Feature: Wednesday, October 31, 2002

Fort Worth is jetting toward head-spinning change. It might survive.

By Jeff Prince

Holy cow cloning, the cost of ’gen is high,” Pablo Morales mumbled as he filled his car’s fuel tank. Still, he thought, high-cost hydrogen beat the old days of gasoline-powered cars, back in the early 21st century before the Middle East breakdown and environmental concerns finally prompted the United States to buck powerful automaker lobbyists and insist on alternative fuels.

Inside, the cashier rang up $65 for the ’gen and another $13 for two bottles of mineral water, and asked, “Anything else?”

“Two soyburgers,” Pablo said. A short-order cook dropped a couple of soy patties on a sizzling grill and began slicing squares of a tomato and onion. The patties were paper-thin and cooked in less than a minute. Pablo recalled when patties were thick and made of real beef that was juicy, greasy, and heavenly. The vegetables looked tasty, but Pablo knew they weren’t. Over the years, corporate farms had fashioned vegetables of gorgeous color and long shelf lives but choked out the taste. Later, farms grew square fruits and vegetables — square-shaped produce was more easily packed and shipped. Efficiency and conservation were the new generation’s ideals.

“Vegetables were better when they were round,” Pablo said. The cook bagged the burgers and said, “That’ll be $24.”

“Ayyy,” Pablo said. “Fifty years ago, you could buy a great hamburger for a few bucks.” Of course, that was just after the turn of the millennium, when the United States averaged two acres of farmland per citizen. That number had fallen to less than half an acre by 2052. Food prices increased five-fold. Meat consumption dwindled. Food and water were no longer taken for granted, as both had become limited and costly. People grew small gardens and swapped produce with neighbors. The art of haggling was revived.

Pablo often found himself thinking about the old days, the turn of the century when Fort Worth was growing fast but retained a small-town feel. Only a half million people lived in the city back then, when Pablo was a young man on the North Side. In his youth, Hispanic people anchored the North Side. Migration and high birth rates changed the city’s demographics. Hispanics now made up more than half the city’s population. The Asian population also saw vast increases, while the numbers of African-Americans and Anglos shrank.

Six out of 10 residents in Fort Worth were “officially” Hispanic, designated as such by the U.S. Census Bureau. Truth be told, race had become almost impossible to track. Interracial unions had diluted bloodlines and stirred the melting pot. Everyone was gloriously mongrelized, having literally fornicated and procreated racial problems out of existence. Nobody thought much about skin color anymore.

Pablo grabbed the food sack, walked to his car, slipped into the driver’s seat, and tossed a burger to his great-granddaughter, Thameka Morales Chang, 18, sitting in the passenger seat. “Eat up, and I’ll give you my patented grand tour of the city,” he said.

Fort Worth seems poised on the edge of an era of huge change — a prospect both alluring and scary. The size and feel of the downtown area could be vastly altered in the next few years by factors ranging from destruction of the old I-30 overhead to construction of a Trinity River town lake to development of an entertainment district along West 7th and convention center expansion. Annexation and population pressures are blowing back the line between city and country. Planners are envisioning a series of mini-downtowns, or “urban villages” scattered around the city to minimize traffic and ease pressure on the city center. Stable older neighborhoods, meanwhile, are girding for the fight to try to retain their own character in the face of redevelopment possibilities that hold both pain and promise. Some blighted areas are getting major facelifts. Meanwhile, air pollution is getting worse. And traffic is piling up in huge tumors along some of the city’s major freeways and roads, the result of everything from NAFTA to poor city planning. Public transportation is budding into reality. Lawd a’mercy.

At the brink of such change, Fort Worth holds a position that most cities would envy — enormous growth potential for the next 100 years. “We’re really at a benchmark in our city’s history,” said Phillip Poole, an architect and urban designer who owns Poole2. “There is an incredible opportunity.”

Unlike Dallas and many other cities, Fort Worth, by luck and proximity as much as cleverness and design, entered the 21st century with miles upon miles of unincorporated land in which to stretch its legs and grow. The city is currently about 320 square miles, with another 350 square miles of extra-territorial jurisdiction, or unincorporated land that Fort Worth has first dibs to annex into its city limits. As the city nabs land, ETJ is extended five miles from the ever-expanding city limits.

