Getting real about the rivers

Riverfront plans would transform downtown

The dreams for the riverfronts are big ones. photography by Christopher Redmond
The concept for Lawton Park, courtesy photo

Fort Wayne’s slogan, “Room for Dreams,” has never seemed more apt than with the many dreams about our long-neglected riverfronts. Next month, the city has the chance to move from dream to reality.

Sometime in January, consultants with SWA Group will present the finalized plan to improve access and use of our three rivers that flow through downtown Fort Wayne. SWA Group was hired in November 2013 to gather community input and develop plans to create riverfront attractions that would spur public-private investment along three miles of the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. This past October, SWA Group officials presented what’s being called the consensus plan at a series of public meetings.

“This is a culmination of all the things we’ve heard from the community,” said Pam Holocher, deputy director of Planning & Policy in the Division of Community Development for the City of Fort Wayne. “There’s something for absolutely everyone.”

While the plans may seem pie-in-the-sky to some, remember that we are a city of dreamers. After all, Fort Wayne was founded on those three rivers by people dreaming of a new life, and it was built by those dreamers who founded countless businesses and built a dream of a courthouse, a dream of a coliseum, a dream of a city.

And indeed, those who think the concepts about what we could do to make our three rivers more accessible to residents are simply pipe dreams should also be reminded that at one time, Headwaters Park was just a dream, the Grand Wayne Center was just a dream, Parkview Field was just a dream. All are here, now we’re awake. And they’ve all proved successful. The dreams about our riverfront may well become reality as well.

The dreams for the riverfronts are big ones to be sure, with a series of concepts for retail shopping, dining, education and living space that would line the banks of the St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee rivers, which all meet downtown. They would quite literally reinvent the riverbanks, providing recreational and economic opportunities on stretches of the heart of Fort Wayne that haven’t seen regular use in a century. The goal is to draw people to the rivers, and by extension to the city, from far and wide, to enjoy the amenities. Think San Antonio and Indianapolis and Des Moines, Cleveland and Greenville. Tourism is already a major employer in Fort Wayne: these plans would bring in thousands more people (and their dollars) to downtown.

Some of these dreams will stay dreams, but others seem achievable in the near future. The word “transformational” has been used to describe these dreams, and that’s a key word for how such plans might be paid for. The Legacy Fund, that $75 million pot of cash from the sale of the city’s old electric utility, sits awaiting “transformational” projects. The riverfront plans, if all are implemented, would likely cost well above that $75 million. City officials say a combination of public and private investment is the only way any of the plans can be achieved.

Yet no one is talking dollars at the moment, perhaps wisely hoping that the dreams developed after a yearlong series of public meetings, surveys and study sessions will be so enticing that the eventual price tag will seem reasonable. And, don’t forget, not all of the dreams will be realized, but those that are built will most definitely transform the very foundation of the city.

“We’re envisioning a waterfront experience unique to Fort Wayne,” said Kinder Baumgardner, president of SWA Group. “The combination of elements in this draft plan will create something extraordinary, something you will only find in Fort Wayne.”

Mayor Tom Henry is a strong proponent of the plans.

“I’ve been encouraged by the progress we’re seeing with the Riverfront Development Study,” he said. “The public has rallied behind this important initiative that could have a lasting impact on the City of Fort Wayne. The Riverfront Study is an example of the excitement and positive momentum that we’re seeing in our community. We recognize this will take time. We know that public and private sector investment will be critical to making significant changes. We’re focused on ensuring that public-private partnerships help drive the process. Fort Wayne is a regional and national leader in economic development, business and job growth, strong neighborhoods, and quality of life amenities. Developing and enhancing our riverfront area is a key tool in our efforts to continue to build on those successes.”


The first phase of the consensus plan calls for a two-tier riverfront promenade on both the north and south banks of the St. Marys River along Superior Street between the old Wells Street Bridge and the Harrison Street bridge. The lower level would provide access to the river for boaters or paddleboard, canoe and kayak enthusiasts, while the upper structure would open up the riverbank to commercial interests. Pedestrian bridges and walkways would connect the riverfront with Lawton Park, which is itself the target of redevelopment in the riverfront plan (more on that in a minute). Mary Tyndall, of the Fort Wayne Community Development department, said any construction along the rivers would respect floodplain restrictions and be built outside (or above) the 100-year flood lines. Plans would have to be approved by state and federal regulators, as well.

