One year from now, West Columbia Street could be crowded with moving trucks.
Parts of the $32.6 million downtown redevelopment project are on schedule for completion in 2019, officials said Thursday during a news conference. First, apartment dwellers, then office workers and, finally, retailers will be allowed in as sections become available beginning early in the year.
The Landing is a one-block stretch of Columbia Street between Harrison and Calhoun streets. Over the years, it has been a music haven, the site of block parties, Mardi Gras festivals and other events. In more recent years, the street has been scattered with restaurants, nightclubs and offices.
The project calls for modernizing existing Italianate-style buildings in compliance with strict national historic preservation guidelines and constructing an additional building to replace the former 95-room Rosemarie Hotel. Work crews are already on site in some of the historic buildings.
“We are making history again” at The Landing, said Steve Smith, CEO of The Model Group, the Cincinnati firm chosen to develop the block.
Smith and some local officials made brief remarks before the project's superintendent led media members on a tour of some of the buildings that will be transformed.
Mac Parker, chairman of the Downtown Development Trust, led a five-year effort to acquire property on Columbia Street so that a developer could come in and execute a sweeping vision for the block.
“In less than two years, these great, old buildings will come alive,” he said. “Columbia Street will once again be the coolest and liveliest place in Fort Wayne.”
Bobby Maly, The Model Group's chief operating officer, said he was tempted to apologize for the dusty floors, bare walls and holes in the ceiling where the short news conference was held a few hours before an official groundbreaking ceremony.
But, Maly added, “we are proud of the mess. It means we're underway.”
Local officials want to see new restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues open on the first floors of buildings. Offices could be on the second floors, and residential units would be on the upper floors. Plans call for 70 housing units and 60,000 square feet of commercial space.
Maly said two-thirds of the commercial space is already spoken for.
Smith, who sat for a one-on-one interview with The Journal Gazette before the event, said demand is as strong as they had hoped.
“Density is key,” he said. “Density and a curated mix of retail tenants is key.”
The developers want to fill the retail space with unique local businesses, such as coffee shops, bakeries, diners and brewpubs.
The Model Group has helped transform other underperforming neighborhoods, including Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. The firm has experience with assembling the complicated financial package required to pay for such projects.
That experience allowed the developer to regroup after Fort Wayne failed to receive New Markets Tax Credits late last year. Officials expected to devote some of those credits toward The Landing's price tag.
The Model Group worked with another recipient to secure New Markets credits, which added an unexpected step to the process.
Smith's firm knew this project wouldn't be easy, but the developers didn't know which exact challenges would crop up.
“What's made those challenges bearable is all the support we've had locally,” he added.
Smith is an enthusiastic cheerleader for redevelopment efforts that allow people to live, work and relax all in the same area.
“It is a lifestyle offering that is a game-changer,” he said. “This is neighborhood development on a human scale.”
Some of the apartments are as small as 600 square feet. Rent will start at $700 a month.
“What we found is what young professionals want is to have an affordable apartment that is close to a lot of amenities,” Smith said, adding that when those renters invite friends over, they typically meet in a coffee shop, park or other so-called third space.
The Landing will also offer 750-square-foot apartments. Rent for them will start at $900 a month. Leasing prices for commercial space will be in “the mid-teens,” depending on various details, said Jason Chamlee, The Model Group's money guy.
The Landing project was among the first dominoes to fall in a long string of investment projects in or near downtown.
When the Downtown Development Trust requested development submissions for The Landing in early 2015, the Riverfront Development and Electric Works were vague dreams. Plans weren't progressing on two new downtown hotels. And restaurants Tolon and Nawa hadn't taken their first orders.
Smith said local economic development officials have worked hard to lay the groundwork for what might seem like a overnight success.
“We're just happy to have been invited into the mix here,” he added.
Smith, who lives in Cincinnati, is already making plans for life after The Landing project is complete.
“When everything's done, my wife and I are going to drive up here for the weekend, we're going to find a place to park, and we won't be able to get into a restaurant because they'll all be full,” he said of spending time at The Landing.
“I've learned a long time ago,” he said, “not to be frustrated at having to wait for a table in a restaurant because that means you're a success.”
At a glance
The Model Group tapped 10 sources of income to cover the $32.6 million redevelopment of The Landing. This is the breakdown:
$5.5 million – New Markets Tax Credits
$4.5 million – Loan from IFF
$4.2 million – Regional Cities Initiative
$4.2 million – The Model Group equity
$4 million – Federal historic tax credits
$3 million – Dino Credit (or Industrial Recovery Tax Credit)
$2.5 million – Legacy Fund loan
$2.5 million – Allen County Redevelopment Commission tax increment financing district
$1.2 million – Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne loan
$1 million – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the city of Fort Wayne
Source: The Model Group