A Cincinnati firm with extensive experience in urban revitalization has been given the preliminary nod to develop The Landing, local officials announced Wednesday afternoon.
Model Group edged out two other finalists based on its successful track record, which includes extensive work in the highly praised Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati, Mac Parker, a semi-retired local attorney and chairman of the Downtown Development Trust, said during an exclusive interview with The Journal Gazette before the announcement.
"They each made outstanding presentations," he said of the finalists, which included local firm RCI Development. "It made the job (to choose) really hard. We were sort of amazed at the well-thought-through ideas, the unique plans."
Steve Smith, Model Group’s president and CEO, said Wednesday morning that The Landing will be similar to Over-the-Rhine in the sense that both are historic areas with Italianate architecture being converted for commercial and residential use.
"I think there are similarities, but this is going to be uniquely Fort Wayne," he added. "We believe it’s going to be a really vibrant addition to downtown."
During the official announcement, Mayor Tom Henry said The Landing has a special place in what he considers to be a flurry of positive local projects.
"There is no question that this will be one of the most significant redevelopments of mixed-use buildings in our downtown in decades," he told the crowd of about 30.
The Downtown Development Trust, a nonprofit, which was instrumental in acquiring land for the Ash Skyline Plaza project, began in 2013 quietly buying land on Columbia Street for The Landing’s redevelopment.
The private organization didn’t use property, income or sales tax money to buy the properties, which total seven buildings and two parking lots, Parker said. Funding for the final project won’t come from local or state tax sources either, Smith said.
The Landing, a one-block historic stretch of downtown Fort Wayne, will undergo a mixed-use transformation estimated at $20 million. The result will be restaurants, retailers and residential options designed to attract young urban dwellers.
Model Group has to negotiate a few hurdles before that happens. The firm needs to reach a memorandum of understanding with the trust for the project. That’s expected to take 30 to 45 days. Afterward, Parker expects the parties to need four to five months to reach a final agreement.
During that time, Model Group will have additional access to the buildings and allowed to take soil borings and other tests. The firm will also review its own financial projections to make sure it can perform the work for the amount projected, said Kirk Moriarty, the project manager and Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s development director.
"In historic redevelopment, something always comes up, so they want to scrutinize those buildings," Moriarty said before the announcement.
Buildings included in the 20-square-block Over-the-Rhine neighborhood were built in the 1860s to 1880s, the same time as those on The Landing.
Although Over-the-Rhine is significantly larger than The Landing, Model Group’s work there was performed in pieces that were similar in scope to The Landing project, Smith said.
Besides knowing how to preserve historic buildings, Model Group knows how to navigate complicated financing packages. That experience also gave the trust board confidence, Moriarty said.
Since developing numerous buildings in Over-the-Rhine, Model Group continues to own all but one of them, demonstrating a continued commitment, Moriarty said. The firm will collect lease and rental income from commercial and residential tenants after the development is completed.
Zach Benedict of local firm MKM architecture + design will be the project’s architect. A local construction firm, which is yet to be chosen, will be hired to do building work.
Benedict said he’s excited to do work on The Landing, which he described as the historic epicenter of commerce in northeast Indiana. He sees great significance for the area going forward as well.
"If done correctly, I think it becomes … a welcome mat for the riverfront development" that’s still in the planning stages, he said.
During the news conference, Smith said he met Benedict about five years ago at a professional conference. Smith decided then that if his firm ever won a contract in Fort Wayne, Benedict would be brought in as architect because he understands specialized historic preservation work.
"The mission of our company," Smith added, "is to positively transform communities."