FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Fort Wayne’s rivers have a PR problem, and Dan Wire has witnessed why firsthand. Among the things Wire, a supervisor with the Parks and Recreation Department, has found in the rivers…
FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Fort Wayne’s rivers have a PR problem, and Dan Wire has witnessed why firsthand. Among the things Wire, a supervisor with the Parks and Recreation Department, has found in the rivers are a mattress, a safe, a sewing machine, litter from fast-food restaurants, soda bottles, a lawn chair, a refrigerator, a furnace, a car engine and a washing machine. After particularly rainy days, when he’s measured the water quality, he’s also found faint traces of goose feces, horse feces and human feces.
“I can remember as a kid, seeing something wiggling in the water,” says Wire, who calls himself the city’s river janitor. “It was an antenna — and sure enough it was a Volkswagen Beetle.”
Wire is determined to make sure Fort Wayne’s rivers are no longer treated like a dumping ground. He sees the rivers as an asset, a unique natural resource that can energize the public and draw new people to this midsize city in the heart of the Rust Belt. City leaders agree. Next summer, Fort Wayne will complete the first phase of a $26 million riverfront development project officials hope will play a key role in ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown.
“Most people would agree that it’s one of the most significant natural assets we possess,” says Mark Becker, former deputy director for the parks department and one of the city’s leaders for riverfront development efforts. “We don’t have mountains. We don’t have an ocean, but we have this amazing river that all of our history is tied to.”
Fort Wayne is one of dozens of cities across the U.S. — from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Greenville, South Carolina — that have embraced riverfront development as a tool for economic growth. With support from businesses and foundations, they’ve overcome a range of challenges to create parks and riverside trails, build docks and marinas, and pave the way for restaurants, retail and housing developments near the water’s edge.
Post-industrial cities like Fort Wayne, where economic shifts have decimated a once profitable manufacturing sector, arguably have the most to gain from these ambitious plans. A bustling waterfront is the sort of amenity that attracts young people who have been leaving the Rust Belt for decades. It can make property values go up, and add to government coffers.
“The rewards are pretty many,” says Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. “There’s an improved aesthetics and image for the city. Instead of seeing textile mills or steel mills, now you see trees, parks, joggers.”
A River Renaissance
The history of cities is intrinsically linked to their waterways. Settlements were often founded on rivers and ocean ports, which facilitated trade. As the U.S. industrialized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, factories and other kinds of industry lined the rivers, often discharging their waste in the water. As the Canal Age waned, railroads sprung up along inland waterways and coasts, where eventually they were replaced by highways. By the latter half of the 20th century, rivers were grabbing headlines for their pollution. Among the most famous was Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which caught fire in 1969, sparking the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act. In many cities, particularly older cities east of the Mississippi River, when aging sewer systems were overwhelmed with stormwater they emptied raw sewage into the rivers.
“Rivers were seen as a part of infrastructure,” Wire says — not as a cultural amenity worth preserving.
In many cities, in fact, rivers were barely accessible.
Fort Wayne’s three rivers — the St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee — weave through the city center practically unnoticed, often obscured by walls or thick lines of honeysuckle, oak trees and maple trees. A riverfront trail system allows some occasional views of the chocolate milk-colored waters. For the last few decades, though, the rivers have been out of sight and out of mind for most of Fort Wayne’s residents.
To change that, back in the 1990s, Wire started offering rides on an aging pontoon boat he called the Junk-A-Du — a Cajun term for “anything that floats.” For anyone willing, he’d navigate the rivers, giving history lessons, naming overgrown islets, pointing out snapping turtles and cranes. Adults who grew up in the city found themselves pleasantly disoriented, guessing their location based on a familiar skyline that also somehow seemed new.
“When one person has a good experience, they tell seven,” Wire says on a hot summer day in July, while piloting his newest pontoon. He’s tall and lanky, with a short salt-and-pepper beard and a tan face that reflects the boat life one associates with a place like Fort Myers, Florida — not Fort Wayne. “I just kept trying. I thought, ‘If I kept telling people with the right connections to move forward with our rivers, then I can succeed.'”
About the time Wire started loading up passengers on the Junk-A-Du, people in other cities were having similar daydreams and beginning to act on them.
“In the late ’80s it started, and then in the 1990s it really got momentum,” Carter, an architect and urban designer, says about waterfront development. “All of a sudden we started getting RFPs (requests for proposal) from cities who wanted to do master plans for their waterfronts. Up until that time, it was master plans for their downtowns.”
Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore — Carter can rattle off at least a dozen cities that undertook waterfront projects over the last three decades. All were in search of an economic boost in the form of higher property values, increased tax revenues and more private investment.
Wire wanted Fort Wayne, where the population is growing but incomes have long struggled to keep pace with national wages, to get in on the action. “I thought, ‘How can we become a draw not only for workers but for the high-end businesses we want?'” he says. “We need a cool factor. We have to get our swagger back.”
Changing Economic Tides
Measuring the economic impact of riverfront development is hardly an exact science, but data from some large-scale projects do point to some success.
