeze a dollar out of a project and into your pocket, it’s better,” he says. “But I’m from South Bend, you know? My business partners at Ivy Quad are from South Bend. This is our community, and what we build is going to stand for decades to centuries, so we better do it right.”

Youth movement

Matthews, of course, isn’t the only homegrown twentysomething to put his talent where his heart is. In November, South Bend voters overwhelmingly chose Pete Buttigieg, the 29-year-old Rhodes Scholar and son of Joseph Buttigieg, Notre Dame’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, in the first race for an open mayoral seat in 15 years. Though “brain drain” threatens South Bend much the way it does communities across the Midwest, younger faces are increasingly prevalent in its energetic business and economic development communities.

Truthfully, the news isn’t all bad. Last summer, hopeless old South Bend won a prestigious All-American City award from the National Civic League, which cited revitalization of the northeast neighborhood and a campaign to reduce high school dropout rates among reasons for the designation.

Before the contrarian Matthews came along, however, no one had quite figured out what to do with what locals commonly view as an embarrassment and Matthews calls the city’s strongest asset — all that vacant land in the city’s deurbanizing landscape, especially along the river near the central business district. “Vacant land is awesome,” he says, “if you build on vacant land.”

That a townie kid would launch his vision for “fixing” downtown South Bend with luxury condominiums near Notre Dame is ironic, particularly when competing developments close to campus were laboring to find buyers. But Matthews saw untapped opportunity in the market, sold the idea to local investors Jim and Julie Schwartz ’89, hired adjunct Professor Frank Huderwitz ’80, ’92M.Arch. to design Ivy Quad’s first phase, and soon found his business model paying off despite lower per-unit profit margins. He has been especially successful at finding year-round occupants, another elusive target for new housing developments near campus.

“We had to start somewhere,” Matthews says, explaining his long-term goal to build for every price point. Even in this economy, he adds, surveying the University’s skyline from the back deck of an Ivy Quad townhome, the sounds of hammers and hydraulic cranes emerging from the rooftops of Phase II, “the Notre Dame market is good.” Meanwhile, he says, the project has supported 120 local jobs.

It’s not the first time the Purdue-trained industrial engineer has found a way to tap Notre Dame money for the benefit of the community. As a teenager, not all that long ago, he sat beneath the stadium press box on football Saturdays and sold programs to raise money for the Adams High School swim team. But Matthews’ story probably starts a few years earlier when, fresh off his award-winning performance selling Boy Scout raffle tickets, he found a copy of How to Buy a House with No (or Little) Money Down on his parents’ bookshelf. “And I wanted to do it when I was 9, and my mom wouldn’t let me,” Matthews says, laughing out loud.

By the time he bought his first house, with the intention to fix and re-sell it, Matthews had left Purdue’s doctoral program to figure out what he really wanted to do. He’d interned for Disney, worked for the Department of Defense at Maryland’s Fort Meade and even did a stint at a copper pipe factory in Elkhart, Indiana, listening to the Harry Potter series and modern Greek language tapes on headphones while feeding parts into a machine. “I wanted to go to Greece,” he says.

He wound up keeping that home he’d intended to flip, intrigued with the change he was able to make when he reconfigured the windows and walls to bring more light inside. Taking his entrepreneur father’s advice, he shadowed local business people and found his way into development, quickly gaining executive experience with a smaller-scale project.

Soon he was building Ivy Quad, making more money than he knew what to do with and acting like a retiree, traveling and even joining the competitive ballroom dancing club at Notre Dame. There he’d become friends with architecture students like Crystal Olin ’10M.Arch. and Aimee Sunny ’10. Olin in particular recommended books from her urban design curriculum, and Matthews began tapping Notre Dame students for input and hiring recent graduates.

“And then I was getting kind of bored,” he recalls. “I was tired of flying, so I was trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t want to join a country club. So I was like, hmm, grad school again.”

Looking into programs, Matthews shopped around the region. “The head of one program in the Chicago area actually asked me, ‘If you could get into Notre Dame, why would you bother coming here?’” While he felt technically prepared for his work, Notre Dame’s classical curriculum offered him history, theory and skills like watercoloring that he felt he lacked. “The classical program is based on more of a structured understanding of architecture, where they teach you proportions and the orders of things and that whole process of how to make beautiful buildings.” He met professors at the school’s weekly public lectures and in August 2010 went back to school.

Light and magic

Being a full-time developer as well as a full-time student takes some of the grade pressure off and helps Matthews keep his focus on learning. He says he’s building “much better now because of my education next door,” adding that he leaves the heavy architectural lifting to designers like Velvet Canada ’09M.Arch., Selena Anders, a visiting assistant professor, and others on his in-house staff. He also calls upon friends like Lauren Eaton ’12, Luke Olson ’08, and fellow graduate students Sylvester Bartos and Christopher Whelan, whom he credits with sparing him some embarrassing mistakes.

