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Detroit marshals troops to revive Fort Wayne

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Historic Fort Wayne property has languished for decades, but the city is finally taking steps to redevelop the iconic fort.

Detroit officials in February will seek out concepts for the city-owned 78-acre riverfront park as they finalize a lengthy process to lift multiple deed restrictions that have limited the city's ability to find new uses for the fort's buildings that have endured decades of neglect. 

The property in the city's Delray community is adjacent to the future entrance of the $4.4 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge, broadening exposure for the site.

"The fact that the bridge is happening is a big moment for Fort Wayne, because it has previously been so isolated," said Meagan Elliott, the city's chief parks planner.

The city is seeking public or private partners, including nonprofit, for-profit, governmental or quasi-governmental agencies and educational institutions with a vision for buildings on the sprawling campus, according to a draft of Detroit's request for information being released Feb. 10.

"We just want to put this out there and see what we get back," Elliott said.

Meagan Elliott, Detroit's chief parks planner, opens a door that was the original entrance to Fort Wayne. The future of dozens of buildings at Fort Wayne could soon take shape as the city moves forward with a long awaited planning process for the historic site

The former military facility on West Jefferson contains an 1842 star fort, a fortress built to shoot cannons, prehistoric Native American burial mound and vacant buildings that, over time, have been used for residential, office and storage space. 

The city is asking for concepts that could target individual buildings, a group or the entire site along the Detroit River, the request being distributed by the city's General Services Department says. 

Responses, the draft notes, will be used to inform Detroit's efforts "to facilitate new partnerships, recreational and historical programming, and adaptive uses" at Fort Wayne, and might lead to the selection of one or more partners. 

Elliott said the city might opt to negotiate long-term leases for some of the buildings and bring on a third party to oversee operations. Developers selected for future projects will be responsible for infrastructure costs. 

The National Park Foundation and Kresge Foundation are funding the city's planning process. Kresge in 2016 announced the partnership and a $265,000 grant to support the effort. 

"Kresge saw an opportunity for a comprehensive planning and engagement process that could lead to a valuable, underutilized historical and cultural asset becoming major benefits to Detroit, in particular, to the residents of southwest Detroit and local indigenous communities who have a connection to the site," said Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of the Kresge Detroit Program, in a statement.

"With its rich history, its period architecture and its riverfront location, Fort Wayne is a jewel in the rough that can be much more for all Detroiters.” 

Formerly the barracks of the non-commissioned officers at Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne. The ravages of time and harsh weather have taken their toll on the structures as the roofs are caving in.

Working with restrictions

The city acquired Historic Fort Wayne in three phases in 1949, 1971 and 1976. Each came with unique land restrictions that range from a ban on picnic tables to sporting activities on certain portions of the grounds, Elliott said. 

The city's General Services Department is working to remove the deed restrictions within the year, opening up potential opportunities. 

As part of an advisory group for Fort Wayne, southwest Detroit resident Simone Sagovac wants to secure the fort's long-term historic preservation and economic investment to keep it maintained. 

She's open to improvements but wants to ensure they are inclusive of the community, rather than high-end developments that would primarily cater to an exclusive clientele. 

"I have personal concerns about how that process could potentially open up to uses that maybe would not be in line with what community residents would want to see there," said Sagovac, a member of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. "I want to make sure that there's always going to be community voices in this process."

Two 30-pound Parrott rifled cannons sit in the foreground with the original barracks in the background at Historic Fort Wayne.

The bridge project is elevating Fort Wayne to serve as a gateway to Detroit and the region. To account for that, the city is working on plans to increase public access by the end of the year. 

The site, which houses the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum, is open to the public on weekends from May to October. But it has primarily been limited to tours, organized sports, weddings and other permitted uses.

It saw 31,113 visitors in the 2018-19 fiscal year and hosted more than 3,000 events. 

Mark Butler, a spokesman for the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority, said Gordie Howe project officials have used facilities at Fort Wayne for public information sessions and will continue to over the term of construction for the bridge, which is slated to open in 2024. 

Other than renting space at Fort Wayne to conduct meetings, bridge project officials "do not anticipate requiring any space outside of the port of entry."

As part of studies undertaken by the state Department of Transportation for the bridge project, there will be initiatives facilitated by the bridge project to benefit Fort Wayne, including signage, landscaping and fencing and lighting improvements, he added. 

Scott Bentley, superintendent of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe, said Detroit's effort is the most engagement for Fort Wayne's future that he's seen in at least a decade. 

