(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-installment joint project between Fort Wayne Ink Spot and Input Fort Wayne [inputfortwayne.com] looking at the catalytic potential of Northeast Indiana’s largest project—Electric Works—and how it will affect various neighborhoods near and around the development such as inclusivity, gentrification, and community development.)
One of the biggest unanswered questions about Electric Works is: How will a project of this nature and scale, in an economically depressed part of town, impact the neighborhoods surrounding it and across the city?
As the master redevelopment firm, RTM Ventures has already started construction on the 39-acre, 18-building adaptive reuse project that seeks to transform the city’s vacant General Electric (GE) campus into a thriving, mixed-use innovation district.
From early on in the project’s inception, RTM Ventures has implemented diversity and inclusion measures as key parts of Electric Works’s success, which included listening sessions with neighborhood leaders and seeking out diverse investors from many segments of the community as two concrete steps toward these goals. There is a stated goal of giving 15 percent of the construction contracts to “underutilized business entities,” that includes minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses.
“I’m optimistic and hopeful”
Residents on the city’s South and Southeast sides, poised to see some of the biggest impacts of the project, are already wrestling with the implications of this question, in all of its complexity, and dissecting the pros and cons for themselves.
Andrew Hoffman lives about a mile away from the Electric Works campus in the Williams Woodland Park Neighborhood of the 46807. Celebrated as Fort Wayne’s first planned neighborhood, Williams Woodland Park is a beacon of late-19th and early-20th century domestic architecture with regal pillars and Arts and Crafts details. Many of its homes were once owned by prominent local citizens.
“It’s a pocket historic neighborhood,” Hoffman says. “We’re like this island of historic homes that has really benefited from all the 46807 development over the last couple of years and people choosing an urban lifestyle. We, ultimately, want the best for all the neighborhoods around us because we don’t want to just be the island.”
As the former Executive Director of NeighborLink Fort Wayne, Hoffman has seen firsthand many of the historic homes on the Southside suffering from neglect and intimately understands the challenges homeowners face in improving the value of their houses. He hopes the presence of Electric Works will help homeowners in the area by increasing their property values.
“A lot of these fantastic historic neighborhoods in the area have been abandoned and forgotten for a long time, and they’re deteriorating to the point where we’re getting really close to those neighborhoods not being able to turn over,” Hoffman says. “So, I’m optimistic and hopeful in the Electric Works project because we need to see more redevelopment happen in Fort Wayne. We’re a good city, especially when it comes to neighborhoods.”
Such improvements, however, can come at a cost, Hoffman recognizes. Gentrification is a real concern, whenever redevelopment happens in urban areas. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Gentrification occurs when neighborhoods are transformed from low to high value and can result in displacing long-term residents and businesses.”
While gentrification is not yet widespread in Fort Wayne, a National Community Reinvestment Coalition study says Fort Wayne is showing early signs of gentrification, particularly as downtown and its nearby neighborhoods, like those around Electric Works, see reinvestment.
One neighborhood that has been suspect for gentrification in Fort Wayne is the West Central Neighborhood downtown.
“Over the past decade, houses in the West Central Neighborhood that once were divided into apartments have been converted back to single-family homes. Houses in the area are listed at up to $455,000 on Zillow.com, a real estate website,” reports the Journal Gazette.
For Hoffman, gentrification of long-neglected parts of the city, like Electric Works, may be inevitable, and in some cases, even necessary to support growth in Fort Wayne. But another factor that complicates gentrification is that it tends to happen along racial lines.
A 2019 study by National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that displacement tends to negatively impact low-income, rural, Black, and Hispanic residents while concentrating wealth and wealth-building opportunities in areas that exclude them.
“I think there are obviously some legitimate concerns about big projects like Electric Works,” Hoffman says. “Where I think it gets more exciting and what the community needs to think more critically about is: How do you do gentrification with justice? How do you, as a developer, make sure you’re meeting the needs of various demographics and not just making things great for those who can afford to be a part of it?”
