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Sure, a revitalized mixed-income urban neighborhood worked in Indianapolis, but will it work here?
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Out of all the misunderstood plans for redeveloping downtown Fort Wayne that have been given the green light in the past year or so, none has been so misunderstood as the Renaissance Pointe development project.
And considering how misunderstood, or half-understood, most downtown redevelopment plans have been, that’s really saying something.
The basics: Renaissance Pointe is an aggressive plan to reintroduce “urban living” to Fort Wayne, but with all the conveniences of modern life. Bounded by Hanna Street, Creighton Avenue, Anthony Boulevard, and Pontiac Street, the Renaissance Pointe area calls for nearly 400 new homes, the rehabilitation of more than 100 existing homes, a greenway trail, and improved infrastructure. The City of Fort Wayne is partnering with Mansur Real Estate Services, Inc. on the new development, with Lancia Homes, Delagrange Homes and Ideal Builders coming on as builders. The city will administer a homeowner rehabilitation program for existing residents in Phase I of Renaissance Pointe.
In the press release accompanying the announcement last summer, 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,” Mayor Richard said. “We want to keep current residents and bring in new homeowners to enjoy urban living.”
But when the City of Fort Wayne announced plans for an “urban revitalization initiative” in the area, it set off a few alarm bells. Many people seemed to have missed the involvement of Mansur and the three builders. Combine that with the general perception of the Hanna-Creighton neighborhood as a run down area full of vacant homes and the phrase “government subsidized housing” comes to mind. One local blogger called Renaissance Pointe Fort Wayne’s answer to Cabrini Green, Chicago’s notorious housing project.
“Whenever the city is involved, people wonder if we’re giving something away or we’re making something for only one part of the population,” says Heather Presley, the City of Fort Wayne’s Deputy Director for Housing and Neighborhood Services and the coordinator for Renaissance Pointe. “The answer is ‘no’ in both cases. This is a public/private partnership.”
Allen County Council member Maye Johnson echoes Presley’s sentiments. Johnson heads up “Synergy,” a group that addresses the concerns of residents already in the Hanna-Creighton area. “When you start talking about development, the first thing people think is ‘uh-oh, this is some more government housing,’” she says. “And it is not. This is market rate housing.”
The confusion might come from the fact that Renaissance Pointe is kind of an unusual animal, especially for Fort Wayne. It’s a public/private venture between the City of Fort Wayne, the master developer Mansur and builders Lancia, DeLaGrange, and Ideal Homes. As master developer, Mansur sets the guidelines for the homes in Renaissance Pointe, which will emulate the architectural style of older urban houses. For example, rather than a typical suburban home with a front load garage where all the emphasis falls on the garage door, all the garages will load from the alleys. All the homes will be set back from the street by about 15 – 20’, and all will have a walk-up front porch…
But unlike some older houses, the Renaissance Pointe homes will be “green homes,” which basically means they were built with a few conservation-minded requirements — Energy Star appliances, high efficiency furnaces, low flow toilets/showerheads, just to name a few. Home buyers also will have other optional “green” elements like bamboo flooring instead of hardwood, or a heating system less reliant on natural gas.
Perhaps the biggest “green” feature of Renaissance Pointe is the fact that instead of building another residential development of this magnitude on the outskirts of the city in a former farm field, Renaissance Pointe is basically "recycling" an entire neighborhood. The idea is that whole homes can be recycled/rehabbed, and that by encouraging people to live in the city, they'll be closer to work and amenities, drive less/save gas, etc.
There’s also a major effort on the city’s part to make sure current residents of the area aren’t displaced by the project. “None of the people we talked to — and I lead a team of volunteers door-to-door — ever heard anything about people being forced out of the neighborhood,” says Maye Johnson when I bring up the “G” word (gentrification). “The city has not contacted any homeowner to encourage them to leave. The idea is to keep them in the neighborhood. They may need some significant rehabilitation done to their homes, but the city is providing assistance on that. Gentrification? There is no sign of it.”
Johnson says the residents of the neighborhood greeted the project with hesitant enthusiasm. The idea sounded great, but telling a long neglected neighborhood that it’s suddenly going to see services, hundreds of new homes, and financial assistance for rehabilitating older residences sounded too good to be true. Nevertheless, they participated in discussions with Johnson. “We were talking about things that encourage people to stay in the neighborhood, the kind of services to enhance the quality of life,” Johnson says. “What we heard from many of the homeowners, some who were elderly, some on moderate or fixed incomes, was that they thought they had a pretty good neighborhood to begin with. They felt it was safe. They would like to see some retail, health services have virtually disappeared from the neighborhood. But they also wanted to see some housing, and they weren’t necessarily talking about affordable housing. In other words, they wanted to see some of the same kind of amenities that you find in other parts of the city.”
Some of the financial assistance Johnson mentions is significant, including up to $40,000 to fix up homes in Phase 1 of the project. But the City of Fort Wayne is not building homes, and they are not giving away homes. They are helping to repair the infrastructure, assembling the real estate, and generally cleaning up. It’s really no different than suburban development, with the city acting somewhat like the developer, meaning it owns or purchases the land, it improves the infrastructure if needed, and sells the lots to homeowners who chose their custom built product.
“We’ve got three well-known regional builders who do development out in the suburbs everyday,” says Heather Presley. “What we found is they didn’t want to come into the urban areas because of our demolition practices in the past, what we call Buicks in the basement, where you have houses collapsed into the ground and you can’t build on those lots. You actually have to clean them out. If you clean them out when you demolish, it’s about half the cost of having to back a clean it out when you build. So the city is basically manufacturing lots for those builders, and letting the private sector do what it does.”
