On a breezy bend of the Detroit River in the southwest corner of the city, Fort Wayne sprawls across 96 acres — a star-shaped defensive sentinel that never saw action and now serves as an urban park. But it has fallen into serious disrepair over the years and is open to the public only on weekends. Thanks to the looming construction of a second international bridge crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, this unusual historic site is up for a major revival.
“The Fort is near the area where the New International Trade Crossing will be located, and the administration is committed to protecting the interests of the people in Delray and Southwest Detroit,” says Dave Murray, deputy press secretary for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, referring to the residential neighborhoods surrounding the fort. “Exploring the potential of Fort Wayne, a cherished but underutilized community resource, is part of this effort.”
For those who have been living and working in the industrial Delray neighborhood of Southwest Detroit, the Fort’s future is personal. Simone Sagovac, program director of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, says that Fort Wayne has long been recognized as the number-one anchor in the Delray neighborhood, and the only green connection that residents have to the city’s waterfront.
“We have all this industrial land, and this is our one gem on the river,” Sagovac said. Investment has the potential to augment neighborhood green space and, by linking it to other greenway projects, enhance connectivity in a community that has been long neglected.
HR&A Advisors, the New York City firm that played leading roles in the development of the High Line in Manhattan and the Newseum in Washington, D.C, was retained for $235,000 by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. after a competitive bidding process. It is tasked with developing a viable plan for Fort Wayne’s future. With the $2.1 billion bridge project promising to bring traffic to the neighborhood — the new 160-acre U.S. customs plaza will be across the street from the Fort and is expected to displace several hundred residents — everything is on the table, including preservation, cultural development, and mixed-use housing, hotel, retail, office, and industrial. The initial RFP issued by the state indicates that it is also interested in exploring the site for logistics use related to the bridge project, as well as its potential for “placemaking (opportunities) grounded in authentic history.”
In imagining the possibilities, planners don’t have many fitting examples to inspire them. As a sizable urban fort with overlapping ownerships, New York’s Governors Island and San Francisco’s Presidio probably come closest. But Detroit, which owns most of the Fort, has unusually challenging financial problems. The editorial board of the Detroit News argues that state money invested into Fort Wayne is well spent, lest it become “just another blighted area.”
The site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built between 1842 and 1851 on the point in America that was closest to British Canada. It was designed as a five-point star — the better for cannon positioning. But before the Fort was even stocked with artillery, the United States and Britain signed a treaty promising diplomatic solutions to conflicts over territory. Fort Wayne didn’t house troops until the Civil War, when 14,000 Michigan residents responded to President Lincoln’s call for military volunteers in the Union Army. It continued in the vein, as an induction and training station for new service members, through the denouement of the Vietnam War. It also served a term during World War II as a military motor vehicle department in the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and a Cold War stint as an anti-aircraft hub tasked with defending Detroit. By 1971, the Army had turned over most of the Fort to the city.
On Fort Wayne’s grounds are 39 buildings, including limestone barracks, officer houses, quartermaster offices and the Tuskegee Airmen Museum. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still uses 13 acres of the site. Extraordinarily, an ancient Native American burial mound dating back to 1000 C.E. is also on the grounds. It was excavated and documented by archeologists in the 1870s and again in the 1940s. Today, the burial mound is fenced off and maintained by the All Nations Veterans Council. In 1979, the city opened a Woodlands Indian Museum near the site to honor Native American history — but it closed due to lack of funds in 1991.
The Detroit Parks and Recreation Department and volunteers with the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition operate the site today. Vintage baseball teams play on the grounds, and the Fort hosts flea markets, historical re-enactments and ghost walks. But city staff and volunteers are resource-limited, and their ability to interpret the site is truncated by its seasonal hours. (Though tours can be booked at any time.)
“The Fort Wayne area certainly has considerable interest historically,” Murray says. “But with the buildings in disarray there were questions about what might be possible in terms of restoration and other potential uses that would be beneficial for the surrounding community — and the city as a whole.”
With the new International Trade Crossing scheduled for completion in 2020, the design challenges of re-fitting a site like this into the landscape of a city become pressing. How does an unusual historic site become part of the future? What is worth preserving, and what is worth letting go? And how will it impact the 2,500-plus Delray residents, who are already due for upheaval with the bridge and plaza construction?
HR&A is now on the frontline of answering these questions. MEDC chose them because, according to Murray, “the firm demonstrated it has the ingenuity and expertise to create a compelling, achievable vision for Fort Wayne.” In the state’s initial RFP, it indicates that any “analysis must contemplate maintaining the historic integrity of Fort Wayne … (and) demonstrate vision and ingenuity.” HR&A will be expected to assess the market context of Delray and other surrounding neighborhoods, as well as greater Detroit. It must diagram the parcel boundaries for Fort Wayne and its neighbors, clearly identifying ownership, deed restrictions and archeological concerns. Current cultural uses and transportation conditions will also be evaluated. MEDC will consider the study a success if it is able to “assess opportunities for Fort Wayne reuse and area redevelopment” in a way that is reflective of market realities, historic context and neighboring communities.
“HR&A has a successful track record of reimagining properties, including historic sites located in urban areas, so they can be used to their full potential,” Murray says. “The people at the firm are experts and we’re interested in seeing what they can dream up.”
Sagovac says that the consultants already reached out to the community for “very preliminary” conversations about what a public engagement process might look like. This step will bring in another kind of expertise: the lived experience of people who depend upon the Fort as a neighborhood anchor. For years, there have been discussions about how the Fort might be better utilized in the community by, for example, enhancing the major roads that lead to it and extending the Detroit riverfront redevelopment project all the way south to the Fort. Green buffering could help protect residents and visitors from the heavy pollution of Delray’s industrial sites. Sagovac is also interested in how military veterans might be tapped to rehabilitate the buildings on the Fort. In one elegant move, the initiative could provide needed jobs, restore damaged structures and nod to the site’s historic purpose.
“We’re really looking for ways to connect with one another and to other green areas of Southwest Detroit,” Sagovac said. She’d like to see Southwest Detroit parks and recreation center all connected to the riverfront via the fort, perhaps with a bike trail and new pocket parks. This would neatly link to the bike path that will be part of the new multi-model international bridge. It would also leverage other ambitious Detroit trails that are currently in development, including the Iron Belle, which will cross 1,259 hiking miles (774 by bike) between the city and Ironwood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
But there are no guarantees. Sagovac said that there are “real fears” that the community’s input will be “swooped away” by other interests. She’s frustrated by speculation that the fort could be used as a logistics business. “There are plenty of vacant lands in Delray, plenty of industrial sites, that would be better for that than taking the one green spot that remains in the area,” she said.”
However, there is a “really fantastic opportunity” for Delray “to be a tourist spot, as well as providing local access to the river,” she said. She’s also interested in how good planning could make the fort an economic generator. “ I know the planning process wants to identify ways to have the fort be sustainable. I know it is suffering (from disinvestment) under its current structure.” If the buildings on the site are rehabilitated, it will unleash real community potential in one of the city’s most isolated neighborhoods. “That fort once served thousands of people who lived on site with a theater, a bakery, shops, all right there on site,” Sagovac said. “That could happen again.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.