"It has had a complex and troubled past, and I'm really excited that the city is focused on a positive future for the site and strategy for how to do it," said Bentley, who has represented the National Park Service in talks with the city. "It's arguably one of the most historic sites in the state of Michigan."

This guard house at Historic Fort Wayne was built in 1905.

Roots go back centuries

Construction of Fort Wayne began in 1842 in anticipation of an invasion from British-controlled Upper Canada. It was named after Brig. Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who served in the U.S. Army during the Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War, according to a 2016 city report for the proposed historic district. 

During the Civil War, the fort was an induction center for 14,000 Michigan soldiers, and 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. 

The site was first occupied by Potawatomi, French and British settlers. Its sole burial mound dates back to the Late Woodland cultures of the 15th century. 

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi recommended in a letter to the city in the spring that the deed of the burial mound be transferred to the tribal government's control. 

American Indians buried their dead on the site 1,000 years ago, and a 1768 map shows a Potawatomi Indian village occupied the land.

"We would be honored to assume the long-term responsibility of protecting and preserving the Fort Wayne burial mound and any ancestors that are likely still buried within it,” Jeff Chivis, the tribal council treasurer, wrote in March.

He recommended the star fort be preserved and that further archaeological investigations of the site's parade grounds be discontinued without consultation with the Potawatomi to protect ancestral remains. 

A historical marker educates visitors about the Treaty of Spring Wells site, that would later become Fort Wayne.

There have been multiple visions over the years for the former Native American burial site and village that became a U.S. military base in the mid-19th century to protect against the threat of a British invasion.

Most recently, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in 2015 hired New York-based HR&A Advisors Inc. to develop a realistic vision for the underused site.

The $235,000 study centered on a vision for “a more actively programmed cultural, recreational, educational and research destination” that celebrates its history.

The draft presented scenarios for a café with outdoor seating, boutique hotel, tourist-oriented retail and urban beach as well as an extended connection to the RiverWalk, downtown and Belle Isle via water taxi.

The study also identified the fort's “acute challenges” including building conditions, a management structure with limited resources and its land restrictions. The review included an in-depth assessment of the buildings, concluding it could cost up to $100 million to rehab fort's open space, infrastructure and buildings. 

The draft analysis found about half of the site's 40 structures were in good or fair condition. The others were "threatened" or "critical."

These are the Sergeants' Quarters inside the Old Guard House at Fort Wayne in Detroit.

'Steps in right direction'

Project recommendations have not been implemented, but the findings have been used to inform the city's planning process. 

In 2008, the city said utilities and water usage at the site cost $298,000, nearly all of the $310,000 annual operating budget from the city's Department of Parks & Recreation. Officials on Monday were unable to provide The News with updated budget figures.

Last spring, Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López teamed with state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, on a petition seeking a historic designation to have the fort revitalized as a national park in partnership with the city.

Tom Berlucchi, who founded and chairs the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, said his nonprofit group has seen several proposals and studies over the years but all have lacked one thing: how to move ahead. 

The city's current planning, he said, is going to take time and comes several decades too late to save some of the buildings, but it's "steps in the right direction."

"I'm very excited to see such a proactive, well-thought-out plan," he said. "Are we going to see full-blown restoration to the site? No. That's somebody's pipe dream, but it gives us a footprint to start the process to save the buildings."

This is the main entrance to historic Fort Wayne in Detroit.

Discussions over deed issues had been going on for nearly a decade and only moved forward in the last year when the city's general services division took over the process. 

The city is working with the U.S. General Services Administration on its request to lift the use-restriction covenants on the property that limit its uses. When complete, "the city would have full control of the site," said Cat Langel, a General Services spokeswoman. 

The city also has hired a contractor to conduct a physical evaluation of all of the assets on the site to provide costs for stabilizing and prioritizing the buildings. It's expected to wrap up in early fall. 

Past analysis, Elliott added, only looked at the cost of fully restoring and renovating all of the buildings. 

"What we never had is what is the baseline for preservation to make sure no further damage is done," she said.

The city's general services department has proposed rezoning the site from single-family residential to a planned development district, which would allow for business, residential and some industrial uses. It's anticipated the zoning change would be presented to Detroit's City Council by the middle of the year.

Sagovac said there's a passion in the community for the fort, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and she's optimistic about its future. 

"It's the unspoken secret, the gem that's just waiting to get the investment that it deserves," she said. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com