Renovation project required multiple resources

After several failed attempts, the old southside Coca-Cola building will find new life as affordable rental housing.

The renovation of Fort Wayne’s historic south-side Coca-Cola bottling plant to create affordable housing will add another couple of steps on the property ladder for working class families.

The $13.4 million project, supported through a partnership of Fort Wayne-based Vincent Village and Cincinnati-based commercial developer Miller Valentine, will create 31 apartments in the Coca-Cola building at 1631 E. Pontiac St., and another 31, single-family, lease-to-purchase homes in the surrounding area.

A previous attempt by the city to renovate the long-vacant building, which it has owned since 2009, failed because that developer could not obtain the low income housing tax credits needed to make the project fly. This time, the development partners won what will total about $11 million in tax credits over about 10 years.

Although the city of Fort Wayne has been criticized by some for an aggressive blight elimination program that has resulted in the demolition of a number of homes in the neighborhood, “We want to keep everything standing that we can,” said Heather Presley-Cowen, director of housing and neighborhood services for the city of Fort Wayne. “This obviously is big part of neighborhood history, the question was, can we find a developer? Is it feasible?”

Making the grade

Applications for the tax credits are very competitive, and ranked on a point system. A few points one way or another can make or break a project award.

One of the key things a prospective developer needs is to demonstrate community support. A partnership between Miller Valentine and Vincent Village, which, for 26 years, has provided a homeless shelter, subsidized housing and related case management services in the neighborhood, “was a logical fit,” said Denise Andorfer, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

“Vincent Village sits in that neighborhood,” Presley-Cowen said. “It obviously is engaged in that neighborhood and it has a great opportunity to get community engagement and buy-in through its relationship with the neighborhood.”

The previous developer also required too much in subsidies, Presley-Cowen said; Miller Valentine’s proposal offered a lower cost and lower overhead.

The rental units will be leased at below-market rates to families who meet low-income guidelines – currently defined as $23,400 to $34,980 a year for a family of four.

“This is not going to be housing for people with no income. This is going to be housing for working families,” Presley-Cowen said.

And while the income levels may seem low, they actually are above the median of the incomes of residents already there, she added.

It’s all about options

Although Vincent Village would not move families from homelessness directly to one of the units in the Coca-Cola building, it does offer another opportunity for them down the road.

“We like our families to have as many options as possible,” Andorfer said.

“Vincent Village brings a strong history of working with families that can face barriers…with transportation, child care, mental health issues. While it won’t be doing the same case management it does with families moving out of homelessness, it will provide assistance linking tenants with the services and organizations they need to be successful.

“A lot of the middle class is one paycheck away from being homeless. It can be a real struggle so we want to make sure people have all the wonderful resources we have in Fort Wayne accessible to them,” Andorfer said.

The Coca-Cola project, now dubbed “Bottleworks,” will also add to the lease-to-purchase opportunities in the neighborhood. Kevan Biggs, of Ideal Homes, has built a number of lease-to-purchase units in the neighborhood that offer residents the chance to buy a home after a 15-year rental period. Bottleworks will add 31 more single-family units that follow the same design pattern book.

Work is scheduled to begin in early 2017 and be completed the following year.

Preserve and protect

Repurposing the art deco Coca-Cola building, completed in about 1940, comes with its own set of challenges.

“The biggest problem with a building like this is it was designed for something else,” said Michael Galbraith, executive director of Allen County’s preservation organization, ARCH.

There are practical changes that must be made to install heating and electrical systems and the walls that will divide the large building into 31 apartments – and the goal is to do that without diminishing the building’s historical interior and exterior elements.

Martin Riley Architects, a Fort Wayne firm that has done a number of historic preservation projects, is the architect for the Bottleworks renovation.

A local architectural firm, Pohlmeyer and Pohlmeyer, also was used to create the original design. Following Coca-Cola’s 1924 plant standards, owner/manager Doyle Anderson built a much larger, more modern facility.

Coca-Cola’s plant standards called for red brick and an art deco style that simultaneously embraced the machine age and repudiated the old difference between the fine and industrial arts, according to a report on the building compiled by ARCH.

The standardized plant also had a recessed, offset entrance with a wide stone surround, and used large display windows with glass block transoms on the first floor around the bottling areas to showcase the machinery and the highly mechanized bottling process.

The building was on ARCH’s most endangered list for years, but was removed this spring with the approval of the tax credits for the project.

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