ELKHART — Cleve Lester is on pins and needles.
His home is in the path of the looming Prairie Street railroad overpass project, meaning the two-story structure will have to be demolished. Within months, probably.
It’s enough anguish knowing that the improvements he put into the structure over the past four years — thousands of dollars’ worth — are for naught, will face the wrecker’s ball. On top of that, he doesn’t yet know how much he’ll get from the city of Elkhart in compensation for the loss of the house, which will bear on where he and his wife move.
“That’s what I call being caught between a rock and a hard place. So what are you going to do?” the retired carpenter said. “If they don’t give you a good price, what do you do?”
He’s not alone.
With plans for the new overpass southeast of the city center moving ahead, around 14 homes and other structures are to be demolished. The real estate will create space for the planned Prairie Street bridge over the busy Norfolk Southern Railroad line between Main and Middlebury streets and accommodate the widening of Prairie Street there.
Some have already negotiated the sale of their property to the city, like John Augustine, owner of ABK Vacuum Cleaner at the corner of Main and Prairie streets. “I thought it was a little low, lower than what I expected,” he said of the price he negotiated with the city for the building housing his business. “But it was fair.”
He plans to relocate, and with a deal in hand from the city, will be starting the search in earnest for a new home for the business.
Others, though, like Lester, who lives north of Main Street on the east side of Prairie Street, still don’t know what to expect, creating a measure of anxiety. They’ll be moving, they’ll have to move, but they don’t know when exactly or what sort of reimbursement they’ll be getting.
“It’s difficult to move,” said Maria Barron, who’s lived for 20 years in a home just up the block from Lester’s that’s also to be demolished.
There are six in her home now — Barron, her husband and their four children — and the spicy scent of dinner wafted from the kitchen. She was holding the youngest of the kids at the front door.
“We’re so accustomed to this place and to move to another home...,” she said in Spanish, her voice trailing off. But there’s optimism — maybe in the end they’ll get a better place.
‘NOT OPPOSED AT ALL’
Most seem to acknowledge the wisdom of the Prairie Street overpass plans and don’t begrudge the project.
As is, frequent Norfolk Southern trains regularly stall traffic on Prairie Street — one right after the other at times — causing snarls and backups. With the overpass, autos will flow unimpeded — and on a wider roadway — and trains will no longer have to blast their horns as they approach Prairie Street.
“Honestly, I feel that they need an overpass there. The customers complained all the time,” said Augustine. “I’m not opposed at all.”
At the same time, not everyone will necessarily feel the hit like Barron and Lester, losing their homes.
There’s an apartment complex that’ll have to make way, and some of the homes to be demolished are rentals. Just south of the railroad tracks on Prairie Street sit two decrepit houses (also to be torn down) with city of Elkhart notices on their front doors from last summer, indicating that the grass is too long and need to be cut.
Others, like Augustine, are already planning their future.
‘DON’T KNOW ANYTHING’
That said, there’s worry and uncertainty on Prairie Street. Change is coming.
Another business at the Main Street-Prairie Street crossing, a Hispanic market and taco grill called Super Mercado Rosales, will also be demolished. A rep from the locale didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Just north of the Norfolk Southern tracks at Restaurant Tijuana, a Mexican eatery, owner Eugenio Miranda, at the location for 16 years, states that he’s in the dark about specifics of the looming project.
“They haven’t told me anything yet,” he said. “I don’t know anything.”
He’ll be moving, though, at some point. The building will stay put, according to city officials, but it will lose a big chunk of its parking lot to the overpass project, making it potentially more difficult to access. Accordingly, Miranda, renting the space, plans to reopen elsewhere in Elkhart. Not knowing a firm timeline for the overpass plans, though, he hasn’t made any definitive plans.
Back at Lester’s house, he laments that all the work he put into rehabbing the home will be lost to demolition.
Lester, a retired carpenter, bought his home, a foreclosure, in 2008, and came here with his wife from Chicago to be closer to her mother. Only then did he learn about the Prairie Street overpass plans, but figured he still had to make some upgrades to make the dwelling livable, even if he and his wife wouldn’t be there for the long haul.
“It caught me by surprise. Nobody told me,” Lester said. “I really thought it was a bum deal.”
The retired carpenter shows off his handiwork — new walls, new closets, new flooring, wall light switches instead of hanging pull cords and more. He put in new windows, new insulation, a new furnace and just hopes the city’s offer to take over his property takes all of that into account.
“I’m waiting to see what they’re going to offer me,” said Lester. “I’m just hoping they give me a fair price for this.”