Fort Worth Weekly studied the city’s comprehensive plan and U.S. Census Bureau and North Texas Council of Governments information and interviewed urban planners, futurists, city and county officials, politicians, old-timers, and others to develop a prognosis of the city’s future, a peek into a crystal ball. What appears is a somewhat Pollyanna-ish view — almost everyone interviewed for this story looked ahead with optimistic eyes. Barring unforeseen natural or man-made disasters, the city’s current plans could produce a bustling downtown hub surrounded by self-sustaining “urban villages” connected by mass transit, all held together by an intangible but real sense of character and culture. Signs point to Fort Worth’s becoming one of the country’s finest large cities by century’s end.

OK, screw Pollyanna for a second. The plan could also stall amid economic woes, mismanagement, or voter apathy and leave Fort Worth limping into a future fraught with water shortages, gridlocked highways, foul air, high unemployment, rising taxes, violent crime, and overcrowded schools. Badly managed growth and fumbled opportunities could leave Fort Worth as just another congested, far-flung, bleak city, a Houston or Los Angeles.

Think of the next half-century as make-or-break time for ol’ Cowtown. We’re ambling down a trail toward a proverbial crossroads — do we become an attractive and lively Dodge City or a choked and gray Boot Hill?

Pablo drove onto Loop 930, a 10-lane slab of concrete with multiple HOV lanes built to envelop the city. “Loop 820 used to be the only loop around town,” Pablo told Thameka, “and downtown was just that little bitty part between I-30, I-35, and the Trinity River.”

She shook her head in wonder. She was used to “downtown” being everything inside Loop 820 — a series of high-rise villages, gentrified older neighborhoods, riverside parks, and also a few scary, decrepit areas, although most of those were fast going under the bulldozer. As they drove the loop from Denton to Weatherford, Pablo pointed out several clusters of skyscrapers. “That used to be ranch land,” he said, “and that over there was trailer parks.”

The highway was congested as usual, although changes had eased the crowded streets in recent years. Driving had become expensive, and many residents had moved to the city’s urban villages, where a person could get around easily by walking or taking a bus, train, streetcar, or cab. Tollroads were common. Computer chips in cars allowed states to charge drivers to use highways. Drivers paid by the mile, and rates were tripled during peak times. Congestion pricing, it was called. “I’m saving money by giving you this tour on a Sunday,” Pablo told Thameka. “On weekdays, it costs a fortune to cruise around town like this.”

Pablo exited from southwest Loop 930 onto State 121-T, the Southwest Parkway tollroad that connected Fort Worth to Cleburne and beyond. The tollroad had fueled a development boom that filled the city’s southwest quadrant. Thousands of acres of formerly vacant ranchland now bustled with commercial and residential development. The area was part of Fort Worth but felt like its own small city.

“Getting transit rails installed downtown wasn’t any picnic,” Pablo said. “It was easier installing rails out here because this was developed with mass transit in mind. I have a friend who lives in this village, and he drives his car only once or twice a week. He takes buses and trains to work and to shop, and he lives within walking distance of a grocery store, movie theater, restaurant, bar, and everything else he needs.”

Downtown’s skyscrapers stretched above a maze of highway bridges on the horizon. “We’re almost there,” Thameka said.

Envisioning the city and region in 2052 requires thinking big. Fort Worth proper is expected to exceed 1 million residents and anchor a region that houses a mind-boggling amount of humanity. Currently, 5.5 million people live in the Fort Worth-Dallas Metroplex. Forecasts predict 9 million in 2030 and 13 million people by 2050.

“It’s a combination of opportunities and potential problems,” said city Planning Director Fernando Costa. “Fort Worth has a relatively large middle class, which is a good sign for the future. It’s important that we provide public schools of high quality, maintain a low crime rate, and provide housing choices for people in different economic groups to retain that large middle class.”

