Metropolis: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
Historic Conflicts in Handley

Conflict underliesa zoning overlay.

By Betty Brink and Jeff Prince

Call it a beef over benches, a tempest over a teapot-sized tract in the little community of Handley, on Fort Worth’s eastern flank.

Standing on the sidewalk near the corner of Handley Drive and Lancaster Avenue, sisters Frances Brewer and Dorothy Smith remembered the heyday of the community where they grew up. “Right on this corner was the drugstore where we got sodas and sundaes,” one said. And the dance pavilion out on Lake Erie, south of town, was “wonderful on summer nights,” the other said.

The lake and the pavilion are long gone, along with Handley’s greyhound racetrack that brought gamblers from across Texas. Handley, settled in 1876 and named after a Confederate officer, prospered for more than 70 years around the Texas & Pacific Railway and later U.S. Highway 80 that cut through its business district. It never incorporated, however, and by 1957, when the Fort Worth school district closed Handley High and Interstate 30 lured the traffic from Hwy. 80, most of what had made the town unique was gone

The drugstore still stands, although now it houses a video store. It’s part of a strip of one-story commercial buildings dating from 1901 to 1936 at the northwest corner of Handley and Lancaster. The buildings have stayed in almost continuous use, even when some of their architectural features were covered ingloriously with “improvements” like aluminum siding.

Today, the architecture of those buildings is being restored by a handful of entrepreneurs — art and antique dealers, a real estate agent, and a the owner of a down-home restaurant — who believe the area is ripe for a cultural and commercial renaissance similar to that in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The property owners — all 10 of them — seem united in wanting to preserve and promote Handley’s historic district.

That’s where the unity ends, however. An historic overlay for the area has caused disputes over property rights, hard feelings among the small group of entrepreneurs, and headaches for city planners.

Some owners who supported the overlay say they never realized the restrictions it would place on redevelopment plans. City officials acknowledge that the heart of the problem is that residents didn’t establish historic preservation guidelines before the overlay was approved — a problem they hope to fix in January.

Arlington residents Bettye and Don Hicks, who restored two buildings to house their antique shop and well-regarded art gallery, first pushed to get Handley listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which qualifies the area for federal tax incentives intended to promote the “historical character of the area.” Then they led the petition drive that resulted in the city’s landmark commission declaring the small commercial area an historical overlay district, which means that the exterior of new buildings or changes to the outside of existing buildings or their grounds must meet the district’s architectural guidelines and receive prior approval by the commission.

“We want to preserve the unique historic character of this area,” Don Hicks said, “and an historic overlay is really the only way to do that.” A majority of the Handley stakeholders signed the petition.

But lifelong Handley resident Kirk Lancaster, who bought and restored two of the neighborhood’s best-known historic landmarks — the 1920s post office for his real estate office and the turn-of-the-century Weiler House next door that’s now a rare book store — thinks he and others were sold a pig in a poke when they signed.

“It’s not that we don’t want to restore this area,” he said, “it’s just that many business owners out here didn’t know enough about the restrictions of an overlay district when it first came up. We were misled. Now we think there’s a better way.” Lancaster was recently elected head of the Historic Handley Development Corp., a nonprofit that raises funds for various civic improvements and guides development in the area. He said he speaks for about half the area’s business people.

Lancaster thinks that historic preservation would be better accomplished in Handley the way it has been in Fort Worth’s nationally recognized Stockyards — through self-enforcement by the neighborhood’s own business owners rather than “under the heavy hand of government.” That hand came down recently in a way that stunned Lancaster with what he called its foolishness and became the catalyst that turned him and several others against the overlay.

The development corporation recently put in trees and landscaping, and the Handley Neighborhood Association donated a few traditional-looking park benches along the sidewalk that ties together the properties along Handley and Lancaster. “It was part of the (city planning department’s) streetscape plan for urban revitalization,” Lloyd Jones, president of the neighborhood association, told Fort Worth Weekly, and it was in the works before the vote on the overlay. Recently the association was threatened with a citation from the city’s landmark commission, which claimed the benches were installed “without a certificate of appropriateness,” required by the historic designation, Lancaster said.

“There was an obvious difference of opinion about the benches,” City Planning Director Fernando Costa said. “This question goes to the heart of what constitutes ‘historic preservation.’ That doesn’t mean that any improvements have to be frozen in time. They can be contemporary and still be compatible. The city’s not seeking to be rigid.” Costa said no one would be cited.

Still, Lancaster said, “If this pettiness is what we will have to deal with, if we have to go down to city hall and get permission to put in a few benches that enhance the property, then a lot of us want out.”

But that won’t be easy, even though Lancaster said the overlay is fatally flawed because the business owners weren’t told by the city that the law required them to write their own guidelines for historic development before the city council vote. Because that step wasn’t followed, the area must now operate — at least temporarily — under generic guidelines written by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Costa said. He’s about to rectify that mistake.

“We’ve been disappointed to hear that a lot of folks thought they were misled about landmark designation,” he said. As a result of a recent meeting with the business owners, Costa said, “we’ve all agreed to a cooling-off period, and not to pursue any changes” until the Handley group meets with the city in January to begin writing its own guidelines. “It makes no sense for someone at city hall to dictate what’s happening in Handley,” he said.

The neighborhood’s potential has been obvious to the Hickses since they decided to bring their Handley-Hicks Art Gallery there in the spring of 1994. They got the ball rolling to designate it a historical district about two years ago. “We got everyone involved and had 100 percent support at the time,” Bettye Hicks said. Now about the only thing the Hickses and Lancaster agree on is the potential for the area to bring in visitors from across the city.

With more art galleries, a couple of upscale restaurants, and other small businesses willing to set up shop, Don Hicks envisions a kind of Soho district for Fort Worth. “For us,” Hicks said, “the goal is to preserve the unique character of this area, help guide its architecturally historic preservation, and make it again a distinctive part of Fort Worth.”

And that’s what Lancaster says he wants — only without government interference.

Frances Brewer, a retired schoolteacher, just thinks the history should be saved. “The people here should work together to find the best way to do it,” she said.

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