Bright Lights, Big Fights
Jason Miller and Justin McWilliams have brought life — and controversy — back to Race Street.
Bell: ‘I can’t go out and get a flower shop because no flower shop wants to come in there.’
Leslie Liner and Maribel Saldizar run two of the new Race Street businesses that have clashed with the Scenic Bluff group.
On a Riverside bluff, the future has arrived, and it looks ... stormy.
By JESSICA JOHNSON photos by Vishal Malhotra
Fort Worth motorists who travel I-35 just north of downtown have been wondering for years about some interesting additions to the landscape just to the east. Along the tree-lined bluff above Oakhurst Scenic Drive, the rooflines of some sizable houses — even a mansion or two — sprout above the oaks and scrub brush.
Those familiar with the Riverside area just beyond the bluff are particularly curious about the big bucks hinted at by the big houses. What are they doing there, on the edge of what has always been a middle- to low-income neighborhood?
The answer is that the lofty houses are looking west toward downtown and the Trinity River, like permanent flags signaling major forces of change that are swirling around Riverside and particularly the little neighborhood known as Scenic Bluff.
On the other end of the neighborhood, near the intersection known as Six Points, where Riverside, Belknap, and Race streets intersect, the banners of change are painted in the bright colors and neon-lighted trim of one of the most interesting things to happen to this neighborhood in a long time. A several-block stretch of once-shabby commercial buildings has been renovated, and a banquet hall, art-glass shop, and trendy motorcycle shop have joined the real estate, title, and insurance offices; a new café and coffee shop are expected soon. Nearby, the historic McAdams Building, saved from the wrecking ball and renovated, will soon house a new Italian restaurant, next to a police storefront. And that’s not even taking into account the huge Wal-Mart a few blocks further east that replaced a grove of trees in 2004 and has brought a major increase in commercial activity to the area along Airport Freeway. Back to the west, near where Race joins Sylvania Avenue before heading down into the residential area along the bluff, two of the first new commercial buildings in the area in years have gone up, graced by a commissioned sculpture, fountain, and chandelier.
In short, what’s happening is what locals have predicted for years: Their part of town, long considered a hidden gem, filled with oak trees, dotted with interesting architecture, and offering beautiful views of a downtown only minutes away, has been discovered by the rest of Fort Worth. The question now is: What will the cost of discovery be?
For the first time, these quiet neighborhoods are being looked at by developers as prime real estate. The Six Points area is about to get the “urban village” treatment from the city, the kind of initiative that is helping reshape the hospital district and several other older neighborhoods. Charleston, a gated community of homes worth $275,000 to $900,000, was built along the bluff beginning more than 10 years ago; now, relatively upscale condos are being planned a couple of blocks away in a neighborhood where most homes are valued at $30,000 to $100,000. In a few years, the changes begun by the massive Trinity River Vision plan just north of downtown are expected to make their way east along the Trinity and probably increase property prices and development pressure near this bluff as well. And two entrepreneurs responsible for the redevelopment along Race Street are talking about making the area into an entertainment district, Fort Worth’s version of Deep Ellum, and maybe extending the redevelopment straight through the Scenic Bluff residential neighborhood and all the way to the river.
All of a sudden, “discovery” is starting to look scary to some people in Scenic Bluff, where the mostly modest 50- to 80-year-old frame homes have never been of much interest to outsiders before. Theirs is just the latest in a list of Fort Worth neighborhoods worried that urban renewal may mean destroying a village to save the village.
After all, poor people got moved out of downtown public housing to make way for the new RadioShack headquarters. Longtime business owners along White Settlement Road and North Main Street near downtown are due to lose their property to make way for the Trinity River Vision’s downtown lake. In Arlington Heights and Mistletoe Heights, some older homes are being replaced by McMansions. The blue-collar Linwood neighborhood, just off booming West Seventh street, is drawing the attention of developers who want to buy out the residents on the cheap. And in Woodhaven, low-income apartment complexes may be sacrificed to provide a landscaped “gateway” to the area’s higher-income single-family homes and country club.