Presley says that actually Fort Wayne is about 10 years behind many other cities across the nation in doing this kind of development (which, considering Fort Wayne, sounds just about right). When she took on the project in 2004, the city was looking into developing the land it owned behind the police station on Creighton for housing. “What I ended up doing was to look at the entire census tract with a consultant,” Presley says. They discovered that the city owned over 40% of the vacant parcels in that area, so they decided to look into expanding the scope of the redevelopment. “Putting 24 houses on an eight acre site would not have the effect that revitalizing an entire census tract would have,” Presley adds. “This seemed like good timing. We owned the land, and people have expressed a desire to live downtown.”
Indeed, with downtown development in general on the minds of so many people in Fort Wayne, those involved are hoping the timing of the project is like the proverbial “perfect storm.” “Certainly the ballpark was not the key piece to Harrison Square,” says Presley. “It was the retail and the housing that made it attractive to some. Some people aren’t going to want condominium-style housing. They’re going to want a more urban style… detached garage, the neighborhood-of-old-brought-back look.”
Like Presley says, many cities across the nation have initiated projects along the lines of a Renaissance Pointe style development, but Fort Wayne only needs to look about two hours south of us on I-69 to see a similar development project that met with spectacular success — Fall Creek Place in Indianapolis.
Bounded by Fall Creek Parkway on the north, 22nd street on the south, Meridian on the west and Central Avenue on the east, Fall Creek Place was the object of a massive public/private redevelopment plan designed to create a mixed-income residential community beginning in 2001. Before that, it was known as “Dodge City.” “It was one of the most distressed and crime-ridden census tracts in all of Indianapolis,” says Chris Palladino of Mansur Real Estate, the master developer behind Fall Creek Place and Renaissance Pointe. “It was just block after block of vacant lots, boarded up homes, drug houses, totally deteriorated infrastructure in terms of curbs and sidewalks. There were some blocks in the area where we got out there and we didn’t even realize there was a sidewalk because it was so overgrown with weeds. It took us a long time to get to the point where people would stop calling it Dodge City and start calling it Fall Creek Place.”
Palladino is quick to point out that the Renaissance Pointe area is in far better condition than Fall Creek place. “I think you have a certain fabric to start with there that we didn’t have in Indianapolis,” he says. “Maybe some of the homes aren’t in the best of conditions, but you’re not seeing block after block of boarded up vacant homes. You combine that with the fact that there’s momentum now, there’s the new library branch, there’s the new Urban League building, there’s a new YMCA planned for this area… you have some momentum with things like that that we saw as an advantage.”
Mansur is the “master developer” for Renaissance Pointe, just as they were with Fall Creek. They’re responsible for putting the entire project together, structuring the implementation strategy and seeing it through to the end. They bring the builders into the program, set guidelines for construction, determine the financing involved, and work with the city to figure out what type of financing is involved. Basically, if Renaissance Pointe were a movie, Mansur would be the producer. “Some people think of a traditional developer as someone who is owning property and is building it for themselves and retains an ownership position,” says Palladino. “We’re not doing that here. We’re not in the chain of title, we will not own any real estate as part of this endeavor. We’re really here to facilitate the process and make sure it’s done consistent with the city’s goals.”
And just exactly how successful was Fall Creek Place? It was supposed to be a seven year program. They reached their goal of 300 homes in about three years, with the 300th homebuyer in November 2004. Since then they’ve expanded further east, with 410 homes and another 100 planned in the next year-and-a-half.
Of course, a mixed-income neighborhood along the lines of what is envisioned with Renaissance Pointe requires more than just houses and people to live in them, and more than nice sidewalks. Any urban neighborhood with a hope of surviving needs retail. Heather Presley is confident that will come in time. With two major intersections in the area, both on Anthony (Anthony and Creighton and Anthony and Pontiac), there is certainly a place for retail. “We know that with Fall Creek Place, it took about three or four years before you had enough rooftops to really support the retail,” Presley says. “But another component of this that hasn’t been talked about very much is that we have an awesome fiber optic network here in Fort Wayne, and being able to work from where you live is going to be very possible. The best part is, you can design your home to have your office right there, so you can set up your house accordingly.”
The comparisons with Fall Creek Place are apt in some aspects; it’s a similar concept, and uses the same master developer. Studies have suggested that this energetic, entrepreneurial “creative class” we’re all supposed to be so dead keen on attracting and keeping want the convenient style of urban living, with modernized homes and amenities, that Renaissance Pointe aims to provide. But downtown Fort Wayne is not downtown Indianapolis — fewer people work in downtown Fort Wayne, for one. And the idea of an urban. mixed-income neighborhood may not play well in Fort Wayne, a city where suburban flight and sprawl seems endemic.
Still, many of the project’s proponents are confident that Renaissance Pointe will be a successful, integral part of a downtown that, in a few years, will be virtually unrecognizable from the one we have now. “We’ve already seen it happen, where you can find a $100,000 house sitting next door to a house that may be valued at around $50,000,” says Maye Johnson. “And you know what? You have to look really close to see the difference. I think when those model homes start going up, people are really going to get it.”
Groundbreaking on Renaissance Pointe happens June 17. For more information on Renaissance Pointe, go to www.rpointe.org