Detroit eyes Fort Wayne for transformation with restrictions lifted

A barracks building that was built in 1848 at the Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit could house 500 soldiers at once. Photographed on Sept. 19, 2009.


By CHRISTINE FERRETTI | The Detroit News | Published: November 16, 2020

DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — The federal government is lifting restrictions that have limited progress at Historic Fort Wayne, an iconic site on Detroit's riverfront being eyed for redevelopment.

Within weeks, the hurdles that have hindered development on the sprawling site for decades will be resolved after Detroit's City Council agreed to pay $110,000 to the U.S. General Services Administration to amend three deeds and implement a preservation covenant to protect the character of the fort's grounds and buildings.

The city has concepts from five city-based partners for multiple buildings across the 78-acre fort that could get underway in 2021. All have had a long-term interest in Detroit and "know the value of Fort Wayne," said Meagan Elliott, the city's chief parks planner.

Detroit put out the call in February to public and private partners interested in individual buildings, a group of structures or the entire site.

Parks officials are working with the parties to finalize the proposals that will be publicly unveiled early next year, she said.

"Once we get the community buy-in and everyone feels comfortable with the direction we're headed, we'd like to move as fast as possible to get those folks on-site and working on their properties," Elliott said. "We're in a financial position where we can't invest a ton of money into Fort Wayne to restore those buildings because we don't have the dollars for it. Those dollars, especially now during COVID, are going elsewhere across the city."

The deed changes unlock new possibilities — including lease agreements with outside entities — to restore the fort's neglected buildings as Detroit finalizes new zoning rules that will allow for dozens of uses from hotels to eateries, museums and boutiques on the grounds adjacent to the future site of the $4.4 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Elliott said interest ranges from restaurant-style opportunities to public education partnerships but stressed no agreements have been formalized. She declined to release details on the partners, their ideas or the specific buildings, prior to the public reveal of the fort's strategic plan.

"We're not doing anything without community engagement or support," she said.

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

Elliott said the proposals target buildings primarily along Officer's Row, a series of more than 30 buildings located west of the park's entrance. Although some of the partners have a vision for multiple buildings, the city intends to start with five individual rehabs.

"These types of historic rehabs can always be surprising to folks in terms of how much it takes to make that work," Elliott said. "So I want to make sure we're not overcommitting ourselves upfront."

Scott Bentley, superintendent of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe, said past plans to revive the fort haven't materialized. But the city, he said, is "much more engaged than they ever had been."

Bentley, who has represented the National Park Service in talks with the city, said the council's approval of the deed abrogation is an extraordinary step.

"It's arguably one of the most historic sites in the state of Michigan," he said. "I have great hopes that in the future it will once again become the icon it has been in the past. Over the next year, we will start to see some of that come to life."

The fort served as a primary induction center for Michigan soldiers entering battle during the Civil War, and played an active role as an induction center for tens of thousands in 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 to the Late Woodland cultures of the 15th century.

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi recommended in a letter to the city last 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.

They also pressed for the star fort to be preserved and archaeological investigations of the site's parade grounds be discontinued without consultation with the Potawatomi to protect ancestral remains.

Elliott said those considerations have been fundamental to the process.

"The issue is if we allow one tribe to have oversight over a part of the burial grounds, how does that relate to other tribes that might feel connected to that burial ground as well," she said. "We want to make sure that there's the right restrictions in place to ensure that accessibility across different tribes."

The city, she said, is working to partner with various tribal nations on projects at Fort Wayne.

Bentley said there was concern early on that if the National Park Service were to change the deeds and give the city more control, the site would be "irreparably damaged."

"They did the right thing by entering into a preservation covenant," added Bentley, noting the agreement guarantees development going forward won't disturb archaeological, burial or other historic features.

In addition to star fort — the only remaining structure of its kind in the Midwest — there are nearly 40 historic structures of varying scale, time period and condition as well as a quarter-mile of riverfront access and historic "parade grounds." The Native American burial mound, dating from around 750 — 1150, is fenced off from public access.

The site also houses the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum and is typically open on weekends from May to October for limited to tours, organized sports, weddings and other permitted uses.

This year, it shut down in the spring when COVID-19 began to spike, Elliott said.

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

There have been multiple visions over the years for the site 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 paid New York-based HR&A Advisors Inc. $235,000 to develop a realistic plan for the fort.

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

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 did not provide The News with updated budget figures.

Detroit recently hired a contractor with state grant dollars to conduct its own physical evaluation of the fort's assets and cost estimates for stabilizing the buildings.

The assessment was expected to be completed this fall, but various delays pushed the timeline to next spring, Elliott said.

Officials, she said, plan to "mothball" a number of the deteriorating buildings on the site in the next construction season.

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

Castañeda-López, during a council subcommittee session last month, said efforts to improve uses at the fort have been a long time coming.

"I'm glad this is finally here so we can move forward with future improvements to Historic Fort Wayne and make sure that the community in Delray still has access to the riverfront and recreational opportunities," she said. It was a long, extensive process and not easy to navigate."

Tom Berlucchi, who founded and chairs the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, said he's seen seven master plans for the Fort Wayne since the 1970s from federal, state and city levels of government, calling for everything from a museum to amusement parks.

The city's newest strategy, he said, is the most encouraging he's seen.

"I am enthused to see this progressive movement by the city," he said. "I hope it all works."

But beyond efforts to repair the structures above ground, Berlucchi said he's concerned about underground infrastructure, such as sewage and storm drains, that's unseen as well as other maintenance needs down the line.

"They are just looking to see if they can get somebody to take a building and rehab it. OK, so once they rehab it, what's going to happen?," Berlucchi said. "I worry about the perpetuation of care for future generations."

The city issued the request for information for development plans as part of a strategic planning initiative funded by the National Park Foundation and Kresge Foundation.  Kresge announced the partnership in 2016 and a $265,000 grant to support the effort.

The city solicited proposals under a "rehabilitation in lieu of rent" model, calling for third parties to make up-front repairs to a historic building prior to occupying it. In return, they can occupy the building for a specified number of years based on the investment level.

The city's administration proposed rezoning the site from single-family residential to a planned development district, which will allow for business, residential and some industrial uses. Elliott said that effort is in its final stages.

Following the Nov. 4 vote by Detroit's council, the General Services Administration is beginning the process of closing on the property, which includes amending the deed to lift the restrictions imposed by the federal government, said Adam C. Rondeau, a spokesman for the GSA. Elliott said she expects the process to be completed in a matter of weeks.

The preservation covenant ensures that rehabilitation efforts match Secretary of Interior standards so the fort's character and its riverfront recreation are maintained, Elliott said.

"We're still protecting the recreational essence of the space and the historic value of it with the preservation covenant, but now we can bring other folks in to say 'would you like to open a restaurant here, would you like to have a museum space here?'" Elliott said.

"All of those partnerships are now possible, and we can really start to build a coalition of folks that both appreciate the history of Fort Wayne and how special the space is."


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