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COLUMN

Will a downtown icon have to move out of the way of downtown progress?

Word of big project has Cindy's Diner, others, worrying about new locations or the loss of history

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 8:57 am

A business that was a downtown icon before downtown regained its cool may be forced to move – again – to make room for still more redevelopment.

“I got a call from my landlord Friday who said it appears to be a done deal,” Cindy's Diner owner John Scheele said, referring to longstanding rumors that a major project was in the works for the block bounded by Wayne, Harrison, Webster and Berry Streets – supposedly involving a parking garage and a multi-story building for Ash Brokerage and possibly other tenants. Officials with Ash, the city and others involved have so far declined to comment, but owners of properties on the block have reportedly agreed to sell, most likely to the not-for-profit Downtown Development Trust, which was created in 2010 by the Economic Development Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District.

Another developer is also considering housing units and commercial space on the site, sources say.

Ash Brokerage had operated downtown at Main and Harrison streets, but in 2006 the nationwide insurance company moved its headquarters into the former Waterfield Mortgage Co. complex at 7609 W. Jefferson Blvd.

I can't confirm that the deal is done, but I do know that any demolition could claim at least two buildings representing a considerable amount of local and sometimes controversial history – and that Schele's isn't the only business looking to move. It's just the most visible and, perhaps, the one with the most to lose -- or gain.

“It's been very good here,” said Scheele, who with wife Cindy paid $16,000 for the then-empty diner in 1990 and moved it from Clay and Berry streets just east of downtown to the corner of Harrison and Wayne, where it is now just blocks from Parkview Field and other recent improvements. Built in 1953 by Valentine Manufacturing of Wichita, Kan., the diner opened as Noah's Ark at Clinton and Jefferson before being renamed Marge's Diner and moving to Clay and Berry in 1966.

Because Scheele has only a month-to-month lease, he has little choice but to move if told to do so. But relocating the diner, installing new utilities and other expenses could cost $100,000, “and I can't afford to do that,” he said.

The pro-life Women's Care Center, which opened 10 years ago next to what was then an abortion clinic at 827 Webster St., is also looking to move now that a tentative deal has been reached to sell its building. The clinic, subsequently closed and was recently on the market, but Coordinator Anne Koehl said the counseling center still received hundreds of visitors a month and wants to remain downtown, possibly on Wayne Street.

“I won't miss the (former abortion) clinic, but It's bittersweet, and quite a jolt (to have to move),” she said.

In addition to the Women's Care Center and the empty former clinic that was once the site of contentious protests, other buildings that could be affected include a vacant home on Webster, a small attorneys' office on Wayne and the neoclassical building at 222 W. Wayne St. that has been deemed historically and architecturally significant by city planners. In fact the building, erected around 1919 for the Anthony Wayne Institute, an early business school, was to be considered for protection by the Local Historic Review Board last month before the owner pulled it from the agenda shortly before the meeting.

An employee of the tattoo parlor in the basement said he also expects to move.

Mike Galbraith, executive director of historic preservation group ARCH, said loss of the building would be unfortunate – and perhaps unnecessary.

“In a lot of progressive cities, they would find a way to integrate the building into the design (of any new project),” he said.

The five-story building at 229 W. Berry that contains the Campbell & Fetters Bank and other tenants would reportedly not be included in the project.

Even though a lot of renovation was done before Koehl's organization moved into its old house, the Women's Care Center can move relatively easily. So can a tattoo parlor and attorneys. Scheele can't, and it would be beyond a shame if Cindy's Diner – which was threatened with relocation in 2006 when its site was temporarily considered for a new hotel – became a victim of the very downtown “improvement” it represents.

The proposed project sounds as though it would be good for Fort Wayne, but surely the people involved have pockets deep enough to help preserve the locally unique and historic Cindy's for future generations.

There's an empty parking lot across the street that looks pretty good to Scheele, and if that works out he won't even have to take the old "Lincoln Highway" marker off the building since the diner would remain on Harrison, which 100 years ago was part of the country's first transcontinental highway.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.