Blowing Up the West Side
An intense redevelopment in the Cultural District could take the urban village concept up several stories.
By DAN MCGRAW
A few months ago, the guy in the chair at the West 7th Street Barber Shop was making the usual friendly conversation with the man cutting his hair. The shop is good for that — conversation about national politics or how to fix an air conditioner or neighborhood gossip for those living on the near West Side.
The small talk this day was about business in the area, and the barber had all kinds of rumors to relate, most of them about how some new developer was tearing up the whole Cultural District. “He kept talking about some guy coming in, some guy who couldn’t get the deals done, some guy who was losing money,” the customer recalled.
Eventually, the customer admitted that he was that “some guy” — Richard Garvey, president of JaGee Holdings. And he went out to his car and pulled out some drawings and explained to the barber and others in the shop that day how the development known as Museum Place might affect them.
One of the main rules of the real estate business is that you don’t talk about deals until the papers are signed. “It was kind of funny, because we had been working on the development for years, but you never want to really put out a lot of information until you’re ready to go,” Garvey said. But this time, “I just wanted to let them know we are not trying to run out businesses; we aren’t trying to change that neighborhood into something that is going to be just like everything else you see in every new development,” Garvey recalled, from his office in the nearby Linwood neighborhood. “They had lots of questions, and I tried to answer them. And they were like everyone else — why has this thing been taking so long? Well, it’s not like we’re trying to build a house here. This is a major development, and we are taking the steps to do things right.”
What Garvey and his partner Phillip Poole want to “do right” is a possible $200 million, 15-acre remake of the heart of the near West Side. The developers hope to turn the land on the west and north sides of the University-Camp Bowie-Seventh Street intersection into something almost unheard-of in Fort Worth — not only a destination for tourists, but also a place where locals can live, work, eat out, and visit clubs and theaters, all without getting in their cars. And (wonders never cease) a place that folks from other hotels and other parts of town can reach via public transportation — a light-rail line connecting the Cultural District and downtown. An eight-story hotel, apartments, condos, office buildings, and retail development are all part of the plan, which would greatly increase the intensity of use of the area.
Museum Place is beyond the pie-in-the-sky stage, but neither is it real crust and filling ready to be served. Garvey estimated that JaGee now owns 80 percent of the land needed. But like, it seems, every other developer in town, he and Poole are looking for public money to make Museum Place happen — in this case, not only some tax dollars for infrastructure but possibly a tax-increment financing district and a public transportation grant to make the light-rail line happen. What’s more, Museum Place is competing against other redevelopment projects that have higher profiles, longer histories, and potentially more “constituents” — projects like Trinity River Vision and the Rosedale and West Berry redevelopment projects.
And there are other potential stumbling blocks: Garvey’s experience is mostly in industrial and retail strip shopping centers, not in multi-level “urban village” redevelopments. Nearby neighborhood groups seem either cautiously supportive or just cautious about the proposed development. Many of the businesspeople who could be affected are hesitant to talk, for fear of raining on the parade of their future landlords. And a key land swap that would move the neighborhood post office to a new location at Bailey and University depends on talking the U.S. Postal Service into supporting a “signature” building that cultural district mavens want, but that may not be all that practical for handling mail trucks and post office customers.
There are also questions about what Garvey touts as the traffic-reducing potential of the development. How can a place designed to bring in about 900 new residents and 900 new workers decrease the traffic load on an already-burdened intersection, even if the light-rail line becomes reality? And what is the likelihood that Fort Worth leaders will back a public transportation project that has always seemed low on the city’s wish list?
But Garvey is convinced that things will work out. He believes the scope of the urban redevelopment vision makes Museum Place unique, and he points out that, unlike many of the high-end residential projects sprouting up around downtown and on West Seventh, his plans include moderate-income apartments as well as luxury condo homes. And he believes that his development, for the first time, would create a real connection between the institutions — museums, hospital, medical school, arenas — and residents in the area.
“We have these great attractions ... in that neighborhood — the museums and the Will Rogers Center and the University of North Texas Health Science Center — but the areas around those institutions aren’t really a part of them,” he said.
