These public spaces are creating a brighter, more inviting Downtown Fort Wayne

As a lifelong resident of Fort Wayne, Krista Schwartz has been witness to the developing landscape of Downtown.

She attended grade school Downtown and described the Downtown she witnessed as a child as gray and full of plain buildings. Furthermore, she says it wasn’t a place anyone wanted to linger around. Come 5 p.m., Downtown Fort Wayne might as well have been a ghost town.

“I remember the days when there was not a soul Downtown,” says Schwartz. “You’d leave school and besides the office workers, there’d be nobody. Everything was just gray buildings, plain buildings with no real places to sit except the occasional bench here and there.” 

The Downtown we know today is entirely different from the one Schwartz experienced as a child. It’s busy, bright, and full of life– even after 5 p.m.

“I’ve really seen it from the very, very beginning,” explains Schwartz. “In the 2000s, there was nothing– just office workers. Now, it’s vibrant, pretty much seven days a week, regardless of the season and it’s not just office workers.”

This is in part the result of conscious efforts to revitalize the Downtown area. Through projects like Parkview Field, the Landing and the Riverfront development, people are finding reasons to visit and even linger in Downtown Fort Wayne. A large, colorful part of that effort has been a dedication to public spaces and public art in Downtown Fort Wayne. 

The Nosego mural was Downtown Fort Wayne’s first example of street art, and it was installed in 2014. Found on the exterior wall of Pint and Slice on Calhoun Street, artist Nosego completed the mural while visiting the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Once home to parking spaces, that alley is now home to the TriCore Porch Off Calhoun, a vibey, public space complete with tables, lights, planters, and many art installations nearby.

The Nosego mural was Downtown Fort Wayne’s first example of street art, and it was installed in 2014.
But going from one mural accompanied by a parking lot to a vibrant, lively public space didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Art This Way Manager and Public Art Consultant Alex Hall will tell you the work done to create these public spaces is multifaceted and requires an untold amount of time, organization, and planning.

Hall began her work in 2016, and much like Schwartz, she thought of Downtown as bland. With the help of others in the community, she went to work to fix that perception, focused on getting public art installed, unsure of how it would impact the future of Fort Wayne but hopeful it would create a positive ripple.

Then in 2019, a study was completed by Gehl on behalf of The City of Fort Wayne to examine public spaces, how they were being used, and what more could be done to activate them. The published plan confirmed to Hall that the work she’d begun in Fort Wayne was the type of work that could help advance the Downtown area.

“After we implemented some art, the Gehl study came out,” says Hall. “It totally endorsed what we were doing.”

The study identified potential spots for future public spaces and provided information on how to best utilize those areas based on research and examples from other large cities with public spaces, including what to fill those public spaces with. While the work done over the past four years hasn’t exactly stuck to what was laid out in the plan, Hall says it has served as a guidebook to creating public spaces in Fort Wayne. 

She says many metropolitan areas, including Fort Wayne, were built to suit vehicles, long forgetting the impact pedestrian traffic could have on a region. This has led to less-than-appealing landscapes for pedestrians.

The PNC PlazaPublic spaces are proven to make cities more attractive, encouraging people to hang out and enjoy local cuisine or music. When creating these spaces the goal isn’t just to encourage people to visit but rather to encourage people to explore, roam, and experience the heart of Fort Wayne in an entirely new way.

Currently, Downtown Fort Wayne is home to a few parklets that do just that. Spots such as the PNC Plaza and the Tricore Porch off Calhoun are mainstays of Downtown programming, much like public parks are. A considerable part of what makes these spaces appealing are the finer details, like the lighting, the plants, and the art surrounding them.

Events, like the annual Art Crawl (of which Hall is also in charge), utilize these spaces to show people how the spaces can provide a different experience of Downtown Fort Wayne.

Yet an even larger part of the work Hall does to create these public spaces is facilitating the partnerships on behalf of Downtown Fort Wayne to make them possible. To make a public space happen, several parties have to come together. 

The Tricore Porch Off CalhounHall gives the TriCore Porch Off Calhoun as an example, where an agreement had to be made with the owner of the parking spaces located in that alley. Then, agreements had to be made with the restaurants most heavily impacted by the space. Hall notes that some of the restaurant partners end up becoming financially invested in the projects, but not all. Building owners also have to be contacted for these projects. When events happen in these spaces, Hall says every person who might be impacted by the alley closure must be informed and agree to the closure. Additionally, because the alley is owned by the City, permits must be obtained for closures. Finally, traffic engineering and right of way must also give their approval.

“Every one of these things is multifaceted and requires a lot of different partners to say yes,” says Hall.

Hall explains that right now, they are in a sort of pilot phase for these public spaces. If you’ve paid a visit to Big Apple Pizza on West Wayne Street recently, you might have seen a parklet out front, complete with outdoor dining space, something Hall is hoping to create more of. 

A big proponent of getting these potential partners to say yes is education about what these public spaces can mean for their business and the City as a whole. 

“Everything we do that’s new, it’s an educational curve,” says Hall. “It takes time and resources to introduce new concepts.”

Schwartz opened Sweets on Main in 2019 with her husband. While she recently sold the business, she’ll be the first to tell any business owner that having a public space near their business is a huge perk. The PNC Plaza opened up in 2021, located directly next to Sweets on Main. Before its existence, Schwartz had thoughts of offering outdoor seating, but the hurdles to making that idea come to life kept her from making any moves. 

“This kind of stuff is difficult to do,” says Schwartz. “It’s not as simple as throwing some tables up if you have the space on the sidewalk– so for someone to be not only paying for it but also taking care of all the logistics of it was tremendous.”

She says the PNC Plaza opening up was huge for her business and the businesses in the surrounding area.

The PNC Plaza on Main Street.“It gave people another place to sit Downtown, and a lot of our competitors, both Downtown and outside of Downtown didn’t have a lot of that,” says Schwartz. “I think it also helped the whole area. I would be down there in the morning getting stuff down and I’d see people who would have breakfast meetings out there or at lunchtime before we opened we’d see people eating Coney Island. It not just benefited us, but I think it benefited the whole area.”

Even though she no longer owns a business in Downtown Fort Wayne, Schwartz says she’s still a big supporter of art and public spaces.

“It makes it a place that you want to be outside of working hours,” says Schwartz. “If you look at Downtown before, why on Earth would you walk down Main Street? There was a coney dog place, an ice cream place, and a bunch of parking spots. But now, there’s a reason– It’s bright, it’s colorful, and it’s a place to gather. It breaks up that monotony of what was once a very work-centric, professional Downtown with little activities for families or anyone who didn’t want to go to a bar at midnight.”

In addition to creating spaces like parklets, Hall says her work also includes filling in gaps throughout the Downtown area. By gaps, she means any inactive areas that might be less appealing to visitors–blank walls, empty sidewalks, flat parking lots– all byproducts of a metropolis designed for vehicles. 

“Every 25 feet or so, you should have an engaging storefront, flowers, art– something that sparks interest and keeps people moving,” she says.

This is why visitors will find public art all around Downtown Fort Wayne, guiding you from from end to the other, like on the Urban Trail, a large sidewalk trail in the works, aiming to connect all of Downtown’s attractions.

Seats and tables line the alleys near the TriCore Porch Off Calhoun.“It’s the macro vision and without it existing you wouldn’t have the destination in the heart of the city,” says Hall. “We’ve only benefitted from it. People move here because of our reputation. They recognize our city has artistry. It’s bigger than our Downtown or murals– on a national level we’re creating an impression of our state and city.”

This story is made possible by support from Downtown Fort Wayne.
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.