FORT WAYNE – World-renown architect and New Haven native Eric Kuhne returned home Tuesday to deliver a sweeping vision for downtown Fort Wayne’s riverfront, wowing the City Council and dozens of spectators.
And none of it was an entirely new idea.
In 1909, Charles Mulford Robinson designed a string of parks along Fort Wayne’s rivers, and in 1912, George Kessler designed a system of boulevards ringing them. In the 1980s, Kuhne proposed building on those plans to turn 280 acres along the rivers downtown into one large, central park, and from that idea the 30 acres of Headwaters Park was born.
Tuesday, Kuhne proposed turning 120 acres of the original 280 into a park, from the Main Street bridge just west of downtown to the confluence on the east, near the water filtration plant.
“It’s such an obvious, and simple move,” Kuhne said.
Calling it “Headwaters 2.0,” he said it “will extend what we’ve already done.”
It would create five times the existing accessible river frontage and connect seven neighborhoods, which he said are the heart of the city.
“And if you look at the aerial photos, most of it’s already green – we wouldn’t have to acquire industrial property and tear it down,” Kuhne said. “It’s there waiting for us.”
Kessler’s plan had called for creating a lagoon that was never built at the confluence of the rivers near the water filtration plant; Kuhne’s plan from the 1980s called for building that lagoon and centering it with a massive fountain, water cannons and an arcade along the front of the filtration plant.
“It’s an iconic centerpiece,” he said.
When asked about the price, Kuhne said it was a mistake to create a budget before the vision but said that most of the funding for Headwaters Park came from private sources.
“And the budget for this thing was miniscule compared to the value it’s meant to the city,” he said. Headwaters has been so popular, he said, it was designed for eight festivals a year but now hosts 40 or more events and is being overused.
A large, popular central park along the rivers would not only attract economic development, he said, but the “holy grail” of downtown revitalization – residential building.
“Downtown, we could build thousands of homes in the next decade,” Kuhne said.
The city is about to embark on a massive study of the downtown rivers and how to use them, but Department of Community Development Director John Urbahns said Kuhne’s plan builds right into that effort rather than competing with it.
“I think it helps visualize things for the community,” Urbahns said. “These are great ideas.”
Best of all, Kuhne said later, the concepts were created in the first Headwaters Park effort, so the concept drawings and plans are already owned by the Headwaters Park Alliance and free for the city to use.
Kuhne’s presentation was funded by the Friends of the Parks, the Economic Development Alliance and the Redevelopment Commission.
Kuhne, 61, is a New Haven native who worked in Fort Wayne planning from 1973 to 1975 under Mayor Ivan Lebamoff.
Kuhne left Fort Wayne in 1981 to pursue a master’s degree at Princeton University. But in 1982, a few days after President Ronald Reagan visited to see flood damage, Kuhne flew back to Fort Wayne at the request of Mayor Win Moses. City leaders wanted to move forward with building the downtown park.
Kuhne, now an internationally known architect based in London, credits Headwaters Park with launching his career. His design firm, CivicArts, works on multimillion-dollar public projects around the world. The most recent is the RMS Titanic memorial in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that opened last year.