Feature: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
‘The old South Side is the most exciting place to be.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A New Era for Near South

Developers seek to meld poor and prosperous, history and future, in an ‘urban village.’

By Betty Brink

Sometime in the summer of 1982, the Tivoli Theater, a fixture on Fort Worth’s south side for 53 years, was bulldozed into a pile of rubble and hauled off to a landfill. Not even the public library’s researchers can find the exact date on which this once-proud movie house came to such an inglorious end — taking with it a marquee of twinkling lights, the inviting art-deco interior, and its history.

The Tivoli had been an institution on Magnolia Avenue, a transport for the working- and middle-class area’s kids and grown-ups into the fantasy lands of Hollywood. During the Depression, it was a cheap escape from hopelessness. During World War II, it was the place where awed neighborhood residents saw an American war in progress for the first time through the grainy black and white of newsreels. When its screen went dark sometime in the 1970s, the title of its last picture show was lost to history.

Although the Tivoli lacked the luxurious trappings of the city’s downtown theatres, it offered a big screen and some wonderful 1930s art-deco embellishments to its sturdy brick structure. But its razing still left a big hole in the history and soul of its neighborhood.

“The Tivoli was a terrible loss,” Daedalus Development Corp. co-owner and historic preservationist Francis McCarthy said. “These are the places that made a neighborhood unique and vibrant. ... We can’t afford to lose any more of them.”

Maybe we won’t. At least on Fort Worth’s Near South Side. Thanks to McCarthy and a handful of other urban redevelopers, a progressive city planning department and years of groundwork laid by Fort Worth South, Inc., a nonprofit, member-funded redevelopment group, a minor renaissance is taking place in the Tivoli’s old neighborhood.

Apartments are rising from the figurative ashes of abandoned historic buildings. Street-level retail stores are cohabitating with loft apartments above. Art galleries, cafes, bed and breakfasts, and dance studios are bringing new life and light to empty houses and dusty storefronts. Condominiums, old apartments, and period homes are being built or restored in the 1920s-through-1940s style of the neighborhood’s heyday — and plans for even more ambitious projects are on the drawing boards of architects and developers.

Not all is rosy. Some deep-rooted societal problems common to most long-neglected inner-city areas are still out there: Homeless men and women gather on the empty lots in the area’s once labor-intensive industrial corridor. Unknown quantities of pollution may be left behind for the taxpayers to clean up as a 70-year-old printing plant prepares to move out. And fears of the old and the poor that they will become victims of “gentrification,” pushed out by an economic boom, must be allayed if the plan is to work.

But the developers and business people who squeezed into Fort Worth South’s office last week for its monthly breakfast meeting seem intent on making it work. Their goal: a pedestrian-friendly, environmentally sound, urban village that preserves the best of the old, allows room for the new, and is home to people of diverse incomes and backgrounds. If all goes as planned, these folks will be able to ride their bikes to work, stroll to their favorite café, buy their food at a neighborhood grocer, run down the street to the dentist, or hop on a trolley that will take them to the doors of Bass Hall.

If this crew had gotten together a few years earlier, they might well have been meeting last week in the restored auditorium of the Tivoli.

This is an exciting time to be in Fort Worth,” Jill Black said. “And the old South Side is the most exciting place to be.” Black, 35, president of Urban Dwellings, Inc., is about to break ground on her first project in the Fort Worth Southside Redevelopment District, a city-designated area encompassing the Near South Side and the medical district.

To be called the Lofts on Fairmount, Black’s project is a pair of condominium buildings, one with four townhouses and one with six, to be built across from each other at the corner of Oleander and Fairmount streets just south of Magnolia Avenue. The three-story townhouses, of modern design, will be built close to the street.

The townhouses are planned as part of a long-term project that Don Scott, director of Fort Worth South, calls Oleander Walk. The project, to stretch almost from 8th Avenue to Hemphill, would line Oleander, now not much wider than a cow path, with townhouses, built among the existing homes. It would be pedestrian-friendly, with wide sidewalks and rear alley entry garages.

