Fort Wayne’s Historic Landing Gets a Lift
For more than 180 years, the Landing has been a chameleon – shifting, reacting and transforming. All good places, no matter their shape or size, seem to have this inherent ability to
reinvent themselves to better reflect community identity.
No place has been more dedicated to the journey of northeast Indiana than the Landing. It’s where Fort Wayne first became a place to make history. And today, it’s where we find ourselves making history, again.
In a few months, a $32 million construction effort will begin on the Landing, marking the most recent reincarnation of our oldest commercial district. Historically, downtown Fort Wayne’s iconic Columbia Street has been a place for people to gather, meet, buy, sell, rest, laugh, dine and work. As that may not be the case today, this redevelopment project is determined to reintroduce us to that identity – a strategy that relies on social interaction, authentic experiences and personal connections to succeed. It’s an ancient concept for urban living, but one with which our community is only recently becoming reacquainted.
For almost a century, Columbia Street was the cultural hub of northern Indiana, the epicenter of economic opportunity. It was home to our first theater, first telegraph office, first bathhouse, first post office, first newspaper and first railway station.
For much of that time, there were two sides to the Landing. The first was the street side, bustling with businesses ranging from hotels and taverns to bakeries and banks. The second was the canal side (later replaced with the elevated railroad), serving the hectic schedule of boat deliveries.
The dynamic between these two worlds created a place teeming with people relying on one another. It was a magical place with the unique ability to marry the benefits of both economic and social capital into one unified experience. Sadly, that vibrancy faded.
While the streets and sidewalks were redeveloped sometime in the late 1970s in hopes of breathing new life into the area, national interest in suburban development left many urban neighborhoods ignored and forgotten. The following decades saw Columbia Street decay, never really understanding how to reinvent itself.
Between 2005-2015, Fort Wayne saw more than $500 million of investment in the downtown, a dizzying level of activity for a city our size. However, these developments were largely focused on creating regional destinations (e.g., Parkview Field, Allen County Public Library expansion) and less interested on the daily realities of urban living. That, in part, changed in 2015 when the State of Indiana launched the Regional Cities Initiative.
This newly-formed incentive program aimed to assist communities to transform into nationally-recognized destinations to live, work and play. The hope was to encourage the development of projects that directly enhanced quality of place. As one of the winning proposals, northeast Indiana submitted our Road to One Million plan, which included 41 regional projects consisting of $471.67 million of construction ranging from a regional trails network to downtown riverfront development. The Landing was also outlined as one of the premier projects, but to move forward, the community needed a development team.
Four years ago, in hopes of pursuing the most comprehensive redevelopment possible for the underutilized historic district, the Downtown Development Trust began the acquisition of nine buildings along Columbia Street. It then undertook an exhaustive interview process to find the right developer. The Model Group, a Cincinnati-based developer with over 250 historic rehabilitation projects under its belt, fit the bill.
The tone of the project was defined early on. During the interview, the selection committee asked, “What’s the most important challenge for the design team?” The answer was obvious – snowball fights.
It’s often hard to not drown in the numerous decisions that burden all large endeavors. What is the budget? When is the deadline? What are the financial requirements?
From the beginning, the design for Landing wanted to be more than simply a redevelopment project. It needed to be a concerted effort in effective place-making, one that didn’t lose sight of the nuances of everyday life. Where could a street performer have a great performance? Where would be a good place to propose to your future wife? Where could you quietly read a book? Or where could you have the best snowball fight?
Moments like these aren’t afterthoughts. They can’t be. They’re critical to how we experience places, how we engage with one another and define our memories. They are planning principles for quality place-making. To be successful, the Landing needed to understand these weren’t hypothetical questions, but logistical problems that needed to be solved in order to provide an authentic place to work, live and play. This is what the Landing had historically offered, and it was something that needed to be prioritized in its revitalization. To do that, we needed to revisit the idea of social capital, which refers to, as Robert Putnam outlined in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
Much like the economic concepts of physical and human capital, social capital explores the value of our networks. Networks help us get information, ideas and resources so we can accomplish our goals. But to realize the impact social capital can have on economic development, an important distinction needs to be made between bridging (inclusive) and bonding (exclusive) relationships.
