Feature: Wednesday, July 18, 2002
Deep 7th

Bar owners and builders see the cool coming to Fort Worth’s ’Lower West Side.’

By Anthony Mariani

Club owner Brian Forella, who’s only in his early 30s, over the past few years has become the grandee of the bar scene on and around West Seventh Street. He wears a goatee, tools around in flip-flops, and handles himself pretty much like what he is: a Type-A character with a lot of disposable income and good credit in his back pocket and half of Fort Worth on his side. He’s standing in front of his pride and joy, the much-lauded Wreck Room, a place that not long ago was a somewhat seedy pool hall but is now one of Fort Worth’s premier live music venues and general hangouts. Forella’s in the middle of remodeling his locale to accommodate an art gallery in the back and another bar, going by a different name, next door. The scene inside the building adjacent to the Wreck is straight out of “Home Improvement”: circular saws sit with their cords twirled around them on the floor, and the smell of Sheetrock and sawed wood burdens the air. When Forella talks about opening another bar along West Seventh, his face lights up.

Some locals believe this part of town is going to become Fort Worth’s version of Dallas’ Deep Ellum, a locale in which young, mostly single, mostly childless adults can live, work, and — this is important — play. The joint next to the Wreck, where Forella’s crew is putting on finishing touches, will be called the Torch, and, inside, Forella is waxing poetic about “the scene,” whose success is linked to the general growth of the area some are calling the Lower West Side, bounded by the major thoroughfares of Henderson, University, Lancaster, and White Settlement.

Here’s some of what’s going on: Construction will begin this month on 60 town homes along West Seventh; a high-rise condominium is on the boards; there’s talk of residential structures popping up along the Trinity River; industrial structures on Foch Street are being converted into retail spaces; Greenway Investments of Dallas has a contract to buy the Montgomery Ward building; a retail developer has leased the 50,000-square foot Goldthwaite complex on Foch; plans for a riverwalk, similar to that in San Antonio, are taking shape; and RadioShack and Pier 1 Imports have both announced plans to build corporate campuses nearby. Add all this to the upscale apartment projects that have been built along Henderson and Seventh Street in recent years, such as 7th Street Station and the Firestone Apartments, and you could say there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on. How all this development will translate into better bar business is elementary: West Seventh is becoming the hottest bar territory in town.

Forella is one guy who sees the locale’s promise and wants to do everything he can to make sure that it lives up to its potential. One thing he wants to do is help launch a business community of bars and restaurants which would emphasize cooperation over competition, and encourage patrons of various bars to intermingle through activities like organized pub crawls, block parties, softball games, or fishing trips. So that’s some of the motivation behind his master plan for West Seventh. A fear of being inundated with chain restaurants or “chain” clubs also makes him want to “keep it independent.” There isn’t a recognizable chain establishment in Deep Ellum, and, according to Gilbert Vera, former bar owner and Forella’s current consultant on the Torch, whatever edginess West Seventh has now would be lost if chains came in. “You already have Sundance Square,” Vera says.

Aside from parts of downtown and a few TCU-area bars, West Seventh is already the most popular young-adult hangout in Fort Worth. You’ve got 7th Haven, 6th Street Grill, Fred’s, the Shamrock Pub, Tequila’s, the Wreck Room, the Torch (soon), Sardine’s, Pop’s Safari Cigars and Fine Wines, and a little to the west, J&J’s Hideaway and the bar at Michael’s. Some serve food, some offer live music, some have dancing. They’re all relatively clean and safe, and each is a mini-reflection of the neighborhood environs (which are also clean and safe). Sensing an explosion a-coming, some of the players involved are already making moves. Markwardt Investments, which owns 7th Haven, just last week closed on the Scoreboard, a freestanding bar adjacent to 7th Haven. Pop’s, a cigar bar where small ensembles sometimes play, opened last year. And Forella will soon be taking over the Red Star, an area bar that just closed and that Forella has big plans for. “Now’s the time, man,” he says.

The Torch’s décor is Polynesian-continental. The walls are deep beige, and there’s a lot of bamboo around. Candles and tribal-motif tchotchkes dot the shelf space behind the bar, and plants tower near the windows facing West Seventh. This is where Forella made his first foray into the bar business — unsuccessfully, about six years ago. He was working as a skycap for American Airlines at DFW International Airport when he got the idea of learning how to run a bar from his mother, Veronica Forella, a guest-services executive with the airline. Having formerly tended bar at a California tavern that was expanding into Texas, Veronica was asked about managing the new place; she turned it down, but thought her son might be interested. He wasn’t, but the idea was planted. Brian had already caught the nightclub bug, anyway. “I was the kid in the corner playing pinball till two in the morning,” he said. “It’s just in my blood.”

