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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, April 29, 2018 1:00 am

Outdated project served purpose

West Main Street initiative brought people downtown

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

For the past several weeks, Fort Wayne officials have been busy repealing a 43-year-old downtown revitalization document, which has some people wondering, just what the blazes is the West Main Street Renewal Project? 

As it was written in 1974, the project's establishing document sought “to provide for the orderly physical and economic growth of the Central City Area, in general, and the West Main Street Renewal Project in particular; through controlled redevelopment.” Specifically, that meant building residential and recreational space for elderly residents. 

But after more than four decades, the West Main Street Renewal Project is obsolete compared with newer tools like Economic Development Areas, Urban Renewal Areas and Tax Increment Financing districts. That's why the city's Redevelopment Commission and Plan Commission voted this month to repeal it.

The City Council is expected to vote on a similar motion during Tuesday's meeting. 

The document is full of positive things like facade and signage requirements, as well as building height limitations, but other agencies handle those issues now, said Craig Berndt, an administrator in the city's Community Development department. 

“If we create something new today, it's either an urban renewal area or an economic development area. The legislation that enabled these doesn't exist anymore,” Berndt said. “So they put these things into place, but there's nothing today in the statute on how to terminate.” 

Berndt said because of that, the repeal process is basically the same as the initial approval process, just in reverse. That means the Plan Commission and Redevelopment Commission, as well as City Council, must sign off on the removal.

Starting project

Repealing the West Main Street Renewal Project won't hurt the city in any way, Berndt said, because officials have already implemented more effective tools to handle downtown redevelopment projects, including along Main Street.

Former Mayor Win Moses, who was a city councilman when the project was first implemented, described it as “revolutionary in that time period.”

“To that point, we had looked at downtown one piece at a time,” Moses said. “There was not a philosophy to preserve it or give money to maintain it.”

The West Main Street Renewal Project, implemented under former Mayor Ivan Lebamoff, originally started at the southwest corner of Ewing and West Main streets, traveled east to Maiden Lane, where it went south to West Berry Street and over to the northeast corner of West Berry and Ewing streets. The project area was amended in 1978 to expand the area.

The expanded zone started at the intersection of Calhoun Street and the southern edge of the railroad right of way, traveled west to Harrison Street, then turned south to Pearl Street. The zone then ran from Pearl west to Maiden Lane, south to Main Street, west to Ewing Street and south again to Berry Street.

Minor amendments were filed until 1981. After that, it sat largely forgotten until it resurfaced during a review of documents for The Landing redevelopment project. 

“Somebody went through it provision by provision and said there's some things in here that are in conflict of what we want to do and what the city says we can do,” Berndt said. “It's just full of stuff that in today's environment is out of place.”

Downtown appeal

The West Main Street Renewal Project laid the groundwork for what would become the Fort Wayne Community Center, 233 W. Main St. and the nearby Edsall House Apartments, 310 W. Berry Street, an apartment complex for seniors age 62 or older. The Community Center was formerly called the Fort Wayne Senior Center.

“It was hard to find monies; these were not easy times, but you could find some for senior centers and senior housing,” said Moses. “The renewal project was designed to get people thinking about what they wanted downtown to be. It was almost like a town starting to come out of a cave.” 

The plan also called for removal of all overhead wires by burying utility lines, as well as the closure of Webster Street and an alley between Maiden Lane and Ewing Street. 

Comments made at an April 14, 1975, public hearing regarding the senior center and housing complex were remarkably similar to those often made at public hearings today. According to meeting minutes obtained from the city, residents were concerned with the cost of the project and its location.

“Mr. Clifton L. Tomkinson ... said he has been losing tenants ever since the idea of a center was publicized,” the minutes state. “He stated he is not against the center or the housing facility, but he felt the site chosen is wrong and that an awful lot of money is being spent.” 

Moses said the Community Center, once it opened, did what it was intended to do: drive people downtown. And the nearby housing complex helped create a sense of community. 

Although the tools have changed over time, the goal of a vibrant downtown area has remained, Moses said. However, the speed at which changes were implemented depended largely on mayoral priorities and community sentiment. 

Lebamoff had one term as mayor. He was replaced by the late former Mayor Robert Armstrong, who Moses said had no interest in Lebamoff's vision for downtown. The result, Moses said, was that downtownlay fallow for four years. Moses said he took a different approach after he replaced Armstrong in 1980, building “everything I could get dollars for.” 

Today, downtown Fort Wayne is home to a host of new developments like The Landing, riverfront development and the proposed Electric Works project, that are intended to make the area more appealing to businesses and families. That's something that might not have happened had it not been for Lebamoff's ambition, Moses said. 

“It focused everybody's attention on that particular location. This is what we wanted to start with, we just wanted to get the pump primed,” Moses said. “If it had been a different mayor at a different time, I think we'd still be wandering around wondering where we go from here.” 

dgong@jg.net