In Scenic Bluff, neighborhood leaders have responded by seeking zoning rollbacks to take residential areas back to single-family status and prevent the development of condos along their narrow streets. And they’ve complained so much about the Race Street redevelopment that some commercial property and business owners are now talking about taking their money and looking for friendlier territory.
Riverside began as a rural community of farmers and nursery workers about 150 years ago, but regional growth has now made it part of the inner city, kept healthy in part by its stock of well-built homes and its proximity to downtown and major roads. Still, it has retained a distinct suburban atmosphere, thanks in part to the work of active neighborhood groups, including Oakhurst, Sylvan Heights, and Carter Riverside. In 1995, nine of these groups banded together to form the Riverside Alliance. The Scenic Bluff Neighborhood Association was established when founders of the Riverside Alliance asked Wendy Vann, the developer of the Charleston gated community, to take on an unorganized group of streets, without representation, in the midst of established neighborhoods that wanted to join the alliance.
Vann sees change, to both residential and commercial areas, as vitally important. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh that’s a rough neighborhood,’” she said. “If people are shopping elsewhere, then they are taking their money outside of the neighborhood ... . We need our tax dollars here.” And vacant buildings attract only “vagrants and graffiti.”
For years, the commercial corridor on Race Street fit that unfortunate description, a faded stroll of failed shops, bars, tired apartments, and vacant buildings. Now, a Miami-inspired stretch of storefronts, trimmed in neon, has emerged along Race between Sylvania and Riverside. Developers Justin McWilliams and Jason Miller have recruited many new businesses. By this summer, the Swanky Shack Coffeebar and Gallery — a hipper version of a longtime but long-gone neighborhood diner — and the Race Street Grill are expected to join the roster.
“At the time that I acquired the properties [on Race], the area had severely declined and was one of the least attractive areas of Fort Worth for would-be business owners,” said McWilliams, who grew up in Riverside.
When McWilliams and Miller helped sponsor the Greater Riverside Fourth of July celebration last year, they were arm in arm with the Scenic Bluff association. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. In August, the neighborhood group started complaining that Liner’s, an upscale motorcycle shop on Race, didn’t have proper zoning. Miller tried to get it rezoned but lost out to neighborhood opposition.
After months of struggle with the new businesses on Race Street, the neighborhood group changed its bylaws to revoke voting rights for merchants. “The businesses that ... have been here for decades [are] successful because they listen to the concerns of the people that live here,” said Belinda Norris, a lifetime resident of Scenic Bluff and secretary/treasurer of the neighborhood association. “I understand that a business wants to make a profit and we want to live here. We just need to find a happy medium.”
Scenic Bluff won the battle with Liner’s, but not the war. The motorcycle shop is moving a few yards down the street to a building properly zoned for the shop — and for a café addition serving beer and wine.
“When you put a residential area in an industrial area, everybody’s going to have to work together to get it figured out,” said shop owner Leslie Liner. “How that happens, whether it’s peacefully or if it’s a knock-down drag-out, I can’t tell you. But everybody’s going to have to realize that that’s what’s coming to that area.”
Some think the neighborhood opposed Liner’s because of outdated ideas about the motorcycle business. Some older people “immediately associate Liner’s with Hell’s Angels, when a lot of their clients are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, people that can come in and drop $20,000 cash on a bike,” said Graham Brizendine, who manages several properties on Race.
Lucy Rodriguez has raised four kids in a house not far from Liner’s; she cares about the noise, not the clientele. “The motorcycles pass through here real loud, and there are families with children through here,” she said. “But otherwise, we don’t mind having offices around here.”
When Liner’s hosted an outdoor concert last October, the neighborhood group waited until the day before the show to point out to city officials that the building was not zoned for that. The concert was moved to La Hacienda banquet hall six doors down. Hall owner Maribel Saldizar said she started getting noise complaints a full day before the musicians arrived.
“If I hadn’t invested so much money, I would have moved to a more welcoming neighborhood by now,” Saldizar said. “I would look for a neighborhood that was looking for an opportunity for growth.”
La Hacienda opened for business last March, but neighborhood protests delayed the approval of her liquor license for two months. Saldizar estimates she lost 60 to 70 percent of expected revenue in the first five months of business as a result.
