Historically, Fort Wayne has had a love-hate relationship with its rivers. There is no doubt that the rivers helped build the city; but also, from time to time the rivers have destroyed it with floodwaters. With the destruction caused by flooding, the rivers, and by extension the riverfront, were thought to be things that needed to be contained, controlled and walled off from the city’s residents and businesses.
Over the past 50 years Fort Wayne has focused on flood mitigation. The biggest of these efforts was the levees the army corps of engineers’ Detroit District Corps of Engineers Levee Safety program started shortly after the 1982 flood and completed in 2000.
But more recently, the Fort Wayne community has been challenged to reframe its approach to the three rivers, The St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee, that converge in downtown Fort Wayne. The idea was to get the city to reconnect with its rivers and riverfront and to understand the vital role they play as assets to Fort Wayne’s downtown, the Allen County community and to northeast Indiana.
By framing the river system in this way, the development of Fort Wayne’s riverfront was seen as a catalyst that would change the urban character of downtown by embracing the rivers as an integral part of the urban landscape. This idea was outlined in the 2015 Riverfront Fort Wayne Conceptual Plan. The initial vision for the city’s riverfront was realized in August 2019 with the opening of Promenade Park, the completion of Phase I of the riverfront development plan.
In the Riverfront’s conceptual plan the following was understood as the goal of the completion of Phase I. “We envision a public realm design that will provide civic beauty, timelessness and recreational opportunities along with the implementation of modern infrastructures that attract private realm projects that are inspired, robust and ‘of the place,'” said SWA Group, the urban planning, design and landscape architecture firm that did the first comprehensive study, released in 2015, of Fort Wayne’s rivers in the Downtown Riverfront Development Study.
“The end result will see public and private investment that is culturally and ecologically relevant – a balancing act that only the world’s most sophisticated cities achieve.”
Now, that the city has found ways to prevent flooding while focusing on development, it is able to focus on the next two phases of public space development on the north and south sides of the St. Marys River from Promenade Park to the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge and from Promenade Park to the Ewing Street Bridge (Phase II). And Phase III is the concept for public space for the north and south sides of the St Marys River from the Ewing Street Bridge to the Van Buren Street Bridge.
The ideas and renderings for these phases were unveiled in December 2019 by David Rubin Land Collective, the riverfront development consultants.
This new plan for Riverfront Fort Wayne guides the way to private development, ensures residents have access to public spaces along the riverfront and creates a vibrant district. The ultimate vision for the Riverfront is to have the proper mix of commercial, retail, housing and public space. The Land Collective also unveiled private development concepts, along with land use and zoning recommendations and flood management. “Throughout this process we have heard from the public that riverfront development should be inclusive of Fort Wayne’s diverse population,” said David Rubin, principal of the Land Collective. The plan for the private development projects is to concentrate efforts around Promenade Park and move outward to have the greatest impact
These phases of the Riverfront development also include providing more storage for floodwaters while providing more opportunities where private development can occur, including moving the levee north in Bloomingdale Park. “We are taking the next steps in continuing our commitment of creating a vibrant Riverfront that will become a welcoming destination for residents and visitors,” said Mayor Tom Henry. “These next phases will build on our extraordinary success with Promenade Park.”
It is clear that in future tellings of Fort Wayne’s history, the 21st century will be viewed as the point in time when the city developed a true love for its rivers and all that they offer.