What does ‘placemaking’ look like?
By Laurne Caggiano | Input Fort Wayne
In many ways, Conjure Coffee has the ideal location at 701 Columbia Ave.
A short walk or bike ride north of downtown, it sits at the corner of Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard just over the St. Joseph Bridge. Its patio and spacious seating areas offer views of the highly coveted riverfront.
But if you sit on the patio or inside the floor to ceiling glass windows and watch the cars go by, you’ll notice that traffic in the area is often moving fast.
What you might not know is that a group of people in Fort Wayne and around the country are already working to change that.
As part of the 2017 AARP Community Challenge last fall, a national group called Team Better Block explored what it would look like to make this block of Columbia Avenue more attractive to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.
According to their website, Team Better Block is a public outreach firm of urban planning experts who “temporarily re-engineer” parts of cities that are dominated by cars, blighted, or underused. They turn these spaces into vibrant urban centers to show cities what's possible.
Last fall, they chose to redesign a block of Fort Wayne’s Columbia Avenue as one of three projects nationwide.
Along with AARP, Team Better Block partnered with the City of Fort Wayne and the Active Living Coalition, along with local residents, stakeholders, and volunteers to make the project happen.
They had support from the local community wiling to back their efforts, as well.
Representatives from the Northside Neighborhood Association expressed interest in making the intersection safer. Corey Waldron, the owner of Conjure Coffee, was looking to make his location more accessible to pedestrians and motorists, too.
According to Mo Palmer, longtime community advocate and the project’s facilitator, the volunteer group started informally with a few people “passionate about active living, walking, and biking,” and it grew from there.
In her words, it was “perfect timing.” Palmer learned about the $15,000 Community Challenge grant through AARP, which would provide the necessary funding for the group to make the changes of the Better Block permanent in the mission to create an active, livable community.
Palmer says she was thrilled to have another partner, especially one internationally known.
“(Team Better Block) already had (strategic) pieces in place,” Palmer says. “They brought different ways of thinking and ideas to the table.”
Traffic engineers with the city of Fort Wayne also lent their expertise and knowledge to the project.
“A lot of ideas were proposed, but in the end, (the engineers) were an active participant in helping to make this happen,” she explains.
The project was manifested in both tangible and intangible ways.
For example, the first component involved creating a traffic calming plan at this busy intersection where volunteers painted a temporary mural and bike lane.
The second component of the project brought activity to the area through attractions, as part of Team Better Block’s commitment to placemaking through community building. On Nov. 4, the area was filled with pop-up shops, food trucks, live music, and activities for people of all ages.
Architecture tours led by resident Jill Downs of The Story of Your House, infused an element of neighborhood pride into the day, as well.
During the party, traffic on one-way eastbound Columbia Avenue was restricted to one lane from St. Joseph Boulevard to Lafort Street.
“Between the art and architecture tours and the camaraderie, that’s the piece Team Better Block brought to it, “Palmer says. “We were looking for a physical component (to say): ‘This is what happens when you slow down.’”
According to Mary Tyndall, the City of Fort Wayne’s Community Development Public Information Officer, this project raised some important questions among city leaders, and it promises to be the start of more good things to come.
“The City of Fort Wayne is still working with neighborhood representatives to determine what works best for safety and pedestrian/bike connectivity,” Tyndall says. “Current plans include making Columbia and Lake Avenues single traffic lanes, adding bike lanes, and working to find ways to make better connections for pedestrians and bikes between Lake and Columbia, along St. Joseph Boulevard.”
Waldron sees great potential in taming this intersection, too.
He says he would like to see “more permanent and proper implementation,” as part of a long-term solution.
He also doesn’t want to lose the momentum the Better Block project started last fall.
“We get a lot of questions about the future (of the block),” Waldron says. “People seem to really like the ideas presented by Better Block.”