SPECIAL REPORT: What’s the vision for The Landing? Reviving Fort Wayne’s oldest neighborhood

The Landing will be an urban neighborhood with offices, apartments, and retail spaces.
Downtown Fort Wayne is no stranger to development.

Since the rise of Parkview Field, there has been an influx of construction projects seeking to fulfill the area’s potential as a vibrant urban center. But according to local architect, Zach Benedict, The Landing on Columbia Street is different from previous projects the city has undertaken. Zach Benedict

While other developments have been envisioned as regional destinations, intended to draw visitors and suburb dwellers into the city’s core, The Landing is focused on cultivating the day-to-day aspects of urban life downtown.

Benedict, who’s leading the redevelopment of Columbia Street with MKM Architecture + Design, sees the space as an “everyday” place where people can live, work, eat, shop, run errands, or make personal connections.

He imagines it as “a wonderful place for snowball fights,” creating a holistic, urban neighborhood that will encourage more people to call downtown Fort Wayne home.

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If you look at Benedict’s past projects, many of his architectural designs emphasize the importance of creating a home.

Take his work on Heritage Pointe of Fort Wayne, for example. It’s a modern senior living facility that is dedicated to providing residents with care in a “home-like” atmosphere.

From medical care facilities to libraries, Benedict’s designs facilitate independence and social interactions, and his work on The Landing will be no different.

Since MKM Architecture on West Wayne Street downtown is only a few blocks away from The Landing, Benedict and his design team are dedicated to restoring a historic part of their hometown that has been undervalued and for the most part deserted (except for a few nightclubs).

“My hope is that this project encourages people to reintroduce themselves to the history of downtown Fort Wayne,” Benedict says.

Centuries ago, Columbia Street was considered the epicenter of Fort Wayne. It’s the oldest part of the city, dating back more than 180 years to the 1800s when the Wabash and Erie Canal stretched more than 400 miles from Toledo to Fort Wayne and down to Evansville, making it the longest canal ever built in the U.S.

The Landing is the oldest part of downtown Fort Wayne.

Since downtown Fort Wayne was at the confluence of three rivers, The Landing became a key stop along the canal route. Settlers established a marketplace and public square at a landing port at the west end of Columbia Street, which is how it got its name.

Today, The Landing is technically the oldest neighborhood in Fort Wayne. But it’s largely empty.

A new bison mural by Tim Parsley overlooks The Landing.

Benedict and the rest of the development team aspire to bring the street back to its former glory as a catalyst for growth and connection downtown near the riverfront, which is also under construction. They hope that it will bring people to Fort Wayne similar to how the canal brought settlers to the area hundreds of years ago.

“It’s not just a bunch of buildings,” Benedict says. “The Landing is telling a story of our long, long reputation of being innovators.”

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In its heyday, Columbia Street had it all: banks, bakeries, taverns, playhouses, tobacco shops, and more. It was home to the city’s first newspaper, post office, railway station, hotel, and theater. Thomas Edison even had an apartment there early in his life.

However, the rise of the railroad marked the end of the canal era, which eventually left The Landing a dissolute place.

Mac Parker, President of the Fort Wayne Downtown Development Trust, says there was an attempt to revive the block back in the 1970s, but it was never completed. This time, the team is taking a different approach.

In 2013, the Fort Wayne Downtown Development Trust began to acquire the historic buildings on Columbia Street one-by-one, intending to hand them over to an experienced developer to restore.

Kirk Moriarty, Director of Business Development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., overlooks development on The Landing.

Established in 2011 as a non-profit by the Allen County Economic Development Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District, the Trust creates a land bank by obtaining properties in the downtown Fort Wayne area that are not being fully utilized and then turning them over for developments that have been approved by City Council.

Over the years, it has acquired buildings such as the Instant Copy Building, the Smurfit property, the Sunny Schick property, and the Ash Brokerage building. But The Landing will be its first major project to date.

The Fisher Brothers Paper Co. building formerly occupied by Flashbacks is under construction.

Since the Trust has no paid staff, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. provides it with administrative and executive assistance.

Kirk Moriarty, Director of Business Development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., says The Landing’s historic and cultural significance in Fort Wayne’s identity is what makes it such an important investment.

“It’s the last remaining evidence of our birthright,” Moriarty says. “We remind ourselves, generation after generation, that we are still about cultivating meaningful, important, personal and business relationships. Columbia Street has always been at the epicenter of all of that.”

But acquiring the buildings and casting a vision for them was only half the challenge. The other half was finding a developer who could give the space new life without erasing its past.

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Benedict says the main challenge of redeveloping The Landing has been marrying the old with the new.

While he plans to make The Landing an example of modern living, each building must be sensitive to its own time period with the new designs honoring the scale and history of the old.

As far as renovations on the older buildings go, windows will be replaced, awnings reconstructed, limestone repaired, and the neighborhood restored according to historic preservation guidelines.

The first floor of a new building on The Landing was laid in mid-October.

To execute this vision, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Trust chose Cincinnati’s Model Group.

