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COLUMN

Competing dreams could bring end to old school, man's 30-year-old babes-in-toyland vision

Vacant Hillcrest School stands in the way of veterans' apartments -- and progress?

Saturday, August 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

Occasionally it requires the death of one dream to give birth to another. But those laboring to save the old Hillcrest School are not yet ready to pass the torch to those who would replace it with a glitzy new $7 million apartment complex for homeless veterans.

Maybe that's because Ben Berry is perhaps the most determined dreamer I've met in 36 years as a journalist. He's 54 now, but when I first wrote about him in 1982 he was an idealistic young if somewhat na´ve young man who had just bought the vacant school at 711 E. Tillman Road with a plan to transform it into something he called the “Berry Patch”: a magical, hands-on place in which children and parents could play with (and buy, of course) all sorts of wonderful toys.

Berry not only lived in the school but, with the help of family and money from his photography and other sources, spent thousands to repair and spruce up parts of the 1920s-era structure. Even so, I figured his was just another well-intended but hopeless cause – until phase one of the Berry Patch opened in the former kindergarten classroom in 1987 and I was happily able to report that “dreams of babes in toyland come true.”

For a while the dream prospered, with the Berry Patch expanding into the Village at Coventry and Glenbrook Square. But for a variety of personal and business reasons those satellite stores had closed by the mid 1990s and Berry's vision had shrunk to its original location – which by then was part of a struggling south-side real estate market epitomized by the demise and eventual demolition of the nearby Southtown Mall.

The pruning of the Berry Patch was slow but irreversible. By 2010, country officials offered the property for sale to recover unpaid taxes, and a group called Community Funding Solutions claimed it for $50,000. In March the group deeded the school to Housing Opportunities Program Inc., a subsidiary of the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, which operates apartments for low- and moderate-income people and is headquartered right next door.

And a new and competing dream entered the picture.

“We had seen the need for housing for homeless veterans, and as we were doing our planning, we learned CANI (Community Action of Northeast Indiana) was looking at the same thing. So we decided to work together,” said Housing Authority Executive Director Maynard Scales. The fruit of that shared vision is the proposed Hillcrest Pointe project, which unlike existing shelters would provide permanent housing and services to veterans and their families.

The problem is that there's an old school in the way of their new idea – a school considered worth saving by historic preservation group ARCH and a vessel into which Berry has poured more than 30 years of his life.

Although Scales and CANI President and CEO Steve Hoffman sympathize, they say that incorporating the existing school into the veterans' project would be impractical, if not impossible. For one thing, Hoffman said, the project needs about 48 apartments to qualify for the state tax credits needed to make it financially feasible. But the school has room for only 13.

And even though the Housing Authority owns adjacent property, Scales said that land is already planned for a 16-unit housing project slated to begin this spring – meaning there is no room to attach new apartments to the old school.

All of which means the school is likely to end up on ARCH's next list of endangered historic structures, according to Executive Director Mike Galbraith.

Galbraith called the Hillcrest a “pretty significant” example of school architecture, having been designed by the same firm that produced the original section of Elmhurst High School, which is also now closed. “I'm optimistic about the history; we should preserve things that are beautiful and useful. But I'm worried about the cost (of saving it),” he said.

Berry insists he still has a passion for the “gem of a building” he once called home and hopes someone or something with money will be willing to save it as a cultural or community center. But this time, his dream seems even more implausible than before.

Just this week, however, the state denied CANI's application for tax credits – another round will come in November – so both dreams remain alive for now, if in limbo.

But in the end, the best outcome may be of at least some comfort to both: Scales and Hoffman say they hope to salvage some of the school's unique architectural features – and the sign from the old Hillcrest Drive-in Berry salvaged and moved onto the property in 1989 – and incorporate them in any new structure erected there.

It's not the dream ending Galbraith or Berry would want. But, given the circumstances, it's no nightmare, either.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.