‘Been a creative dream’
By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette
Inside some buildings on the GE campus, so many brittle paint chips have fallen from the peeling ceiling that crossing the concrete floor is almost like walking on eggshells.
Crunch … crunch … crunch.
Even so, the team tackling redevelopment of the former General Electric campus is anything but hesitant.
“It's just been a creative dream,” said Kevan Biggs, head of Biggs Development.
“It's been amazing to envision what this will become – not if, but when.”
Biggs led one of three groups that toured the local, 31-acre campus May 26.
About four dozen local business leaders got a rare look into the neglected brick buildings that sit on both sides of Broadway near Taylor Street.
Many of the visitors also toured Durham, North Carolina's American Tobacco Co. campus the previous week.
“I could see the wheels turning, comparing what this could be to what they saw,” Biggs said afterward.
Decatur firm Biggs Development and Indianapolis firm Greenstreet Limited are partnering with the lead developer, Baltimore firm Cross Street Development, on the $300 million project.
Among those who took a peek into the structures were Bill Brown, Downtown Improvement District president; Bob Walters, Downtown Development Trust board member; Irene Walters, Friends of the Rivers board president; Michael Ottenweller, Ottenweller Co. president; Michael Galbraith, The Road to One Million director; Dan Ross, Arts United community development director; Crystal Vann Wallstrom, Center for Creative Collaboration director; Jerrilee Mosier, Ivy Tech Community College Northeast chancellor; and John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. economic development executive vice president.
Greater Fort Wayne organized the outing. Cory Miller, Elevatus Architecture partner, and Dave Sholl, Greater Fort Wayne's director of special projects, led the other two groups.
Sholl, who caught up with Miller's group near the end of its tour, couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the industrial buildings' potential.
“I'd like to put my name in for an apartment,” he said. “These would make awesome apartments.”
First things first
The roughly 1.2 million square feet of space on the former GE campus is in rough shape.
Shattered glass and broken bricks litter the ground surrounding the buildings, creating a danger zone when visitors get close. Inside, those hazards are joined by limited lighting, uneven floors, standing water, steep staircases and potential mold.
The project's first phase will focus on buildings to the west of Broadway, Biggs said.
The development, which will be called Electric Works, includes a two-lane road that runs the width of the west campus. The planners have been referring to it as Dynamo Alley, an area that will be closed to traffic where future visitors are expected to gather and walk through the campus.
Some metal additions to the buildings will be stripped away, leaving the pre-1946 brick structures as the exteriors and making the alley wider, Miller said.
Biggs, who wasn't sure whether the “dynamo” name would stick, said plans call for installing some kind of fountain or other “water feature” and creating different levels that would be joined by stairs or ramps, adding interest to the otherwise pancake-flat area.
American Tobacco's campus includes a popular canal that runs the length of the development. Developers are committed to including something similar, but aren't sure how to accomplish it since Fort Wayne's winters get much colder than Durham's.
Biggs doesn't want a water feature that will be empty three – or more – months of each year.
The GE site includes a parking lot off Swinney Avenue, which developers believe will be adequate when the campus first opens to the public. Miller said future visitors will first enter Building 27, which will be converted into a year-round farmers market that could include restaurants, a small grocery and could accommodate Ivy Tech's culinary students.
Developers have even discussed the potential to grow produce on the roof.
“If you look up on the roof, there's probably some green stuff (already) growing up there,” Miller said, laughing.
Next door, to the east, is Building 19. That's been tagged for innovation space.
It seems fitting, Miller said, to allow local businesses to test new products in the same building where GE used to manufacture motors.
The region has plenty of potential tenants, he said, including those in the orthopedics, music and steel industries.
Signing on an educational partner is also a priority, he said. Students could work with future employers in labs and other settings, depending on the industry.
Developers are working hard to incorporate local colleges and universities in the plans. ATC includes a strong Duke University presence, which has helped make that redevelopment profitable.
Building 26, which is across Dynamo Alley, is destined to be a mixed-use triple play with retail on the first floor, offices on the middle floors and residential on the top – or fifth – floor.
When developers talk about retail, that includes bars, restaurants and coffee shops along with stores that sell clothes, collectibles and other items.
Planning sessions have called for bringing local walking and biking trails up to the north side of Building 26, Miller said.
Views from the future apartments' windows include church steeples, neighboring homes and the downtown skyline.
Beside Building 26, on the north side of Dynamo Alley, are Buildings 22 and 24.
Miller, an architect, said he can imagine an architecture firm basking in the abundant daylight available in Building 22. The uneven floors sit on a concrete slab. Steel support beams, which crisscross the interior, are connected to masonry exterior walls.
Developers consider the adjoining Building 22 as a good place for a distillery or brewery. They are pondering the future of numerous windows that have glass panels as frosted as mugs of cold beer. Miller said replacing the panes with clear glass might allow too much light in.
Space tucked back off Dynamo Alley between Buildings 22 and 24 creates a relatively sheltered spot for a future amphitheater, Miller said. Local bands could perform there on weekends.
Hitting the gym
The former GE fitness center, which dates back to the 1920s, is the best preserved building on the campus. It's Building 23.
“We plan to leave this pretty much as it is for the residents to use,” Miller said.
The gym includes a basketball court, wooden stage, wooden spectator seats, a movie projector and screen. The basement bowling alley still has some green, red and ivory shoes shoved into cubbyholes behind the wooden counter.
Miller used to bowl there as a kid while his parents took square-dancing lessons on the gym floor.
After the 90-minute tours wrapped up, some visitors to the GE campus clustered around the three guides, asking questions related to their specific interests. Connections were made and business cards exchanged.
At this point in the process, business leaders are trying to understand how they might play a role in the project, Biggs said.
The project's immense size allows for more collaborators than typical ventures, he added.
ATC's developers have advised local officials to make Electric Works reflect Fort Wayne's unique, authentic identity. Having local input will make that goal easier to reach, Biggs said.
“It's just been remarkable the kind of community support this has received,” he said. “I just can't say enough about how excited people are.”
- The next steps in developing the former GE campus, now called Electric Works, include:
- Gathering documentation to qualify for historic building tax credits.
- Getting guidance on what changes can be made to the buildings while remaining in compliance with historic tax credits.
- Preparing and submitting a remediation plan to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
- Getting exact measurements of each building for architectural design purposes.
- Working toward a final sale from General Electric to the developers, with an August goal.
- Signing prospective tenants to letters of intent.
- Securing bank loans based on those letters of intent.