In the 1800s, it was a bustling commercial district, with horse-drawn carts churning the dirt street in front and mule-drawn boats meandering along the Wabash and Erie Canal just to the north.
In the mid-1960s, the block of Columbia Street between Harrison and Calhoun became one of the city's first historic preservation projects, receiving gas lights, ornamental trees and a new name – “The Landing” evocative of the canal passengers and goods once unloaded there.
In the later 1960s and following decades, it was an eclectic collection of coffee houses, old-fashioned pizza parlors, an art film house, the restored Rose Marie Hotel, the focal point of the Three Rivers Festival and home to various bars, coffee houses and businesses. From what I can still remember of listening to live acoustic music, trying to meet women and drinking too much beer at the old Blue Mountain, The Landing was the place to be in downtown Fort Wayne.
But that was then, and this is now: Buffeted by empty or lost buildings, increased competition and a shooting last July, The Landing has seen better days.
It will see them again, if the Downtown Improvement Trust has anything to say about it.
The not-for-profit group, created by Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Downtown Improvement District (DID), has just paid about $862,000 for four buildings and one vacant lot on the block and may buy others in hopes of making the most-intact remaining block of “old” Fort Wayne a destination spot for businesses and residents alike.
“Many of the first floors have been 'transitional,' and the upper floors have been underutilized,” explained trust member and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Vice President of Economic Development John Urbahns. Eventually, Urbahns said, the Trust will seek a developer with the vision to restore the faded jewel – and the ability to make it happen.
Nothing is likely to happen for a while, but the mere possibility of progress is already producing optimism.
“I'd like to see The Landing evolve into an entertainment and living center,” said DID President Bill Brown, who encouraged the Trust to buy the former Cancun Restaurant at 110-114 Columbia St. in order to clean up a property that had become a problem, and not just because it was the site of a shooting last July.
Although some might find the prospect of living above a noisy bar unappealing, Brown and Urbahns are confident the buildings' upper floors – some of them vacant for decades – will appeal to a certain demographic group.
The buildings are solid and can be made more sound-resistant, Urbahns said, and as Brown noted, “It's been done before. Look at Bourbon Street (in New Orleans).”
The potential changes are especially good news to John Freistroffer, who said 25 other bars have come and gone on the block since he opened Columbia Street West in 1986.
“There has been a lot of transient business, but maybe this will make it more mainstream, with consistent ownership,” he said. And far from fearing competition, Freistroffer welcomes it, convinced more activity on the block will benefit everyone.
The Trust first began targeting The Landing last year but was sidetracked by the need to assemble property for the $70 million downtown redevelopment that will include a new Ash Brokerage Headquarters and residential development by Hanning & Bean Enterprises. Because it is increasingly difficult for governments to use the power of eminent domain, groups like the trust can gain control of property eyed for redevelopment use by offering sellers a tax deduction in exchange for accepting a below-market offer.
The city's Redevelopment Commission purchased the property from the Trust needed for the Ash project, but Urbahns said the trust may choose its own developer – a first for the organization. The buildings were bought using mostly federal funds plus some money from the city's “Legacy” account.
The timing seems right. In addition to all the well-publicized projects already completed downtown, two old industrial buildings near The Landing – on Harrison and Superior streets – are being converted into living space. And City Council is considering an ordinance that would make low-cost liquor licenses available in an area near the rivers that includes The Landing.
The Landing will never be what it once was. The beautiful old Rose Marie burned in 1975 and the so-called “Drug Building” at Superior and Calhoun collapsed during renovation in 1981. Both were replaced with buildings that don't really match the original architecture. But, in the right hands, the block that remains may yet land on its feet.