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The Shape of Riverfront Development

SWA Group's Kinder Baumgartner of Fort Wayne's riverfront development

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If attendance at the public input session for River Front Fort Wayne is anything to go by, residents of the area haven’t been so interested in our rivers since someone decided it looked like a good place to slap up a fort over 200 years ago.

In other words, the auditorium of the ACPL was packed for the presentation on March 13. Every seat in the house was occupied, and those that couldn’t even find space to stand watched a video feed in another room. Input was taken, of course — attendees were encouraged to write down ideas, concerns, and thoughts on provided slips of paper, which were then collected by a representative from SWA Group, the urban design and landscape architecture firm who is the lead consultant on Fort Wayne’s riverfront development effort. Their team also includes Fort Wayne-based MKM Architecture + Design; Biohabitats; Market Feasibility Advisors; Moffatt & Nichol; Empower Results; and AMEC.

But overall, the event had more of a “getting to know you” vibe than anything else, a way to introduce the pubic to SWA Group and the work they’ve done in the area riverfront development. SWA president Kinder Baumgardner lead the presentation, and while there wasn’t a whole lot that was Fort Wayne specific about it (the study has only been going on a few months, after all), it did help to send a strong message, one that proponents of riverfront development in the city of been hoping to hear for a long while — something is actually happening now.

Oh, there’ve been studies — studies that looked at flooding, studies that looked at utility issues, studies that looked at development… And there will continue to be studies for a few months more: this entire enterprise that SWA Group and their partners are in the midst of is called a study. But, as SWA Group President Kinder Baumgardner puts it… “This study is more about getting something done rather than looking at it again, and people are very excited about that.”

We had a chance to talk briefly to Baumgardner about what SWA and its team has seen so far in Fort Wayne and what the next step is.

Fort Wayne Reader: SWA Group has worked in river front development for a lot of cities around the US and the world, and in the urban planning and re-development field, there seems to have been a trend towards many communities re-discovering their rivers. Where does Fort Wayne rank in that area?

Kinder Baumgardner: When it comes to what you guys have done with your downtown, you’re way ahead of the game. When it comes to your planning department and how they operate, you’re ahead of the game. When it comes to an historic pattern of open space — in that Kessler plan which was done 100 years ago — you guys are ahead. The only thing Fort Wayne is behind on is that there’s this great resource — the rivers — that you’ve turned your backs on for a long time. And for good reason: there are a lot of negative things that have happened with the river. It’s not all Fort Wayne — there are things that happen upstream that then influence how the river works in town. But we’ve been seeing cities coming back to their rivers for some time. It started with bigger cities, and they have huge resources they can put towards that. In Houston (Baumgardner is based out of SWA’s Houston office), we just completed our return to the river project. So in that time scale, (Fort Wayne) is right in there.

FWR: How is Fort Wayne’s situation different or unique from other places you’ve worked in?

KB: You have a really unappreciated resource here. Adjacent to your rivers are a lot of under valued or vacant properties that are prime for redevelopment. Basically, that Omnisource property on the North side of the river — it’s sitting there because there’s no reason to develop it right now. But when the river becomes something different — whatever that may turn out to be — that opens up the opportunity for that property to develop. And that Omnisource property is just one property. In Houston, when we re-did our river, there were no extremely obvious development parcels that were just going to be instantly catalyzed in development. Over time, people have come in and re-envisioned these parcels, but Fort Wayne already has that space.

FWR: Any particular challenges that leap out at you when it comes to Fort Wayne?

KB: I wouldn’t say it’s so unique to Fort Wayne, because we see this in other places, but there are perceptions with water quality that need to be tackled. We have engineers that just study water quality. Our water quality in Houston was really bad for years. Are there some real issues with water quality? Absolutely. But there’s a huge disconnect from the way I hear people talk about the water and the reality of what’s in the water. The water is in much better shape than most people give it credit for. The types of activities and uses that you can do with water of that standard… there’s a lot of stuff that can happen here. So there’s some education that can happen, because I think people are thinking of the river the way it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. It’s actually much cleaner now than it was then.

Even the upstream things that are happening are better regulated and controlled than they have been historically. There are issues that are going on with the Great Lakes that are under a lot of scrutiny, and not just with invasive species. Fort Wayne is in that basin, so there are a lot of federal and state money being put towards solving some problems up there.

FWR: During your presentation, you used the word “authentic” several times. What does that mean in this context?

KB: (laughs) It probably gets used too much. It tends to get used a lot by urban designers and planners and landscape architects when they’re trying to, say, make a place that kind of looks old-fashioned. That’s not what I mean. For me, what I want to do is figure out what the character is of what’s there already, and figure out how to use those things to create this new place. There are some really interesting old buildings in the study area; ideally, you’d look at how you can re-develop those buildings for another purpose rather than just tearing them down. But you also need to create new stuff, and you want those new things to fit in not only from a scale point of view, but by using similar materials in a creative way. Essentially, we want to look at those items that were there historically, and use the idea of them to inform new development.

FWR: You’re expected to be back in July to present a fuller picture of your findings from all the different studies going on, but can you give us some idea now of what SWA and the other team members are looking at?

KB: Right now, our engineers are doing technical studies — hydrology, water quality, soils. We also have a team of naturalists and biologists looking at habitat characteristics. We also have an economist — one of the problems some communities run into is that they’ll say “we should put up a lot of bars and restaurants in this area…” But you don’t want to take that step without the area being able to absorb it. So our teams… are doing their technical studies, seeing which of our ideas will work, so we can have all that information up front.

The City of Fort Wayne’s river front development site is riverfrontfw.org

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