4 firms express interest in developing North River site

April 2nd, 2018

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Four firms responded when city officials requested qualifications for developing the 29-acre North River property previously owned by the Rifkin family.

But the public is still months away from knowing whether the land will be home to health care, housing, retail, recreation, education – or a combination of those options.

Biggs Group, Continental Property Group, Great Lakes Capital and Indiana University Health submitted paperwork outlining relevant past projects and their public-private partnership experience.

“We're pleased with the level of expertise and experience of the entities that submitted qualifications,” city spokesman John Perlich said Thursday in an email.

The city's goal, according to the 13-page request for qualification, is to find firms “interested in developing the North River property in a creative way that builds on the community's vision for Riverfront and is compatible with and further catalyzes the surrounding neighborhoods, corridors and the downtown.”

Officials with Great Lakes Capital and Continental Property Group said their firms would be willing to submit an original plan or bring local officials' vision to life.

Eric Doden, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s CEO, has advocated for a STEAM park on the site.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

As envisioned by economic development officials, the park would provide education in all five disciplines and include an entertainment complex and a saltwater aquarium.

Another local group has promoted the idea of using part of the property to house the No. 765 steam locomotive as part of a Headwaters Junction roundhouse and railroad attraction.

But that doesn't mean the developers don't have ideas of their own.

Great Lakes Capital, which is in the final phase of building the 12-story Skyline Tower, is interested in developing a mixed-use project.

Dave Arnold, Great Lakes Capital director, said the South Bend firm's vision is to create “an urban village.”

The project would include a retail and entertainment area adjacent to Fort Wayne's planned riverfront development, on the site's southern half. The property's northern half would include apartments and condos, he said.

Arnold said it's too early to say how much such a project would cost or where financing would come from.

Although Great Lakes officials haven't had any conversations with anyone about including a STEAM park in the plans, Arnold said they “remain flexible and open to ideas that could be incorporated into the site.”

Joe Dunaway, Continental Property Group's development director, said the Minnesota firm is working with Weigand Construction on a 1,000-space parking garage at the riverfront.

As for the North River property, Dunaway said his group is open to input from city, county, economic development officials and the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board. It will work with Hagerman Construction on the property if it wins the city's contract.

Continental Property Group, a 39-year-old firm, has experience in retail, residential and health care projects, he said.

IU Health spokesman Jeff Swiatek provided a vague response to a question about the Indianapolis health care provider's vision for the property.

“IU Health submitted our qualifications to the city as a way to explore the opportunity for potential growth,” he said in an email.

A competitor's interest in the site bordered by Clinton, Fourth and Harrison streets could provide some insight into IU Health's vision, however.

Last year, Lutheran Health Network pursued the 29-acre property as a site for a hospital that would replace St. Joseph Hospital. Lutheran officials shelved that plan in November, saying the property wouldn't be available in time to meet their timeline.

Since then, Lutheran officials have said they hope to announce a new hospital location in late March or early April.

Kevan Biggs, of Biggs Group, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday on this story.

Biggs, which is based in Decatur, is one of three firms that make up RTM Ventures, the joint venture created to develop Electric Works, the former General Electric campus. The other firms are Cross Street Partners of Baltimore and Greenstreet Ltd. of Indianapolis.

After Fort Wayne officials review the qualification submissions, they will select firms to make presentations and submit detailed proposals for the property.

“The process for putting the (request for proposals) together, sending it out and making a selection will likely take around five months,” Perlich said. “It's possible a team/project could be in place by the end of the year.”

Major construction could kick off late next year, he said.

Some work at the North River property will begin this year. City Utilities will perform storm sewer work, Perlich said. The Public Works Division will salvage bricks for future brick street restoration projects, and additional environmental testing might be conducted.

Concerns about contamination at the former metals recycling center site prompted some City Council members to vote against the city's $4.63 million purchase of the land.

The sales agreement absolves the Rifkins, who owned the property for many years, from financial liability for future environmental cleanup.

All nine council members expressed disappointment with the contract.

Those who voted in November to support the purchase said the possible benefits of controlling the property outweighed their concerns.