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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Visitors head for a business in the North Anthony Center, a strip mall in the North Anthony Boulevard corridor.

North Anthony Living new life

Neighbors, retailers lead effort to remake commercial district

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Landscaped medians add to the attractiveness of the North Anthony Boulevard corridor, which is seeing changes led by neighbors and business owners.
An 8-foot wide trail is among changes the city made to the area in 2009. The street was also reduced by one lane.
Art teacher Amy Clark, left, and Mo Palmer, owner of Cultured Gardens, are helping to change the ambience along the North Anthony corridor, once known for its ugliness. Fun touches include reclaimed playground pieces ripe for artistic expression.

– Nearby residents called it the ugliest stretch of road in the city. It looked more like an airport tarmac lined with nondescript outbuildings than a business district.

But neighbors and business owners thought North Anthony Boulevard between Crescent Avenue and St. Joe River Drive could be more – much more – and pushed city officials to make changes so it could achieve its potential.

“I was told they used this area as an example of what not to do in urban planning,” said Mo Palmer, who lives nearby and owns Cultured Gardens landscaping firm. “But I just knew it could be so much more.”

It was hard to see how: North Anthony widened to six lanes of traffic, with three lanes in one direction, two in another and a center left-turn lane. There were 24 curb cuts in one block, few if any trees, and no character.

“It was just designed for traffic – as much and as fast as you could do,” Palmer said.

But that changed dramatically in 2009, when city officials spent about $700,000 to remove one lane from the street, install an 8-foot-wide trail, plant trees and install planted medians where the left-turn lane wasn’t needed. Since then, a half-dozen businesses have received facade grants, in which city money helps business owners make improvements to the exterior of their properties, fixing up amenities such as lighting, signage, awnings, parking and fencing.

Today, there are several new businesses, and new ones seem to keep appearing, despite the closure of the Scott’s grocery store that anchored the area. Many feared the closure would hurt the corridor, but it continues to thrive.

“The improvements that have been made to the corridor have definitely helped the area,” said Sandra Wharton, co-owner of Vanilla Bean Unique Cookies and Cupcakes, which opened after the project was complete. “I’d describe it now as the Broadripple of Fort Wayne – it’s more like an artsy, collegey area.”

Palmer said residents didn’t want to change the area’s identity, they wanted to find it and embrace it. That can be easier in classic, older areas like Wells Street, she said.

“But this has funky, funked-up architecture and a big cow (on the Jameson’s Meats sign),” she said. “It’s some weird, eclectic stuff.”

City officials said having neighbors willing to work for what they wanted, and who wanted things that were reasonable, made the project happen.

“The residents in the area really wanted to improve what they considered their neighborhood commercial area. This was a place they wanted to spend their money and time,” said Pam Holocher, the city’s deputy director of planning and policy. “They had a lot of ideas and sweat equity.”

Among the ideas was turning abandoned playground equipment into works of art. The old, painted concrete turtle, helix and dolphin had been pulled out of playgrounds years before and were languishing in a maintenance storage area of Franke Park when Palmer saw them and thought they’d perfectly match the 1970s-era vibe of the buildings on North Anthony. When the trail was built, they were installed along it like public art.

Now, those sculptures are becoming real works of art: The helix and turtle have been removed so they can be sandblasted and painted white, and the helix, which sits in front of Belmont Beverages, will be decorated in Sharpie Art by local artist and Memorial Park Middle School art teacher Amy Clark. Sharpie Art uses permanent markers to decorate objects; the helix will get a grapevines and wine theme, with Clark’s time and materials paid for by Belmont.

“I think it will be perfect for this area because it’s really eye-catching,” Clark said. The turtle is being prepped now but will be decorated at some point in the future.

Businesses have been key to much of what has happened: When officials proposed dramatically reducing the number of driveways, business owners balked at losing direct access.

“It took time to negotiate with businesses – we had to work with them to realize the value in creating a sense of place,” the city’s Holocher said. “But after we spruced up that corridor, they really responded by investing in their buildings.”

Mike Vorndran, the former president of the North Anthony Neighborhood Association and now the group’s treasurer, said the project shows that a relatively small investment can create huge improvements in the quality of life.

“It’s not a crutch, it’s just a little help,” Vorndran said. “The bike path along there has really helped … you can get places without risking your life now. I see a lot of young people over there walking, shopping and catching the bus, and I love it.”

dstockman@jg.net

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