With a friend from American, John Quimod, Forella found the space where the Torch now sits, along West Seventh near the border of the cultural district. He and Quimod maxed out their credit cards bringing the former furniture store up to spec. It took them six months to get everything ready; both were still working at American at the time. What Forella and Quimod didn’t know was that the place was not “grandfathered,” meaning, among other things, that it now had to provide handicap-accessible restrooms and more parking. A few weeks before it opened, the club got a visit from a city inspector who told the budding entrepreneurs that the place they’d spent days and nights remodeling might not meet code. The club never opened.

“Our landlord, Gary Treadwell, felt bad that we had spent all this time and money,” Forella said. “So when the place next door got busted by TABC [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission], he said he’d let us have it — and not pay any rent — until we started making money.”

Forella said it took about two months for the punk rock crowd to start packing the place, which used to be a predominantly Hispanic pool hall called the Golden Nugget. Forella called in friends from all over Texas to help fill the bar. “I said come on down, and I’ll buy your drinks,” he said. “Just be here.”

Forella said he never intended to turn the place into a live music venue — that is, until Carl Pack walked in and requested a gig for his band, The Gideons. Forella said OK, the gig went well, and Forella eventually started hosting more shows. He later borrowed $20,000 and built a stage in the back of the building, and now the club lives on live music — and Pack is one of the most popular bartenders in the room, if not in all of Fort Worth.

Forella worked at both the Wreck Room and American for about six months before he realized he had a better future in the bar business than in travel. Opening another bar seemed like a natural path — but of course it was bumpy.

Forella’s first try at being a multi-bar owner was the Satellite Dish, a live music venue and restaurant he opened with Quimod and two other partners in 1998 in the building where the Red Star now stands. It didn’t take Forella long to realize he was competing against himself — Wreck Room sales were down by 40 percent. He, Quimod, and another partner bought out the fourth, and Forella distanced himself from running the club. He wanted to concentrate on the Wreck Room, certainly, but he also had other ideas for another club in the area. The Screamin’ Peanut, a sports bar located where the 6th Street Grill is now situated, lasted only a few months. Equipment just kept breaking down, he said.

That was 1999. Since then, he’s mostly concentrated on the Wreck — until the last few months. He wants to totally revamp the Red Star; the Torch, due to open later this month, is also looking good, considering Forella originally planned it only as a coffee shop. “I’ve been renting this place since March 1999, after the tornado.” (He said he made a “ton of money” from insurance payments on storm damages there.) “I wanted to open this place more for the restrooms,” he said, noting that the Wreck has only two commodes. “All the neighbors [across the street] hated the idea of another bar here, right next door.” But landlord Treadwell didn’t. “All he said was, ‘Don’t burn the place down.’ But he always says that.”

Architect Ray Boothe of the Fort Worth-based Daedalus Development has watched the city grow from a cow town, literally, into a thriving metropolis. He sees the West Seventh Street area as one of the most solid investments in town. “It’s a fantastic area,” he said. “That Montgomery Ward building is going to be great, if it’s done mixed-use,” meaning if it’s made hospitable to retail, entertainment, and residential development. “Anything this close to downtown and close to the museum district has got to have some big upside.” Boothe used to have an office on West Seventh in the late 1980s, early 1990s. “I remember I was wishing I could buy the whole place up.”

In the past decade, as big-chain fast-food outlets left, Ward’s closed, and several other small businesses gave up the ghost, the stretch began to look forlorn. Now, however, “That perception is changing,” Boothe said. “People are sniffing around over there.”

Joe Gallant, who runs the Big Apple sports bar in Fort Worth near Arlington and two regional delis, said he thinks West Seventh is the next logical step in the revitalization of Fort Worth’s close-in neighborhoods. “I’ve seen the growth from the development of the city,” he said. “It’s there, heading that way.” And David Barber, of the realty firm Stoneleigh Huff Brous McDowell, said that, over the past six months, he’s received inquiries from at least five different entities about an 8,000-square foot, mixed-use location on Norwood which he represents.

The change in perception Boothe talks about can do wonders for an area. Jimmy Moore, who runs 7th Haven, said some of the attention West Seventh is now receiving is due to the tornado of 2000. “It came right down Seventh Street,” he said. “It was on the news, people were talking about it, and it was like, ‘Hey, that’s a nice little area over there.’ That’s when I noticed how much West Seventh Street was going unnoticed.” In fact, some of the lots nearest to Montgomery Ward, where tornado-ruined houses had to be bulldozed, have been bought with redevelopment in mind.

