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Brookview beautiful?

The way the city is handling the re-development of one of Fort Wayne’s historic neighborhoods raises concerns

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-04-21


Last summer, Michelle Briggs Wedaman, a resident of Fort Wayne’s historic Brookview neighborhood just north of downtown, called David Ross at the City Engineer’s office, seeking some information about a proposed project on State Boulevard that had recently hit the local media.

Briggs Wedaman had been trying to resurrect the Brookview Neighborhood Association, and wanted a few details on the State Boulevard project for a newsletter. A section of State Boulevard runs right through Brookview, and the renovations the city called for were slated to begin in 2011 or ’12.

During their talk, City Engineer David Ross told Briggs Wedaman that the city was going to be closing Westbrook, one of the main residential streets in the neighborhood, and installing a rain garden at the end of the street where it connects with Clinton.

“I said, ‘wow, closing Westbrook in two or three years. That’s big news,’” recounts Briggs-Wedaman. “And he said, ‘Well, no, actually, we’re closing Westbrook in August.’”

In other words, the city would close Westbrook in about three weeks to begin work on a sizeable landscape redevelopment project that would significantly change the character and layout of a historic residential neighborhood… and none of the neighborhood’s residents had even heard of it, or been consulted.

“You start wondering about the planning when you accidentally find out about the project that’s closing a street,” says Briggs Wedaman.

Just north of downtown, tucked in between Wells and Spy Run Avenue along Spy Run Creek and cut by a particularly winding section of State Boulevard, the Brookview neighborhood is considered by many people to be one of the city’s hidden gems. It has not only been an active, fully-inhabited neighborhood for nearly a hundred years — despite problems like flooding and the emergence of State as a major thoroughfare — but it also has a valuable historic significance; it was one of the first planned neighborhoods in the city, and retains much of the same character as when it was initially designed. In fact, it’s eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

But the City of Fort Wayne has big plans for the Brookview neighborhood and the surrounding area. Some of these plans are already underway, and the city’s handling of the different projects has raised concerns among residents and preservationists, and called into question local government’s commitment to their own comprehensive plan.

A quick run down of the projects: already mentioned is what the city engineers office calls the Westbrook Flood Control Project – the removal of Westbrook Drive between Edgehill (just south of State) and Clinton Street and the installation of a rain garden there. At least one house was bought with FEMA money; others were bought using money from a City Utilities Stormwater Bond. The houses were demolished in order to make room for the garden and a berm. Another rain garden may go in on Eastbrook, since houses there have already been demolished.

Then there’s the INDOT-led project on US 27/Clinton, also already in progress. The goal is to straighten Clinton between State and Science Central and raise the bridge over Spy Run Creek by seven or more feet. Westbrook Drive has already been closed.

There’s also the Puffer Belly Trail, a planned biking/walking trail running from Lawton Park to Fernhill Avenue with a spur to Franke Park and the zoo. In 2007, the City received a federal Transportation Enhancement award of over $900,000 for funding of the trail, which will run on the path of the old New York Central railroad tracks.

And somewhere in the near future is the State Boulevard project, recently approved by city council. This calls for the section of State that curves through the neighborhood to be straightened between where the old railroad tracks used to cross State Blvd. and Spy Run Avenue. Obviously, this is the project that will most drastically change the character and the very layout of the neighborhood.

Anyone familiar with the Brookview neighborhood — or anyone who can read a map — can see that most of these projects are within a couple blocks from each other, something that raises concerns among residents of the area and historic preservationists interested in keeping the integrity of the Brookview neighborhood intact.

Because while redevelopment projects, even in historic areas, are a fact of life, the projects happening in the Brookview area are all being performed by different entities. There is no single source of oversight to identify central goals and design, measure the cumulative effect all the projects have on the neighborhood, answer residents’ questions, or provide any information on what the long term goals of the projects might be and how they fit into the city’s comprehensive plan.

“While one group is working on the Clinton bridge over Spy Run, another group is working on State street, and another is working on the rain garden, and another group is working on buying out houses that are flood-damaged, and another group is working on the trail,” says Mike Galbraith, Historic Preservation Specialist at Fort Wayne’s ARCH (Architecture and Community Heritage) an organization that advocates for the protection and preservation of historically and culturally significant assets and historic places in Allen County and northeast Indiana. “If you wanted to ask ‘what’s the story with all these projects?’ there’s no one to talk to.”

