Eric Kuhne, world-renowned architect and owner of CivicArts, journeyed from his home in England to present a vision of Fort Wayne river front development at a “Fifth Tuesday” city council meeting on January 29th.  One of Mr. Kuhne’s first projects was our own Headwaters Park, and his vision for our river front used those plans as a beginning point for further improvement, incorporating concepts and ideas that have made Headwaters such an outstanding success.  Make no little plans!


San Antonio:  Over the years of river front development discussion, opposing views have arisen of just what, how, and where development should occur.  Often leaping to the forefront of the discussions is reference to the San Antonio River Walk.  Many would like to see a San Antonio-style river walk, and rightly so, given its beauty.  But the San Antonio River Walk is not the appropriate overall type of development for Fort Wayne although a limited application of some of its aspects into the proposed Headwaters 2.0 “Garden Rooms” might be feasible.

The San Antonio River, created by about 100 large springs, originates four miles above San Antonio.  Its history is colored by efforts similar to those visible along our rivers in Fort Wayne:  efforts to save through numerous plans, benign neglect of banks and of the river itself, and efforts at flood control.  By the time it reaches San Antonio, it is a mere canal over which one can easily cast stones and hit the other side.  At one time, the San Antonio city planners actually considered sealing over the river with concrete and turning it into a sewer.  It is just that narrow as it flows through the City.

Although the river was small, flooding issues occurred over the decades.  In order to resolve flooding issues, the Olmos Dam and a cutoff were constructed.   The Olmos protects the city itself from flooding and the cutoff diverts the flow of the San Antonio’s regular pathway so that the River Walk is not flooded.   The “Great Bend” forms the basis for the River Walk, thus the cutoff was created to divert the San Antonio River – with its potential for flooding – from its original course so that it would bypass the area that had become the River Walk.

Finally, San Antonio has one river; we have three.  A plan based on San Antonio’s success is not possible for our river front development – not unless engineers plan on rerouting the St. Marys and somehow cutting its width in half.  Even that would not alter the fact that two other rivers impact our downtown albeit to a much lesser extent than the St. Marys.

San Antonio

San Antonio River – note the cutoff which takes the river past the “Great Bend” to allow for the River Walk.


Fort Wayne: Fort Wayne is not San Antonio, and the St. Marys River is not the San Antonio River.  The St. Marys – the river which most impacts downtown Fort Wayne and will be the primary focus of development – begins 100 miles away with its source near the Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio.   By the time it reaches Fort Wayne, 75% of its journey has been through farmland. Farmland runoff – called a nonpoint source of pollution – creates pollution in the St. Marys.

The St. Marys River as it enters downtown.  Note the width of the St. Marys as compared to the width of the San Antonio.

The St. Marys River as it enters downtown. Note the width of the St. Marys as compared to the width of the San Antonio.

As the St. Marys reaches Fort Wayne, it is loaded with nonpoint source pollution – including large amounts of e. coli from manure runoff.  As it enters Allen County from the southeast and makes it turn into Fort Wayne, urban runoff from the numerous subdivisions now add to its load of pollution.

This is in stark contrast to the San Antonio River which has a mere four miles until it reaches the City of San Antonio.  This 96-mile difference in length has tremendous impact on the size and the pollution of the St. Marys.

Note the St. Marys and its source in Ohio.

Note the St. Marys and its source in Ohio.

The Great Black Swamp:  Fort Wayne is at the end point of two incoming rivers – the St. Joe and the St. Marys. These two form the Maumee which flows northeast to Lake Erie.   Another factor that impacts the way in which the river front will be developed is what was once the Great Black Swamp.

The Great Black Swamp was a virtually impassable morass of 100 miles in length by 40 miles in width. Fort Wayne lay at its western-most point.  Although the Swamp was drained and conquered, the nature of the soil remains heavy clay due to the Great Black Swamp. This composition has a bearing on absorption of water when the St. Marys does flood along its river banks.

While it is all well and good also to look at other cities with three rivers – Pittsburgh sports the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers which join to form the Ohio River in Pittsburgh – Fort Wayne must make its plans and prepare its designs based on the topographic, geographic, and geologic constraints specific to this area. Far too many people eye the river banks and see them merely as plots of land to develop with businesses and high rises and condos.

After all, who doesn’t love waking up in the morning and looking out at river scenery? Or dining by the edge of the water? But the areas prime for development downtown all lie in a flood plain. That will not change, and, we cannot continue to build walls, levees, and berms all around the City which only rearrange the volume, velocity, and overflow location of the St. Marys.

Developing the St. Marys must be done with an eye to the reality of river behavior. Eric Kuhne’s Headwaters Park 2.0 takes into consideration the fact that the area lies in a flood plain. The creation of “Garden Rooms” piggybacks off the Headwaters Park plan of compatibility with the river in non-flooding and flooding periods. Minimal commercial building should be strategically placed in those areas that are least impacted by the flood plain.

One of the earlier architects and urban planners I admire most is Daniel Burnham, often referred to as the “Father of the City Beautiful Movement.” Of visions, he said:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”

And, while times have changed – we certainly would now include daughters and granddaughters capable of making big plans – Burnham’s words still ring true.   He did not shy from big plans claiming among some of his most well-known works the 1901 Plan for Washington, D.C., 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the Plan of Chicago.

We have legacies of Kessler, Robinson, and Shurcliff, all great men with visions and plans – and Fort Wayne is a testament to their plans. We also have the diagrams that never die, and now, just as Burnham said, is the time to “make no little plans.”


About Charlotte A. Weybright

I own a home in the historical West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have four grown sons and nine grandchildren - four grandsons and five granddaughters. I love to work on my home, and I enjoy crafts of all types. But, most of all, I enjoy being involved in political and community issues.
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