Ultimately for Hoffman, the possible benefits of Electric Works outweigh the concerns.
“I hope that the project really executes the way the Electric Works team envisions it—that it will be an economic driver and bring life back to an area that desperately needs it,” he says. “I would love to see the whole South Central or the urban core be redeveloped and preserved and bring things back to being walkable, engaging, and social. We need that, as a community. Investing in relationships is important. Our built environment dictates so much about how humans interact.”
“It needs to be for all”
PJ Thuringer describes himself as being from the “not so flashy side of West Central.” He sits on the board of the neighborhood association.
“This part of West Central is one of the oldest, continually lived-in neighborhoods in the county,” he says. “There’s a lot of history here, and there’s still a lot of poverty here. It’s more of a mix of incomes. We love our neighborhood, good and bad.”
As a lover of history, Thuringer feels that part of the appeal of Electric Works is its ability to preserve historic buildings on the General Electric campus, which had sat unused and in disrepair for decades on the South side.
“You cannot waste those buildings; you cannot let them crumble; and Fort Wayne has not had great history of preservation of iconic structures,” Thuringer says. “There are plenty of spots you can point to in the downtown area where they should have saved the buildings.”
The local historic district in West Central expanded to include Thuringer’s home, which he says will ensure that the homes in that area stay there and the authentic nature of the neighborhood remains intact.
As a white man, Thuringer’s hope is that Electric Works is diverse, inclusive, and attracts people from all across the city.
“It needs to be for all,” he says. “I hope it’s for all. This city, there seems to be this demarcation line that goes back to the redlining days and that People of Color are not necessarily welcomed in certain areas historically, and I want more for this city. In order for us to grow and move forward and be successful and attract businesses and future residents, we need to be inclusive.”
Thuringer gladly welcomes the changes to the neighborhood that Electric Works will inevitably bring.
“I’ve always considered this neighborhood to be a part of downtown, so Electric Works contributes to the vibrancy of the area,” he says. “Yes, it’s going to change the feel of the area, but it’s going to be a vibrant, connecting place that brings people together in a place where people want to be.”
“I hope it will grow my neighborhood”
Achieving her life’s dream of buying and renovating a Victorian home, Arline Nation has lived in the Hoagland Masterson Neighborhood since 2013 and has been actively engaged in improving conditions for herself and her neighbors.
“I was president of the neighborhood association from 2016 to 2020, and I completely immersed myself in learning how my neighborhood got to where it was and what I could do to help change it.”
With Electric Works so close by, Nation is excited about the possibilities.
“I am wildly in favor of redeveloping that site,” she says. “I can see it from my front porch. I think probably half my neighborhood can see it from their homes. It’s like a monument to blight. It needs to be redeveloped.”
But Nation admits that her neighbors may be a bit more skeptical.
“I think for the most part my neighbors are in favor of the project, but there’s also a distance as in, ‘It really doesn’t have anything to do with us,’” she says.
Nation says that for decades, neighborhoods like hers have been deprived of improvements, neglected because of their socioeconomic demographics, and left without a decision-making voice.
While she isn’t sure if Electric Works will be designed to appeal to everyone, she’s still hopeful about its potential.
“I don’t see Electric Works as an overall negative,” she says. “I think it’s going to help my neighborhood and others in the area grow and improve. For the city at large, I think Electric Works will be a huge benefit. I think it will draw in a lot of people from all over the city. I think my neighborhood would benefit from increased economic diversity and a diversity in our education levels. I hope it will grow my neighborhood and that it will get new housing construction, that it will revitalize our vacant commercial structures and vacant commercial lots. I hope it saves a lot of our older buildings and gives them new value.”
“This is Hoagland Masterson, and no one gives a damn”
Also in the Hoagland Masterson Neighborhood is Fort Wayne native and master gardener Yolande Black. Black has mixed feelings about the impact Electric Works will have on her neighborhood.