“It is one of the most exciting developments we are involved in,” said Barney Boydston, who works with Dunaway &Assoc. and is the civil engineer on the project.

“There’s a need for urban apartments right now,” Scott said. He cited a recent Fort Worth South study that shows a demand for 2,500 rental units in the central city and another study that found that 17 percent of the more than 30,000 workers employed in the district — more than half working in the hospitals or affiliated health services — would live close to their jobs if good housing were available.

Pedestrian-friendly the Oleander project might be. Low-income, it is not. Black’s townhouses will carry pricetags of $250,000. Another loft project in the area is selling units with a starting price of $180,000. The first phase of that development, the Schaumburg Lofts at Daggett and College near the old Justin Boot factory, is complete. The lofts, with huge windows and exterior spiral staircases, were designed by local architect Ken Schaumburg with a Southwestern-influenced industrial look to fit in with the warehouses and businesses like those directly across the narrow street. Schaumburg will live and office there.

Other pricey lofts are going up at Henderson and Dashwood and a four-unit townhouse called Chez Moi, with prices starting at $200,000, is also planned by Schaumburg.

For advocates for the poor and those who simply like the laid-back ambiance of neighborhoods like Fairmount, the high-dollar developments carry some threat.

Jarid Manos lives in Como, but as director of the Great Plains Restoration Council, a nonprofit group with the ambitious aim of returning the plains to its origins, he works out of an office on Galveston Avenue. Since he’s been there, he’s become an advocate for the working poor in the area. “These people are voiceless,” and those who rent, he said, could be pushed out by that old bugaboo of “gentrification.”

Ralph Watterson, who has lived and worked in the Fairmount neighborhood since 1977, cares about the funky and friendly feel of the area. He hopes, he said, that the developments being planned don’t turn “the ’hood” into a trendy address that loses its unique quality. He pointed to places like Arts on Fifth Avenue, a dance and artist studio where neighbors from 5 to 75 take tap lessons together, for fees that don’t require a bank loan. Then there’s the explosion of light and color that the homes of Hispanic residents bring to the neighborhood every Christmas, he said. Watterson’s business, Old Home Supply House on College Avenue, is filled with the remnants of the old houses from the area that didn’t survive the wrecking ball. “I think what Fort Worth South is doing is good,” he said, although he’s not a member. “I just don’t want this area to ever lose its flavor.”

There’s always the danger, Scott said, that successful redevelopment will force out lower-income residents. But he insisted that his organization is dedicated to development that has room for all. “Our job is to make the redevelopment area as safe and clean as possible for everyone,” he said, “but not push anyone out to become some other neighborhood’s problem.” He said diversity is the key to making it a real community.

When critics question whether Fort Worth South has forgotten the area’s poor, Scott points to the Ripley Arnold controversy. When the residents of the downtown public housing complex were about to be displaced, he said, “We thought the Near South Side would be a great place to put one of the developments.” He suggested four locations to the Fort Worth Housing Authority. “Our vision was to build a neighborhood with townhouses built on existing streets” that could be home to a mix of incomes, he said. While the area had amenities for public housing, job opportunities, and handy bus lines, it failed to qualify because of the high percentage of poor and minority already living in the area.

“There is a fairly high concentration of poverty,” Scott said. His organization’s goal, he said, is to “reduce poverty, not increase it, nor disperse it.” At least 20 percent of the new housing in the area will be aimed at low-income residents, he said, and low-interest home improvement loans will be available to poor homeowners.

Still, the high-end developers keep coming. Black is the latest to jump on this fast-moving train, and she thinks there’ll be no turning back now for the area. This burst of development is thanks in no small part to the coming down of the I-30 overpass a couple of years ago. “It certainly helped,” Scott said. “Suddenly, downtown Fort Worth was connected to the South Side, and the South Side could be seen as a place that was handy and close.”