Pumping life into the downtown business district and annexing land for future commercial districts and residential tracts should help hold onto that valuable middle class. Some people call that the dreaded rat race, but if one is going to run the race, one might as well enjoy a comfortable cage. Large companies offer jobs that pay salaries that buy high-quality homes that generate taxes to pay for schools and police.

Moving around in that gilded cage is going to be a problem.

Currently, about 30 percent of area freeway lane miles experience congestion, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s definition. The percentage is expected to grow to 43 percent by 2025. Forecasting the congestion into 2052 is daunting.

A gradual acceptance of mass transit is developing just as Texas passed a constitutional amendment that for the first time allows debt financing via bonds for highway construction. “The state can borrow money from agencies to build highways and toll roads and others,” said Republican State Rep. Anna Mowery of Fort Worth. “There can be more highway construction. Texas has one of the finest bond ratings of any state.”

The combination of upcoming highway and transit construction will only delay the inevitable. Intense congestion is coming. That’s both bad and good. The frustrations of gridlocked highways will eventually cause even the most car-loving residents to consider alternative transportation.

As new streets and transit rails are built, new communities will emerge. The city’s comprehensive plan anticipates almost 30 growth centers scattered around the city, most of them mixed-use villages with a concentration of jobs, houses, entertainment, parks, and public transportation hubs. A few growth centers will focus on commercial and industrial development, similar to that found in the Alliance Corridor and at Lockheed-Martin

“Southwest Parkway toll road will be the largest sustainable development project in the region,” said Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Here is the perfect opportunity to introduce appropriate land use for what is an extremely large inventory of vacant land close to downtown. We don’t have that anywhere else in the region.”

A marriage of mass transit and development is also slated for the inner city, such as on East Lancaster Avenue and Rosedale Street and in the outlying ranches slated for development in the south, west, and north. The density of downtown and urban villages makes transit more efficient.

Fort Worth’s highway system won’t look much different than today, other than 121-T and an outer loop. “There isn’t enough money, interest, or community support to pave the region,” Morris said. “You’re seeing us build light rail systems and commuter rail systems. Both of those modes of transportation are now open.”

Three hundred miles of additional rails are planned between now and 2025. “You’ll probably see close to 500 miles of urban passenger rail in the region in 50 years,” Morris said. “Single-occupant vehicle transportation systems can’t hold 13 million. Rail will be very much integrated in our way of life. Rail is part of the future.”

Traffic congestion and resulting air pollution are among Fort Worth’s biggest challenges, Costa said. “They are likely to become much bigger problems in the future,” he said. “Even the most conservative projections indicate we are going to have much higher levels of traffic congestion. Congestion is an important contributor to the region’s air pollution problem, which has reached serious levels warranting our attention. This underscores the importance of providing more choices in transportation and more access to transportation, particularly for people of limited means.”

Dallas’ light rail system is exceeding most expectations. Ridership is high, and the system is being expanded. The trend hasn’t gone unnoticed in Cowtown. “City leaders in Fort Worth are increasingly focusing attention on the idea of developing a light rail streetcar system for our city, and Trinity Railway Express has been serving downtown for less than a year but has demonstrated that commuter rail is a good alternative to expansion of freeways,” Costa said.

Not everyone is jumping aboard the mass transit bandwagon. “DART in Dallas, which everybody thinks is so wonderful, can’t make a go without subsidies,” Rep. Mowery said. “The whole problem with mass transit is making it pay.” Others note that most major modes of transportation are subsidized. “Public transportation tends not to pay for itself,” Costa said. “Highways don’t pay for themselves either.”

Fort Worth has more undeveloped inner-city property — about 45 percent — than almost any other major city. That should change, said Poole, who has real estate interests in the 7th Street corridor. “We’re going to end up being another world-class city, or we’re going to end up like Los Angeles where there is no ‘there’ there,” he said. “Some of the greatest cities in the country are built much more densely than Fort Worth. Having a congregation of people, especially if the design is good, is quite pleasant, with a lot of streetscape activity. That’s what Lancaster can provide.”