“I’ve lived in this area pretty much my whole life,” he said. “This is happening now because it is a good idea.”
When the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was getting ready to open in 2002, I talked to one of the engineers on the project for a magazine article on the unique uses of concrete in the building. Japanese architect Tadao Ando was known for integrating his works into their surrounding neighborhoods, but in the Modern Art Museum design a huge wall separates the museum from its neighbors along Camp Bowie Boulevard.
The engineer said the wall was there because Ando and the Fort Worth elite funding the museum “didn’t want the museum to be part of all that crap on Camp Bowie.” The “crap” was a Texaco gas station, a sandwich shop, views of a self-serve car wash, a dry-cleaning business, big billboards, and plenty of traffic. Hardly what the Willem de Kooning crowd wants to look at.
Garvey saw the same split but had a different reaction. He began thinking about redeveloping the Cultural District neighborhood when wealthy benefactor Anne Marion — who raised money for the Modern Art Museum and also tore down the historic Seventh Street Theater to rid the area of one piece of “crap” — proposed an ornate roundabout at the big intersection.
“The city was talking about mixed-use urban development, and we just thought that the best place to apply that in the city was in the Cultural District,” Garvey said. “We always thought about the sense of community and how that could be preserved. But we didn’t want to do all housing, and we didn’t want to do just offices or entertainment areas. We thought we could create a neighborhood — have dry cleaners and barber shops and places to eat and have a cup of coffee — but also create a type of entertainment district as well. The key to what we are doing is to create a neighborhood where people who live or work or visit can walk around to almost everything they need.”
What Garvey saw as a business opportunity was a plethora of one-story structures and lots of parking lots. The business plan for Museum Place is to build up instead of out — most of the new buildings will be five- to eight-story structures. Retail stores, clubs, and restaurants — many with outdoor dining — will be located on the first floors, with offices and housing above.
Poole wants it to be very urban, an area where street design gives pedestrians as much attention as cars. Instead of curbs between the streets and sidewalks in many areas, “plazas” with colored paving are planned, with movable structures like huge potted plants separating the street scene from the cars. On weekends the planters can be moved and the streets closed to vehicles, and the plazas — like the one planned at Arch Adams and West Seventh — can be used for concerts or to accommodate more pedestrian traffic.
City officials are on board with the plan in many ways, even though it has not been formally presented to the council. “We have been working hard to promote neighborhood development that is mixed-use and helps to cut down on sprawl and traffic problems,” said city planning director Fernando Costa. “Downtown is a good model for higher-use, mixed-use development. Museum Place can be a development that really does mixed-use in a very good way, and in a neighborhood that can benefit from it. What JaGee is proposing is consistent with the city’s policies.”
The current plan for Museum Place includes less housing than originally rumored, with rental apartments far outpacing condos. The two big housing areas would take up the land now occupied by a 7-Eleven convenience store, The Wreck Room club, J&J’s Hideaway bar, and the Arlington Heights post office, providing at least 400 apartments and — at this point — only about 25 condo units.
A “big boutique hotel” with 160 to 180 rooms will be built at Arch Adams and West Seventh, across the street from the current location of the 7-Eleven. Office buildings mixed with plazas that extend close to the big intersection will be built on the pie-shaped land between West Seventh Street and Bailey Avenue. The post office, currently at Darcy Street and Arch Adams, will be moved to the pie-shaped property between Bailey and University, now occupied by a self-serve car wash. The site of the current Texaco gas station will be home to a narrow “flatiron” building, with another plaza out front.
Garvey said the partnership now owns about 80 percent of the land needed. A deal that would move the 7-Eleven across the street to the west to become part of a larger building is close to being finalized, according to several sources. One holdout appears to be landowner Gary Treadwell, who owns the West 7th Street Barber Shop and the building housing The Wreck Room. Treadwell could not be reached for comment for this story.
Current business owners in the area are worried that they will be left out. Garvey said some will, but that most will be offered leases in the new development. For example, an auto-detailing service won’t be part of the new development, but the music clubs, bars, and dry-cleaning businesses will be offered first crack at leases, Garvey said.