Black is a Fort Worth native who grew up on the West Side and whose father was a general contractor here for 30 years. She recently returned after a 15-year hiatus on the West Coast and is working out of her father’s old office on Vickery. She and her husband live in the Fairmount Historical District. “When I was growing up,” she laughed, “my grandmother lived in Berkeley (an upscale neighborhood just west of the then-working-class Fairmount addition), and to her, Fairmount was ‘the other side of the tracks.’”

Fairmount’s renaissance started years before that of the Near South. Today, Fairmount’s 1920s-era homes are being grabbed up almost as fast as they come on the market. Values have doubled and tripled in the last five years, with two-bedroom, one-bath bungalows that a few years ago sold for $40,000, now approaching $100,000 in value. Now, Black is living in that much-improved “across the tracks” part of town and looking to help spread the renaissance further east and north, into what for years has been an even lower-income neighborhood.

The area designated by the city for renewal covers about 1,400 acres just south of downtown, bounded by I-30 on the north, the F.W. & Western rail line on the west, and Allen Avenue to the south, with Evans Avenue at its eastern edge. A portion of Fairmount is included. Along with the hundreds of homes and buildings in the area that are ripe for rehabilitation, it has roughly 332 vacant acres on which to build.

“This is boom town,” one developer said.

Within its boundaries lie many of Fort Worth’s oldest structures and much of its history. In 1890, the city’s first platted neighborhood south of downtown was laid out there, and many of its streets bear the names of town fathers: Daggett, Jennings, Peter Smith, Terrell.

Fort Worth High School, first located in the heart of downtown, burned and was rebuilt on Jennings Avenue in 1910; around the corner the Beaux Arts-style Alexander Hogg Elementary had been built ten years earlier.

By 1917, Fort Worth’s first black elementary school stood a few blocks away on Rosedale, the result of years of petitioning by a group called The Colored Citizens of the Southside, who wanted a permanent elementary school for their kids. (They were being taught in churches.) It was named for James E. Guinn, a pioneering black educator here. The original building was torn down, but a complex of schools for black children was built there in the 1930s. Two buildings remain.

All four school buildings outlived their usefulness to children and to segregation. Now, after years of emptiness and neglect, and having survived numerous threats of demolition, these structures have found new life in a different world.

The old high school and elementary school, with their brick exteriors and much of their interiors intact, are now part of a 192-unit apartment compound known as the Homes at Parker Commons. Completed more than two years ago, the complex includes one new building where the old field house sat. There is a 90 percent occupancy rate, according to manager Lori Branch.

The Guinn complex now houses the city’s Business Assistance Center and will soon be home to Fort Worth MedTech Center.

Rusty Walker, a professional clarinetist, was the first tenant in Parker Commons. He lives in one of its smaller apartments on the fourth floor of the old high school. “I love it,” he said, standing on the painted concrete floor in his small living room, made larger by 17-foot ceilings and the light flooding in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. “I ride my bike everywhere or walk,” he said. “It’s safe, convenient, and affordable. What more could you want?”

One of the first new apartment compounds built in the area is Pennsylvania Place, built on Pennsylvania Avenue near Jennings about five years ago. It is attractive but simple, built specifically to provide housing for low-income families and a tax credit for the developer.

Across the street from the apartments, Greg Story opened the Coffee House Gallery last year to rave reviews for the strong coffee in his mugs and the strong art on his walls. He said that, while his lunch crowds were heavy, a slower-than-hoped-for pace of development in the area had caused him to cut back his evening hours. A few weeks ago, the coffeehouse was sold. New manager Corey Bowling said that the new owners are willing to hang in and wait for the area to build up.

The area is peppered with gay bars, but according to one gay who asked not to be identified, the redevelopment push is no threat. “I haven’t seen any discrimination,” he said, and the housing that’s becoming available is welcomed.