Some of that raw inner-city property lies in floodplains or is otherwise unfit for development. And some will be preserved as green space. But hundreds of acres are suited for development and renovation. The improvement of Lancaster Avenue will fill in downtown’s south and east areas and interlock with the hospital district, which will continue to expand and become part of downtown. Development of 7th Street will connect downtown to the cultural district. The new RadioShack campus and Trinity River lake will fuel growth along Main Street that will stretch to the Stockyards. Pier 1 Import’s headquarters construction and a nearby multiple-use development will expand downtown’s westward presence.

Downtown currently has about 40,000 workers and the hospital district 30,000 — that’s 70,000 jobs in the center of the city. That number is expected to explode in coming years, bringing more vitality. “That’s a powerful economic asset,” Costa said. “We want not only to preserve it but to strengthen it.”

Eventually downtown will more than double its current size and stretch from the Stockyards to the cultural center to the hospital district and beyond.

Making downtown a pleasant place to work and live is already occurring with the introduction of apartments, lofts, shopping markets, and the Intermodal Center. “You’re going to see downtown continue to grow, and a recommitment of citizens to live in and around downtown,” Morris said. “You’re going to see people go in the central city and revitalize the housing stock and open neighborhood businesses. Our job in transportation is to create an opportunity for that to occur. That’s how you sustain the quality of life over the next 30 or 50 years.”

Pablo and Thameka drove into downtown’s core, which bustled with pedestrians, vendors, streetcars, and cabs. The street scene was reminiscent of old Seinfeld reruns: people strolling along sidewalks past lofts, produce stands, coffee houses, shops selling bottled water, and an endless supply of Veg-Mex diners selling veggie tacos.

“Everyone is fitter than they were 50 years ago, when the United States had the world’s highest obesity rate,” Pablo said. “We’re still a fat nation, but we’ve trimmed down. The scarcity and rising cost of food were probably good things in the long run.”

Most people had cut meats from their diets. After all, cows needed tons of grain, and grain needs tons of water. Farmers and ranchers had given up, sold out to developers, and moved to the urban areas like everyone else. Food was still available, but the days of $5.95 all-you-can-eat buffets stocked with chicken-fried steak and meatloaf had long passed.

People also looked older. The country’s median age in 1950 was 23.5. By 2000 it was about 26. In 2050, the median age was 38. Medical advancements helped aging baby boomers live longer and remain productive well into their senior years. As predicted, the aging population strained Social Security payments. An influx of seniors selling off mutual funds for retirement income created a shaky stock market — fewer young people were coming behind them to buy the funds, and values shrank. But things weren’t too bad. Unemployment was low, and many people, such as Pablo, had technical jobs that allowed them to work from home well into their 80s. People got by. And the focus on efficiency and conservation in the environment bled over into people’s personal lives, creating more spiritual and modest lifestyles.

“You should see Fort Worth from the sky,” Pablo said. “The tops of downtown buildings are landscaped with grass and plants. It’s really pretty.” Urban heat had become intense, with downtown on average 15 degrees hotter than outlying rural areas. Fort Worth responded by planting rooftop gardens with hearty native plants that didn’t require much water. The landscaping lowered rooftop temperatures from about 140 degrees to about 90 degrees and resulted in an overall cooling of downtown.

Pablo turned west on Belknap Street, crossed the Trinity River, and cruised into a quaint neighborhood. “See how the yards all have similar landscaping — buffalo grass, crape myrtles, post oaks, and such?” Pablo asked. “That evolved about 25 years ago when water supplies were seriously stretched. The city began enforcing full-time water conservation and landscape ordinances because, for years, people had planted St. Augustine grass and fast-growing softwood trees that required a lot of water. People watered almost every day and even had sprinkler systems that turned on automatically and sent millions of gallons of water running down gutters. It’s hard to fathom now.”

“Didn’t people know any better?” Thameka asked.

“Back then, water wasn’t an issue,” he said. “You turned on your tap, and water was just there. The supply seemed endless.”

Thameka snorted. She lived in an era when water was scarce, expensive, and often piped from reservoirs hundreds of miles away.