“What they’re saying is that closing this street and knocking down these houses really has no effect on the projects happening on either side of the block, it’s just a coincidence that they’re happening at the same time.”

There also might be a question of legality. The projects are using federal funds, so the City is legally required to take into account the effect of their undertakings. When the City spends that federal money, they need to analyze what effect it has on historic resources, what effect it has on environmental resources, and all of those things that have federal laws protecting them. “Every time federal or state funding is used on a project, there is a review to make sure that historic structures or resources are not affected aversely, or if there is going to be an effect, to minimize it as much as possible,” says Angie Quinn, executive director of ARCH. “What we’re asking is that they look at the totality of those projects — most of which are going to get federal dollars — and look at it as one project.”

But since the different projects are being treated individually, there’s no mechanism in place to take into account the cumulative, overall effect of the projects. “What we’re contending is that the effect of all of these has a far greater accumulative effect than any one project on its own,” says Galbraith. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The Brookview neighborhood has been a pretty, vibrant neighborhood since its design in 1917. The neighborhood also has important historical significance. Brookview was designed by nationally-celebrated landscape architect and city planner Arthur Shurcliff (also spelled Shurtleff) embodying the principles of the “City Beautiful” movement. Famed for projects around the country such as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, Shurcliff is also known for his leadership in establishing the fields of planning and landscape architecture in the United States. Brought to Fort Wayne because of his celebrity, Shurcliff also designed Lafayette Esplanade and Wildwood Park here. “This was coming from a time when ‘the city’ was really a polluted idea, where it was associated with tenement housing and smokestacks,” explains Mike Galbraith. “The idea of coming to a pleasant garden suburb with green space and winding streets was really attractive. They built these suburbs among these kinds of natural areas with winding streets along side of a creek, with open space, so when you turned the corner in your car — and they were designed with the car in mind — you would encounter not another three or four story building, but a winding green space, you’d see trees and open triangular parks.”

The winding roads common in this type of design not only serve an aesthetic function for residents and people passing through that area, but also slow down cars and make the neighborhood more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

As cities across the U.S. try to figure out ways of revitalizing their downtowns, planners have rediscovered many of the turn-of-the-century ideas about urban environments that inspired neighborhoods like Brookview. Current thinking in urban revitalization stresses green space and open public areas. It stresses finding ways of slowing down traffic and making city environments more pedestrian friendly. It seeks what’s called “multi-modal transportation,” meaning basically everything from sidewalks to bike paths to public transportation to help you get around. And it also encourages “density,” which in part highlights the importance of people living closer together to foster a sense of community and connection.

The Brookview neighborhood has all that. It’s a healthy, active neighborhood in a (relatively) urban setting very close to downtown, with sidewalks and parks and other green space and character and a sense of community. “Cities all over the country are trying to recreate neighborhoods like Brookview, while here … (Fort Wayne) is spending so much money and throwing away a great opportunity,” says Michelle Briggs Wedaman. “Many things in (Brookview) are in need of a fresh coat of paint and some love and attention, but it’s a gem. There is already substantial private investment in the neighborhood, and the area could be enhanced by the government projects if they are integrated with a comprehensive design that understands this unique place. It’s about much more than dropping in new roads and bridges, some landscaping and sidewalks and calling that walkable. It’s about celebrating the unique places we have, of treasuring and enhancing them, that will build a city we can be proud of, that will hold its appeal.”

Angie Quinn offers an example of the seemingly contradictory planning going on in the area. “While at the same time we’re encouraging alternate forms of transportation and putting in a trail where people will walk… we’re straightening the street, which will make traffic speed up,” she says. “From a purely design perspective, the sides aren’t talking to each other. The City has a long-term plan of trying to reduce the speed of traffic through neighborhoods. What this does is absolutely the opposite. The idea that you want to have cars go as fast as possible through areas where people live is really antithetical to having people live there.”

