Metropolis: Wednesday, June 25, 2003
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
Paved in City Silver

The Northside Mercado area still hasn’t blossomed despite cash infusions,but hope remains.

By JEFF PRINCE

Six years ago, the city of Fort Worth spent a million bucks on a brick sidewalk, plaza, and stucco wall to kick off a new era in the 1400 block of North Main Street. The sidewalk and federal loans were expected to prompt private reinvestment and transform a dozen old buildings into a mercado, or Mexican marketplace.

City leaders predicted the block would become a major tourist attraction, provide a destination area between downtown and the Stockyards district, and reintroduce pride and opportunity in an area that had tottered toward decay.

Ouchy-wawa.

More than 2,000 days later, the city’s vision for the area is unrealized, and skepticism among residents and property owners is rampant.

“There is more that’s vacant than there is occupied,” said John Hernandez, a lifelong Northside resident, as he strolled the 1400 block, where half of the buildings are shuttered and neglected. “Let’s make something happen here. This will continue to deteriorate.”

The block and its surrounding area aren’t the prettiest in town, but some people are so focused on what hasn’t been done, they’re overlooking the positives. People who spend every day in the neighborhood might not fully appreciate the difference that six years have made. Several buildings in the 1400 block have been improved, business owners farther north and south have spiffed up their properties, and more improvements are on the way.

Sure, the fancy sidewalk stretching behind the boarded-up buildings seems out of place — like a ribbon on a pig’s tail. The walkway was supposed to be used by tourists and locals strolling among retail shops. But there are no tourists because there are no shops facing the walkway. Only transients and feral cats use the sidewalk with any frequency.

An early critic was city council member Clyde Picht, who thought that building a million-dollar sidewalk for a non-existent market was far-fetched. A light rail system might have provided the foot traffic needed, but the city hasn’t been able to pay for one, and the mercado idea has been a disappointment, he said. “It wasn’t close enough to the Stockyards to take advantage of the Stockyards traffic, and it was a little far out of downtown,” he said. “It was really intended to be more retail, and nobody ever created a shop in there.”

The city has invested in the area, but city leaders want property owners to shoulder most of the risk. That’s been slow to happen. For instance, the city attempted to lure investment by offering federal loans to business owners in the 1400 block. About $5 million was available, but most of it went untouched.

“The money sat there for years because everybody was afraid to borrow the money,” said Alfred Gallegos, co-owner of Los Alamos Café, which has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs for 44 years to become one of the city’s oldest family-owned restaurants. “We didn’t feel like the city was backing us. It takes money — tax money.”

To qualify for a loan, properties had to be put up as collateral, and property improvements had to adhere to federal guidelines. “You’ve got buildings there that are owned by older families, and some of them are not wanting to take a risk,” said Rosa Navejar, president of Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the largest asset that some of those individuals own. I think they’re waiting for the traffic to come in.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg deal — property owners don’t want to reinvest unless there is traffic, and traffic won’t occur without reinvestment. Some property owners are content to leave their buildings shuttered until the resurgence occurs, and then sell at inflated prices.

The most active investor so far has been the city, which has spent about $2.5 million building the fancy walkway, buying and refurbishing a historic theater, and buying an adjacent building with plans to raze and then rebuild a theater add-on. In 1996, the city spent $300,000 creating a parking lot at 1500 N. Main St. that can hold almost 300 vehicles and provide additional parking for nearby businesses. Despite this, the city has been criticized for not priming the pump enough to rouse investors. Promised beautification and landscaping haven’t materialized, and investors would prefer grants and tax abatements over federal loans.

City council member Jim Lane defends the city’s efforts but understands why some residents are critical. “That was a neglected area so long they are entitled to expect more and more,” he said.

Transforming the area from near-slum to a shopping-and-dining paradise in a short time would have required action from everyone. Easier said than done. Nearby homeowners didn’t want a mercado and all the accompanying traffic, noise, and increased property taxes. Others became suspicious when it seemed that only City Hall types were making decisions. The predominantly Hispanic neighborhood harbors suspicions toward a city that has traditionally under-delivered to them.

Still, a few investors gave it a whirl. Two new restaurants opened, but both went out of business.

The jewel of the block is the historic Rose Marine Theatre, which the city purchased, refurbished, and leased to the Latino Arts Association of Fort Worth. The renovation greatly improved appearances, but the theater has done little to attract traffic since it opened in 2000 — renovations are still needed, performances have been irregular, and the theater has relied on volunteer staffing. Demolishing and rebuilding the adjacent structure is expected to make the theater more viable, and a paid executive staff was recently hired to help expand and improve performances.

Despite the languid pace so far, a bustling market still might be on the way. Leading the charge is a short woman with a quick sense of humor and big dreams, Deyla Guadiana, who immigrated from Mexico in 1968 with no English skills but plenty of work ethic.

Guadiana, who owns two nearby buildings, is planning to build Fort Worth Mercado Inc. in the city-owned parking lot between Los Alamos and La Playa Maya restaurants. Construction is set to begin in July, and the $4 million three-story building will boast 58,000 square feet of retail, office, and restaurant space. She plans to nab more than $3 million in federal loan money that has been sitting stagnant.

Guadiana’s investment is a gamble — one that city leaders have hoped for years that someone would take. That’s why former Mayor Kenneth Barr characterized her as “brave” during a November groundbreaking ceremony.

“Everybody can dream but not everybody has the guts,” Guadiana said recently. “I realize this is an undeveloped area, and there are a lot of challenges to overcome.”

Being gutsy doesn’t mean she has nerves of steel. “It’s kind of scary. I can’t go to sleep sometimes,” she said.

Little occurs on North Main, however, without debate and disagreement. Some wonder why Guadiana is investing so much money in a new building when the 1400 block still contains vacant buildings. They point to the lack of foot traffic. They doubt the area can overcome a reputation for seediness earned in the last half of the 20th century when beer joints and prostitutes dominated.

Los Alamos’ Gallegos is supportive but wary. “I’m glad she’s doing it, and I wish her well, but she’s taking a big risk,” he said. Whether Guadiana’s gamble ends in success or failure will do a lot toward determining the area’s future. Add to her vision the city’s intention to do some landscaping, the hiring of an executive theater staff to punch up the programs and increase attendance, and recent signs of an economic turnaround, and a new era on North Main seems possible, if not probable.

“There will be a regeneration once people see some successes,” Navajar said.


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