By 2052, the U.S. population will have doubled, yet be supported on less water than is currently available. Increased usage, along with inevitable droughts, will see ground waters dissipate, calling for increased reliance on surface water. Think water isn’t becoming the next precious commodity? Many cities are already facing water shortages. Several years ago, Throckmorton, about a two-hour drive northwest of Tarrant County, ran out of water and had to rely on volunteers to install a pipeline. They might have been lucky to run out so early in the game. Running low on water will become common in the future, and volunteers willing to build pipelines may be in shorter supply.

The writing on the wall is clear when capitalists such as former oil baron T. Boone Pickens begin circling. Pickens is vying to build pipelines from the vast Ogallala aquifer in West Texas to major cities as far away as San Antonio.

Fort Worth and the Metroplex are attempting to seal their water future by building a massive reservoir. Current depletion rates of land and water are already making it difficult to sustain agricultural productivity, and the problem could reach dramatic levels in the coming years. Conservation efforts will be stressed. “We need to continue to educate the public to understand that we have to make some changes in our lifestyles to sustain the ability of having water in the future,” Morris said.

Texas legislators are enacting measures to develop and manage the state’s water resources, including penalties for failure to comply. The state water plan is designed to encourage conservation of water resources and to prepare for drought conditions so that sufficient water is available at a reasonable cost. Still, by as early as 2010, cities such as El Paso and San Antonio could face water shortages far more serious than those experienced to date. Costs will soar.

Increased demand for water in urban areas often means drying out irrigated farmlands. The Texas Agricultural and Natural Resources Summit noted, “As our population increases, water use for municipal purposes will dramatically increase and water for agricultural irrigation will be reduced. Unfortunately, our water resources will stay the same or decline.”

Locally, Fort Worth and the North Texas region appear set for the next few decades. The city’s raw water supply comes from Lake Worth, Eagle Mountain Lake, the Clear Fork of the Trinity River, and several reservoirs. Tarrant Regional Water District claims an adequate raw water supply through 2020.

The city is participating in a plan to build the Marvin Nichols Reservoir 130 miles to the northwest and to pipe water to the Metroplex by 2050. The plan is already drawing opposition, and tougher fights are coming because of the size of the land area that would be drowned by the lake. Plans may have to be revised, but it’s almost inevitable that a major reservoir will be built somewhere. North Texans notoriously lack water conservation principles. But the symbolic load of bricks will eventually fall on our heads, and conservation measures will take hold, if only after the situation becomes critical. North Texas officials are trying to stay ahead of the curve. After all, unlimited growth potential and plenty of water would entice commercial development to sustain the middle classes.

Pablo beamed as he and Thameka cruised through the Cultural District, which had added numerous museums and become the focus of a commercial as well as residential district, with hotels and art galleries on tree-lined streets. Thameka liked the hometown feel. The area was pretty and pleasant. She understood now why visitors from out of town always described Fort Worth in such glowing terms.

In the 1970s downtown was a wreck. Pablo described how high-stakes players had helped turn things around. Families with names such as Carter, Bass, Tandy, and Moncrief felt an allegiance to the city, and their enthusiasm spread to others, who saw that a revitalized downtown was good business.

Pablo felt good. He was getting along well with his great-granddaughter, whom he rarely saw. She was something of a troubled child. Her parents were geophysicists who lived in a house outfitted with all the latest technological gizmos. Thameka didn’t have many friends, preferring the life of a techno-recluse. A plasma screen covered an entire wall in her bedroom, and she could view multiple television shows, or talk to other lonely and confused kids on the other side of the world using internet video. When she wanted to listen to music, she accessed life-size three-dimensional holographics. Her favorite bands were right there in her room, performing at the foot of her bed. Only recently had she started to come out of her shell and take tentative steps into the real world. Still, she felt alone and misplaced most of the time.

“Where do you work, Great-Grampa?” she asked.

“I do most of my work from home; the company is in far North Fort Worth, past the racetrack and the Alliance Corridor,” he said. “My employer is Repli-Tech, and we do therapeutic cloning. We use DNA to produce tissue and organs for transplant. In the old days, doctors removed organs from dead people and transplanted them into sick people, but it was messy and the organ supply was very limited. Nowadays, there are no waiting lists, and since the tissue contains the sick person’s original DNA, there is no need for immunosuppressant drugs.”

