Fort Wayne leaders, quite literally, have spent the last hundred years warily watching the citys three rivers and preparing to battle floods. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1913 that destroyed large swaths of Indiana and Ohio and remains one of the worst floods in Fort Waynes history. That flood resulted in more than $110 million worth of damage in todays dollars and at least seven deaths.
Since then, the city has spent tens of millions in federal and local tax dollars to protect lives and limit the devastating property damage caused by floods. A major tenet of those flood-protection measures is limiting development in flood-prone areas.
But over the last decade, the interest in transforming the rivers from a liability to an economic development and recreational asset has increased. Every recent economic development plan – including the Downtown Blueprint, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnerships Vision 2020 and the Legacy Fort Wayne committee – has recommended making riverfront development a top priority.
City leaders hope spending $500,000 in Legacy money – earmarked exclusively for enduring and transformational projects – on a Riverfront Development Study will help them figure out how to take advantage of the rivers without jeopardizing flood mitigation.
We know we have invested significantly in flood protection, and we dont want to do anything that would diminish that, said John Urbahns, the city community development director. Thats why we need to look at what we can do.
The intricate system of earthen levees and floodwalls designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – completed just in time for the 20th anniversary of the 1982 flood – remains one of the most expensive and expansive public works projects in city history.
We cannot do harm to ourselves, and we cant do harm to the levee system we spent well over $50 million to build and continue to spend money on for upkeep, said Dan Wire, a member of the Friends of the Rivers who also sits on the Legacy riverfront development committee. It doesnt make sense to go backward.
Wires biggest concern and likely the greatest challenge for city leaders will be tempering some peoples fantasies of dense riverfront development with a dose of reality.
A major shopping mall and an endless string of restaurants lining the riverbanks is not a reasonable development plan.
Wire hopes residents understand riverfront development encompasses a lot more than shopping and eating on the rivers edge. I hope the community keeps an open mind to all the possibilities, he said. Its not all just hard-edge buildings rising out of the rivers.
He said development needs to include increasing the opportunities for recreation on the rivers and green space.
We should be the example and go the extra mile to do it right and do it with a long-range vision, Wire said. I dont think theres a problem at all to access the right data to do the right development, but I do worry that we will have the right political will to do it right.
Wire thinks one potential area for development is on the north side of the St. Marys River near the Harrison Street Bridge.
There are some sweet spots that are right in the study bulls-eye and are ripe for conversion, Wire said. There are opportunities along the river that are not in the flood plain that are already there that could be converted into these groovy little places people are talking about.
Rod Renkenberger, executive director of the Maumee River Basin Commission, the regional agency that oversees flood-control efforts in much of northeast Indiana, thinks the frequent, but erroneous, comparisons between Fort Waynes rivers and the San Antonio Riverwalk dont help. The San Antonio River is actually a canal where water levels are managed artificially. Fort Wayne does not have that capability.
Its nice to be able to dream and wish, but sometimes you need to step back and be careful what you wish for, he said.
Renkenberger thinks its important that whoever wins the citys study contract have experience with water resources. At the very least they need to consult with all state and local agencies responsible for flood mitigation and development standards, including the basin commission, county surveyor, county building department, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and state and local emergency management agencies.
Experience leading a riverfront development project was one of the few specific qualifications detailed in the citys request for proposals.
The consultant proposals are due April 12. Urbahns expects the study to be finalized by the end of 2014, but there could be some things starting midstream, he said, quickly acknowledging the pun.
Interestingly, out of the many proposed riverfront development projects, Headwaters Junction is the only multiuse development project the RFP requires consultants to consider. That plan, proposed by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, calls for moving the locomotive steam engine No. 765 to downtown and using it as the centerpiece of an educational and entertainment venue located on a portion of the North River property.
The North River property, despite not being on the river, is featured prominently in the study proposal request. The property, formerly occupied by OmniSource, is a site of about 37 acres northwest of Clinton and Fourth streets.
The 2007 North River Now development plan is required reading for prospective consultants. And rather than follow the contours of the rivers downtown, the map outlining the study area takes in the North River property, making it clear city leaders want the study to prompt its development.
Right now there are a lot of ideas, but theres no consensus, Urbahns said. Through this process hopefully we can develop a consensus.
Renkenberger just wants to make sure the study reflects the challenges of building near rivers and that doing no harm takes priority.
We, the commission, dont advocate developing in a flood plain, he said. Our job is to mitigate flood damage, not to promote it.
Renkenberger makes an important point. The commission works closely with the city on the flood buyout program to buy homes and businesses in flood-prone areas and convert the properties to green space. The program decreases property damage, ensures limited resources are not wasted repairing structures repeatedly hit by flooding and increases the floodwater storage area. Buyouts are the most effective flood-mitigation tool.
The fear is Indiana has higher regulatory standards than the federal government, he said. If a consultant comes in and is not familiar with those, it could be a problem. Those protections are in place to make sure there are no adverse impacts on properties upstream, downstream or adjacent to any development.
There are rules requiring a compensatory floodwater storage area and significant elevation for any building built in a fringe area.
He pointed to the area south of Lawton Park as an example. Its a fringe area. Legally, it can be developed, but would require building 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation. In some areas that could be 7 feet above ground.
I just hope whoever they get to do this study will have enough ethical backbone to give a report thats not based on wants but is based on factual data, Renkenberger said.