Another developer’s logo is cropping up all over the Near South Side, usually in yellow banners that sweep across the fronts of renovated apartment buildings: OldBuilding.com, owned by the Vanson family. The Vansons have restored beauty and tenants to the 1910 Markeen Apartments at 410 Daggett Street and the Leuda-May Apartments in the 800 block of May Street.

The Markeen’s 14 units are full, Eddie Vanson said, and about half the Leuda-May’s 22 apartments are rented.

Rents are all over the map. At Pennsylvania Place, they can run as low as $300; at Parker Commons they range from $429 to $1,295 with some subsidized units for low-income tenants. The Vanson apartments rent for $500 to $850.

When the Vansons bought the Markeen in 1998, only one tenant was living there. Frank Widacki had been its only tenant for 15 years, and he turned out to hold a wealth of history for Vanson and for the city as well. He had moved to the Markeen in 1946 with his mother and aunt — and had lived there in Apartment K ever since. Not only could he fill Vanson in on the building’s history, but as a boy he had bought a camera, taught himself photography, built a darkroom, and took pictures of the daily life in his neighborhood. Stashed away and forgotten by Widacki was a box of negatives from the 1950s that Vanson found in the Markeen’s basement. Vanson had them developed. Now they can be found on the Markeen web site.

Widacki seemed fascinated by car wrecks, and if his photos are any indication, there were a lot in that neighborhood in the 1950s. Still, his black and white shots of the neighborhood and its people, the places nearby where they worked or went to school, the mundane as well as the special moments in his family’s life, even changes in the weather, give a rare and poignant view into the lives and times of the working-class families who lived there.

Because Widacki had captured so much of the architecture and interior of the Markeen, which is designated a Fort Worth historical landmark, his pictures became an invaluable tool in its authentic restoration, Vanson said.

They also inadvertently provided a boost for Fort Worth South. The pictures, some dating back half a century, show a neighborhood like the one current developers want to replicate, where people live, work, and play within its borders, and only leave if they want to.

Talk about the Southside revival with almost anyone involved, and Don Scott’s name comes up. Developers, business owners, and city officials say that without Scott — the seemingly indefatigable head of Fort Worth South since its creation seven years ago — this coordinated effort at inner-city restoration never would have happened. Scott, 57, seems able to get everyone from bankers to builders to city departments reading from the same page.

Scott, a retired Burlington Northern executive with no urban planning background, deflects such praise, preferring that it go to urban village enthusiast Fernando Costa, the man Fort Worth had the great good sense to hire to head up its planning department five years ago, Scott said.

Fran McCarthy goes further. “The city should put up a monument to Fernando Costa,” he said.

“With Fernando coming on board,” Scott said, “... he provided education at city hall as to what a planning department can do.” Costa, who was planning director in Atlanta for 11 years before coming here, quickly set out to create a comprehensive plan for the city’s long-range development. Assistant city planning director Dana Burghdoff said Costa pulled in builders, council members, city leaders, business owners, and neighborhood residents in a series of public forums in which every stakeholder had a voice.

Those sessions led to the first change in city zoning laws in years, Burghdoff said, to allow “mixed-use growth centers” within depressed inner-city neighborhoods and along declining commercial corridors. Costa has tagged these developments with the down-home sobriquet of “urban villages.”

Costa was on vacation and not available to comment for this story, but in an “advertorial” for Fort Worth South that ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May, he gave his view of an urban village.

Costa said the village concept, part of the New Urbanism development philosophy, “actually works to return communities to the pre-1950s neighborhood lifestyle [when] people lived in close proximity to work, school, shopping, church and services.” Mixed-use development, he said, can not only revitalize central city commercial districts, it can help clean up the air and reduce crime, which is “less likely to occur in populated places characterized by activity around the clock.”

Before Costa came to town and “began to work with Fort Worth South and others, mixed use was not allowed,” Burghdoff said. Fort Worth South “was a catalyst for these changes.”