In Pittsburgh, which invested millions of dollars in a 13-mile riverfront park system, property values near the riverfront increased 60 percent from 2001 to 2015, compared with 32 percent elsewhere in the city, according to a report by global design firm Sasaki. Riverfront projects in Atlanta, Boston and Chattanooga, Tennessee, also led to property value increases.
Chicago finished the last stretch of its 1.25-mile riverwalk in 2016, and the following year visitor spending in the area totaled a record $11.6 million. The Chicago Tribune reports the city will have no problem paying back its loans for the project, and could make $12.5 million a year from it by 2048.
In most cases, experts say, waterfront revitalization projects tend to be an easy political sell.
In 2015, Sasaki conducted a survey of 1,000 residents from six U.S. cities, asking about the qualities that define a great city. Nearly 50 percent picked waterfronts as their top urban open space, outranking small urban parks, large open parks and trails.
Whenever a city is considering taking on a large project, it needs to weigh it against other priorities like affordable housing or education, Carter says. But for the most part, he says, most citizens agree that making their rivers a focal point is a worthy goal.
“The overall idea of recapturing the waterfront, that’s one thing people are united on,” he says. “No matter what political party, everyone loves the waterfront. … The riverfronts are an extension of the public realm; it’s where we meet each other.”
That spirit prevailed in Fort Wayne, where the Republican-majority City Council and the Democratic mayor both supported an annual $9.6 million income tax increase that’s largely meant to sustain the city’s riverfront development plan. “You’re always going to have naysayers, but all of these proposals have been supported by local officials still in office,” says Becker.
Tax hikes aren’t the only way to fund riverfront development. Cities can use municipal, county, state or federal funds, or rely on tax increment financing, a process which splits tax revenue from a designated area into different sections, allowing revenues generated from new development to sustain future projects.
Philanthropy also often plays a major role in remaking riverfronts — which is where Wire and his Junk-A-Du come in again.
Wire met the pontoon boat passenger he’d been waiting for the day he gave a river tour to Donald Steininger, a local developer who sat on the board of the city’s community foundation. Impressed by the potential he saw along the riverbanks, Steininger took his enthusiasm back to the board, which decided to spearhead private support of a riverfront revitalization. Eventually, they raised $4 million in private and corporate donations to put toward the initial phase of the project, which features a pavilion, amphitheatre, dining gardens, boating docks, tree canopy trail and more.
It was a small-scale version of the private fundraising that’s taken place in larger cities. In Cincinnati, for example, private donors came up with $90 million for Smale Riverfront Park, a 32-acre park along the banks of the Ohio River. The city chipped in $30 million.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Once a city embraces waterfront development, it must also wrestle with what to build, and who to build it for.
A community can tilt in the direction of parks and trails or toward restaurants, bars and hotels — or embrace a mixture of both. Ideally, planners set up “the relationship between open space and the new development parcels in a way that allows one to capitalize on the presence of the other,” says Chris Reed, director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and a landscape architecture professor at Harvard University.
Increasingly, Reed says, cities are grappling with how to create an improved riverfront in an inclusive way that will benefit existing residents as well as future ones. “In many cities the cost of housing is going up, and it’s making it very difficult for residents to stay in place,” Reed says. Zoning ordinances and codes, he says, are some of the best strategies for giving everyone equal access to the waterfront.
Taking on a riverfront development project also comes with environmental considerations. Any new development must factor in the floodplain, which is likely to expand due to climate change, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, chair of landscape architecture and environmental planning at University of California–Berkeley.
And cities often need to clean up soil contaminated by industries previously located along the river.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of the water itself.
In 1987, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to require cities to address pollution from combined sewer overflows. Combined sewers collect rainwater runoff and sanitary wastewater in the same pipes. When there’s a lot of rain, water treatment facilities can’t keep up, and whatever can’t be treated is dumped into the nearest water source, which is often the river.
Fort Wayne, like many other cities, struggled to pay for the cost of updating its infrastructure and is now under an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to curb water pollution. To do so, it’s using “MamaJo,” a tunnel-boring machine that will create a 5-mile sewer tunnel more than 200 feet underground. When it’s finished in 2023, it will be capable of holding extra wastewater during a storm so the water can be treated later. The tunnel model has also been embraced by cities like Hartford, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Boston.
But while cities may do all they can to make the area around a river look appealing, if the water’s not clean — or if people believe it’s not clean — it’s a lot harder to get people out on that river.
“The biggest challenge we have is the perception the rivers are polluted,” says Wire, who thinks the concerns about Fort Wayne’s waterways are overrated. He’s been swimming in the river water since he was a child, and would do so today — just not after a big storm.
The color of the water — a muddy brown — doesn’t help much with the perception issue, he says. But that’s the result of sediment, not waste. (Carter has a simple message to Midwesterners turned off by the color of their rivers: “The Seine river in Paris is brown. The Thames river in London is brown. If you want to see clear water, go to Bermuda.”)
Wire remains optimistic, and impressed by how far Fort Wayne’s riverfront area has come in recent years. Gone are the days when he would regularly pull out large pieces of trash from city waterways. Today, when he’s out on his pontoon boat — a newer one, without a name — he’s more likely to find paddleboarders, kayakers, fisherman, booze cruisers, airboat riders, canoe paddlers, motorboaters — and hope.
“We’re still really at the beginning of this,” he says.