“They were telling me they were concerned with people leaving my establishment drunk,” she said. Saldizar questioned why the group would go after a family-oriented banquet hall, used to celebrate weddings, quinceañeras, and anniversaries, when an entire row of bars stands a couple of blocks away. “They never had a valid answer for me.” Neighborhood association vice president Michael Faucette, who’s lived in the area for 12 years, said, “As it stands right now, none of us oppose her getting a liquor license, but when she first tried it, there was some static.”
Saldizar said the association could end up doing more harm than good. “They would rather see 20 vacant buildings than 20 successful businesses, if it’s not the kind of business they like,” she said.
To a point, neighborhood leaders agreed. Their group might oppose too large a concentration “of certain businesses,” Norris said.
Another issue that has come up repeatedly is the Miami Beach-style motif that McWilliams and Miller are using on Race Street — bright and pastel colors, with touches of tile, ironwork, and neon. McWilliams said they are “trying to create an area that will bridge ethnic styles and create an inviting atmosphere.”
Several people said Scenic Bluff association president David Powers is one of those who objects most strongly to the decorating scheme.
Janice Michel, a founder of the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association and later the Riverside Alliance, said that only one or two people in Scenic Bluff actually object to what’s been done on Race Street, “and sad to say, the main thing that they’ve talked about is the style of the buildings. Justin McWilliams had done those buildings in more of a Hispanic flair, and David Powers is not happy with that.”
Powers declined to talk with Fort Worth Weekly about that allegation or anything else. Norris was designated as Scenic Bluff’s spokesperson.
“Some people like it and some don’t,” said Norris. “I like the McAdams Building, kind of a retro nostalgic motif, better than what’s on Race Street. But that’s just my personal [opinion], and there’s nothing wrong with what’s on Race Street.”
Norris said that her group is really more concerned that McWilliams is not listening to what the residents want.
McWilliams “came to our meetings a few times, and he brought some of the other business [people],” Norris said. “They talked with us, and everything was great ... and then we haven’t seen him back at our meeting since. So, that conversation just kind of ended.”
But McWilliams said that he has been diligently trying to work with them. “I have on numerous occasions asked for their wants and desires,” he said. “I think that the association, in some instances, has overreacted and doesn’t realize, in comparison to other development companies, how accommodating we have been.”
McWilliams, who owns a majority of the renovated buildings on Race, purchased a refurbished trolley and is planning to run it to downtown. But it has yet to make a single run, possibly due to all the trouble with Powers and the Scenic Bluff group.
“It’s hard to deal with people that slam their hands down and yell,” Michel said of Powers. “Justin [McWilliams] is trying to spend money in the area, and they are treating him like he’s just trying to line his pockets,” she said. “Justin has made great strides, and it’s working very well because the places [on Race] are being leased.”
McWilliams and Miller are forming a nonprofit association called Urban Riverside Inc., along with some “long-term, senior members of the Riverside business community,” said Rick Herring, another founder of the Riverside Alliance and the new organization’s president. He said he sees his role as more of a consultant between investors, developers, property owners and residents.
“One of the goals of Urban Riverside Inc. will be to establish a good working relationship with all the neighborhood associations and to mend any fences that have been broken,” Herring said. A lack of information from some developers and property owners has contributed to the problem, he said, and he’s hoping to change that. “I can guarantee anyone that there will be a full flow of information.” Membership will be open to anyone interested in improving the area’s business sector, including residents.
Herring said that neighborhood associations in Riverside have done a good job in stabilizing the community over the past 10 years, which has made it an appealing area for potential investors and developers. “The neighborhood associations have brought the community to a certain point, but now there’s some additional interests that have to continue that economic development,” he said.
Even Robert Bell, who is mostly applauded for his work on the McAdams Building at Six Points, met some skepticism about rezoning his building to mixed use. He wants residents to understand that developers have to rebuild the neighborhood’s reputation, as well as its streets, to get the businesses that residents want to see. For all its progress, Six Points is still a tough sell.
