Gaski: A City Afraid of its Own Shadow
by John Gaski, Ph.D.
Several years ago, the South Bend Tribune printed a speculative, futuristic rendering of a potential South Bend skyline, along with an article featuring the titular question, “Can We Dream Big?” Most readers likely had my same natural reaction, to wit: The dream hardly matters and speculation is idle as long as our city has such economically misguided political leadership, the same kind of stagnant administration decade after decade.
In fact, South Bend’s development regulators are literally afraid of their own shadows. Recall how some East Bank and downtown real estate projects were grounded or constricted recently because zoning and planning authorities were so concerned about the shadows cast by multi-story — not even high-rise — structures. Public ridicule is long overdue regarding the city government’s anti-development decisions.
The newspaper’s fanciful skyscraper skyline will never have a chance to get o the ground in this town if we continue to have the same breed of public officials. Good thing the developers of Manhattan, Hong Kong, San Francisco the Eiffel Tower, Shanghai and other classic urban skylines were not afraid of shadows.
Having recently noticed the construction advances with the new Cascade building on the river near downtown, however, I see that the structure already is improving our center city’s aesthetics, even in its unfinished condition. Bleak empty space in a highly visible location is being filled with economic development and conspicuous progress. It is also reasonable to foresee that the Cascade project — the cosmetic aspect and otherwise — will contribute materially to further downtown development, which our community has been desperate for since Studebaker’s demise.
This is the good news. Panzica Corp., the developer, has already done more for South Bend than nearly every living local politician. The same can be said for Dave Matthews, especially if his long-harassed LaSalle edifice ever is allowed to be built. That multi-use project is to provide vital infrastructure to support further in-town development.
The middling news us that at least some of developer Matthews’ big new projects finally have been approved by city government and are under way. Unfortunately, their scope has been curtailed subjectively and judgmentally by the pols and urban planners in government. Some of the projected buildings could have been larger, with more beneficial economic impact for the city via needed density and critical mass. But no, those shadow concerns again.
We can hypothesize about the underlying problem but it seems straightforward: Local zoning and planning officials have shortchanged objective economic factors in evaluating candidate development projects in favor of squishy subjectivity and politics. This is natural because, for most public officials, the squishy and the political constitute their professional background.
Unbridled development is preferred instead? No, just regulation based on economics and reason rather than politics and whim. The root problem has become clear: Local regulatory mediocrity occurs because the regulators are appointed by pols who, themselves, are mediocrities. Our outgoing mayor is clearly no mediocrity academically or in terms of marketing himself. Yet the quality of South Bend streets, law enforcement and some personnel appointments collectively suggest that he is no better than the rest as a city manager.
We can hope that our area’s urban planners might adopt one of the Notre Dame Architecture School’s new plans for the rest of east downtown’s barren moonscape. But let us not get hopes too high. The motto “Dream(ing) big” is still moot in South Bend given its long-term political rut — the real shadow over our city.
John F. Gaski, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is an associate professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. His area of specialization is social and political power and conflict. A version of this essay first appeared in the Nov. 24 South Bend Tribune.