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Shoaff’s vision

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-02-24


John Shoaff was right, Barcelona may be the loveliest city I have ever visited. Wide boulevards with expansive, integrated pedestrian areas, striking modern buildings, avenues of 18th, 19th mansions, a grand collection of Modernist buildings, and monumental structures reach from the Mediterranean shore to the surrounding hills. It is a clean, well-maintained, vibrant and sophisticated city that was once a squalid collection of huts and factories…not unlike 19th Century Fort Wayne.

During tours of Barcelona guides heaped praise on the former mayors and leading burgers for comprehensive plans that transformed Barcelona from ugliness to splendid, but lamented land speculators and unscrupulous developers for destroying significant parts of the plan. It reminded us of David Foster and his Park and Boulevard Plan of 1912.

One hundred years ago Fort Wayne was a national leader in progressive urban planning thanks mostly to the determination and creativity of Foster Park Foster. He created our Park Department from thin air. He prodded our community into creating a tax levy for land purchase and for park construction, and he hired famed urban designer George Kessler to create a transformational plan that forever beautified Fort Wayne.

As with the guides’ laments for Barcelona’s lost opportunities Foster’s grand plans were ultimately halved by a penny-wise, near-sighted city council, but not before he and Kessler created Rudisill Boulevard, laid out Anthony and State, created the St. Joe River Drive and linked Camp Allen Drive, Thieme Drive and other scenic routes into the system.

That brings us to City Councilman and community elder John Shoaff. He is the keeper for the Kessler-Foster flame, but moreover for urban beautification. He is one of only a very few city leaders with a vision for how the community might look and feel fifty years from now. For decades he has worked to complete whatever remainder of Kessler’s plan that could be salvaged, as well as protecting the rest of the system from chainsaw “redevelopment.” Further, he, in cooperation with the internationally acclaimed planner, Eric Kuhne, was the guiding force that created, out of mud, trash heaps and rundown buildings, our Headwaters Park. But more over he has repeatedly demanded that a comprehensive plan, starting with a unifying vision, be created for our city.

More than any living Fort Wayner, Shoaff has fostered the current urban renaissance that our city now enjoys. As much as anyone he is responsible for the rejuvenation of our urban core and for the renewed enthusiasm for our city that has being ably carried forward by visionary former Mayor Graham Richard and broadly extended by current Mayor Tom Henry and their overlapping crews. Foster and Kessler echo through the development the city, of the riverfront and through the spreading beautification.
So, it must be a bittersweet homecoming whenever Shoaff has returned from his many travels to Europe with ideas and models for Fort Wayne’s revival only for those observations to fall on the deaf ears of those whose horizons seldom extend past weekends at the lake.
Nevertheless, Shoaff offers his ideas to everyone who will listen. He is adamant that thoughtful planning can make a community much more attractive to all, including investors, and he opposes the sort of development where beautification is a reluctant afterthought.

Currently, Councilman Shoaff is adamant about three matters: ongoing education of planners and leaders about the game-changing advantages of urban beautification; a new comprehensive plan for Fort Wayne; and the protection of the old Park and Boulevard system. Shoaff points to that Kessler-Foster plan for Fort Wayne as the first and only comprehensive vision for the city. It was sweeping and grand, in fact, revolutionary. Kessler took the concept of parks, what had been a slow progression from private gardens for the rich to public spaces for the masses, and turned it on its head in Fort Wayne: instead of a city decorated with a few parks Kessler envisioned our city itself a park, that the whole of the community should be planned and dedicated to the enjoyment of the people, not just the rich. In Shoaff’s many meetings, at the seminars he oft sponsors and during the soliloquies he delivers at City Council he reminds all that the concept of beautification of a city is what sets a Barcelona or a Fort Wayne apart from less renown and less prosperous communities.

Now, Shoaff is in a battle to better State Boulevard, an original part of Kessler and Foster’s plan. Shoaff envisions a beautiful revival of the boulevard west of the St. River that will beautify and revive the surrounding neighborhoods. Shoaff sees a park-like setting. However, some planners, mostly traffic engineers and their allies on council, prefer a high-speed traffic corridor that would divide the adjacent neighborhoods and turn State Boulevard into a truck route.

Sadly, the other urban visionary on council, Tom Smith, has not joined with Mr. Shoaff in a creative solution to the State Boulevard redux. Smith and Shoaff are a natural team which has before collaborated to offer creative solutions for complex local problems. They should again.

But more importantly, we as a community should demand that there be a plan for the general beautification of Fort Wayne so that all of us and our great-grandchildren benefit. In the past we have ridiculed or stymied the visionaries among us, the Fosters and Kesslers, the Smiths and Shoaffs. Fort Wayne now has a unique opportunity to transform itself into that city in a garden, in essence using our currently Legacy to add to the Kessler-Foster legacy.

The question is whether our leaders have the courage to think creatively, collaborate, share, invest and act boldly. A good place to start would be to pay more attention to the recommendations of Mr Shoaff.

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