One bar owner said he’s worried about how expensive the new leases might be, and whether his club might have to close while construction is going on.
“If they want high-end clubs with very expensive leases, then I’m not sure if we can be a part of that,” said the bar owner, who asked that his name not be used. “And if we have to close down for six months while we wait for new space to be built, that won’t work either. Right now we are listening to what JaGee has to offer, and we’ll be open to it.”
Garvey said he wants to create different styles throughout the development, which has four major components. The eastern edge near Bailey Avenue would have clubs and restaurants geared toward a younger crowd, while the first-floor businesses near the hotel might be aimed at baby-boomers, with jazz clubs and more formal restaurants, he said.
The major concern among both neighbors and business owners is that Museum Place will be little more than another bland condo development, with chain restaurants and stores. “This will no doubt be good for our business, because it looks like we will have lots of housing across the street from us,” said Troy Masure, owner of the Four Star Coffee Bar, which is just beyond the western edge of the development plan. “But what everyone wants to know is whether this development is going to sell itself out to the corporate chains,” Masure said. “With our business, we know that we might be competing with corporate coffeehouses, and we all know what those are. But if they can make this place unique, a place that is very different from what Fort Worth has done before, this can be fantastic. A neighborhood where people feel comfortable walking around could be what this area really needs, and a real boost for the city.”
Garvey said that while chains may be a part of Museum Place, his team is working hard to make sure it also is home to local businesses — but he makes no guarantees. “We’ll make everything available we can, but the market sometimes changes things,” he said.
The numbers Garvey is trotting out say that this might be an economic boost for the city. There will be nearly 1 million square feet of lease space, including 160,000 square feet of retail space and about 120,000 square feet of offices. In an application for a $6.6 million grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, JaGee Holdings estimated the first-floor retail would create 300 new jobs, while the office space would have a daytime population of 500 workers. The hotel would employ another 60 workers.
So the numbers say that about 900 workers, and another 900 people who move into new housing, will make a big economic impact. Garvey said 10 percent of the housing will rent for less than the current median rates for the city as a whole.
In its grant application to the council of governments, JaGee described housing choices that would include studios “above the store,” row houses, condos, and “luxury units atop an office building with spectacular views.”
The $6.6 million grant from NCTCOG would be used to help redo the roads, provide trees, open sidewalks, and create head-in street parking. The application has the city’s backing, on the theory that the new development would reduce the amount of vehicles on the roadways.
It is easy to see the problem here. Bringing about 1,800 new workers and residents into 15 high-density acres normally would add tremendous traffic to an already congested area. That’s where this project gets a little tricky.
The potential traffic effects of the Museum Place proposal both worry and intrigue the development’s neighbors.
Haily Summerford is president of the Monticello Neighborhood Association, representing the homeowners who will be most affected by Museum Place. Garvey and his representatives met with the Monticello residents last month, laying out some of the plans.
“We were very pleased they attended, because it was not something they had to do,” Summerford said. “I personally think the urban village concept is very important for Fort Worth. There are some general questions about traffic congestion and parking. But they said they would do focus groups with us and have open communication. It really could be wonderful if done the right way.”
Though Monticello is close by, the proposed development is buffered on most of its perimeter from residential neighborhoods in ways that most developments like this are not. The museums, the University of North Texas Health Science Center, and the Bombay Company office building insulate it on most of three sides. To the east, the Linwood neighborhood is separated from the future Museum Place by businesses along University and West Seventh.
The developers plan to present their plans to the Arlington Heights neighborhood group within a few months. And the main issue among neighborhood leaders is changing the Cultural District into something they don’t recognize. “The Cultural District is a very important part of this city, its signature in many ways,” said one neighborhood activist who asked that her name not be used. “So if we are going to totally change an area that defines this city, we have got to be very careful.”
Greg Upp, vice president of the health science center, thinks the development might actually reduce traffic. “We have 3,000 students and staff here, and there is a need for housing and dining and entertainment,” Upp said. “When we look at the growth we want to do, keeping traffic down is something we look at carefully. If we have our students and staff living close by and not getting in their cars every time they want to get lunch or go shopping, the traffic can be reduced.”