The promenade would incorporate the old Wells Street Bridge, turning it into a pedestrian walkway linking the north and south riverbanks. On the north side of the river would be Headwaters Junction, a wheelhouse museum/cultural center that would showcase the No. 765 steam locomotive (owned and operated by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society) and honor the city’s history as a transportation hub. A new rail line would allow No. 765 to ferry passengers through downtown and to parts abroad. Another pedestrian bridge would connect the east end of the promenade with a riverside drive on the north bank of the St. Marys across from Headwaters Park.

That riverside drive would then link up to mixed-use development planned for the old OmniSource property, which perhaps is the trickiest part of the plan: no one is sure what kind of environmental remediation might be needed there, as it was a metal recycling plant for years before the plant was closed and the buildings there were demolished. Possible contamination has been a major sticking point for any private development of that 39-acre site to the west of Lawton Park along North Clinton Street.

Lawton Park

Continuing east along the St. Marys River, the riverside drive would lead to a greatly enhanced Lawton Park, which could feature everything from a new and improved skateboarding park, a BMX bowl, a beach, a dredged-out lake area, a rubber-band maze, a fitness boot camp space, a zip-line course that would cross Spy Run Creek, bocce ball and table tennis areas, even a “muscle beach” where Fort Wayne’s fittest can show off their prowess. (In fact, the Lawton Park plans will provide plenty of opportunities to get fit along the river.) The plans call for closing Fourth Street and extending Tennessee Avenue across the river to ease access to Science Central and the other attractions. Science Central would be enhanced with an “adventure play” area immediately to the west and an outdoor interactive science lab and a party pavilion. Boat docks, beach volleyball courts, a floating stage and an “eco pool” and splash pads add to the activities available in the park. In the SWA renderings, a giant Ferris wheel looks out over the river, providing a bird’s-eye view of the area.

Art is prominent in all the plans, with sculpture gardens lining the riverfront promenade. Trails would be improved and expanded through the park and would separate walkers from bicyclists. Interpretive signs along the trails would highlight the rivers’ history and role in the development of the city. Oversized “porch swings” would provide resting spots along the trails.

To the west of Lawton and Headwaters parks would be an “iconic pedestrian bridge” linking the two parks with Historic Fort Wayne, which would also be expanded to allow for larger gatherings and more parking. Finally, at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers would be waterfront restaurants and a lighting display that has been dubbed the “sphere of confluence” that would highlight the pedestrian bridge at dawn and dusk.

Bloomingdale/Guildin parks

One facet of the riverfront development that the public has called for is an emphasis on nature. To this end, an ecology center is planned for the area between the Van Buren and Wells/Fairfield bridges. The St. Marys River would be reconfigured to provide wetlands and a small lake to help mitigate flooding coming into the redeveloped area. Walking trails, a café/butterfly house and boardwalk piers would allow people to experience the riverine environment.

Embrace the brown

Speaking of the rivers’ environment, a major drawback that the public comments have focused on is the rivers’ color (brown, usually) and smell (foul, occasionally). But as Holocher pointed out, the rivers’ color will never be blue because of the sediment that flows downstream. The riverbeds reflect the soil in the region, which is high in clay. Get clay wet, and you’ve got the color of our rivers. Then there are the other contaminants dissolved in the water, including E. coli, heavy metals and other icky things that will probably preclude “full-body contact” with the waters. These are not plans that call for swimming in the rivers.

The massive sewer-separation project now going on will go a long way to reducing both the E. coli and the smell, as the project is separating the stormwater drains from the raw sewage drains that still dump sewage into the rivers during downpours. The two “lakes” in the plans will help settle some of the sediment, and they will provide additional storage for flooding. Any project will have to go through environmental impact reviews by state and federal officials, Holocher noted. Funds for ongoing maintenance of the riverside structures will have to be part of the projects.

“There is a lot here that’s going to have to be phased,” Holocher said, likening the plans to the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It could be 10 to 15 years before all the plans are completed, if not longer, depending on site acquisition, preparation, construction, dredging and payment.

What’s next?

Next month, SWA Group will present the consensus plan to Mayor Tom Henry and the Fort Wayne City Council, which will have to approve any financial outlays. And there will surely be pushback from those opposed to the significant costs and disruption these kind of plans call for. But as was noted in the public hearings, this is the “opportunity of a lifetime” to fundamentally change the heart of the city. These are big dreams indeed. But we are a city that makes dreams come true.

First appeared in the December 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.


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