The proposed Electric Works is one of the largest projects this community has ever contemplated. Phase I alone has a $221 million price tag. Construction might go on for a decade or more, and the development could eventually fill GE's former 39-acre campus. But in addition to its size, the project differs from other revitalization efforts because it is neither an outpost of suburban growth nor part of Fort Wayne's traditional downtown.
The boundaries of the area served by the Downtown Improvement District are north to the rivers; east to Clay Street; west to Broadway and south to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.
The GE campus, which sprawls along Broadway south of the tracks, is outside those traditional lines. But so is Science Central, and the 30-acre North River tract purchased recently by the city, where such developments as a railroad museum, a STEAM park and a medical facility have been proposed. So are the Broadway Corridor and the Wells and Calhoun street corridors and neighborhoods. So are the foundations on Wayne and Berry streets. And a ring of residential neighborhoods, including historic West Central. So, for that matter, will be the northern half of the Riverfront's Promenade Park.
As in most communities, much of Fort Wayne's residential, retail and office growth was for decades an outward expansion. Though the city's older neighborhoods around downtown stood their ground, residents found themselves traveling to the suburbs for amenities, and even groceries.
Here and around the country, the trend has begun to reverse, as retiring baby boomers and millennials alike seek the convenience and excitement of living downtown. Fort Wayne's downtown is responding to that demand with a cornucopia of new offerings, including the Riverfront, Parkview Field, apartment and condominium complexes, the multipurpose revamping of The Landing and other projects. But from the beginning, planners and developers were being urged to remember the areas near downtown that lost out during the years of suburban growth. In addition to proximity to downtown, those areas are often architecturally diverse and rich with history.
The Electric Works plan could leverage those advantages while enhancing the neighborhoods around the old GE campus.
The analysis, released last week, of the economic viability of Electric Works should help put to rest fears that offices and apartments in the complex would undercut or devalue developments within the traditional downtown borders. The respected RCLCO consulting firm said market trends and the results of similar projects in other cities strongly suggest neither demand nor prices for downtown offices and residences would be adversely affected.
“Does office space saturate the market? The answer seems to be, no,” said Adam Ducker, a managing partner of the Washington, D.C.-based firm. “The apartment market is quite strong,” he said. “We're actually recommending higher rates than the developer has proposed.”
And though residential developments are filling nicely, the downtown area has not caught up with the demand for more accessible shopping. Most residents now drive out to shopping centers and big-box stores for groceries, pharmaceuticals and general merchandise, Ducker said.
The railroad tracks “act as physical and mental barriers” to the old GE campus, RCLCO noted; walkers and drivers from the north must go through one of two underpasses. One could say the rivers present a similar barrier to development north of downtown. But those are challenges, not dealbreakers.
Obviously, local officials must be sure any project and any deal involving public money makes sense.
But Electric Works, as well as North River and other opportunities for growth and improvements in the areas around downtown, should be viewed as part of the Fort Wayne area's overall revitalization strategy.
We are a growing community, and to continue that trajectory we have to think out of the downtown box. Projects that enhance and strengthen the quality of life in our city's core could help all of Allen County and all of northeast Indiana.