Professor Alan DeFrees ’74 says what Matthews gives back to the School of Architecture is just as valuable. “He’s full of good ideas. He’s a sponge for learning.” In DeFrees’ Acoustics and Illumination class, the students were comparing the use of steel angle versus limestone for a lintel. Matthews came in with prices demonstrating that the more durable but less conventional limestone cost less and labor costs would be lower, too. DeFrees says that kind of contribution helps both graduates and undergraduates, for whom such real-world matters are still relatively abstract.

Matthews’ work also demystifies development as a possible career path — one generally with more control over outcomes than architects typically enjoy in their often uneasy professional co-existence. In DeFrees’ veteran opinion, Matthews steers clear of two ruinous paths — developers who override their architects because of cost considerations, and architect-developers whose extravagant tastes overshoot potential buyers’ sense of good value.

Like his pupil, DeFrees also spent his childhood in South Bend. He returned later to study at Notre Dame and takes pleasure in Matthews’ “remarkable” success. Touring Matthews’ East Bank townhomes with their exceptional views of the downtown, DeFrees noticed subtle applications of lighting principles and techniques he’d taught Matthews in class. And while standard practice in the building trade almost invariably produces suburban results, DeFrees finds Matthews’ higher-density, mixed income developments communal, pedestrian friendly and civic-minded. “He knows how to design for his market,” DeFrees says.

Salvation in a simple idea

Finding that market without the benefit of Ivy Quad’s proximity to Notre Dame was Matthews’ East Bank challenge. As it turned out, what he discovered was probably the last thing any reasonable person would have expected from an unreconstructed former manufacturing hub in the flatlands of northern Indiana: A view.

From street level, the East Bank site was not so impressive, surrounded by modest structures and abutting the river at Colfax Avenue. But Matthews sensed what he couldn’t see: By raising the site with earth excavated for drainage at Ivy Quad, and by orienting the layout obliquely to the street, East Bank could offer its residents an unprecedented perspective of the city from spacious top-floor patios that captured its best features while maintaining a comfortable level of privacy.

Matthews then made another crucial decision. Rather than accepting the city’s usual offer of land sold at assessed value with property tax abatements he could pass on to buyers, he convinced officials to essentially sell him the land for free. Homebuyers would begin paying taxes immediately but, Matthews insisted, he could build an affordable, high-end townhome community that otherwise well-behaved local professionals would throw elbows to buy.

Voila, new taxpayers. And the first real hope that downtown South Bend might once again become a place more people would happily call home.

People actually attended the May 2010 groundbreaking ceremony. “Nobody shows up because some guy’s building condos,” Matthews observes. “Nobody cares.”

This time, 70 people cared. “And these weren’t contractors. These were city employees, attorneys, bankers and accountants — people who work and live in downtown knew about it and they showed up. Because people care about South Bend, and they want to see South Bend succeed.”

Eighteen months later, East Bank was finished and occupied. Matthews, who also obtained a grant from Downtown South Bend to make improvements on adjacent streets and neighboring properties — like a new outdoor mural depicting the work of the artists who work inside the Fire Arts Gallery across Sycamore Street — calls it his “catalyst.”

River Race, that weedy, empty parking lot a few blocks south along Niles Avenue, is his “litmus test.” Showing potential buyers the view from East Bank is helping with sales. Matthews already has three refundable deposits in hand with the groundbreaking penciled in for sometime this spring. What he has in mind for the site, which will rise directly above the falls where the East Race waterway begins its separate course, is a row of 10 townhomes priced as close to $200,000 as he can get. It’s tough to build good quality homes at that price, he admits, but mortgage rates are favorable, and he knows if he can sell to teachers, police officers and recent college graduates, he can sell to anyone.

The site plan includes top-tier commercial office space with underground parking and a rooftop café, two other rarities in the city.

“The way that you fix downtown, in my mind, is you need to get pedestrians on the sidewalks,” he says. Lunchtime isn’t enough. Most merchants and restaurateurs require solid, round-the-clock support if they’re going to take a chance on the city again. During the Christmas season, Michigan Street storefronts are filled with temporary pop-up shops brimming with holiday cheer, but without a reliable, year-round customer base within a five-minute walk, entrepreneurs fear losing out to suburban malls and Mishawaka’s Grape Road.

Farther east along the river are 30 abandoned acres near the old Transpo bus depot, another spot Matthews considers prime for this kind of durable, attractive urban infill. At 20 homes per acre and an average of three people per household, he knows he can meet the threshold Chicago analysts use for building a new grocery store — just the kind of anchor that gives small businesses confidence.

So, can David Matthews turn South Bend’s Tales from the Crypt into Sleeping Beauty?

Once upon a time, Professor DeFrees knows, South Bend was a bustling American city, larger than Sacramento, Austin, Mobile and Phoenix. He sees no reason it can’t grow again. But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. “The energy that David brings makes a big difference. He’s showing people that South Bend is worth the investment.”

“I want developers to make a lot of money doing things in South Bend because that means more people will come and try the same thing. And then South Bend will be a successful city,” DeFrees says. “It used to be a beautiful city. Maybe people like David will turn it into a beautiful city again.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.