Monday, May 23, 2005

Whither Downtown?

We promised a post about downtown, and we keep our promises.

First, the background: in Friday's N-S, Leo Morris had a piece on the city's most recent efforts at downtown revival.
For the latest stage of the process, [city planners and politicians] have engaged renowned architect Gianni Longo to lead citizens through an elaborate input and feedback process. Through a couple of meetings this week, with more planned, Longo and his associates hope to help officials mesh what citizens say they want with what is known to be possible. Because of the newly remodeled Grand Wayne Convention Center and the soon-to-open expanded public library, among other things, downtown has a lot of momentum. Now seems a good time to try to push things to the next level.
We agree with Leo. There's no time like the present, especially when it concerns downtown. We've already lost enough opportunities (diverting the interstate, deciding not to build a downtown arena, etc.).

We could get into an exegesis of what Gianni had to say, but we didn't find his comments all that profound. To summarize: You need private investors, you're going to have to slow down downtown traffic, and to make downtown housing work you need shops and other businesses close by . Not exactly shocking revelations.

Now, we have no experience in architecture, we're not world-renowned (at least not yet), and we don't have an Italian-sounding name, but that doesn't mean we don't have our own thoughts about what to do downtown.

First, let's acknowlege progress: the new Grand Wayne Center and the renovated library are steps in the right direction (as long as the new library doesn't reek of body odor like the old one did). Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back, Fort Wayne. Good job.

Up to this point, it seems that people are trying to figure out why people aren't flocking downtown. We suggest a different approach: looking at where people in Fort Wayne are flocking, and trying to figure out why.

They're moving northwest, to the Huntertown area, and southwest, to Aboite township. Why? The schools, for one (Carroll, Homestead, Summit, etc.), and new houses in nice neighborhoods with big yards. We're talking about families here, and, like it or not, you're probably not ever going to get a mom and dad excited about living downtown.

So what kind of people would get excited about living downtown? Young people, obviously -- young married couples, young non-married couples, single people, single people who have roommates, etc. There are, contrary to popular belief, actually a good number of people like this in Fort Wayne at this very moment, and right now, they're all at Borders. (Only kidding.)

How can we attract them downtown? Here are a few ideas:

The N-S just had a nice feature about changes in student housing at the colleges in town. They all seem to be looking to add more on-campus housing. What about off-campus housing...downtown? Think that would be attractive to would-be students, especially from the outlying areas? I think so. And I bet the city wouldn't mind having these kids as tenants. Apart from a few problems here and there, they seemed to be relatively well-behaved and remember, they'll be supervised by resident advisors provided by the colleges. Transportation? It would be pretty easy for each college to send a shuttle bus out to these downtown apartments a few times a day to transport kids to and from campus.

We know the city's been burned in the past by developers wanting to turn old downtown buildings into large-scale apartments, so naturally they're skittish about offering tax breaks and incentives to just anybody. But how many voters would be upset about cutting a deal with local colleges looking to invest in the community? The city doesn't have to worry about getting scammed, or that the apartments are going to sit empty. And, after all, it's "for the kids," and who can argue with that?

Imagine you're a college kid -- would you rather live in a dorm, a crappy apartment, or a loft downtown? And when you stick a bunch of college kids downtown, that's going to create a lot of business for bars and coffee shops. The ones that are already there will love it, and others will surely follow. Boom -- you've just brought more businesses downtown, without having to pay them anything to come.

And I would imagine that with all those kids, someone's going to want to put a movie theater downtown, too...more business. And what do people like to do before they see a movie? Um...have dinner? And where do people like to have dinner? Um...restaurants? More businesses.

What about from a community safety standpoint? Wouldn't you rather having drunks walking home from Columbia Street West than driving? (Yes, college kids drink, and no, we're not advocating that if they're under 21.) And don't you think that the other bars that aren't located downtown (Piere's, etc.) are going to find a way to get to all those potential customers? If they're all living in the same general area, they're likely to offer rides (doesn't Piere's already have a bus?) to these people to and from their establishment. (They know that when people know they aren't going to be driving, they'll drink more.) Or they'll just open up another bar downtown -- again, more business.

And remember, many of the kids who choose to go to college outside Fort Wayne return to the city during the summer, and not all of them want to live with mom and dad. You want to keep kids in Fort Wayne after they graduate? Show them how fun it can be before they do. All those student apartments are going to be empty during the summer -- offer cheap rent to kids with good grades at other colleges to fill the rooms. And if all their friends are living downtown, other people will want to be down there, too, either to visit or to live there themselves.

But enough about the kids. Downtown can't survive (at least in our estimation) if it's solely focused on the young. You've also got to be bringing in families with kids, introducing the little tykes to downtown early so they'll feel comfortable coming back for the rest of their lives. And for parents to bring the family, you've got to ensure that downtown is safe.

That's not to say that it isn't safe now, but there's a perception that it's not, which is enough to keep people from coming. You've got to ramp up the police presence so that it seems like there's an officer on every block. (Make people feel safe.) As many police officers are out during the Three Rivers Festival, that's how it should feel every day downtown. Sure, it will cost money to add officers, but not as much as a massive building project like the new Grand Wayne Center or expanding the library. And remember, police officers have familes, too. The more they patrol downtown and like what they see, the more likely they are to bring their familes back when they're off-duty...and hopefully in their take-home police cars. Which makes people feel even safer.

What's the biggest daily attraction in Fort Wayne? We don't have any actual data, but our guess is Jefferson Pointe. People in NE Indiana love to shop, they love to eat and shop, they love to shop and see a get the idea. Luckily for us, shopping is a favorite recreational activity around these parts, as opposed to, say, basket-weaving, which doesn't have quite the same economic impact. So, for goodness sakes, get these people downtown to spend their money! Build the best shopping mall this city -- this state -- has ever seen. People in Fort Wayne drive two hours down to Indianapolis to look for a dress at the Circle Centre think they won't come from South Bend or Toledo to shop at the Cedar Point of shopping malls? (By the way, that's not a bad idea. Integrate an indoor amusement park into the downtown shopping mall.)

And when people come to shop, they'll want to eat (more restaurants) and maybe see a movie (more theaters), and just generally spend time walking around downtown. (So clean up the rivers!) And after hours, when the mall closes, the night spots come to life, and a whole new crowd comes in.

Equally important is figuring out a way to make it easier to get downtown from U.S. 30 and I-69. If we could build an airport expressway, we ought to be able to build a downtown expressway as well. (Or at least alter the current streets enough to make it more of a straight shot.)

Those are enough ideas for now. It's late and we've got to get some sleep -- coming up with ideas to save downtown is hard work, and it's tired us out!

*We don't have the mayor's email address, but we'll trust one of our readers that does will forward our thoughts on to him and the rest of the fine folks at city hall. And of course, we're open to your suggestions as well.

UPDATE: So we found the mayor's email address. It remains to be seen if he (or any of our other readers) had the stamina to get through this post, though. We promise no more 1,500-word essays. Sorry. (But congratulations for finishing this one.)

Mike Summers, publisher of the Fort Wayne Reader, writes in to remind us of an article they did earlier this year about mass transit and it's potential impact on downtown. We read it at the time (and were intrigued), but it's worth linking to again.

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