“You can’t just say you don’t want a motorcycle shop there. Well, I can’t go out and get a flower shop, because no flower shop wants to come in there. We’ve tried. ... We are particular, but not so particular to the point that we just sit on our hands and do nothing,” Bell said. Local developers “are very conscientious. They’re not just doing this for capital gains, because we could spend our money elsewhere and do a lot better.”
The McAdams Building now houses an attorney’s office and a police storefront, with an Italian restaurant opening soon. Next door, a mixed-use building, with stores or offices below and residential units above, is planned — a taste of things that could come with the designation of Six Points as an “urban village.”
The “village” is a revitalization concept that Fort Worth Planning Department Director Fernando Costa brought to Fort Worth, and it is beginning to transform many older areas of the city as well as the city’s vision of itself. His comprehensive plan for the city’s long-range development led to the first change in city zoning laws in years, allowing mixed-use growth centers within depressed inner-city neighborhoods and along declining commercial corridors.
The concept, Costa said, “actually works to return communities to the pre-1950s neighborhood lifestyle [when] people lived in close proximity to work, school, shopping, church, and services.” Combining residential and commercial areas, he said, can reduce auto traffic as well as crime, which is “less likely to occur in populated places characterized by activity around the clock.” The idea was first tested on the Near South Side, a long depressed area that is blossoming into a fascinating neighborhood.
Six Points is one of more than a dozen urban-village projects on which the city plans to spend nearly $4.5 million. Six Points is due to get $50,000 for planning and $775,000 for improvements to streets and sidewalks. But many issues are left to be decided, including the district’s boundaries.
While the Scenic Bluff leaders like many aspects of the concept, they are leery of others. They fear that redevelopment will mean an increase in residential tax bills. However, the designation could include the creation of a neighborhood empowerment zone, which freezes city property taxes for five years.
They also worry that McWilliams and Miller’s vision will threaten existing residential areas with noise, traffic, and too-dense residential encroachment.
“I would like this area to become a true urban village, a place to live, work, and play — a place that, day or night, is inviting,” McWilliams said. He and Miller said they have talked to the owners of West-side watering holes such as Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Zeke’s Fish & Chips, the Halo Lounge, and the Torch about opening additional locations in Six Points.
A one-time Oakhurst resident, Miller said he sees Six Points as Fort Worth’s answer to Dallas’ Lower Greenville, an eclectic urban area with industrial, residential and commercial aspects, but with cheaper rents than West Seventh or the TCU area. Considering the conflicts that businesses and homeowners in the Lower Greenville area continue to experience, however, that may be a hard vision to sell.
And indeed, not every “urban village” experiment in Fort Worth has been successful. In Miller’s own neighborhood of Arlington Heights, residents successfully fought off an urban village designation for the Camp Bowie Boulevard corridor, association president Christina Patoski said, “because the density of ‘mixed use zoning’ would have been totally out of character” with the neighborhood. “Urban villages favor developers,” she said, and in the Heights, developers are getting a bad rep for tearing down the area’s small, 1920s-era homes and replacing them with what Patoski calls “the monster mansions.”
Oakhurst, which borders Scenic Bluff to the north, is considering a historic overlay because of just such concerns.
Norris said her group doesn’t have any problem with commercial and urban housing development within the area outlined for the urban village — that is, commercial properties fronting Belknap and other busy streets. They just don’t want high-rises — or beer bottles, drunks, and illegal parkers in their front yards.
McWilliams’ vision of the area doesn’t sound too comforting to those who want their single-family areas left untouched. “By definition, the urban village concept includes dense multi-family housing,” he said. “A small number of single-family- zoned lots in the middle of an area dominated by commercial, light industrial, and perhaps multi-use zoning doesn’t follow sound planning and zoning philosophy.”
Proponents of the Six Points urban village fear that the Scenic Bluff group’s opposition could hurt the whole Riverside area by choking off city and private investment. “Those of us who started the Alliance knew what an urban village could do, and it’s a shame that a few people are making it so difficult,” said Michel, a former city zoning commissioner.
But some bluff residents think being scared is the right response to some of the proposed changes. And they are doing what they think is needed to protect their neighborhood.
