Through new eyes

Remaking the heart of Fort Wayne

Given a blank slate, just a few parameters and six square miles to recreate downtown Fort Wayne, New Tech high school students at the Wayne High School location have stirred up a lot of serious interest.

Students presented their blueprint cities to invited city leaders and interested people (everyone from elected officials, city planners and Legacy committee study team members to practicing architects and engineers and even this magazine editor and news reporters) at two open houses in April. New Tech teacher Jeff Roberts thought the project would end there.

He was wrong.

The next week, he said, he had architects calling him back to talk about doing the project again next year (“and the next!” he said), and he was hearing about how excited people are about different parts of his students’ city designs.

He has advised the students to expect to see things happen in downtown Fort Wayne that they put in their designs.

This year was the second for this kind of project at New Tech, and it has already grown. Karl Bandemer, a city planner by training and now deputy mayor, helped prepare the students both years for their design work. He has become a big fan of not just the urban design project but of New Tech and its students.

“What blew my mind was last year when I went out there, I walked into this class which looked to me like absolute chaos,” he remembered, “But I come back for the presentations and they are all dressed up and extremely articulate and very confident.

“There is hope here. These kids have got it.”

The design teams of two to five students were required to retain four streets and four structures exactly as they are now. That limitation required the new designs to be to scale with the current roads and structures, something the students achieved by using the Allen County GIS Portal online, which gave them the sizes of whichever buildings they had chosen, they said. Parkview Field was a popular choice to save, but various teams also saved the Allen County Public Library, Courthouse, Lincoln Tower, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Embassy Theatre, among others. The students selected the roads they saved to define their city designs and set up the basic transportation grid, but their transportation planning went far beyond automobiles and trucks. Cable cars, passenger rail, trolleys, elevated trains and subways were all used. And bicycle lanes and trails were popular. Transportation was for fun and function in their plans.

Every plan made room for people to live (and provided for convenient shopping for food, health and beauty supplies, clothing and other necessities), go to school and work. The students were unafraid to bring industry – with its jobs – downtown.

The cities were designed to support themselves. However, plenty of attractions from Parkview Field and the museums to the theaters and restaurants, plus the universities and a water park or two, would also attract visitors – to say nothing of the cable car rides through downtown or the recreation of the Eiffel Tower and L’Arc de Triomphe of one team’s Paris in Fort Wayne design (complete with hotel).

Two factors make the designs most strikingly different from the downtown Fort Wayne that we have today. First is the built-in emphasis on mass transit, whether by cable car, trolley, train or whatever. Eliminating so much of the space required for individual automobiles makes a lot of other things possible.

The second is all the green space the students added. Many plans featured glorious plazas and circles, one centered on the Anthony Wayne statue, one a gorgeous recreation of a Baroque city center. One plan put all the important buildings in a center hub and let people live and work and shop out along and inside beautiful looping roads, each loop with its own design personality and a gracious, spacious feel.

“For 13- and 14-year-olds to be thinking about urban planning at that level is pretty impressive,” said Bill Ledger, staff architect at Design Collaborative, one of the professionals who attended the open houses to discuss the designs with the students.

“You could find things in each of those projects that make a lot of sense.

“I think the ideas for enhancing transportation downtown were fun to look at and think about, too.”

Ledger and the other design professionals were impressed with the students’ technical skills and understanding.

“For freshman-level kids, they were using vocabulary that I didn’t start using until I was in college in architecture school, doing critical thinking and problem-solving and being creative. There were some unique ideas in those projects,” he said.

He praised the skill with which the teams graphically represented their ideas, both in the hand-drawn versions and the 3D computer renderings of selected buildings.

“Some groups were outstanding for their drawing work, and some students were able to use computer 3D software to depict some structures they had in mind. That’s an area I saw they could grow this project next year, using more of the skills those kids have in computers,” he said.

Overall, the adult professionals at the open houses seemed to be having fun being surprised by what the students had envisioned.

“What a great opportunity not to have too many limitations, (not to) think about cost or what is already here,” Ledger said. “They were given pretty much free rein to redesign the city.”

Being grown-ups, of course, there were lots of questions about whether the students had left enough open space to accommodate floods (some had and most hadn’t, but they had not been given flood proofing as a design criteria). And everyone was thinking ahead to Fort Wayne’s upcoming big decision about how to develop its riverfront.

Ledger thought the students had all gotten that one right.

“I agree with everybody’s ideas to make the rivers something special rather than an afterthought,” he said.

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