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Vacant downtown lot, building provide canvas for Saint Francis' dreams

Ball State architecture students to look at housing, commercial opportunities

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 6:05 am

Right now, it's just a vacant lot and an empty building.

But as part of the University of Saint Francis' proposed downtown campus, the block bounded by Main, Fairfield, Ewing and Berry will provide the blank canvas upon which Ball State University architecture students will apply their visions of new housing, artistic and commercial opportunities.

About 80 sophomores in BSU's Department of Architecture and Planning were scheduled to be in town today to begin work that eventually will result in a variety of proposals that may – or may not – influence future development of the property. Saint Francis announced its intention to buy the site, which includes the former Mizpah Shrine building, late last year.

“We have some ideas (for the property), but if we were to dream, what would be the best use for us and the city?” said Rich Bienz, USF vice president of finance and operations. The university last year purchased the nearby Scottish Rite Center as the home of its new Media Entrepreneurship Training in the Arts program and the adjacent Chamber of Commerce Building as the future home of its Keith Busse School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership, but other than parking the school has no immediate plans for the Main Street block.

Eventually, though, Saint Francis would like to build housing for students and others, Bienz said, possibly with shops, art galleries and restaurants on the ground floor. A parking garage connected by an elevated walkway to the Scottish Rite – now the USF Performing Arts Center – is also a possibility.

But there are, as yet, no firm plans, no timetable and no budget – which gives the budding architects the freedom to dream.

“We like to partner with other universities, and we may get some wonderful ideas,” Bienz said, noting that the BSU students are expected to return later to display the renderings and models of the buildings that right now aren't even imagined.

This is not just an academic exercise, however. Ball State Prof. Antonieta Angulo said her students will be working with Saint Francis has part of an annual decades-old contest sponsored by the Indiana Concrete Masonry Association. “It's almost a tradition for us,” she said. “It's always important for us to work on projects that relate to the real world.”

Later this week, Saint Francis and city officials will travel to Muncie where they will brief Ball State students on the project's needs and potential economic impact on the city. They will also be briefed on the project's requirements, legal guidelines and other issues.

The students will provide only ideas, not completed designs that could be used for construction. There's no money available for that right now anyway, Bienz said, noting that renovations to the Scottish Rite and Chamber building will cost $10 million.

The students will deliver their projects next month and on April 22 the best 20 will be selected by a jury for the Concrete Masonry Association.

Five years ago, BSU students submitted another Fort Wayne project as part of the contest. City Community Director of Community Development and Planning John Urbahns – a Ball State graduate himself – said students designed potential projects along the Harrison Street corridor near the Grand Wayne Center.

“They knew about the good things going on downtown and were interested in coming back,” said Urbahns, who helped make the connection with Saint Francis.