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Renaissance Pointe Redux

After an economic downturn and slow home sales, the City looks at new strategies to spur development in the neighborhood

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-07-21


Renaissance Pointe seemed like an ambitious plan when Mayor Graham Richard introduced it in 2006.

In fact, it seemed like the kind of innovative thinking that a lot of current theories in modern urban studies and revitalization espouse — an aggressive plan to re-introduce “city living” to Fort Wayne by investing in the existing infrastructure and using “green” design in many aspects of Renaissance Pointe’s development.

Bounded by Hanna Street, Creighton Avenue, Anthony Boulevard, and Pontiac Street, the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood was supposed to include nearly 400 new homes, the rehabilitation of more than 100 existing homes, improved infrastructure, and other amenities. The City of Fort Wayne partnered with Mansur Real Estate Services, Inc. on the new development, with Lancia Homes, Delagrange Homes and Ideal Builders coming on as builders.

The new homes in Renaissance Pointe would be built along the architectural style of older urban houses — walk up front porches, garages off the back alley, all set 15’-20’ feet from the street, etc. Some of the houses would be “green homes”; not only would they be built with conservation-minded requirements such as Energy Star appliances, but home buyers could choose options such as a bamboo flooring instead of hardwood, or a heating system less reliant on natural gas.

But perhaps the biggest “green” feature of Renaissance Pointe is that it basically called for “recycling” the entire Hanna-Creighton neighborhood, improving the existing infrastructure and rehabbing many of the existing homes. Plus, by encouraging people to live in the city, they'll be closer to work and amenities, drive less and save gas.

Back in 2006, Mayor Richard said that attractive housing options make Fort Wayne more competitive in expanding businesses and retaining and gaining jobs. “We are revitalizing an essential neighborhood in our downtown area,” the Mayor said in a press release. “We want to keep current residents and bring in new homeowners to enjoy urban living.”

That was the plan, anyway. But three years from when the project was announced and two years after the official groundbreaking ceremony, Renaissance Pointe has met with mixed success. The young professionals and empty nesters that developers hoped would move to the area have yet to materialize, very few new homes have been sold or built, and the City, while remaining fully committed to the project, is trying to reshape their expectations for the area.

On the positive side, the area has benefited from over $4 million worth of investment in public infrastructure. “It looks 100%,” says Anthony Ridley, president of the area’s neighborhood association. “Sidewalks, sewers, lighting, bike path, and demolition have all been completed. We’re very pleased about that. People are taking care of their properties, landlords are being held accountable for their properties, demands are being taken care of… there’s lots of work to be done, but slowly but surely we’ll get there.”

Yet while the area looks great, interest and enthusiasm for the changes in the neighborhood have not translated into healthy home sales. Part of this, of course, is due to the collapse of the housing market. “I think what you’re seeing is more of a reflection of what’s happened in the general marketplace,” says Chris Palladino of Mansur Real Estate Services, the master developer on the project. “We launched Renaissance Pointe at probably the worst time that a new housing development of any type could be launched, given what had been happening in the mortgage lending industry, what had been happening with foreclosures across the country.”

“None of us expected the changes in the housing market that occurred as quickly as they did,” Palladino continues. “If we were doing this project as a planning effort in 2008, it would have probably have come together a little differently than it did in 2006.”

Heather Presley, the City’s Director of Housing and Neighborhood Services and coordinator of Renaissance Pointe, adds: “(Renaissance Pointe) started out as a 10 year plan to build approximately 400 new units in one of the poorest census tracts in the state. The strategy was developed during a time when we were in a well-adjusted economy.”

Presley explains that plan called for improvements in public infrastructure and a phased approach to building and selling homes. The homes were going to be built out over three phases; the builders would purchase lots from the city, sell the lots and build custom homes to the buyers.

To date, Presley continues, in addition to the $4 million worth of investment in public infrastructure, “We have six model homes that have been constructed. We have a smart green rehab that has been completed and will soon be up for sale; three new homes completed and sold; three contract home sales in various stages of construction; three completed spec homes, and 25 home renovations.”

If the City has been disappointed with home sales, they’re not saying so explicitly, preferring to focus on the longview. “The sales in Renaissance Pointe have always been on par with the rest of the county,” Presley says. “It has never concerned me, and because we planned this to be built out over 10 years, it still doesn’t concern me. I would never judge a housing development or a community development project in the short term that was designed to be built out over a long term.”

The City recently met with community leaders from that area to talk about what their concerns were regarding Renaissance Pointe and where they saw the area headed. “Acknowledging that every good business plan needs to be recalibrated regularly, we have begun planning discussions with the community to look at key barriers to development in the area,” Presley says.

For one, residents felt the major corridors leading through Renaissance Pointe — Pontiac and Anthony — didn’t reflect the changes in the neighborhood itself, so Presley says a beautification and rehabilitation program for those areas is in the planning stages. “Anyone who is driving past the corner of Anthony and Pontiac may not be able to see the great things that are happening inside those boundaries,” she says. “So getting a corridor program in place to beautify and make the area pedestrian friendly and point towards the signs of stabilization that are happening is important.”

There was also a perception of the area as being dangerous or high in criminal activity. The perception might be a little exaggerated, but the area is close to the Eden Green complex, where crime is an issue.

