Major revival being studied for Historic Fort Wayne

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — A New York City firm specializing in finding ways to create massive urban projects has begun analyzing how to revive Historic Fort Wayne, a long underused 96-acre site on the banks of the Detroit River.

Historic buildings along Officer’s Row show blown-out windows and collapsed roofs at the historic riverfront site of Fort Wayne off Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. A 2003 study of Fort Wayne estimated that restoration would cost at least $58 million.

HR&A Advisors Inc. was hired in late January for $235,000 by the state's Michigan Economic Development Corp., according to state officials. Its goal is to come up with a realistic plan to keep the fort's historic nature while finding some other new use: housing, office, industrial or possible cultural development.

"We hope a vision plan will be delivered by the end of the year, hopefully, well before the end of the year," said Andrew Doctoroff, a special projects adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder. "HR&A are not developers but land use experts. They visualize what is possible," Doctoroff said.

The feasibility study shows the state of Michigan is taking a more active role in shaping the future of the city-owned Fort Wayne. Because the site is on the federal National Register of Historic Places, the state has some jurisdiction because the state plays a role in preserving Michigan landmarks.

The military fort in southwest Detroit on West Jefferson Avenue was built between 1842 and 1851. The grounds also contain a Native American burial site dating back more than 1,000 years. Members of the New York firm visited Fort Wayne for the first time last week.

Another reason for finding a development plan is that Fort Wayne will be next to the planned International Trade Crossing, a new $2.1 billion bridge across the Detroit River. Recently, Canada said it will pay to build a $250 million to $300 million U.S. customs plaza for the new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor. That new customs plaza is across the street from Fort Wayne. The bridge has a scheduled completion date of 2020.

Fort Wayne has gradually fallen into disrepair, with some of its 39 buildings decaying while grass grows on the roofs of others. The facility's upkeep is largely entrusted to a cadre of volunteers — the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition — who spend their time painting, repairing and cleaning the site.

"Right now, we only use a handful of the buildings," said James Conway, a city of Detroit employee, who is Fort Wayne's project manager and historian. The city controls 83 acres, including the original fort and a number of buildings. The remaining area is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a boatyard.

Fort Wayne was used as a military induction center until 1971, above, when the city of Detroit assumed full control of the site.

Fort Wayne was built in anticipation of a British attack that never came. It's named in honor of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne. During the Civil War, the fort was an induction center for 14,000 Michigan soldiers. It played an active role as an induction center for tens of thousands in all of America's wars until the Army discontinued its use in 1971 during the Vietnam War. At that point, the city of Detroit assumed full control of the site.

The New York firm HR&A specializes in coming up with strategies on how to turn around major public spaces. On its website it cites its role in forming the celebrated High Line in Manhattan, which is a greenway built on a former elevated rail line. It also played a role in London's 2012 Olympic Park, and helped developed a plan to overhaul a portion of downtown Cincinnati. HR&A didn't respond to interview requests.

The HR&A contract is the result of a request for proposals for the site issued by the state late last year. That request for proposal said any bid must "contemplate maintaining the historic integrity of Fort Wayne," according to the state document. It also states any possible redevelopment of the site could include traditional commercial real estate such as housing or retail, as well as "cultural development" or "logistics-related development." That last description refers to warehouse and other transportation-oriented businesses that would benefit from Fort Wayne's close proximity to the U.S.-Canada border.

A 2003 study of Fort Wayne estimated that it would cost at least $58 million to restore the site.

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