When I moved here in 1990 from the land where rivers catch on fire, I knew only one thing about Fort Worth: Cowtown was home to a billionaire with a wild-ass streak running through him.
This guy was building some structure in Arizona called Biosphere 2, a self-contained ecosystem that was going to help us figure out what the human race might need if space colonies were ever launched on distant planets. After I got here, I learned another thing about this rich guy. Ed Bass owned a jazz club downtown, the Caravan of Dreams. I thought this was very cool, very different from the clichéd things I had heard about rich Texans. Here was a guy with a New Age bent, an interest in long-term ecological issues, a fascination with architecture and urban design, who funded a cool jazz club in the middle of what most East Coast media elites considered Hicksville.
In short, he wasn’t the rich Texan on The Simpsons who shoots off his guns and yells “yee-haw” before bulldozing a forest. But over time, Ed Bass has moved closer to that cartoon icon. He recently sold the (failed) Biosphere 2 property to a real estate company that wants to build mansions outside Tucson. He closed down Caravan of Dreams in 2001 and brought in the high-end Reata Restaurant in 2002. Bass is pushing for a new rodeo arena on the West Side to provide a better setting for his LWestern heritage/rodeo interests, and he wants the taxpayers of Fort Worth to pay for most of it.
Bass, now in his early 60s, has become a real estate developer with little vision beyond the bottom line. This was nowhere more apparent than in his recent fight against the so-called “sunken plaza” that Tarrant County College is building as an entry point to it its $300 million new downtown campus. Even though the college unveiled its plans for the downtown campus in 2004, and even though construction began about six months ago, Bass and his downtown yes-men thought they could derail the plans after the college district had gone through all the public hearings and proper votes. Bass seemed not to care that by changing the design, TCC would incur construction cost overruns and the campus would open in 2010 instead of 2008. Regardless of what you think of the expensive downtown campus, the Eddie-come-lately objections were arrogant.
Bass has said publicly that he doesn’t think the public will use this space, and he hired urban design consultants to back his views. They concluded that this sloped entryway would be home to homeless panhandlers and that Fort Worthians don’t walk anywhere anyway. One thing not noted by either Bass or his consultants: Sundance Square has long included plans for a public plaza toward the center of downtown, and the TCC design might compete if Fort Worth had – God forbid – two big public plazas. This is not really a sunken plaza. The design by noted Canadian architect Bing Thom begins with an aboveground area just east of the old courthouse, then morphs into a 60-foot-wide entryway that guides pedestrians under Belknap Street and into the campus.
The purpose of Thom’s design was to separate pedestrians and cars. He could have suggested foot bridges running above Belknap. But Thom figured his plan, giving students and downtown workers access to the river, would be a good link between downtown and the campus. Tarrant County College District trustees did something last month that is quite unusual for Fort Worth: They told Bass and his downtown brethren “no” – that it was too late to change the plan. And Bass came off as a spoiled rich kid. He did not attend the trustees’ meeting, but shot a salvo at them via press release. “I regret that the college has chosen to ignore the concerns of the downtown community and the advice of those with knowledge and experience in building in the urban setting,” he wrote. “In the end, they had no more concern for their downtown neighbors than they have for the taxpayers.”
It’s the idea that Bass is concerned with the taxpayers that irks so many of us. His downtown real estate developments have benefited from many a tax break. Downtown has a tax increment financing (TIF) district that pays Bass’ Sundance Square for free parking provided to the public on weekends. Office buildings and hotels developed by the Bass family have benefited from the public purse as well.
The Bass family has done wonderful things for Fort Worth. But they’ve gained tremendously from a city that caters to their whims. So I offer a bit of advice to Ed: If you are so concerned about taxpayers, get rid of the downtown TIF that puts public money in your bank account. Make the rodeo arena your gift to the city. Don’t seek tax breaks for any more of your real estate developments. And maybe pay attention to projects like the TCC’s downtown campus while the decisions are being made, not three years later.
When Bass was young, he thought of the limitless possibilities of humans living on other planets. Now he seems to be mostly concerned that a junior college might draw people away from his Sundance Square properties.
Years ago, this Ed Bass guy seemed different. But not anymore.