Metropolis: Wednesday, September 26, 2002
Urban Angst

A redevelopment boom in near-downtown neighborhoods is sparking change and controversy.


On a strip of land on West Sixth Street next to a quaint residential area and near the businesses of the Cultural District, a bulldozer was flattening a house when a gas main on the site broke. The smell aroused neighbors, who hit the street to find the bulldozer operator still plowing away. A spat started that ended only when the police, fire department, and utility repair crew showed up. The house was left half-demolished — until early the next morning, when the bulldozer operator returned and finished the job.

The bulldozer had been sent by Village Homes, the developers who own the almost-acre-sized strip and hope to build at least 15 townhouses there. With this part of town attracting interest from folks wanting to live near downtown and developers, the company seemed to have gotten in early on a good prospect.

But the neighbors aren’t happy. Everyone within at least 200 feet of Village Homes’ property lives in a single-family home, and they simply don’t want to deal with the higher traffic that medium-density development brings. There’s also the possibility that, with an increase in vehicular traffic, these homeowners could lose some of their sidewalks and front yards to street-widening. Worse, they fear that, if townhomes are spaced too densely and built too cheaply, the neighborhood might lose its charm. Plenty of other neighborhoods have seen medium-density developments deteriorate into high-crime areas.

Battles like the kind between Village Homes and the neighbors of West Sixth Street are being fought every day across the Metroplex. On one hand, urban development and redevelopment can help blighted areas retrieve some lost glory. On the other, it can put undue pressure on already-stable neighborhoods, like the area near West Sixth Street. Fort Worth could end up looking like Gettysburg during the Civil War, as the city’s plans for spurring redevelopment run up against residents’ desires to keep their neighborhoods the way they are.

Much of the course of the fight may be determined over the next few weeks. On Oct. 8, the Fort Worth City Council will hold a public hearing on a proposed amendment to an existing zoning ordinance. The amendment could make it easier for developers to build more townhouses per acre in “mixed-use” areas — parts of town where office space, retail businesses, and living units are all mixed together. Developers can build no more than 12 units per acre under the existing zoning ordinance; the proposed change would allow them to plop down 18 to 24 units on a single acre in mixed-use districts.

The city is trying to ease townhouse development restrictions in mixed-use areas for a couple of reasons: One, developers want to build here, according to city planning director Fernando Costa, and the city wants mixed-use districts to resemble lively, pedestrian-friendly “villages.” (Mixed-use development is limited to the central business district and elsewhere only as part of a site-specific plan.) The other explanation is that townhouse development in mixed-use districts had mistakenly been following standards under another, stricter zoning categorization. “That was never the intent of the [mixed-use] zoning district,” said Costa. “That’s the oversight we want to correct through this amendment.”

Last spring, with input from residents, the city had responded to the growing boom in redevelopment around downtown by creating the mixed-use zoning category. The purpose was to help “promote more compact, mixed-use development,” Costa said. “We wanted to use mixed-use zoning as a tool to promote that kind of development.” Apartments were allowed at relatively high densities within mixed-use districts. But townhouses — “by virtue of a quirk in the zoning ordinance,” said Costa — were not permissible at such high densities.

Some neighborhoods welcome the idea of medium-density mixed-use areas. “We’re excited about the [mixed-use] change,” said Don Scott, president of Fort Worth South, a nonprofit development agency. “It gives us a chance to do mixed-use in the Medical District. We can do townhomes we wouldn’t have been able to do without that change in density. It’s a technical change, I think, and not a philosophical one.”

Where there is support, there is opposition. On the west side of downtown, some homeowners are worried that if the Montgomery Ward building gets developed as a mixed-use property, the low-income and largely Hispanic population nearby will be pushed out.

Another concern is that the city’s plans for encouraging urban development don’t stop with the mixed-use amendment. The city also wants to tweak townhouse development standards in four other zoning districts, from those meant generally for single-family uses on through low- to high-density multi-family apartment zones. The biggest impact would be felt in R2 districts, where single-family dwellings are clustered, and where the number of townhouse units per acre would increase from 12 to 20.

The differences between apartments and townhouses are subtle: Townhouse units, unlike apartments, usually have two or more floors and are owner-occupied, as opposed to being rented. The mixed-use zoning ordinance currently, according to Costa, treats a townhouse as a form of single-family residential development, even though most people tend to view townhouses as multi-family housing, similar to apartments. The city wants to treat townhouses as a form of multi-family housing, like apartments.

A few months ago, city planners created an advisory group to consider questions of townhouse density. The committee agreed to support a city staff proposal on townhouses in mixed-use districts, but wasn’t sure about standards in residential areas. “That is where we’re in need of further conversation,” said Scott.

The Village Homes plan for West Sixth Street has gone through numerous revisions. What originally began as a cluster of 17 units has shrunk to 15 — and now maybe to zero. A few days or weeks ago, a “for sale” sign went up on the property with Village Homes’ phone number on it. The developers did not return the Weekly’s phone calls seeking information on any change in plans.

If Village Homes gives up the fight, it will probably be because of the residents of West Sixth Street, who, during the controversy, bound together as the Arts District Neighborhood Association. They harassed the heck out of Village Homes. These past few weeks of war, in fact, inspired the Arts District folk to apply for a “conservation overlay,” a construction guideline that establishes specific design standards for every structure within the overlay. Future developments would have to resemble existing structures, which, on West Sixth Street, are mostly neat little arts-and-crafts homes. “It’ll help us preserve the character of our neighborhood,” said Margaret Grant, a West Sixth Street homeowner. Other neighborhoods, in Grant’s opinion, would do well by applying for conservation overlays. “We’re not anti-development,” said Grant. “We think that if it’s done right, it can be dynamite. But we’re focused on keeping things charming.”

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