City planners hope Birthday Chair will revitalize Near Northwest Neighborhood

Published: Nov. 26, 2019 at 5:21 PM EST
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If you've driven down Portage Avenue, you've probably seen it: a big red chair sitting on the corner.

It's pretty memorable, and there's a deeper reason why it's there.

"It's obviously something that catches your eye, and that's the point," said Tim Corcoran, South Bend director of city planning.

It's big, red and about 12 feet tall, and it's called the Birthday Chair. This massive creation sits on this empty lot at the corner of Portage and Cushing, in the Near Northwest Neighborhood.

"And then we call this little two-block area right around us Portage Midtown," said Mike Keen, principal at Thrive Michiana, LLC.

Keen lives in the neighborhood and is one of the main people behind the chair's creation. He also helped create the Laughing Bench right down the street from the chair.

Keen is also one of many working to change what he describes as the area's "scary perception," with its empty lots, older homes and run-down buildings.

"We would like to see -- anywhere in South Bend, for that matter -- is that the people who live within the neighborhood look at how they can fill in those empty spaces," Corcoran said.

City planners have ideas of multi-unit housing or businesses in this area, despite barriers to development.

"Right now, there's a gap between what somebody could get a bank loan for and what it costs to build that building," Corcoran added. "So, it doesn't make a lot of sense for people to make an investment that doesn't pay off."

This month, leaders updated zoning rules, and they are working with residents like Keen to bring the biggest ideas to life.

"What we would like Portage-Midtown and the Near Northwest Neighborhood be is South Bend's most caring and sharing neighborhood, where people of all economic backgrounds can come and either rent or own a property," Keen said.

Years before the Birthday Chair was on the lot, a small gas station was there. The city told 16 News Now it was demolished around 2008.

If you would like to see more of the rezoning plans for the city,