Of course, everyone involved with the issue realize that some of the changes in Brookview needed to be done. The flooding in that neighborhood has reached overwhelming proportions during the last 10 – 15 years (exacerbated by development further North) and was especially bad this year, when water was higher than the State Blvd bridge at Spy Run Creek. The people who vacated their homes in that section of the neighborhood to make way for the rain garden communicated directly with the City during that process. The remaining residents weren’t consulted.

And the lack of consultation remains one of the most bizarre and disconcerting things about the whole issue. Briggs Wedaman says that after she first talked to David Ross, she hastily convened a neighborhood walking tour with Ross, and invited other residents to attend. Because it was put together so quickly, Briggs Wedaman expected maybe a dozen residents. Over a hundred showed up. “There was shock, consternation, a lot of anger on the part of the neighborhood, and certainly a great deal of interest and enthusiasm about the nature of plans for the area,” Briggs Wedaman says.

But a lot of the residents’ basic questions about the project — How will design of the multiple projects be integrated? How will the rain garden affect flooding along Eastbrook and State to the east? How will the success of the rain gardens be measured? What larger opportunities have been identified and are being pursued to integrate the neighborhood with downtown Fort Wayne and other surrounding areas? How are walking and biking routes being considered, such as linkages to downtown, to the River Greenway, to the proposed Puffer Belly Trail?— still weren’t answered.

Eventually, after asking for the project to be delayed and sending a letter to Public Works Director Bob Kennedy, there was another meeting/tour. This time, engineers from DLZ who had designed the rain garden were present. “We ended up walking around with the plans, while the bulldozers were there, asking some pretty basic questions: ‘Why have these trees been slated for removal?’ And the engineer would say ‘well, I don’t know’.”

Briggs Wedaman says they were actually able to negotiate and change some of the plans. The neighborhood invited local historic preservation and landscape professionals to attend the meeting, to provide insight into the physical and historical environment. As just one example, the project originally called for the removal of all lighting in the area, and because of the meeting, the neighborhood was able to maintain some of the lighting. The curbing was kept, some of the trees slated for removal were saved, plant design in the rain gardens was modified. But it was bizarre having to do all that while the construction machines were parked on the side of the road, ready to go. “Is this how we want to redesign our city’s beautiful spaces?”

So, with that notch in the “small victories” column, Brookview residents, ARCH, and their supporters are now looking at the plans for straightening State Blvd. The timeline for the project is unclear, and plans unveiled for the project are supposedly preliminary, but at the same time, the City has already invested considerable resources in the project, (nearly $1,000,000 for the engineering work was approved this year by city council). As one interested source said, “you don’t spend that kind of money on preliminary plans.”

Briggs Wedaman has asked the city for a task force, to include residents and experts in architecture, landscaping, and historical landscapes, to look at the specifics of the State Blvd. project, similar to the way a task force was set up to work with residents near Ardmore when plans for widening of that street were proposed. But so far the city has said no. Says Angie Quinn, “Anytime there’s a big project like this, the city does a lot better, the project is more successful, if they can get an understanding from the neighborhood, if they spend the time to find out what the neighborhood’s issues are in terms of what they think the effects will be, because a lot of times it’s just communication. But this is not happening very well.”

It’s been, and continues to be, a frustrating experience, says Briggs Wedaman, especially since they are not rallying opposition to the project, and they are not fighting the City. “Clearly, if you work with us, and also involve the knowledgeable professionals who can help provide comprehensive planning of historical assets, we will be your biggest supporters,” Briggs Wedaman says. “We will help you. We want to celebrate this type of reinvestment, not be frightened by it and feel our city is being haphazardly planned. You underestimate the intelligence of residents by not laying the complexities of these projects on the table. The citizens of Brookview applaud the city’s ability to leverage external funds. But the rules that dictate the use of those funds are there for a reason. They are there to serve as a series of checks and balances. Doing things in such a non-transparent fashion detracts from the potential benefits of the projects, serves as an obstacle to building a more beautiful, livable city, and alienates the residents you are there to serve. Residents here and throughout the city embrace the 21st century and the city focus on this area, but ask that we do so in an informed, creative, collaborative manner.”

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