Harvard graduate students to study East Chicago’s economic plans
BY MICHELLE L. QUINN Post-Tribune correspondent March 6, 2014 11:46PM
City of East Chicago Financial Advisor Jim Bennett (standing) gives a crash course in the city's finances to Harvard students Tom Skwierawski (from left), Simon Willett and Zhi Ping. | Michelle L. Quinn/For the Post-Tribune
Updated: April 8, 2014 6:25AM
EAST CHICAGO — The city’s plans for its Indiana Harbor section are about to get a rigorous once-over by 11 eager Ivy League students who appreciate the challenges of blighted areas.
The students from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design arrived Wednesday to begin a field study of the city’s economic plans. After touring ArcelorMittal’s East Chicago plant, the students met with Mayor Anthony Copeland, Redevelopment Executive Director Maria Becerra and several department heads as well as community business people Thursday morning to start their research.
The news wasn’t as bad as expected.
Realtor John Lopez told the group that home sales were up 22 percent in 2013, with 88 sales. Of those, he said, 20 were multifamily housing. Lopez credited the city’s program of offering down payment assistance to first-time homebuyers that gives them $10,000 toward existing buildings and $25,000 for new construction as long as the owners live in the dwellings 10 years.
City employees can receive $5,000 more, Lopez said.
Eighty-six people bought existing homes, Lopez said, adding many of those first-time homebuyers were in the 25-to-35-year-old range and included many East Chicago residents.
Still, the city has its issues.
Challenges homeowners and even business owners face include wonky parceling. Building Commissioner Winna Guzman said potential residents and residents alike don’t find problems because they don’t conduct a title check before they buy. Zoning and variances can also prove problematic.
And crime, while down from 2012, is still a deterrent for many, said East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker.
“I would love to tell you (East Chicago’s) perception has changed,” Becker said after a student asked. “We try to get the word out as best we can, but there are still people from Porter County, our neighbor to the east, who wouldn’t be comfortable here, so we have to work doubly hard.
“The stigma of corruption — our previous mayor was once the police chief but is now in prison — doesn’t help.”
The students, who are in the city until Saturday, took a tour of the city’s Indiana Harbor section after the meeting. They were also expected to see the historic Marktown District.
Richard Peiser, Harvard Design School chairman, said the school chose to study East Chicago after hearing about it from Will Woodley of Community Builders. He then talked to Becerra, and it became clear how dedicated the city is to charging ahead with its plans, he said.
“This is a city that really cares about its future and has such enthusiasm,” Peiser said. “That it represents a whole class of problems doesn’t hurt, either.”
Tom Skwierawski, a master’s student in urban planning from Milwaukee, said he studied Malden, Mass., his first year and is also studying Lawrence, Mass., which is also a mill town. Neither he nor Peiser, however, expected a mill the size and scope of ArcelorMittal.
“I see a lot of similarities between Lawrence and here, but I was pleasantly surprised by (ArcelorMittal),” Skwierawski said.
Copeland told the students they will have full access to whatever information they need to conduct their study and hopes they refine what’s already been started.
“We jumped at the opportunity for them to see how the city’s developing,” Copeland said. “They’ll be a fresh set of eyes and will be able to peel back the onion and see if it’s doable.”
Once the students head back Saturday, they’ll craft their findings and present them to Copeland and the department heads at Harvard by the end of summer.