KEVIN LEININGER: Downtown comes full circle with upgrade to Three Rivers complex

The Three Rivers Apartments are in line for a $5 million facelift. (News-Sentinel file photo)
A man paddles his canoe down the St. Joseph River behind the Three Rivers Apartments. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Win Moses
Kevin Leininger

It was the city’s first urban renewal project and now, 54 years later, $5 million in planned improvements to a 354-unit hi-rise apartment complex could be seen as vindication of a downtown-improvement movement that is finally starting to bear privately funded fruit.

Former State Representative and Mayor Win Moses thinks so, at least.

“I was 30 years ahead of the times,” said Moses, a Democrat who served as mayor from 1980 to 1987 and has lived in the Three Rivers Apartments at Lafayette and Superior streets since 1989 — long before the construction of Parkview field sparked a downtown residential renaissance marked by the restoration of older properties and the construction of gleaming new ones, usually subsidized by taxpayers to one degree or another.

That’s not the case with the makeover at Three Rivers, which was recently purchased by the Besyata Investment Group and Scharf Group. Although the new owners are asking City Council for an abatement that would lower their taxes on the improvements by $842,463 over 10 years, the new granite countertops, flooring, appliances, lighting, elevators and improvements to the pool and lobbies will apparently all be privately funded. A community garden and even a dog park are also planned.

“It was entirely different 10 years ago, but downtown is a major destination now and you have to upgrade to compete (with newer properties),” Moses said. “Once they do, (Three Rivers) will be way ahead. It’s got the best view of downtown Fort Wayne and is right by the new (riverfront) park.”

“We want to keep up with the new competition,” agreed Property Manager Eric Tripp, who said the complex is 97 percent leased. “(We) value downtown.”

Although some have questioned the degree to which Democratic Mayor Tom Henry has used public incentives to attract private investment downtown, history records that a Republican mayor by the name of Harold Zeis was running city hall in 1964 when the city’s Redevelopment Commission sold 5.6 downtown acres to the Three Rivers Development Corp. for about $250,000. Under Zeis’ predecessor, Democrat Paul “Mike” Burns, the city had paid about $666,000 to buy the land and to demolish eight old and mostly decaying buildings that were replaced by two 14-story towers and a 250-space underground parking garage costing about $6 million, much of it provided by the Indiana & Michigan Electric Co.

At the time The News-Sentinel reported rents would be $130 to $365 per month. Today, posted rents range from a low of $630 for a studio to $2,220 for a three-bedroom. The property, according to Allen County tax records, is assessed at $5.08 million and generates about $111,500 in annual property taxes. The improvements, even with the abatement, would generate an additional $859,482 in property taxes over 10 years.

Would the rundown warehouses that blighted the rivers’ confluence in the mid-’60s have been replaced by something better even if the city had not gotten involved? Would downtown projects that have been completed or planned since then have happened had government not “primed the pump”? It’s impossible to say, of course, but we do know that downtown is now attracting a significant amount of private investment — an indication that proverbial pump is beginning to flow on its own.

I don’t want to make too much of this. In development terms, $5 million is not a lot of money and, even if it were, there’s far more to Fort Wayne than downtown. Whether the city has spent too much there at the expense of neighborhoods and other things is a legitimate political debate.

But even people who seldom venture downtown should not minimize its importance. At the TinCaps game the other night my wife and I sat behind a couple from Kansas City, who are making it a point to visit every professional ball park — both major and minor league — in the country.

“This is the nicest single-A stadium we’ve seen,” the man said as he looked around Parkview Field and at the fast-changing downtown skyline beyond the outfield wall. That, in turn, led to a broader discussion of team namesake Johnny Appleseed, TV pioneer Philo Farnsworth and a host of other things that make Fort Wayne special and even unique. When they talk to their friends back home and during their travels about Fort Wayne — and they will — I’m confident the impression will be a good one.

Such things don’t happen by accident, and should be appreciated when they do.

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.