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Calhoun conversion

Two Calhoun street business owners talk about the changes on their street

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-08-25


Plans to reconfigure the one-way section of Calhoun Street that runs between Washington and Berry have been floating since 2006, but as expected it only took a few days after Fort Wayne City Council’s 6 – 3 vote in favor of the project for construction crews to get busy.

The street was blocked off the weekend of August 14 and the trees lining Calhoun were removed as part of the first stage, which will eventually see the two block one-way stretch converted to a two-way street, with rebuilt sidewalks, a third lane for delivery trucks, new trees and smaller planters which, it was argued, would give business owners and pedestrians more useable sidewalk space.

After the expansion of the Grand Wayne Center and the Allen County Public Library blocked off Harrison and Webster respectively, downtown was in need of a major North-South corridor, and if it weren’t for that pesky two-block stretch where it turns into a one-way street going North, Calhoun would be perfect. That’s what proponents of the project claimed, anyway.

But on the other side of the issue were those who felt Calhoun was just fine the way it was, especially the section in between Wayne and Berry. There are three restaurants in that section, and the area (along with a slice of Wayne right around the corner) is hopping during the warmer months. Well, on a workday afternoon it’s hopping, but the point is, it worked. Go down there at lunchtime in the middle of the week and you’d think Fort Wayne was a real city, with pedestrians and stuff.

We’ve also heard a lot about the street’s aesthetic positives. The word “charm” has been tossed around so much that you might believe we had been living with a miniature version of the Champs-Élysées downtown all these years. But sarcasm aside, the street did look pretty nice, with a good mix of facades, and trees and planters, and tables on the sidewalk… So, add it all together and you have a good case for not doing a darn thing to Calhoun that goes beyond Fort Wayne’s usual fear of change.

It’s the business owners on that section of Calhoun that are going to feel the immediate impact of the project, and have to deal with it on a daily basis until it wraps up supposedly before Thanksgiving.

Andrew Thomas, co-owner of the Pint & Slice, is unambiguous about the project. “Absolutely needed,” he says. “No debate. No discussion.”

Thomas says that when the project first came up, he was on the fence about it, but after working with the City and others involved, he’s come to see the conversion to a two-way street as essential for the area. “When we closed the block down in the 70s is when we shut down the core of our city,” he says. “It’s the only street I’ve seen in any community that is two ways all except for two blocks through the core of the city. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make the core of your city inaccessible except for going north from two blocks south.”

To people worried about the street’s “charm,” Thomas points out that it’s not as though the plans call for drowning everything in concrete. The trees that were there until the middle of August were 15-year trees that had been around 20 years, were overgrown, and were essentially obscuring Calhoun’s architecture. “We can still have trees that are more urban friendly, that have lower canopies, that are positioned so we can still see our city,” Thomas says. “We’re not talking about getting rid of all the ambiance and putting in asphalt, and that’s the impression people have been given. No one talks about the plan of adding planters that are more user-friendly — smaller, movable, easy to care for, and that don’t take up sidewalk space. The planters that we have on the sidewalks are beautiful, but they’re 5’ x 30’ if not longer. You’re going to lose sidewalk, but we’re going to gain by getting rid of those planters.”

Pint & Slice is something of a “side project” for Thomas, a civic business he says he started out of his own enthusiasm with little hope of the venture being immediately profitable. But a little over two years later, in a location that’s had at least two other restaurant businesses come and go in the last five years, it’s not only survived but become a very popular lunch spot downtown (the restaurant stays open until 8:15). Yet Thomas says that in order for the restaurant to thrive, it has to do more than that. “You can’t live on the lunch hour alone,” he says. Sure, Calhoun Street may be working as a one-way street, but… “It’s working because of the 30,000 people who work in downtown Fort Wayne. What’s not working is anytime after 5 pm. Calhoun Street is the way it is because of the density of people; it has nothing to do with the way the street is set up.”

Like other restaurants in the area, much of Pint & Slice’s business is “walk-up.” Construction on Calhoun may cut into their business temporarily, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. “I’m not happy about that, I’m going to try to budget for it, but at the same time you just have to do it,” Thomas says. “We’re talking about a construction phase of three to four months, maybe six months, I don’t know, but that’s a few months vs. years.”

But if Thomas’ enthusiasm for the project is unabated, right next door Dash-In owner Katie Kunkle… not so much. Kunkle, owner of the Dash-In, has misgivings, though she admits that she hasn’t really been involved for the last few years. “I just felt when I started going to meetings two years ago, that it was a done deal,” she says. “I actually hosted a meeting when they first proposed changing it to a two way street and wanted to get our input. But even then you could tell it was a done deal. I just felt like I was wasting my time.”

She doesn’t really buy the argument that having that section of Calhoun as a one-way street was a big problem. “I think it worked fine. Everybody that works downtown realizes that it’s one way for two blocks. Any adult can figure out how to navigate a one-way street. If you have to go around the block, then you go around the block. It’s like that in every other city.”

Of course, Kunkle thinks the artist renderings of the area look great, and a lot of the plans sound promising — removing the planters, for example, will in theory give her more useable sidewalk space. But right now, she says those planters give a couple of the Dash-In’s outside tables a barrier from the street. “On paper it looks nice, but I’m a person who has to see things,” she explains. “I can’t figure out what it’s really going to mean for me. I will technically have more sidewalk space on my side, but until it’s done and up, it’s hard for me to visualize if I’m really going to be able to put tables on the other side of the sidewalk like I have been, because right now I have that barrier. I may end up actually losing area where I can put tables, but I won’t know until it’s done.”

Kunkle adds that she thinks the construction on the street will kill her outside dining for the remainder of the year, and probably do some damage do business overall. The Dash-In’s busiest times are lunch and mornings, with foot traffic making up most of the business.

The Dash-In is well-positioned to survive whatever happens on Calhoun street during the next few months. It’s a very popular place that has weathered numerous changes during its history (Kunkle has been there for 11 years and owned it for the past four), including being one of the only restaurants in that part of downtown for many years. But though Kunkle says she would have preferred the project not happen, since it is going forward she hopes she sees some of the little things she asked for during talks with the City. “Hopefully, me and Pint & Slice will get some of those movable plant holders, more bike racks down through here… just that type of stuff.”

And Andrew Thomas is even more hopeful than that, insisting that making Calhoun a two-way street, will not only be good for all the existing businesses on the block, but will make the entire area more attractive to potential future businesses and even for people interested in living in the area. “I hate to sound redundant, but it’ll re-open those two blocks, it’ll reopen the core of the city. Yeah, we’re going to have some sacrifices, but in the end it’s going to be better.”

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