They finished their downtown tour and headed north to the massive commercial corridor where Repli-Tech was nestled among hundreds of high-tech businesses. On the way, Thameka dropped a bombshell.

“Am I cloned?” she asked.

Pablo was silent for a moment, then chose his words carefully. “You’re a smart and beautiful girl,” he said. “You’re just you, and that’s all there is.”

Solutions to transportation, pollution, water shortages, growth, and other worries can be planned and pursued. Something harder to control but almost as vital to the city is its sense of pride, culture, spirit, and independence. Long ago, a Dallas newspaper poked fun at Fort Worth, saying the city was so dull that a wild panther was seen sleeping on a downtown street. Fort Worth, hardly lacking in self-esteem, proudly began calling itself Panther City.

The Cowtown nickname harkens back to the city’s link to cattle drives and meatpacking plants, and remains a Fort Worth symbol years after those industries were supplanted in importance. Yet Fort Worth has shown a dogged determination to evolve and capitalize on trends, whether railroads, cattle, oil, defense, or technology.

Defense became the city’s calling card during World War II and helped fuel the local economic engine until the Cold War’s demise dried up much of that money. In the 1990s, Fort Worth attracted high-tech companies. The labor pool is malleable in part because technical training learned in the defense trade can be adaptable in some instances. The city currently ranks among the nation’s fastest-growing cybercities, and much of the Metroplex is swinging toward the high-tech industry.

“You’re going to see the region continue to move aggressively on new technologies, for example the fuel cell technology,” Morris said. “That is where you’re no longer using petroleum-based fuel to drive your vehicle.” Gas-powered cars will evolve into hybrid vehicles propelled by combinations of fuel, until finally settling on the most popular replacement. “The leading candidate looks like it’s hydrogen,” he said.

Biotechnology will be the biggest single breakthrough to change lives, said Don Reynolds, a futurist and consulting economist with Fort Worth-based 21st Century Forecasting. Biotechnology involves manipulating organisms to make products that benefit humans, such as genetically uniform plants and animals. “We begin altering and changing human life expectancy,” he said.

Industry aside, civic pride and a feeling of unique character are necessary for Fort Worth to remain a destination city rather than a transient city. A person who moves here, finds a good job, and appreciates the city’s culture and character might stay for the long run and contribute to the quality of life. It’s the renter versus home-owner mentality. People take better care of a city if they have a stake in it.

“If your constituents have a decent job, you’ve solved half the problems a city will ever have,” said former Mayor Bob Bolen.

Spirit, culture, and character also play a large part in attracting wealthy benefactors and patron saints. “Most cities don’t have that,” he said. “People are willing to give their time and money to make this one of the greatest cities.”

Maintaining the city’s character is prominently addressed in the city’s comprehensive plan, which stresses the preservation of the western heritage and a friendly, small-town atmosphere that has fallen by the wayside in most major cities. The Stockyards in 2002 creates make-believe but fun remembrances of days gone by. The same kind of thing is planned for 2052, but on a larger scale. Urban ranches could give city slickers an opportunity to see cows, horses, rolling fields, and other rural and western reincarnations.

Cultural spirit is sometimes taken for granted, but maintaining that essence is important for the future, Morris said. “A lot of Fort Worth residents don’t realize how unique and positive the cultural spirit of Fort Worth is because they don’t live in other parts of the world,” he said. “It’s a humble community and has a way of life that attracts people from all over the country. It has the desired lifestyle of neighborhood plus the sophistication of drawing large employers.”

Thameka was daydreaming while looking out the passenger window when Pablo signaled to exit the highway. Suddenly a car veered into Pablo’s lane and forced him to the shoulder. His bumper clipped a guardrail and sent the car spinning back onto the highway. Thameka screamed as the vehicle was broadsided, causing it to flip.

Cameras monitored all Fort Worth highways in 2052, and emergency crews responded almost immediately to accidents. But a quick response time made no difference to Pablo and Thameka. They died instantly.

“They should have taken the train,” an emergency worker said, shaking his head.

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