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Heather and Dan Carroll didn't get cookie cutter when they bought their house at 328 E. Fleming Ave. about three years ago.

Neighbors join as investors

Lafayette Place fixes up home in effort to fight blight

Westley Falcaro is the president of the Lafayette Place Improvement Association.
The kitchen in the house at 261 E. Fleming Ave. was updated after people in the Lafayette Place neighborhood bought it.

When a group of neighbors heard a neglected house at 261 E. Fleming Ave. was about to be auctioned off last year, they embarked on a strategy for neighborhood revitalization.

Pooling their money, they bought the house. Then they spent the next eight months rehabbing it.

Now, the 1940s three-bedroom bungalow, with its white siding and maroon trim, stands up for sale and ready to welcome a new family.

Neighbors say they weren't about to let their neighborhood spiral into blight, says John Lehner, a member of the Lafayette Place Improvement Association and one of the investors.

"We're tired of having investors come in and scoop up houses. They've created a problem," he says. "So we thought maybe we ought to act like investors, but do it in a way that benefits the neighborhood."

That's the way things can go in the neighborhood bounded by McKinnie Avenue on the north, Pettit Avenue on the south, South Calhoun Street on the west and Lafayette Street on the east.

Neighbors care about the environment they share and aren't afraid to step up to protect it, says Westley Falcaro, an independent licensed real estate broker and association president.

Though residents often find they must fight against the perception that south-side neighborhoods are run-down or unsafe, Falcaro sees the 420-home neighborhood laid out in 1915 as a city treasure.

"People often say, 'This is a gem. We did not know that this was in Fort Wayne.' " she says.

What LafayettePlace has going for it, neighbors say, is pedigree and charm. Balancing against those features, though, are the common urban concerns about property values, an aging housing stock and crime.

Don Orban, historic preservation planner for the city and a Lafayette Place resident, says the neighborhood earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places last year.

Nearly a century ago, he says, the neighborhood was the brainchild of two prominent figures in Fort Wayne's development, Lee J. Ninde and Arthur C. Shurcliff. Ninde, owner of Wildwood Builders Co., was the first president of the city's planning commission and instrumental in bringing the new idea of the park-and-boule­vard-style "suburb" to Fort Wayne. Shurcliff was a nationally prominent landscape architect from Boston who also designed Swinney and Franke parks.

In Lafayette Place, Shurcliff laid out homes in a grid around a central boulevard strip -- Lafayette Esplanade. At the time, the 1,700-foot-long and 216-foot-wide strip was "the largest esplanade outside New Orleans," Falcaro says.

Now lined with mature trees and suitably grand homes, the esplanade remains the neighborhood's dominant feature. But because individual builders built homes in Lafayette Place over several decades - the last home was completed in the 1970s - many are of more modest size, and few homes are exactly alike.

Styles range from Colonial and Tudor Revival to Craftsman, Neoclassical and Dutch Colonial, and the variety was noted in the historic registry nomination. "This isn't a cookie-cutter neighborhood," Falcaro says.

Heather and Dan Carroll didn't get cookie cutter when they bought their house at 328 E. Fleming Ave. about three years ago. The home is a one-story Craftsman bungalow built by one of the neighborhood's original builders.

"It has a lot of detail, like the French doors in the front and the wrap-around porch. There's not one house in the neighborhood like mine," says Heather, 42. "I knew as soon as I walked in the door it was my house. It has so much character.''

Some neighbors even see one of the neighborhood's main challenges as advantages - houses occupied for decades by the same homeowners but now turning over as they age and die. Oftentimes, the houses stand empty for prolonged periods, need expensive updating or sell cheaply to settle estates when heirs aren't interested in them.

But the neglect comes at a price - a lower price for buyers. P

at Stout and her husband, Rocky, formerly of New Haven, bought 4438 W. Lafayette Esplanade in 2011.

The traditional Colonial, with a central hallway and staircase, had an old-fashioned furnace and a backyard so overgrown "we literally couldn't get to it. We could swing on the vines," Pat says. "I knew it had great potential, and it just needed someone to love it.

"Plus, we got the greatest deal," she says, so the couple didn't mind making upgrades.

LafayettePlace homes listed on the home sale website last week ranged from $32,500 to just more than $83,000. That's well below this year's citywide median sales price of $110,000, according to data compiled by the Upstate Alliance of Realtors.

Several years ago, neighbors concerned about property neglect by absentee landlords became one of the first neighborhoods in Fort Wayne to enact an essentially no-rentals provision into the neighborhood's restrictive covenants.

Falcaro, who says about 70 percent of homes are now owner-occupied, says she keeps tabs on what's bought and sold and is vigilant about enforcing the provision when someone buys a property thinking it can be rented.

Having neighbors make their own investments to limit the supply of potential rentals was the next step, Lehner says.

If all goes as hoped, he says, profits from 261 E. Fleming, listed at $72,500, will be rolled over into a second home purchase.

Lehner says there's been interest in the house, which now has a laundry room and a half bath created from a back room, updated wiring, a new kitchen in an expanded space created by tearing down a wall, a working fireplace in the living room and hardwood floors found under old carpet.

"The fact that a group of residents got together and did this is pretty amazing," he says.

But Lafayette Place is an "old-fashioned neighborhood," Falcaro says - where neighbors have also worked together on a modern playground and gazebo, permanent entrance markers erected in 2011 and gatherings that include food, music and other entertainment.

Falcaro recalls a time last winter when she looked across the esplanade in the snow. "It looked like a scene from 'It's a Wonderful Life.' All it needed was the 1940s cars," she says.

"We work really hard to keep it a nice place."