Benedict had previously met the CEO of Model Group, Steve Smith, at Design Week Fort Wayne. Afterward, his team at MKM Architecture reached out to Model Group to put a proposal together for the project.

“I don’t think there is another developer in the country that has more experience in renovating historic buildings of this era,” Benedict says of Model Group.

Many spaces on The Landing are being brought back to their former glory with original brick walls and decorative ceilings.

Based in Cincinnati, Model Group has done more than 250 historic rehabilitation projects, including Cincinnati’s popular Over-The-Rhine district. Once considered the “most dangerous neighborhood” in America, Over-The-Rhine is now a popular destination for visitors and residents alike with restaurants, retail, commercial, and residential space.

Unlike The Landing, which is just one neighborhood, Over-The-Rhine stretches several blocks, making it the largest urban historic district in the country.

Benedict believes the Model Group is solely responsible for its renaissance. He says Over-The-Rhine has been an inspiration for how The Landing can bring together historic preservation and modern architecture to create a model of urban living, and it’s all happening sooner than you might think.

Apartments are already plotted out in the upper floors of buildings.

The Landing is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2019, with some of its first spaces open to the public as early as the spring of 2019.

By next summer, 56,800 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor will be available for retailers, coffee shops, and four to seven new restaurants.

To help fill out the space with local businesses, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has been cultivating local and regional restaurateurs for The Landing.

Brendon Maxwell owns Utopian Coffee. His future coffee shop and brewery will occupy 118 and 122 W. Columbia St.

Utopian Coffee in Fort Wayne and Cerulean restaurant in Winona Lake have already been announced as future tenants. Their owners, Brendon Maxwell and Caleb France, respectively, have plans for a brewery and adjoining coffee shop in the old Fisher Brothers Paper Company building that was previously occupied by Flashbacks. Renovation of the space is already underway.

The Landing will also be the location for the professional offices of new and existing businesses. These offices will provide a buffer between the commercial space and the 70 residential units on the upper floors.

“I want The Landing to be the welcome mat for downtown,” Benedict says. “My hope is that it’s the heartbeat for everything.”

Brendon Maxwell
Brendon Maxwell
Founder of Utopian Coffee
By Kara Hackett


For the past five years, Utopian Coffee has been based in downtown Fort Wayne at 222 Pearl St., but you might not have known about it. Instead of having a coffee shop, they roast coffee on site and sell it online for both wholesale and retail.

In February, Utopian Coffee was the first business to announce that it will be a future tenant on The Landing, where it will open its inaugural café on historic Columbia Street. Then in September, a second announcement came out. Utopian’s founder, Brendon Maxwell, is also partnering with the owner of Winona Lake’s Cerulean restaurant, Caleb France, to open a brewery on The Landing, too.

As these two ventures take shape, Input Fort Wayne sat down with Maxwell to learn more about his journey as an entrepreneur, his interest in The Landing, and his vision for the exciting new spaces that will shape downtown Fort Wayne's social scene.

IFW: You used to live in Silicon Valley. Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur yourself?

BM: I was born and raised here in Fort Wayne, and I went to high school here. I then ended up going to college in northern California, so I was living in Silicon Valley, and I had friends who worked for Google, Yahoo, and a few other startups. But I didn’t know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur myself right away.

I started a couple small projects in high school and college, so I knew that I had an entrepreneurial bug. But I was actually intending to go to medical school at first.

Then, I went on a trip overseas in college to visit my brother, and we went backpacking, and I realized that I didn’t want to be in school for another seven years. I’d much rather travel.

A lot of the countries that my brother and I visited were countries that were growing coffee, and my cousin was roasting coffee at the time, and so going into the coffee business was a natural fit.

After that, my cousin and I decided to start Utopian as a way to sell coffee online.

IFW: When most people think of coffee companies, they probably think of coffee shops. But tell us about the world of online coffee sales.

BM: We knew going into it that the brick-and-mortar café model was a very different business, and we didn’t want to take that on initially. Utopian hasn’t had a cafe for the last 12 years we’ve been in existence.

We really came into coffee with a focus on the roasting side and on the origin side. That’s where my interest was—in traveling overseas, meeting farmers, and figuring out how we could come alongside and partner with them to tell their stories.

So we started selling coffee online by the bag in 2006, and then a couple years later, we started a wholesaling division—selling to cafes, businesses, churches, and restaurants. We also added a gifting division. But a big focus of our mission is telling stories about the coffee industry around the world.

IFW: Speaking of that, Utopian works in many countries. Tell us about how you’re impacting communities around the world.

BM: At the beginning, we were working mostly through importers, so we were buying like most other companies buy. Then we started developing relationships with farmers in a variety of countries.

Our main regions are Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, and East Africa.

Our big project has been converting cocaine farms to coffee farms in Colombia, which is pretty wild work. But it’s incredible what the farmers in Colombia are doing, how they’ve transitioned out of this really dangerous, illicit trade into coffee, and how they’re having awesome success. We get to be a part of that story, which always amazes me that this is my job.

We actually have a mini documentary we’ve filmed about it that we’re getting ready to launch with our rebrand of Utopian (hopefully in the next four to six weeks).    