Garvey and his partners applied for the council of governments grant under its Sustainable Development Program. The council has $40 million in federal money to spend across the Metroplex on projects —public transit, private housing, and retail developments — that could decrease vehicle traffic across the region, and $217 million worth of requests.
City staffers, considering all applications from Fort Worth projects, ranked the $6.6 million Museum Place request highest in the potential for reducing traffic. Local competitors for the regional council’s grant money include proposals for streetscaping in the Trinity Bluff development ($1 million), funding for new street design on West Rosedale and Magnolia Green in the Hospital District ($1.2 million), and streetscapes in the West Berry Street housing development by Grandmarc Development ($2.4 million).
That ranking by the city probably won’t sit well with other groups. Leaders in southeast Fort Worth have long complained that the city has steered funding to richer — and whiter — areas of town. Museum Place is now being added into the mix, and the competition for public money is intensifying.
“What we like to look at is a mixed use of transportation options,” said Mike Sims, a council of governments planner “If a development can make for shorter drives, more mass transit, and more walking, we see the effects of that — less congestion on our roadways and better air quality.” The council’s federal grant money doesn’t pay for the core costs of the proposed developments, he said, but for things like trees and street improvements. “Maybe they need an additional roadway or bike trail or signal light. It could be better transportation access,” he said.
The COG staff will make its recommendations on Feb. 24, and formal decisions — voted on by members —are expected in April.
Poole, a local architect and urban planning specialist, also wants to revive municipal interest in a light-rail corridor between downtown and the Cultural District along West Seventh Street. The city had approved a plan for light rail in 1998 and again in 2002, but both times it wound up on the back burner. Poole thinks council might take another look at the issue if more people were moving between the Cultural District and downtown.
Fort Worth City Council member Carter Burdette, whose district includes the proposed Museum Place development, said JaGee’s plans fit in with what the city is trying to do. “We need to do mixed-use areas, and higher density makes those developments work,” he said.
He also said the light-rail idea might get a boost from Museum Place. “We need mass transit more extensively than we have it now,” the councilman said. “It might be a project where we get our feet wet and find there is more demand for light rail within the city than we thought.”
The proposed rail line would run from downtown, cut through the six-points intersection, and then move to Montgomery Street and the health science center. It would then run south to the proposed new rodeo arena at the Will Rogers Complex on Montgomery and return downtown via West Seventh. The estimated cost would be about $80 million.
Funding for that kind of mass transit project has been tough to come by in Fort Worth, since the city traditionally puts its money behind regional rail, not smaller trolley-like lines. But Poole said a mix of federal, state, regional, and city money could make the Seventh Street line happen.
The U.S. Department of Transportation approved $1.5 billion last year for 34 new or expanding urban and suburban transit programs aimed at improving job access and increasing commuter mobility. Phoenix got $75 million for a light-rail system, Las Vegas got $40 million for a monorail, and $50 million was earmarked for rail systems in North Carolina.
Poole figures that a federal grant could pay for half of the rail line, and another 25 percent or so could come from a combination of state money and funding from the regional council. That would leave Fort Worth paying for the remaining $20 million or so.
No one’s suggesting that getting the city to fund light rail is likely — just possible. “We had the studies that said this type of light rail would work, but council decided they had other projects that could use city funding,” said a city staffer who didn’t want his name used. “Council has seen that mass transit here doesn’t really resonate with voters.” Plus, he said, the city’s getting pulled in all sorts of directions, by other “urban village” redevelopments, the massive Trinity River Vision plan, and “all the tax-increment financing districts we have going.”
The Museum Place planners would like to dip into that pocket, too, not surprisingly. Poole said the tax dollars that are set aside by creation of a TIF could be used to replace 80-year-old sewer lines in the area that can’t handle the high-density development being planned.
Talks with city staffers about such a TIF have barely left the barn.
Add up all that public money that Poole and Garvey would like to get their hands on, plus the $100 million in private costs, and Museum Place could be one of the most expensive developments in the city’s history.
Garvey figures the project can be built out in five years — with the five years starting as soon as the Problem of the Post Office is solved.
