Second Thought: Wednesday, March 20, 2003
It takes a city to build a village.


If this were a protest rally, the signs would read “Cityview: Never Again.” Or maybe “Sprawl: Stop the Insanity.”

As Fort Worth continues its growth into undeveloped lands westward, the current trend of cookie-cutter strip malls and gated apartment complexes in outlying areas is leading to incurable traffic jams, mounting property taxes, and worsening air and water quality.

If city planners instead encouraged or required developers to create small town-like hubs that better combine retail space with apartments, such problems could be alleviated and a sustainable and cohesive community created.

In downtown Fort Worth, the old Bank One tower apparently has a new lease on life, and what use did developers come up with for it? Condos and retail. That should remind us that the purpose of this city is to provide a quality of life for its residents. That has not been fulfilled in newly developed areas.

Obvious case in point: South Hulen and Bryant Irvin. Seemingly placed at random, each strip mall, megastore, office building and housing development features an expansive parking lot — moat-like barriers between the places people live, work, and shop, barriers that cripple attempts to provide mass transit. Urban runoff from all that concrete puts a strain on the Trinity, already a glorified sewer, and city services are stretched thin. Retail and office lots are empty by night, and residential areas are empty by day.

Such developments, indistinguishable from any in America, offer no lasting benefit to Fort Worth. A scant few years after construction, dilapidated apartment complexes will be reduced to luring tenants with the inevitable free washers and dryers, and the strip malls, lacking identity or loyal customers, struggle as retailers go in and out of style and solvency.

Residents suffer the inconveniences of city living, such as anonymous neighborhoods with high turnover, claustrophobic apartments, and rush-hour congestion. Yet they enjoy none of the advantages. In a well-planned city, you can do errands or meet up with friends without getting into a car, but here you’re forced to endure frenetic traffic and interminable red lights just to grab a quart of milk or a copy of Fort Worth Weekly for fireplace kindling.

Successful examples of combined retail, office, and residential properties abound the world over. We dream of visiting those centuries-old European towns. Why? Because of charm and architecture, both preserved because they’ve provided a high quality of life all this time and will continue to do so long after Cityview is condemned. In those places people know their neighbors, because they shop at the same store or go to the same coffee shop. Relationships lead to loyalty, and —whoops — you’ve got a lasting community.

To create such pedestrian-friendly, compact villages, there must be real connections and architectural compatibility among the buildings, shops, apartments, and offices. You can’t totally separate Texans from their cars, but planners could find ways to keep cars from separating Texans from their neighbors.

Incentives must encourage development of infill properties and penalize development that worsens sprawl. England’s Green Belts law set aside an area surrounding each of its cities to be spared the developers’ shovels. Similar sprawl-fighting ordinances or zoning are finally being approved in Maryland and New Jersey, long-suffering doormats for Washington D.C. and New York City.

And the formula could have legs here in Cowtown. Isolated by train tracks and parking lots, the Rail Market has rapidly devolved into a food court, but its second floor will soon be home to office space, and those new neighbors will provide stability. Mixed use is also helping return older South Fort Worth buildings to their original grandeur and purpose.

Benefits? Myriad. Less time in cars means more time for family or social interaction, less road rage, more physically fit citizens, less urban runoff, less traffic, less air pollution. And if the cost of city services shrinks, the city budget might not land in the emergency room every time the economy gets the sniffles.

Fort Worth has a host of wonderful assets — a healthy and diverse economic base and an accessible downtown with nightlife, cultural activities, and people living there. People are proud of it and benefactors invest in it. Now those people have a pivotal responsibility: Push city leaders to manage its growth.

Plop apartments on top of those strip malls, add a small park, and you’d have a nucleus to build on, readily serviced with a single bus stop or eventually a TRE station — heck, from a couple of floors up, Cityview might deserve its name. Put a grocery store in the old Bank One tower, and visitors will see Fort Worth as not just a great convention town, but as one of those very special places where you can live, work, play, and shop, all without getting into your car.

Doug Semmes lives in the Cultural District and works for a renewable energy company.

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