Moore, who also works in real estate, got the idea of opening 7th Haven one day while driving past the freestanding building that was home to the A Bar. He and business partner, Randy Butler, had been running the two Hyena’s comedy clubs, in downtown and in Arlington, for about six years when they bought into 7th Haven last October. “I felt the location was great,” Moore said. “Randy and I signed a 50-50 lease that August. Now he runs Hyena’s, and I run here.”

A big selling point for Moore was 7th Haven’s location on the north side of West Seventh. People who work downtown, heading home to Arlington Heights or Ridglea, don’t even have to cross traffic to stop for a cold one. “They drive right by us,” Moore said. “It’s the next best thing to being on a freeway without being on a freeway.”

That good-side-of-the-street philosophy was also behind Matt McEntire’s purchase three years ago of what is now the Shamrock Pub. “If this place,” McEntire said, pointing at the mahogany bar inside his pub, “would’ve been on the other side of the street, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. The way it is now, people driving home can just” — he held his fists up in front of him as if manipulating a steering wheel and executed a phantom turn — “they can just swing right in on their way from downtown.” The Firestone and 7th Street Station apartments also sold McEntire on the land. “There’s so much potential here,” he said. “It’s the corridor to the west from downtown Fort Worth.”

Unlike a lot of West Seventh Street bar owners, McEntire owns all 6,000 square feet of his property, which extends all the way behind the Shamrock’s building to Sixth Street. In a few years, he could be sitting on a gold mine. He originally paid $300,000 for it and said he has invested about $250,000 in it so far.

A transplant from Ireland, McEntire first opened the Shamrock in 1991 on Taylor Street downtown, where the only other nightspot was Billy Miner’s. He eventually sold the Shamrock, then opened the Blarney Stone on Throckmorton. He sold it in 1993 to Tad Gaither, who immediately opened the Black Dog Tavern on the site. Ever a shrewd businessman, McEntire turned around and opened another Blarney Stone on Houston Street, right across from the Black Dog — basically keeping his Blarney Stone regulars while turning a handsome profit. Six months ago he paid another $300,000 for the Goldstein Jewelers building downtown, between what are now two clubs — the Fox & Hound and The Library. “If I can pick up some of their business, great,” he said.

McEntire said he first noticed that the West Seventh Street area was “coming back” about five or six years ago, even after chain restaurants like Arby’s and McDonald’s had pulled out. (Wendy’s has held on.) Talk of a new building for the Modern Art Museum, at University and Camp Bowie, convinced McEntire that a West Seventh Street boom was possible. He now gauges success by bar sales, which he said have been steadily increasing over the past six months, and, oddly enough, by the amount of foot traffic he sees next door at a little mom-and-pop donut store across the parking lot. “It’s packed every morning,” he said.

For Moore and 7th Haven, the measures of progress are more modest. “We’re not losing money anymore,” he said. “We’re actually making money.”

A typical weekend night at the Wreck Room involves lots of loud music and happy people achieving bliss through music, booze, companionship, or other means. Forella gets happy mainly about heavy bar receipts, and he said that last Saturday might go down in Wreck Room history as one of the bar’s busiest nights ever: The band Slow Roosevelt was performing, and they’re usually a solid draw, but no one was expecting the kind of night that brought Forella from home at around 10:30 p.m. to help out and keep the troops cheerful. About 350 people passed through the Wreck’s doors that evening.

After the band had cleared the stage and most patrons departed, Forella locked the door, cranked up the jukebox, and let a few select regulars party for a couple more hours. And, yes, hot chicks were dancing on the bar, grinding air. And no, no liquor laws were broken — no one touched a drink, except water. Forella is typically a happy-go-lucky guy, but you could tell he was flying high on having had a great evening.

The Wreck’s patrons may be heavy on dressing in black and dissing any type of music deemed “inauthentic,” but they’re otherwise as straitlaced as a pack of Martha Stewart interns. Forella sees no problem in providing a counterpoint to the Wreck’s grungy-though-peaceful clientele with the Torch, which is expected to attract an older, less-inclined-to-wear black-on-black group of folk. As Barber said, there’s room for all types of crowds along West Seventh.