Holding up the project right up right now is the transfer of the Arlington Heights post office from its current location to the new one on Bailey Avenue. Garvey and the U.S. Postal Service have agreed to swap the old post office location for the corner that’s now marked by a dramatic reminder of the March 2000 tornado — a set of stout metal poles, once supports for a billboard, that are now bent almost to right angles. The postal service —which needs a new building in the area anyway — would pay for the new building.
According to several sources, some of Fort Worth’s elites, seeing the plan for a new post office at the entrance to the Cultural District, insisted on a design that was a little too fancy for the guvamint. The sources said famed Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi came up with a design that was all glass and girders but lacked simple things like enough parking spaces. A second design included a sculpture of a flag waving in the breeze, but post office folks thought it was too big.
Another design has now been presented, and the postal service is expected to sign off on it in the next few months. Construction would take 10 months, and Garvey said the first phase of the Museum Place development could begin soon after dirt is turned on the new post office. But the negotiation is a good illustration of some of the issues at play here: practical needs and a high level of sensitivity about what the Cultural District will look like.
Like most real estate developers seeking public money, both Garvey and Poole think the city would make all the public investment back in Museum Place and more — as Portland, Ore., did in an area called the Pearl District.
The Pearl District is very different from Fort Worth’s Cultural District — it was full of old warehouses before redevelopment hit. But the neighborhood really began to take off when a small light-rail line was built in 2001, linking the area with downtown a few miles away. Portland officials estimate that $1 billion in new development has taken place since then. The new businesses and residents might have moved in without the streetcar line, but it’s been a significant selling point, Portland developer Homer Williams told the Portland Tribune. “People look at it as an enhancement to their urban living,” Williams told the paper. “It’s a very important piece of the question, more so than anybody thought.”
“People want to visit the usual tourist destinations, but they also want to go see some areas of town that are unique and interesting,” Garvey said. “We get people visiting our museums now and people going to the stock show,” he said — but not a neighborhood that, in and of itself, is a place that draws visitors or makes them want to stay longer.
Garvey sees visitors coming to Museum Place, parking their cars in garages or on the street, and then spending the day walking around. “What we want to do is take the resources in the Cultural District and leverage them into a community,” he said. “That isn’t happening right now.” Such a district, with a variety of lifestyles, could attract new companies to town, he suggested.
But not everyone thinks the Pearl District is an example other cities should follow. Author Joel Kotkin recently wrote in Portland’s Oregonian newspaper that such developments have little public benefit, despite the numbers recited by the city and developers. “Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City,” Kotkin wrote. “What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don’t create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants.”
“But can a city survive — and thrive — primarily as a marketer of an urban experience?” he asked. “An ephemeral city doesn’t compete with lesser places — you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls — for jobs, companies, or investors. An ephemeral city’s economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.”
Garvey doesn’t deny that Museum Place will be a place for people who may be on the hip and cool side of life, and maybe those who prize Fort Worth self-esteem. But he said he’s committed to making the Cultural District a place that many types in Fort Worth will want to call home — in fact, he said, that makes it more attractive for all groups.
“We can’t guarantee what rents and costs of housing might be, because the market changes,” Garvey said. “But we know that an area becomes even more attractive, for even the high-end housing, when there is diversity.”
He doesn’t deny that he and his partners need public money to make it work. But he also said they want — and are working to get — public acceptance as well. “This must be a public/private partnership, and we mean that more than just having a developer work with the city government,” Garvey said. “We are working with the neighbors, the business leaders in the area, the museums, and the medical school.”
With all of the redevelopment downtown, along the Trinity, and heading west along Seventh Street, with the Modern Art Museum drawing visitors from across the country and a major new arena planned on Montgomery Street, the Cultural District is obviously ripe for redevelopment — and various groups have floated trial balloons before this. The debate over Museum Place and the public bucks that the developers want for it should be intensifying in coming months— both in city hall and in the barbershops. Like the redevelopment of the Stockyards that began a couple of decades ago, this one hits in a part of town that helps define Fort Worth. When it’s all said and done, the tornado of 2000 may have nothing on this one in helping reshape the near West Side.
You can reach Dan McGraw at email@example.com.
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