Bridging, according to Putnam, is the existence of social networks between heterogeneous (inclusive) groups such as the connection with people who are different from us, who are members of organizations or associations with which we don’t usually engage. In bridging networks, trust extends beyond an individual’s close connections. These bridging relationships encourage people from different generations, cultures, neighborhoods and religious beliefs to come together.
Bonding, on the other hand, is the existence of social networks between homogenous (exclusive) groups, connections with others who are like you and give you a sense of belonging. This trust happens in personal relationships that are strong and frequent. In bonding relationships, families, neighbors, religious groups, ethnic groups and co-workers eat together, go to the movies, play sports and attend religious services.
These terms are significant because they not only highlight the differences between the two types of relationships, but articulate a need for a neighborhood to allow both to simultaneously occur. This is what makes the Landing significant. Previous investments in downtown were largely focused on bridging, but did little to enhance bonding. However, the Landing provides a mixed-use concept that brings with it an intrinsic ability to improve both, which helps sustain urban renewal.
“We love projects that bring people together,” said Ellen Cutter, director of strategy, research and marketing at Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. “When you bring people together, you increase opportunities to build social capital. Downtown in particular plays a role in bridging social capital by bringing residents from across the region together.”
Over the next two years, the Landing will experience an almost complete transformation. With the removal of the existing Rose Marie building (the only non-contributing building within the historic district), the project will support 110,000 square feet of renovated space and 34,000 square feet of new construction.
Seventy apartments will look onto the sidewalks below, finding themselves less than two blocks away from the new riverfront development, the expanded arts campus and the heart of downtown (in three opposite directions). Commercial office space will house entrepreneurs, and almost a dozen street-level retail establishments will provide authentic dining experiences from local restaurateurs.
While many buildings will see substantial improvements to their internal circulation (such as new elevators and stairs), the exteriors of the existing buildings are intended to be delicately restored to meet the most stringent historic preservation guidelines. Windows will be replaced. Awnings will be reconstructed. Limestone will be repaired.
The new building, however, is intended to be a modern interpretation of the historic hotel that once sat on the same site. By mimicking the proportion and rhythm of the adjacent buildings, the new structure will evoke a sense of scale from the historic context while clearly being a building for its time – one that hopes to define modern urban living in downtown Fort Wayne for years to come while respecting the rich history of the Landing; but, architectural detailing isn’t the most important thing.
“Certainly, the built environment, access to jobs and affordability matters,” said Cutter. “But so does the ability to build a meaningful social network. As I think about how my own family has built a network in Fort Wayne as transplants six years ago, I think of how associations and organizations played a big role – my neighborhood association, our church, the YMCA, and YLNI helped me to make friends and feel welcomed. But also important were unstructured, happenstance opportunities to talk to strangers while grabbing a beer, seeing a concert or watching a game at Parkview Field. In those conversations I often found commonality and, once in a while, invitations to things happening in the community. Our network now roots us here in deeper ways than just a job.”
The Landing is more than a collection of buildings. It’s a conduit for people, a funnel for opportunity and interaction. Just as it was over a century ago, the Landing is intended to become a bustling place for people to gather, meet, buy, sell, rest, laugh, dine and work. Its two-sided operation will return, with a street-side activated by the commotion of people coming and going and a service-side (once the historic canal) providing deliveries to street-level vendors.
More importantly, the development is intended to serve as a melting pot for bridging and bonding relationships – providing the nuanced urban living that can only be realized through social capital. Downtown residents will pass friendly neighbors on their way to the gym. Tourists will visit a bistro for a romantic dinner. Coworkers will discuss business over coffee. And most importantly, children will get to have snowball fights before their mom makes them go upstairs to finish their homework. It’s not a new concept. Just one to which we need to again become accustomed.
The Landing is where we first became a place to make history. And today, it’s where we find ourselves making history again.