Currently, Powers is leading a campaign to rezone the streets of Scenic Bluff, attempting to prevent exactly the kind of dense urban housing that the Trinity River Vision project to the west is promoting. The Scenic Bluff group sees down-zoning as a way to protect its residential areas from any spillover from the commercial parts of the urban village redevelopment — but not as a cordon against progress.
Last summer, Scenic Bluff leaders saw what they viewed as the first move by developers to remake their residential streets. Physically, it wasn’t much of an incursion — four condo units in the $95,000 price range at the corner of Dalford and Sylvania. Wendy Vann’s subdivision is at the other end of Dalford. The $30,000 homes along the street were being bookended by these higher-dollar developments, and residents started feeling a little threatened.
The neighborhood association was working with the city on basic things like potholes, when developers showed up. “It kind of put us in fast forward,” Norris said. “We were still trying to develop the neighborhood, get our streets fixed ... . We just had to react.”
Before he even saw the condo plans, Powers told Mick Zeigler, a co-owner of the project, that he would oppose anything that was not for single-family use. The association fought Zeigler for six months on the number, placement, and aesthetics of the units. But since multi-family zoning was already in place, the group couldn’t stop the project, which is now under construction.
Zeigler said he brought the plans to a neighborhood association meeting and was met with enthusiasm and support from most residents, despite emphatic resistance from Powers and other SBNA officers.
“We are willing to work with them, but ... they didn’t really want to listen to anything we had to say,” Ziegler said. “The association, as I can see it, is controlled by about four to six individuals, and they pretty much do things the way they want.”
However, several longtime Dalford neighbors said they worry about condo residents parking on the street, loss of trees, increased traffic, and the crowding of condos up against their homes.
“I think that it’s just not going to be good for this area,” said Gene Parks, who’s lived for 18 years next door to that lot. “I don’t think that they are going to sell,” he said. “They are going to be able to stick their hand out and touch the next building. He is going to end up renting them.”
Two streets in Scenic Bluff had already been rezoned in 2004, but after Zeigler’s condos were approved last December, the association immediately applied to have four other streets along the bluff down-zoned from two-family to single-family residential. Zeigler’s condos, the duplexes that make up about 10 percent of the neighborhood housing, and a few existing apartment buildings were grandfathered in, including the apartments managed by Michael Faucette, the neighborhood group vice president, who opposed the rezoning.
“I don’t think that it’s fair that an investor buys a property because of the way the land is zoned, and [then] people step forward and say ‘I want this and I want that,’” Faucette said.
Norris said that the neighborhood group is not against development altogether. “We would welcome ... nice, single family homes that conform to what we already have here,” she said. “Riverside is a historic, single-family neighborhood of working-class people. We’re not people who live in McMansions and high-rises.”
Libby Willis, president of the nearby Oakhurst Neighborhood Association, said she moved to the area 22 years ago because of its historic value. She thinks that preserving the character of Scenic Bluff is a “worthy goal.”
“These [condos] are going to be really larger, sort of out of character — a visual change,” Willis said. “It’s the same tear-down phenomenon you’re seeing in Arlington Heights. Because our location is so prime, near the river, the city is trying to preserve single-family neighborhoods.”
The city approved down-zoning of Dalford, with three more streets on the docket in April. However, the operation hit a snag on Marshall Street due to a discrepancy over petition signatures.
Members of the Dennis family, who live near TCU, own nine properties in Scenic Bluff — rent houses and vacant lots, the majority of them on Marshall Avenue. Though one family member’s name appeared on the rollback petition, the family said through a spokeswoman, they in fact opposed the action. The spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said they were misled into believing that the petition was simply an application to join the neighborhood association.
“The long and the short of it is, change happens. They want to try to stave off any kind of development,” she said.
Lewis Label Products stands just where Race Street hits the bluff east of Oakhurst Scenic Drive, above the river. Owner Gib Lewis, former speaker of the Texas House and now a lobbyist, owns more than 30 residential properties in Scenic Bluff. On Race Street alone, he has nine properties worth a combined $409,000. He has cleaned up the lots near his business, leveling houses he said were unsalvageable. When he found that some of his lots had been rezoned, he protested to no avail.