Architect Phillip Poole agrees. Poole operates Poole2 Real Estate, is president of the 12-year-old nonprofit Associated Businesses of the Cultural District, and works closely with city planners on development issues. He long ago recognized tremendous growth potential in the area between downtown and where Fort Worth’s high culture sits. He said he “can’t think of a better place for development, every type.” City Planning Director Fernando Costa concurred: “It’s hard to find an area of Fort Worth with greater redevelopment potential than that stretch of West Seventh.” A “new Deep Ellum” is perfectly square with what the city planners envision. “It would be different from the character of the Cultural District,” Costa said, “but it would complement it nicely. It would provide an informal counterbalance to the more formal attributes of the Cultural District.”

The West Seventh Street area has been on Mayor Kenneth Barr’s list of key redevelopment corridors for the past couple of years, but it’s only in the past few months that there’s been action to back up the talk. Poole has been instrumental in getting things moving. He’s done some consulting for UC Urban, developer of the 60 town homes that will be going up later this month, and he was also a consultant on the Montgomery Ward deal. He’s now spearheading ABCD’s mission to get two portions of the West Seventh Street area rezoned to accommodate mixed-use development: One parcel, between Lancaster and Seventh, will be called Trinity Park Village; the other “village” will be located in the general vicinity of the six-points intersection up the road. Poole imagines these places as tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly, and covered in retail businesses. (The way he sees it, there aren’t enough restaurants or watering holes now to satisfy folks famished after a good long walk through a museum.) ABCD will present a petition to city council next month, requesting the rezoning.

Poole said an important aspect of all this urban redevelopment is getting more housing up, continuing the boom that started several years ago. “There’s been a disinvestment in this area,” he said. “We need to see ‘the village’ return, with housing, theater, lofts, and restaurants.” The 76102 area code has actually lost people over the past 10 years, according to 1990 and 2000 census information. Poole said this stretch was one of the most active areas of Fort Worth until about the 1960s. “We can fix something that’s vanished,” he said. Bars and clubs will be integral to the revival he talks about. “In my opinion, you need establishments that bring music and entertainment to a neighborhood and that aren’t always supported by 51 percent food sales.”

It’s impossible to talk about any sort of development in Fort Worth without talking about public transportation — or the lack thereof. Described as a “starter” project, the $165 million light-rail proposal that the city council approved in June will cover 7.6 miles of ground along city roads from the Cultural District to Texas Wesleyan University. With voter approval and adequate funding, some type of light-rail system could be up and running by 2008.

The goal of any form of public transportation, especially light rail, is not merely to shuttle people from place to place but to provide them with destinations — like a cultural district or an entertainment district. Many observers say rail won’t work until population density increases in central Fort Worth. However, the North Central Texas Council of Governments said Fort Worth’s population is expected to increase by almost 50 percent between 1995 and 2018. Under any plan, West Seventh Street will probably be a main artery.

Last week, Forella had called a meeting at the Red Star with the club’s employees, most of whom knew what was about to be discussed. He told them he was going to be buying out a partner, Patrick McKeon, and he wanted the employees to hear the story first-hand.

“First, they were all pissed off,” Forella said. “But I think they had to know it was a time for a change.” The club has been a no-go destination for the past few months. There’s been a lot of trouble in and around the place — car break-ins, fights.

Forella plans to bring in a new management team, led by renowned executive chef Mike Shaw, and physically re-do the building as well. “I’m gonna clean it up, lighten it up, clean up the bathrooms, and maybe turn it into something like Goose West,” Forella said, referring to a popular hangout on Camp Bowie. “I’m going to make it more accessible, like a place people can bring their kids into for lunch. And we’re also going to do late-night food.”

The name will change — again. “We don’t have any name yet, but we’re going to see what it looks like first,” he said. “Once we rip out those walls and repaint it, it could turn into something completely different.”

It’s Monday night at the Torch, and Forella is overseeing the installation of a cooler and sink behind the newly lacquered pine bar, which looks like an old-fashioned hardwood basketball court, like the kind on which Forella once played college hoops. The place reeks of freshly cut wood. You can see Forella savoring his good fortune as he excitedly greets the heavy-lifters when they come in to help.

“The Wreck Room, I just started making money on that place — after five years,” he says pensively. “I was just going by instinct. But this is different. I know how to do it now, and I’m working with great guys. Mike Shaw’s been around, and everybody knows Gilbert [Vera, his consultant on the Torch]. I’m just learning from them.”

The floor is a deep aqua pool, and it looks barren, what with all the bar stools and chairs stacked in neat rows near the window. Forella surveys the expanse. “I got a couple of couches I want to get,” he says. Then he looks up and smiles. “But I am just broke right now.”

Now. But probably not for long.

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