Keen met Incremental Development Alliance cofounder Monte Anderson in 2016 and began attending the group’s programs. In late 2017, he helped get the City of South Bend to bring the IDA team in for a workshop and a stress test of their zoning code. The city kicked in $4,000, while Keen raised the other $16,000.
If Keen believed incremental development had the potential to transform Near Northwest and other South Bend neighborhoods, though, it was important to him to engage those neighborhoods from the beginning in an intentionally inclusive way. Keen reached out to community organizations and offered to have them be cosponsors of the IDA events at no charge if they would send the information out to all of their contacts. The result was a diverse group of interested attendees at the first lecture and workshop. Keen also worked to arrange scholarships for participation in the developer workshop.
The goal is real estate development as a form of community organizing. To do this well, deliberate discomfort is a must. “Take a look at what you look like, and whatever you look like, try to find some folks that look different than you and really connect with them,” says Keen.
Keen began to host regular small-developer receptions at his house, as a community formed around the group. “We call it, informally, the Michiana Incremental Development Alliance Ecosystem. But all that is, is a spreadsheet where I’ve got a bunch of phone numbers. There are 15–20 people actually doing development. But we’ve got city officials, financial people, contractors, architects, engineers, community members, nonprofits; we’ve got about 180 people on that list. We can get 20 to 25 to show up for a reception for somebody like Monte when he comes in.”
Paraphrasing Anderson, Keen told me, “We don’t want to have any secret handshakes. We don’t want a situation where you’ve got to be invited to the Christmas Party of a law firm on the 20th floor of a building to know how to make things happen in the city.”
The incremental developer cohort in South Bend has a culture of generosity: They share knowledge and connections, with no proprietary hoarding of trade secrets. You know a contractor? Cool, now I know a contractor. You know a banker who understands mixed-use buildings and is open to issuing a loan for one? Hey, I want to know that person too. You know the mayor? Now I know the mayor.
Connections open doors, especially in small-scale development, where knowing the right lender or the right affordable-but-also-highly-competent contractor is worth its weight in gold, since the mainstream development and finance world is not attuned to small projects.