Franke Park in line for some upgrades

February 6th, 2019

By Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

In the 1920s, when automobiles were becoming more common in Fort Wayne, famed landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff designed a system of parks and motoring-friendly boulevards for the growing city.

One of those parks was Franke Park, just off what was then the interstate Lincoln Highway, now Goshen Avenue, a main portal into the city.

Shurcliff envisioned a vast green space with a zoological garden where residents could enjoy leisure time. He also foresaw a park entrance off the highway that would fittingly introduce visitors to the city's progressive nature.

Circumstances, including the Great Depression and World War II, intervened and the entrance never materialized.

But now a new plan, its options being revealed to the public for the first time during a meeting Thursday night, is taking shape to revive the vision – in part.

In the works for more than a year, the Franke Park Master Plan aims for a broad blueprint for the future of the park. Between Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and Foellinger Theater, the park attracts about 1 million visitors annually, city officials say.

“There are plenty of pressures on Franke Park on account of the heavy use from zoo visitors, and I don't think anybody had put together a well-compiled vision for the park in a number of years, so I'm sure it was overdue for some serious consideration,” said Tom Cain of Fort Wayne, a member of Friends of the Parks and part of the committee investigating improvements.

Alec Johnson, project coordinator for the parks department, said concepts for the improvements have been discussed by a steering committee with focus groups and at a November public open house that about 100 residents attended. Input from the public also was gathered in an online survey.

Consultants from Indianapolis-based RATIO Architects received about $80,000 to collect that information and inventory park resources. The consultants came up with three plans that have been tweaked by local officials, Johnson said.

RATIO's conceptual maps and drawings will be presented from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Franke Park Pavilion No. 1.

Johnson said the research revealed several oft-mentioned concerns – traffic and parking, pedestrian paths, lack of signage and under-usage of the park's pond.

New access points from Goshen Avenue are likely to be included among the consultant's alternatives.

“There's probably a 90 percent certainty that will end up in the final plan,” Johnson said.

He anticipates a main entrance off Goshen and another to access Foellinger Theater and the zoo overflow parking area.

“There's been talk of a second entrance to the park for decades,” said Jim Anderson, zoo executive director.

Congestion at the zoo's entrance at the corner of Franke Park Drive and Sherman Boulevard, now controlled by a flashing traffic light, is increasing from higher attendance, a newly added parking lot on the east side of Sherman and the development of the Pufferbelly Trail, Anderson said.

“Certainly for people who would choose to come in from Goshen, a new entrance from Goshen would be a better way to enter the park,” he said.   

Mayor Tom Henry called attention to the possibility of a Goshen entrance during a talk in January before the Downtown Rotary Club. Goshen is also being eyed for a roundabout at Sherman Boulevard south of the park entrance. Additional sidewalks also are planned.

Frank Suarez, city public works spokesman, said city transportation planners are awaiting direction from the parks department on the possibility of a Goshen entrance.

“If they make a decision before our plans go into effect, we would go forward with it (the second entrance) at that phase in our plan,” he said.

Another concern raised by Anderson is that the zoo does not control land needed for parking and paths to get to the zoo, which he called “our greatest interest in shaping this (master plan).”

He said people don't know how to drive or walk from place to place and are even unaware of some of the park's features.

And, there are safety concerns at the main entrance, although Anderson and park officials said they're unaware of serious pedestrian-vehicle accidents. 

Johnson said one solution discussed with consultants –although unlikely to happen because of water issues – is a pedestrian tunnel under Sherman.

A more likely solution would be better signage to alert cars to the pedestrian area, he said.

Zoo attendance could continue increasing if Fort Wayne becomes more of a regional destination for visitors. But Johnson said he anticipated only a small increase in parking spots to be proposed in the plan.

Current parking is generally adequate because the zoo's busy times rarely overlap with the theater's, he said.

Zoo attendance is about 600,000 a year, Anderson said. 

He said the zoo's Shoaff Lake is due for a study of potential improvements.  One possibility, he said, is cleaning it and adding a better walkway, he said. 

But cleaning it would be exorbitantly expensive,” Anderson said, adding he expects the master plan will be more modest in scope.

Costs for improvements remain undetermined, Johnson said, although consultants may provide estimates after this week's meeting, Johnson said. A final plan may be ready by the end of April, he said.  

Cain said the new master plan might also suggest improved access by bike and on foot from the park's immediate neighborhoods to the north, southeast and southwest.

“One thing (that's important) is that we be true to the fact that it is a park for people to ... enjoy nature and being outdoors. That was a core concept (of Shurcliff),” Cain said.

“We know it draws from great distances, but its meaning as a park for surrounding neighborhoods could get lost.”

Cain, a landscape architect with a bent for history, said he has been pleased by the planning progress so far. 

“The master plan is saying for the next 20 years, this is what we're going to move toward,” he said. “I can't say what drives City Hall to work on something, but it appears ... that it's time to figure out what to do with Franke Park.

“Given the challenges that exist, it doesn't make sense to make piecemeal decisions anymore.”

What: Public meeting to unveil alternatives for future improvements to Franke Park to be included in the Franke Park Master Plan

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Franke Park Pavilion No. 1 in the park at 3411 Sherman Blvd.

Information: www.frankeparkplan.com, which is also accepting residents' comments with a survey

Categories Quality of Life