In East Africa, we’ve been working in Rwanda and Congo, where there are some really powerful stories, too. After the genocide in Rwanda, most of the men were gone, or they were the ones committing the atrocities, so they were imprisoned. Then the women of these two previously warring ethnicities, the Hutu and Tutsi, got together and started this female-owned co-op. So we’ve been able to be part of that story, supporting them, and visiting with them.

We tried to do some work in Congo, as well, which is in much worse shape than Rwanda. I think it was called the worst place in the world to be a female, so we’re just trying to create some opportunities for women there.

In Thailand, we’re working on anti-trafficking. The big vision is to use coffee as a means by which girls and women can be brought into safe employment. Most of the situation in Thailand is an economic one, so being able to help women find gainful employment is important.

IFW: Utopian has been based in downtown Fort Wayne for more than 10 years now. What inspired you to put your business in Fort Wayne, of all places?

BM: The easy answer is that in the beginning, we didn’t have any money, and Fort Wayne was home, so it was easy it be here.

But I had long been interested in being a part of downtown Fort Wayne, specifically. We’ve been in this building for five years, and then we were in the A Party Apart building for five years before this, so for us, it was just about being downtown, and investing in this place. Even when we didn’t have a lot to invest, we just wanted to be present.

Now, as we move into our new space on The Landing, there’s even more that is being done in downtown Fort Wayne, and we’re excited to be a small part of it.

IFW: You’re moving all of your operations at Utopian to the Landing, and opening Utopian’s first coffee shop. Tell us about that decision.

BM: We love this building, and we wouldn’t be leaving it if we weren’t outgrowing it. But yes, we’re moving our whole operation to The Landing, and we’ll be leasing out our current space.

A few months ago, the Model Group contacted me about having Utopian open a coffee shop on The Landing in the old Fisher Brothers Paper Company building at 118 W. Columbia Street. I said, “Coffee shops are not really what we do, but we’d love to be in this building, roasting on the upper floors.” Then I thought, “Well, this could be a really good opportunity for us to tell the stories of the farmers we’re working with and get people excited about our work on a retail level by opening a coffee shop.”

So we’re opening a brick-and-mortar location, and we’re ready for it. Our business is at a different place now. We have the stability and the resources to make an investment in something like this. We’ve also made an intentional decision last year to hire a guy who has a barista background, and he’s going to help be the conduit between the roasting company and the café and oversee this transition. We’re really excited for what it can be.

IFW: Of all the cool spaces in downtown Fort Wayne, why The Landing for your first shop?

BM: So much of it for us was the vision of Model Group, what they’ve done in Cincinnati with Over-The-Rhine is amazing. The restoration, not just of the physical buildings, but in the community is impressive.

In 2001, Over the Rhine was called the most dangerous neighborhood in America, and they really brought it back to life. Now it’s a popular destination with great restaurants and bars and shopping. I’m just excited for them to bring that experience and that vision to the Landing. That’s really what won us over. Model Group looks at development differently; they see it as a community investment. They’re long-term holders. Most commercial real estate companies are looking to flip properties in a few years, make money, and move on to the next project. But these guys work on developments that they own for decades, so that shows me that they’re committed to building communities.

IFW: In addition to a new location for Utopian, you’re also partnering with Caleb of Cerulean in Winona Lake to open a new brewery on the Landing. Tell us about that.

BM: The initial plan was to put our Utopian coffee shop in the large Fisher Brothers Building at 118 W. Columbia Street (previously occupied by Flashbacks). But the developers also wanted to put a brewery on The Landing. I had previously suggested Cerulean as a restaurant, and the owner, Caleb, said he would do a brewery, but only on one condition: That I was his business partner. So that’s how I got brought into it.

Now, the plan is that we’re going to have Utopian’s café at 122 W. Columbia Street in a smaller space adjacent to the brewery.

The cafe and the brewery will both serve excellent food. Caleb has a lot of experience with fantastic food having started Cerulean. But more than the food, we’re planning to focus on craft beverages. We’re going to be roasting coffee on site. We’re going to be brewing beer on site. It’s going to be fun!

IFW: The historic location doesn’t hurt either. Tell us about the space at 118 W. Columbia Street where the brewery will go.

BM: It has a lot of history. Before it was Flashbacks, it was the Fisher Brothers Paper Company.

They still have the spiral staircase that runs all the way through that they used to send reams of paper down, so we’re keeping that. Flashbacks had this purple carpet covering the majority of the floor, and what was underneath was original terrazzo floor. It’s incredible and from 1914. This main floor was their retail space, so we’re going to be able to bring all of that back, which is exciting.

IFW: What would you tell other entrepreneurs from big cities considering the move to Fort Wayne?

BM: I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. There’s tremendous potential. I still have friends in Silicon Valley, but several of them have moved out. It’s just not sustainable. The rent’s high and things happening there are a bit of a bubble. In Fort Wayne, there is a lot of opportunity to make an impact, especially as a young person, and I think that’s what people are looking for when they’re leaving college. They want to be able to have an impact in one form or another.

Being in California is great, but I’m super happy to be back.