When a small city comes into a lot of money, there are many ways to spend it. The city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, flush with cash and guarantees from a court settlement with its old electric company, chose to put its in the river. Instead of plugging potholes or papering over budget gaps, city managers in 2013 hired the Houston office of SWA Group to help the town of 253,000 reinvent its relationship with the region’s defining natural resource.
“They were viewing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Todd Meyer, who spearheaded the project for SWA before moving on. (The firm’s president, Kinder Baumgardner, remains the project lead.) In 2010, Following three years of talks, Fort Wayne received $39 million from Indiana Michigan Power Co. In addition to $36 million being held in a trust fund, the city found itself with a unique chance to complete a comprehensive study of its riverfront.
Settled in 1794 at the confluence of the St. Joseph, St. Marys, and Maumee Rivers, Fort Wayne was the kind of 19th century trading post that presaged Indiana’s highway-era nickname, “The Crossroads of America.” The rivers still generate economic activity and serve as a hub for city life. Events take place in Headwaters Park, which flanks the St. Marys River just north of downtown, but not nearly as much as they once did.
The city sought public input on the project, soliciting comments through public meetings, mail, and online comments. They even went so far as to set up a storefront downtown, dubbed the “envision center,” wherein citizens could have conversations and leave feedback without the air of a governmental transaction.
According to Fort Wayne Planning Director Pam Holocher, citizens seized the opportunity. “The way the community grabbed onto this initiative and was so enthusiastic about it was a surprise to me,” she said. More than 4,000 comments poured in, Holocher said, calling for the city to balance nature, recreation, and development in its plan. When SWA unveiled its concepts, more than 400 people braved an early February snowstorm to attend. “In many ways we’re building on what they started, expanding the use of the riverfront,” said Meyer. That means building on the success of Headwaters Park, which he calls “the city’s living room.”
Among the many recommendations the team drafted—Holocher said fulfilling even half the wish list could take decades—SWA proposed investing in a riverfront promenade, with pedestrian bridges snaking across the water and sidling up to Fort Wayne’s wrought iron bridges. Renderings show vibrant riparian parks with kayak rentals, piers, beaches, and space for local businesses large and small. The total study area comprised 310 acres, with SWA offering a mix of park space and mixed-use development. Plans also call for a substantial investment in green infrastructure, including a slew of new parks.
“It’s not just about making it pretty and fun,” said Holocher. “We’re paying attention to flooding, water quality, ecology.” Currently in the middle of a $150 million deep tunnel project to manage stormwater and sewage overflows, Fort Wayne suffered a devastating flood in 1982 that Meyer said informed SWA’s study. With a multidisciplinary team, however—it included Market Feasibility Advisors, ecological restoration outfit Biohabitats, hydrological engineers Moffatt & Nichol, green infrastructure experts AMEC, and local architecture firm MKM architecture + design—Meyer hopes the plan properly blends the ideas Fort Wayne residents envisioned. “We go all the way from nature to recreation and then into development,” he said.