The suburban model used by Fort Worth, Costa told the Star-Telegram, forbade any business or service development of any kind near homes. That idea, he said, simply had to be abandoned if inner-city development was to work.

Now, in certain designated urban areas, commercial and residential, office and even light industrial operations can develop side by side or below and above in any number of configurations that make urban living attractive.

An added benefit that is speeding up development, Scott believes, is the 1997 designation of the area as a Tax Increment Finance District, with Fort Worth South named as the TIF administrator. Simply stated, a TIF is a way of pledging that some of the increased taxes that result when property is redeveloped will be plowed back into a targeted area to pay the costs of other kinds of public investment. This year the TIF will generate more than $3 million for the redevelopment district. Scott believes that over the next 15 years, the Southside TIF will earn up to $60 million that can be reinvested in public infrastructure to support new development.

The Near South Side is also a neighborhood empowerment zone, Burghdoff said, which gives incentives for development and investment by allowing the city to waive certain fees for builders and dismiss city liens against properties, releasing them for purchase. Historic restoration brings with it a property tax credit from the city and federal income tax credits.

A successful example of mixed land use and developer incentives, she said, can be found in the Modern Drug Village located on the southwest corner of Hemphill Street and Magnolia Avenue. Five loft apartments are located atop a new bank and several smaller businesses in a complex of two old buildings that for more than half a century housed the Modern Drug pharmacy and LaCava Cleaners. It had been empty since the early 1970s, the decade that most residents remember as the beginning of the area’s sharp decline. The dark-red 1920s-era buildings, whose façades had remained untouched through the years, carry an historic designation and are located within the Fairmount/Southside National Historic District. McCarthy lives in one of the apartments, and the company’s office is in the building. All of the units are filled, he said.

McCarthy and Boothe, both on the board of Fort Worth South, are part of a small but growing group of inner-city redevelopers who call themselves “urban pioneers.” McCarthy said it’s time for other developers to join them in salvaging Fort Worth’s old neighborhoods and historic buildings, a task that he and Boothe have been engaged in since the 1980s.

Their company has been involved in the restoration of some of Fort Worth’s most historic places: the Victory Arts Center on Hemphill, Thistle Hill on Pennsylvania, and the Laneri House on Jennings Avenue, among others. The partners will soon break ground on an office, shopping, and restaurant complex at Rosedale and Vaughn Boulevard across the street from Texas Wesleyan University. Another similar project is slated for Miller and Rosedale streets, in the heart of one of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods.

Their first project in Near South was the rehabilitation of the building that now houses the neighborhood police station on Magnolia. Their next will be the nearby Mehl Building, another historic apartment building that’s stood empty and windowless for years. “We will put in apartments above, shops below,” he said.

Inner-city commercial revitalization and historic preservation are not only mutually compatible, but can be profitable and deeply rewarding, McCarthy said, in a recent interview on the Modern’s rooftop terrace.

And besides all that, he also has a lovely view.

In 1995, when Don Scott retired from Burlington Northern Railroad, the last thing he thought he’d be doing was trying to turn such a sow’s ear of a neighborhood into a silk purse. But that’s exactly what he’s up to these days, and loving every minute of it, he said.

That year, his good friend, Dr. James Watts, on the staff at Medical Plaza, told him that hospitals that had been in the area for decades were facing tough choices about moving to the suburbs because of the continuing decline of the neighborhoods surrounding them. They weren’t sure if they wanted to put any more money into expansion or new buildings.

Besides Medical Plaza, the area is home to Harris Methodist, All Saints, Cook Children’s, the Moncrief Radiation Center, and the county hospital, John Peter Smith. The medical centers and the support systems they generate made the area the second largest employee district in the city. However, most of those workers lived far away from their jobs. There was real fear about the safety of the area for shift workers — too many crack houses, too little police presence.