And finally, there has been talk of skewing the price point of the homes in Renaissance Pointe. The builders were bringing in projects in the $100K – $200K range. “The builders have been approached to maybe reduce the price from $100K to maybe $80K, getting more home ownership education out there, and pick up the rehab as much as possible,” says Anthony Ridley.

Heather Presley points to the City’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) as another program that might help those interested in buying in Renaissance Pointe. “Builders will be able to construct the exact same houses that they’re building now, but because of the way our construction loans are designed with the NSP program, buyers will be able to purchase the homes in the $80K range, even though it’s a $100K home,” she says. “Basically, builders profit is paid through a developer fee, so the buyer doesn’t pay it.”

“My concern always was that we would sacrifice quality or good design if we were skewing the prices lower. In this case, the neighborhood stabilization program is going to offer the lower price point and sacrifice nothing. In addition, we’ll be able to offer $14,999 in matching down payment assistance to buyers.”

But those “key barriers to development” mentioned above — especially the price point of the homes — were there at the beginning of the project, and highlight why Renaissance Pointe was probably going to be a difficult sell for Fort Wayne anyway. The development was modeled after the Fall Creek Place project in Indianapolis; in fact, the developer of Renaissance Pointe, Mansur Real Estate, was the developer for Fall Creek.

The Fall Creek story is pretty remarkable. A decade ago, it was an urban wasteland frequently referred to as “Dodge City,” an area in much, much worse shape than the Hanna-Creighton area. In an interview with FWR in 2007, Chris Palladino of Mansur described the area as one of the most distressed, crime-ridden census tracts in all of Indianapolis. “It was just block after block of vacant lots, boarded up homes, drug houses, totally deteriorated infrastructure in terms of curbs and sidewalks,” he said.

Beginning in 2001, the area was the object of a massive public/private redevelopment plan designed to create a mixed-income residential community. To make a long story short, Fall Creek Place was a huge success. The initial goal was to sell 300 homes in about seven years — they hit their 300th homebuyer in November, 2004.

And the people who moved to Fall Creek were, according to Palladino, people who already lived and worked in downtown Indianapolis. “They were primarily renters, primarily young professionals, who were buying their first home,” he says. “They wanted to be in a more walkable, denser neighborhood in close proximity to downtown.”

According to market research, that demographic — young professionals in the 25-40 age group that currently work around or near downtown — exists in Fort Wayne, but Palladino acknowledges there were risks involved in trying to recreate in Fort Wayne what had worked so well in Indianapolis. “Fort Wayne doesn’t have the kind of urban housing stock that Indy has, so we looked at this as there wasn’t anything that Renaissance Pointe would compete against,” he says. “On one hand, you’re kind of the first one; you’re creating a market that doesn’t exist. But the good thing is that there could be some built-in demand for that kind of product.”

But while improvements in the area and the City’s continuing commitment to the project are admirable, Renaissance Pointe in 2009 is not shaping up to be the “bobo” enclave that it was originally envisioned as being. That might be because a wide range of urban housing stock wasn’t all Renaissance Pointe has to compete against. There’s no shortage of affordable housing in Fort Wayne. And traffic here is not a serious problem, so people don’t see moving farther out of town as much of a negative (and that’s assuming they work downtown).

More to the point, downtown Fort Wayne doesn’t have the allure of downtown Indianapolis. We’re trying, but we’re not quite there yet. Physically, Renaissance Pointe is actually closer to Fort Wayne’s downtown than Fall Creek is to Indy’s, but given the general perceptions of downtown in Fort Wayne, Renaissance Pointe might as well be in New Haven.

Yet those involved with the project insist that, given time, a renewed focus, and the right incentives, Renaissance Pointe will prove a success. Heather Presley says that part of the overall strategy of Renaissance Pointe has always been increasing sales and median value in Fort Wayne’s urban core, and in that respect, the project has been successful. “Renaissance Pointe was developed to be a catalyst for development in the urban core, not necessarily to just build 400 new houses,” she says. “It wasn’t just to get people to want to live in that neighborhood, it was to get people to shift the paradigm from suburban living as the only way to live.”

Presley uses the example of someone going to a TinCaps game at Parkview field and experiencing the communal feel of downtown life. “What if they’re the ones thinking, ‘I could live down here.’ Maybe it’s West Central, maybe it’s the Northside neighborhood. But Renaissance Pointe was on the leading edge of changing that paradigm. You had people that hadn’t come in the core in decades coming to the block parties at Renaissance Pointe and saying I haven’t been down here in years, but this is beautiful. I didn’t think this street could look this way.’ Those are our thought leaders. I think we’ve actually come a long way in our thinking in Fort Wayne about the possibilities of this kind of a concept.”
Anthony Ridley is also hopeful, and says he appreciates the fact that the City has been proactive about offering a wide range of incentives for those interested in buying and/or building in Renaissance Pointe. He’s looking forward to construction of the new YMCA, a $5 million campus set to start in August, and thinks that will only add value to the neighborhood. “I think with the new committees being formed, and a new look at what we’re trying to do, that we will get to where we’re going,” he says. “But it’s still going to be at least a six to seven year project to get it done, and usually to revitalize a neighborhood it takes anywhere from five to 10 years.”

For more on the City of Fort Wayne’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, go to www.nspfortwayne.org.

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