“I’m glad to see the complex being used,” she says. “It would be a waste to let it go. It’s a huge complex with its own history. I’d like to see mixed businesses come in, not just corporations. Maybe a small hotel, restaurant, independent shops. We are fortunate enough in Fort Wayne to have a lot of small businesses, and I’d like to see that carried on.”
What gives Black pause is the number of slum lords renting homes in the area who don’t seem to care about the neighborhood.
“This is Hoagland Masterson, and no one gives a damn,” Black says. “They just think it’s a poor area. No one cares because of the neighborhood. I don’t have a lot of hope for this area. Standards that are made OK in our neighborhoods aren’t acceptable in West Central. People don’t care what happens here. You have these double standards for businesses and what they can do. You have the double standards for what the landlords around here are allowed to get away with, and you have homeowners, like me, who are trying to maintain our property with some dignity and some respect, but the double standards are making it hard for us.”
Black says she is hoping against hope that her neighborhood will see some change.
“It’s going to take some far-sighted people to see what the possibilities are in some of these homes, and I just don’t see it right now,” she says.
Black’s house is being considered for the national registry and, despite the difficulties, she takes pride in maintaining her garden and her home.
“My house sticks out like a sore thumb because of the yard, but it shows that there is somebody here that lives here that cares,” she says. “And as long as I’m here, and if I can get this house registered, then I’ll be OK because I know nobody can come in and make major changes, and it has to stay the way it is. That’s what I’m aiming for. Eventually, I would like to leave Fort Wayne and move closer to my daughter. In the meantime, I’m healthy. I’m lucky, I hope I survive this pandemic.”
“Housing is a very important part of an Innovation District”
One major thread between all the neighborhoods is the fear that Electric Works’ presence will invite not just a rise in housing prices, but that the downside would be displacement of current tenants as well as locking-out potential low- to middle-income renters.
Having worked on market-rate and affordable housing projects for more than 40 years, including the Renaissance Pointe affordable housing community in Southeast Fort Wayne in 2011, RTM Venture’s Kevan Biggs says affordable housing is a large reason his team was selected to work on the Electric Works project in the first place.
They understand that the rental market and landlord complexion is varied within historically neglected neighborhoods, like those around Electric Works. The area is home to low-income renters, but not all low-income renters are “bad renters,” and gentrification is not selective to good renters or bad renters.
“Before we even bought the property, we recognized that affordable housing would be an important part of the overall masterplan,” Biggs says. “We don’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction after everybody realizes the rents have escalated, and now we’ve lost a lot of good renters in the community.”
Thus, he says that throughout the project, his team will be “carefully screening” renters and landlords to help “good” renters and landlords stay in the area.
“When you’re thoughtful about creating an affordable housing development and it’s done in a well-managed way, you have the controls in place to create a diverse and thriving community, among people of multiple income levels,” Biggs says. “Housing is a very important part of an Innovation District to work, so we don’t want to displace renters as a part of the community fabric.”
So, what qualifies as “affordable housing”?
To qualify for low-income housing tax credits, rental properties previously had to either have at least 20 percent of their units set aside as rent-restricted and occupied by households with incomes at or below 50 percent area median income (AMI). Or they had to have at least 40 percent of units set aside to be both rest restricted and occupied by households with incomes at or below 60 percent AMI.
However, in 2018, the Consolidated Appropriations Act allowed property owners to accommodate households with incomes up to 80 percent of the AMI, so long as the average income/rent limit in the project remained at 60 percent or less of the AMI.
Biggs feels this change in the way affordable housing is determined will help his team create more dynamic and mixed-income housing opportunities at Electric Works.
“It really allows developers and property management companies to solve a lot of housing issues in a flexible way,” Biggs says.
This article is distributed in partnership with the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information is available at fwmediacollaborative.com.