Plans moving forward for Historic Fort Wayne

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — City residents Tuesday heard about options for redeveloping Historic Fort Wayne, including reshaping it into a site that offers cultural and recreational opportunities.

About 70 residents and others were solicited for their own ideas on how to use the former fort, which has fallen into disrepair since 1971.

The meeting coincides with plans to build the $2.1 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge crossing between Detroit and Windsor. The span will fall just outside the fort’s grounds, bringing more traffic to the area and making the site more visible, experts said.

“It’s a postcard-type situation,” said Kumar Kintala, a consultant with the New York-based firm HR&A Advisors Inc., hired by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to develop a feasibility study for the site.

“We want to take advantage of (the bridge crossing) and take it seriously,” Kintala told the residents at the meeting. “It’s a good thing because there’s lot of visibility and lots of spending that will be coming.”

One option is a cultural and recreational park with sports, arts, open spaces and trails, waterfront access and creative workspace options in the existing buildings. Another: using the site as a campus and include educational opportunities and offices as well as research, exhibitions and recreation.

The 96-acre site along the Detroit River has 39 structures, including the only star-shaped fort in the Midwest, and has long been underused. Many of the buildings are crumbling and in disrepair, but others have been preserved by volunteers with the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, who spend their time painting, repairing and cleaning the site.

Some of the suggestions from the public included updating infrastructure, maintaining the site’s natural environment and turning it into a state park, much like the path of Belle Isle, which is now being run as state park with a conservancy.

Others called for creating training centers for veterans and a museum for Native American history, and offering more recreational opportunities like kayaking, boating and biking.

HR&A, hired in January for $235,000, specializes in redevelopment of large urban projects and has worked on several other forts, including well-known sites in San Francisco, New York and Washington. The Detroit-based design firm Hamilton Anderson Associates is also involved in the feasibility study.

Historic Fort Wayne was built between 1842 and 1851 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971. It has a rich military history, but the land also is the site of a Native American burial ground dating back more than 1,000 years. More recently, the grounds have served as a space for cultural and recreational activities, with soccer games and historical reenactments.

Kintala said the consulting firm will consider the site’s current uses as well as new ideas for redevelopment.

“Detroit has a lot of opportunity to catch up with other Midwestern cities as a place to visit, and Fort Wayne can help with that,” he said.

The meeting was sponsored by the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, state Rep. Stephanie Chang and Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez.

The city controls 83 acres of the site, including the original fort and a number of buildings. The rest of the land is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a boatyard.

Detroiter Beverly Shilts said Fort Wayne is an important part of Army history that needs to be preserved.

“I would like to see it still be historic,” she said. “I don’t want to see it destroyed.

Jinny Zeigler, another Detroit resident, said she was at Fort Wayne three decades ago for an Independence Day celebration and still recalls it as the best place for watching Detroit fireworks. She would like to see the site preserved without adding retail or apartments, she said.

“I don’t understand why Detroit has never capitalized on this asset,” she said.

She said she was “guardedly excited” after Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s about time,” she said. “It’s a gem and it should be respected.”

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