What’s the vision for The Landing? Reviving northeast Indiana’s oldest neighborhood
By Ali Brand | Input Fort Wayne
Downtown Fort Wayne is no stranger to development.
Since the rise of Parkview Field, there has been an influx of construction projects seeking to fulfill the area’s potential as a vibrant urban center. But according to local architect, Zach Benedict, The Landing on Colombia Street is different from previous projects the city has undertaken.
While other developments have been envisioned as regional destinations, intended to draw visitors and suburb dwellers into the city’s core, The Landing is focused on cultivating the day-to-day aspects of urban life downtown.
Benedict, who’s leading the redevelopment of Columbia Street with MKM Architecture + Design, sees the space as an “everyday” place where people can live, work, eat, shop, run errands, or make personal connections.
He imagines it as “a wonderful place for snowball fights,” creating a holistic, urban neighborhood that will encourage more people to call downtown Fort Wayne home.
If you look at Benedict’s past projects, many of his architectural designs emphasize the importance of creating a home.
Take his work on Heritage Pointe of Fort Wayne, for example. It’s a modern senior living facility that is dedicated to providing residents with care in a “home-like” atmosphere.
From medical care facilities to libraries, Benedict’s designs facilitate independence and social interactions, and his work on The Landing will be no different.
Since MKM Architecture on West Wayne Street downtown is only a few blocks away from The Landing, Benedict and his design team are dedicated to restoring a historic part of their hometown that has been undervalued and for the most part deserted (except for a few nightclubs).
“My hope is that this project encourages people to reintroduce themselves to the history of downtown Fort Wayne,” Benedict says.
Centuries ago, Colombia Street was considered the epicenter of Fort Wayne. It’s the oldest part of the city, dating back more than 180 years to the 1800s when the Wabash and Erie Canal stretched more than 400 miles from Toledo to Fort Wayne and down to Evansville, making it the longest canal ever built in the U.S.
Since downtown Fort Wayne was at the confluence of three rivers, The Landing became a key stop along the canal route. Settlers established a marketplace and public square at a landing port at the west end of Columbia Street, which is how it got its name.
Today, The Landing is technically the oldest neighborhood in northeast Indiana. But it’s largely empty.
Benedict and the rest of the development team aspire to bring the street back to its former glory as a catalyst for growth and connection downtown near the riverfront, which is also under construction. They hope that it will bring people to Fort Wayne similar to how the canal brought settlers to the area hundreds of years ago.
“It’s not just a bunch of buildings,” Benedict says. “The Landing is telling a story of our long, long reputation of being innovators.”
In its heyday, Colombia Street had it all: banks, bakeries, taverns, playhouses, tobacco shops, and more. It was home to the city’s first newspaper, post office, railway station, hotel, and theater. Thomas Edison even had an apartment there early in his life.
However, the rise of the railroad marked the end of the canal era, which eventually left The Landing a dissolute place.
Mac Parker, President of the Fort Wayne Downtown Development Trust, says there was an attempt to revive the block back in the 1970s, but it was never completed. This time, the team is taking a different approach.
In 2013, the Fort Wayne Downtown Development Trust began to acquire the historic buildings on Colombia Street one-by-one, intending to hand them over to an experienced developer to restore.
Established in 2011 as a non-profit by the Allen County Economic Development Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District, the Trust creates a land bank by obtaining properties in the downtown Fort Wayne area that are not being fully utilized and then turning them over for developments that have been approved by City Council.
Over the years, it has acquired buildings such as the Instant Copy Building, the Smurfit property, the Sunny Schick property, and the Ash Brokerage building. But The Landing will be its first major project to date.
Since the Trust has no paid staff, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. provides it with administrative and executive assistance.
Kirk Moriarty, Director of Business Development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., says The Landing’s historic and cultural significance in Fort Wayne’s identity is what makes it such an important investment.
“It’s the last remaining evidence of our birthright,” Moriarty says. “We remind ourselves, generation after generation, that we are still about cultivating meaningful, important, personal and business relationships. Colombia Street has always been at the epicenter of all of that.”
But acquiring the buildings and casting a vision for them was only half the challenge. The other half was finding a developer who could give the space new life without erasing its past.
Benedict says the main challenge of redeveloping The Landing has been marrying the old with the new.
While he plans to make The Landing an example of modern living, each building must be sensitive to its own time period with the new designs honoring the scale and history of the old.
As far as renovations on the older buildings go, windows will be replaced, awnings reconstructed, limestone repaired, and the neighborhood restored according to historic preservation guidelines.
To execute this vision, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Trust chose Cincinnati’s Model Group.
Benedict had previously met the CEO of Model Group, Steve Smith, at Design Week Fort Wayne. Afterward, his team at MKM Architecture reached out to Model Group to put a proposal together for the project.
“I don’t think there is another developer in the country that has more experience in renovating historic buildings of this era,” Benedict says of Model Group.
Based in Cincinnati, Model Group has done more than 250 historic rehabilitation projects, including Cincinnati’s popular Over-The-Rhine district. Once considered the “most dangerous neighborhood” in America, Over-The-Rhine is now a popular destination for visitors and residents alike with restaurants, retail, commercial, and residential space.
Unlike The Landing, which is just one neighborhood, Over-The-Rhine stretches several blocks, making it the largest urban historic district in the country.
Benedict believes the Model Group is solely responsible for its renaissance. He says Over-The-Rhine has been an inspiration for how The Landing can bring together historic preservation and modern architecture to create a model of urban living, and it’s all happening sooner than you might think.
The Landing is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2019, with some of its first spaces open to the public as early as the spring of 2019.
By next summer, 56,800 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor will be available for retailers, coffee shops, and four to seven new restaurants.
To help fill out the space with local businesses, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has been cultivating local and regional restaurateurs for The Landing.
Utopian Coffee in Fort Wayne and Cerulean restaurant in Winona Lake have already been announced as future tenants. Their owners, Brendon Maxwell and Caleb France, respectively, have plans for a brewery and adjoining coffee shop in the old Fisher Brothers Paper Company building that was previously occupied by Flashbacks. Renovation of the space is already underway.
The Landing will also be the location for the professional offices of new and existing businesses. These offices will provide a buffer between the commercial space and the 70 residential units on the upper floors.
“I want The Landing to be the welcome mat for downtown,” Benedict says. “My hope is that it’s the heartbeat for everything.”