According to Scott, a few far-sighted souls including Watts, attorney David Chappell, builder Ray Boothe, and realtor Joan Kline decided to try to save the neighborhood, rather than let the problems run the hospitals — and everyone else — out. So Fort Worth South, Inc. was born.

Watts asked his friend Scott to take the director’s job. There was no money in the beginning, Scott said. “I was it.” He started in 1996 with a $32,000 budget — and it was soon gone, he said.

One of the first things he tackled was the crime problem. The neighborhood police station moved in at Magnolia and College, with the full support of then-Chief Tom Windham, who also agreed with Scott’s idea of putting officers on bikes to patrol the streets and get to know the business owners and residents. Trust was built and crime dropped, but then Windham died and some things changed. It was one of Scott’s first setbacks.

New Chief Ralph Mendoza pulled the bike officers and put them back in patrol cars, Scott said. And crime came back up, especially crimes against people such as day laborers and thefts at small businesses. He’s working with Mendoza, he said, to try and get the bikes back, but has had no luck thus far.

Police department spokesman Jesse Hernandez said that there have been numerous meetings with Scott and that the department wants to work something out. “We’re dedicated to bike patrols,” he said, “but this area might not work as well as they do downtown,” he said. Still, the department hasn’t ruled them out.

Losing the bike patrols might have been Scott’s only big setback. Today, Fort Worth South has 244 members who contribute anywhere from $100 to more than $5,000 annually, to provide almost a half-million-dollar budget for the revitalization effort. Staffer Nancy Berger was hired two years ago.

And on the drawing board are two of the largest projects the group has undertaken: Magnolia Green, a large mixed-use development that will rise on a couple of empty blocks at the northwest corner of Magnolia and Hemphill, and a hotel and shopping complex at the northeast corner of Rosedale and Forest Park Boulevard. Scott said the hotel will be used primarily by business travelers and out-of-town families of medical district patients. It will bring in more jobs, he said.

The hotel project has the support of the district’s council member, Wendy Davis, and the neighborhood associations, Scott said. But at least one Mistletoe Heights homeowner, who asked not to be identified, said he’s worried about increased traffic and scoffs at the idea that the hotel will be used by patients’ families. “I doubt that most such families would have the money to pay for a high-end hotel room,” he said. With the city determined to find a way to have a convention hotel downtown, the homeowner said, this project could become a loss for Fort Worth South’s developers.

There are others in the area who, like the Mistletoe Heights homeowner, have declined to jump on Fort Worth South’s bandwagon. For most, the reasons have more to do with the realities of poverty and neglect faced by a long-declining central city neighborhood than any quarrel with the group’s goals.

Jarid Manos, for instance, the Great Plains Restoration Council director, triggered a controversy that is still raging over unknown quantities of pollution at the site and serious health effects in the neighborhood from fumes coming out of the Motheral Printing plant’s smokestack on South Main Street. When his complaints were finally acted upon by the state’s environmental agency, Motheral was cited for more than a dozen serious violations of the Clean Air Act. Further studies showed that unknown quantities of toxins are in the soil and groundwater.

The plant, sold three years ago to the Fort Worth school district, will soon move, leaving questions about its safe use for a school, who will pay for the clean-up, and a legacy for the neighborhood that Don Scott would rather do without — especially since the Motheral brothers who own the plant have been leading advocates for the restoration of the area and are members and financial supporters of Fort Worth South.

Scott said he had never believed the site was right for a school, but that Fort Worth South played no role in the sale.

Messages left for the Motherals were not returned.

Other problems along the streets near the plant are more visible than pollution. Clusters of homeless men and women hang out during the day or wander up and down Main Street, as they wait for the nearby shelters on Lancaster to open for the night. Some, when the weather is warm, simply curl up under a tree. Most are back by mid-morning, and the cycle begins anew.

It is a cycle that Don Scott hopes to break, he said, not by pushing the homeless further out, but by creating jobs that will help give such residents hope.


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