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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
John Urbahns is leaving his city post next month to join Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

Big picture key to success for downtown deal-maker

– He was almost an engineer.

But John Urbahns transferred from Purdue to Ball State University to major in urban planning and development.

Now, you could argue, he’s helping to engineer a renaissance.

When Urbahns moved to Fort Wayne in 1996, there wasn’t much happening downtown. There was Don Hall’s Gas House and Takaoka of Japan, but not much else. The expansions of the Grand Wayne Center and the Allen County Public Library were still years off. People worked downtown and then went home.

But urban planners like to plan.

When Allen County officials were considering expanding Memorial Coliseum, some argued it should instead be moved downtown.

“That idea ultimately failed, and part of the reason it failed was those opposed to it said you don’t have a vision for downtown, you don’t have a plan,” Urbahns said. “At that time, people were saying that Coldwater and Coliseum was the new downtown.”

So city officials commissioned the Downtown Blueprint, a study of what assets downtown had, what downtown could be, and laid out a plan of how to get there. As those things began happening, it was updated with Blueprint Plus.

Today, downtown Fort Wayne is preparing to welcome a $71 million high-rise.

In the middle of all that – including months of secret negotiations to secure that high-rise – was Urbahns.

All about people

Urbahns, 43, grew up on Lake James between Fremont and Angola, graduating from Fremont High School. He switched from engineering to urban planning because he liked the big-picture aspect of helping to design a community rather than the fine details of engineering.

He knows the big picture of a community is created by the details. He’s been the city’s director of community development since 2007. In addition to his urban planning and development degree, he has a degree in environmental design.

“Take the older parts of town, where it was built with sidewalks and street trees,” Urbahns said. “When we got out to the suburbs, we got away from that.”

But people missed it – 400 houses plopped down in a former cornfield didn’t feel like a neighborhood.

“Look at the trail system in Aboite – that all had to be put in after the fact, because people realized there wasn’t anything connecting their neighborhood to the next one,” he said.

And those details – whether it’s street trees or being able to walk to a park – create the big picture of people’s quality of life.

Urbahns said he has found that it’s the same for economic development.

Yes, it’s easier and cheaper to build an office campus on virgin ground in the suburbs. That’s a definite advantage. But can your employees walk anywhere for lunch? Can they go from the office to dinner to the symphony without 20 minutes in the car between each one?

What about those young, talented employees you want to recruit who want to live and work in a bustling downtown, rather than in an office park that could be anywhere in America?

“How does everything tie together to create character?” Urbahns asked. “That’s how we started with downtown – with simple things like way-finding signage, ornamental street lighting and tying sidewalks together with a brick band and putting in planters. Those simple things make it a place where we can get a large project done.”

All ties together

And large projects are getting done.

Ash Brokerage plans an eight-story, 95,000-square-foot, $20 million headquarters on the block bounded by Harrison, Wayne, Webster and Berry streets downtown. The company will move its 200 employees to the new building and add 115 more.

The project includes a $32 million residential package of 100 town homes, apartments and condominiums by Hanning & Bean Enterprises.

Both projects will sit on top of a city-owned 780-space parking garage, which will be surrounded by street-level retail. Lake City Bank recently announced it will take 4,000 of the 20,000 square feet of retail space available.

The project was nearly two years in the making, called Project Emerald until plans were made public. Construction should begin in April.

But that project, Urbahns said, is not really so different from a neighborhood project, aside from the scale.

City staffers say Urbahn’s strength is seeing how the details affect the big picture – one code violation can make a huge difference in a neighborhood, the same way the need for parking affects how a building is constructed.

“It’s how to get the deal done,” he said, “whether it’s a big deal or a small deal – how do we get the sidewalk in or the $72 million project done.”

In his current job, Urbahns said he has a good mix of the two aspects of his job, helping neighborhoods and helping development.

“I always thought it was interesting that one day I’ll be in a boardroom for a multimillion project, and the next, it’s a meeting with neighbors about sidewalk connection or a house that’s a problem in the neighborhood.”

Of course, that mix is about to change: Starting Jan. 6, Urbahns will no longer be a city employee. Instead, he will be executive vice president of economic development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

Greater Fort Wayne CEO Mark Becker said Urbahns’ move to the organization – a merger of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance – is a win for everyone.

“The win-win is he’s not leaving – he’s not going anywhere,” Becker said. “I’m very excited about John being able to join our team.”

Becker said Urbahns and the city have made sure that studies and plans never sat on a shelf.

“What’s happened downtown isn’t by chance,” he said. “It’s been through solid planning and solid leadership on the recommendations that were laid out.”