Group wants to halt $2 million fire station plan

By Erin Blasko
The South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The proposed location of a new fire station in Potawatomi Park is beginning to attract Elbel levels of opposition.

The newly formed group "Protect Potawatomi Park" recently created an online petition demanding consideration of other possible locations for the proposed $2 million firehouse.

The group is concerned about noise from the station disturbing parkgoers and Potawatomi Zoo animals as well as increased traffic in the area of John Adams High School and the loss of parkland.

Additionally, the grass-roots group believes a decades-old deed restriction actually prohibits use of the 62-acre park, at 500 S. Greenlawn Ave., for nonpark purposes.

The restriction in question dates to the transfer of the park from the county to the city in 1960 and states:

"Said described Real Estate to be used as and for park purposes only, and in the event said City of South Bend fails, refuses, or abandons said property for park purposes, the said Real Estate shall then revert to St. Joseph County, State of Indiana."

"We do have a big question about the deed, and we don't know how (the restriction) can be circumvented," said Ruth Warren, a 42-year Sunnymede resident and founding member of the group.

Warren stressed the group does not harbor any "animosity or ill will" toward the fire department, and even supports a new station for all of the obvious safety reasons.

"Just not in the park," she said.

As for where the station should be located, "I really don't want to get into that, because it would be a distraction," Warren said.

Calls to protect the 114-year-old park, home to the oldest zoo in the state, come on the heels of a successful effort to block the private sale of another city park, Elbel Golf Course.

That effort, led by the grass-roots group "Elbel for Everyone," also began with an online petition.

As of Tuesday morning, Protect Potawatomi's Change.org petition, addressed to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Parks Director Aaron Perri, Fire Chief Steve Cox and the Common Council, had more than 500 signatures from people as far away as Illinois, Brooklyn and Kansas.

Based on comments, loss of green space seemed to be the primary concern among petitioners, followed by noise.

"We need to preserve and protect any and all green space we have in this world. And our world is this park. The fire station does NOT have to go there," Sydney Beuchamp, of Elkhart, wrote.

"Find another solution for the fire station, save the park," Jean Dibble, of South Bend, wrote. "The park cannot be recreated within city limits. A fire station can be created from purchasing nearby homes."

Kathleen Gaines, another member of Protect Potawatomi, worries the new station will interfere with plans for a sensory garden at the park in memory of her disabled son, who died in 2014.

As proposed, the garden, designed to immerse visitors in scents, textures, colors and sounds, would sit behind the greenhouse.

"I feel like the two would not be compatible," Gaines, a Mishawaka resident who also sits on the board of the Botanical Society of South Bend, said Tuesday. "Definitely, the sensory garden would be diminished."

'Wait and see'

The city has been scouting locations for a new fire station No. 9 for more than 10 years.

Built in the 1920s, the current station is outdated and also too far east to effectively service the district, which encompasses the River Park and Sunnymede neighborhoods and includes Indiana University South Bend.

As proposed, the station would move four blocks east, from 2520 Mishawaka Ave. to a spot on the southern edge of Potawatomi Park, west of the greenhouse and south of the pool.

The city considers the park an ideal location for the new station because of its central location within the district and because of its proximity to Veterans Memorial Park, which has a boat launch for water rescues.

It also is one of the few undeveloped plots of land in the area, which is densely populated by homes and businesses up and down Mishawaka Avenue and Ironwood Drive.

The new station would include an ambulance and swift water rescue unit, improving response times for both services, which currently originate from the central fire station on South Michigan Street.

This is not the first time the city has considered Potawatomi for purposes other than recreation.

The city sold a plot of land at the northeast corner of the park, at Ironwood Drive and the railroad tracks, to Indiana Michigan Power for an electrical substation in 1970.

It's unclear whether the county, due to the deed restriction, was involved in the sale. But contemporaneous news accounts make no mention of any such involvement.

Andy Kostielney, president of the county Board of Commissioners, said Tuesday the county is monitoring the situation.

"To me, if everyone's in agreement that a fire station makes sense there, I don't know that we have a problem with that," Kostielney said. "But we're going to wait and see how the process plays out."

To be sure, not everyone is opposed to the new station.

Notably, the River Park Neighborhood and Business associations have officially endorsed the project, and representatives of the Sunnymede Neighborhood Association have publicly spoken in favor of it.

The Zoological Society has not objected to the project.

In a statement Tuesday, spokeswoman Kara Kelly said the city is "still evaluating the feasibility" of the park as a location for the new station, adding, "Our primary concern is public safety, and we are working to balance this with other goals for our parks.

"The process has focused on neighborhood engagement and feedback, and we have found that many in the River Park Neighborhood Association and River Park Business Association are in favor of the proposal," Kelly said, "while others are vocally opposed."

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(c)2016 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

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