Revitalization is Good Medicine

By Stephanie Cwik

Exiting the toll road in Gary, Indiana isn’t something I would have casually done a year ago. With smoke and gas-belching steel mills to the left, and a meandering, sometimes garbage-strewn waterway on the right, it’s not the most welcoming sight to the weary traveler — this Grant Street exit that doesn’t even take you to Grant Street.

But follow the signs to the hospital (if you can find them) and keep your eyes open, because when you start to look around you find that Gary is brimming with potential. The air quality is improving. That waterway is slowly being remediated, foot by foot, with native plants and habitats taking ground faster every day. And the blight from years of disinvestment that greets you when you swing left from some street that is definitely NOT Grant Street into the Horace Mann neighborhood, is on its way out. The City’s only hospital is a major anchor here, and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has determined it’s time to work together with the medical community to improve the quality of life for her residents.

Region 5 EPA has been working closely with Mayor Freeman-Wilson on issues of blight and abandonment, redevelopment, and economic development since 2012. Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Gary Northside Redevelopment Project, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and EPA have engaged the City and its medical providers in recreating the concept of a Medical District in the Horace Mann neighborhood. Surprisingly, health care has become one of the largest employment sectors in the City, and is growing. With four major health providers within walking distance of each other, the creation of a formal district just made sense.

Initially, the Gary Medical District existed only as a fleeting idea within the City’s planning department but, after great success engaging a growing and broad range of stakeholders at a workshop about Employer-Assisted Housing in February 2014, the Partnership team wanted to do more to formalize the brewing cooperative interest in revitalization. The collaboration included local medical providers and non-profit organizations, many of whom are long-time Gary residents, as well as federal agencies.

Architects from HUD and EPA designed and conducted a four-hour charrette to examine the potential to actually create a medical district in Gary’s west side Horace Mann- Ambridge neighborhood. Crucially, local citizens joined the Mayor, her staff, and the City’s medical providers to examine physical and design changes to improve the quality of life for Horace Mann residents as well as to determine where these multiple agencies might partner to achieve greater results with the community. These early conversations built consensus among local leadership and addressed concerns about the increasing amounts of real estate speculation in Gary that too often derails the local redevelopment process. Discussions about creating a long-lasting district in the neighborhood initially examined the existing and overlapping services already provided, and identified possible efficiencies that could be created through cooperation. During the charrette, conversations about gaps in services, district branding, and how to engage the stakeholders required to implement and sustain this district were examined and shared.

Six assorted teams presented recommendations, as well as identified ways to improve the built environment with sustainable development features such as: bike lanes, sidewalks, green infrastructure, street trees, improved transit connections and wayfinding (I’m looking at you, Grant Street exit), ecological restoration, and single and multi-family housing that address vacant and blighted brownfields. In addition, the teams addressed the role of grocery stores and retail and commercial needs in addressing access to food and encouraging economic stimulus.

Charged with excitement, the Mayor agreed to match any potential planning funding provided by Methodist Hospital to create a plan for a medical district. And although they may not have seen eye-to-eye in the past, these two powerhouses of potential are eagerly entering into a new era of teamwork. The resulting excitement has caused the City and its partners to include the Medical District in two new planning efforts:

  • Gary Public Transit Corporation’s Livable Broadway Plan, which will assess opportunities for improving bus service while enhancing economic development, environment and land use and promoting livability; and
  • Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, which promotes investment and redevelopment in the places where people already live and work to create an improved working and living environment that is supported by travel choices.

The Partnership team has summarized the results of the charrette, and will reconvene its participants and new planning contacts to discuss how to move toward concrete next steps, funding opportunities, and cultivating these new relationships that will carry the Gary Medical District into the future. Word of mouth is spreading the news of the emerging partnerships, and as the two planning efforts come together, the City stresses that the continued involvement of local residents is key to the long term sustainability of this historic neighborhood.

About the Author: Stephanie Cwik has been working in EPA Region 5’s Superfund – Community and Land Revitalization Branch on sustainable redevelopment issues since 2007, and is now a full time member of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities team housed in City Hall in Gary, Indiana. She has a Master’s Degree in Hydrology from the University of Arizona.

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