The zoning change “cost me a lot of money,” Lewis said. “I think they are afraid I’m going to build some big high-dollar apartments or something.” The former legislator said he has no current plans to develop but wants to keep his options open for the kind of redevelopment that urban village projects draw. He said the zoning rollback cut his property value to a third of what he’d paid.
“You’ve got your neighborhood groups, which I support. I think that it’s good that they try to enhance the neighborhood and they are concerned about it, but sometimes they can get self-centered,” Lewis said. “I don’t think they really realize what they’ve done to themselves by down-zoning all this property.”
Vann, who broke ground on the Charleston gated development in 1990, said she was drawn to the area by its views, location, and natural beauty. She thinks there is room for more upscale housing as well as the renovation of existing homes in the area along the bluff.
But, she said, some residents cannot see the positive potential of change, only the uncertainty of it. “They are scared of what it’s going to look like, scared of being disempowered,” Vann said. “You are talking about change that has to do with something that is close to most people’s heart — their home and their neighborhood. It’s not to be taken lightly.”
Looking at the care and money that McWilliams and Miller have lavished on humble Race Street, it’s not always easy to see why the neighborhood group is up in arms. But talk to them about the future and you begin to get the idea.
Currently, city officials have proposed including a relatively small area in the Six Points urban village — the namesake intersection itself, plus the renovated blocks along Race Street. However, McWilliams would eventually like to see the district extended all the way to the Trinity, through the residential streets.
“Development of property near the Trinity River is gaining attention all over the city of Fort Worth, most of the focus being on the Trinity Uptown proposal,” McWilliams said. “The area of Riverside from the Trinity River east to Six Points is getting a lot of interest from investors and developers.”
In fact, McWilliams recently proposed swapping some land he owns on the west side of I-35 for a piece of parkland next to the river, now occupied by a small dilapidated building.
“I would like to see the old office building that is now there replaced with something more attractive, since this point is one of the gateways to Riverside,” he said.
Miller figures it’s inevitable that some of the single-family homes will be replaced by higher-density uses, as the area heats up. “People will see an opportunity to sell their land for more, so they’ll sell out and move on,” he said. “It’s going to develop. It’s just a matter of time.”
Norris doesn’t buy that scenario. “Why can’t single-family be a part of the Trinity River Vision? Why does it all have to be McMansions and uptown homes?” she asked. “I think that the average citizen of Fort Worth should be able to enjoy the Trinity River just as much as the others.”
Fort Worth City Council member Sal Espino, who has an office in one of the renovated buildings on Race, sees both sides. “I am very sympathetic to the concerns of the neighborhoods but I don’t think that precludes the right kind of development,” he said. The real concern “would be an overabundance [of] multi-family, cutting out the people that have lived here 50, 60 years.” Some small-scale condos might work, he said.
Costa, the city planning director, also seems dubious about greatly enlarging the urban village district. “We want people to be able to walk from one part of the village to the next,” he said. “We don’t want to make the geographic area too large for fear that it would dilute the economic impact.”
As for extending it west across Sylvania into the residential areas, he said, “I am not aware of any discussion that would support encroachment. We want to honor the interest of the neighborhood leaders and protect the integrity of their neighborhood.
“We believe it’s possible to have stable, well-defined neighborhoods and vital commercial districts that circle those neighborhoods,” he said. “The Six Points urban village can serve as a catalyst for achieving both sets of goals.”
For his part, Miller said the push-back from the neighborhood has made him unsure about future investments there, although he plans to keep his current properties.
McWilliams, on the other hand, is continuing to buy property in the area. He may sell his remodeled buildings as opposed to leasing them, but he has no plans to leave.
“I am in the business to make money,” he said, but he also finds it rewarding to help redevelop the area. “This truly is a labor of love.”
Costa sees the struggle in Scenic Bluff as a healthy process. “It suggests that the neighborhood leaders feel strongly about the integrity of the neighborhoods and it suggests that the developers are interested in generating economic activity that could benefit those same neighborhoods,” he said. “A certain tension between developers and neighborhood leaders may actually be desirable — provided we can manage it constructively.”l
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