It’s been more than three years since Heritage Plaza in downtown Fort Worth was unceremoniously fenced off from the public due to safety concerns and lack of maintenance. The plaza, designed by renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, was once a showplace for the city.
Now the sidewalks are cracked and broken where they join the catwalk that overlooks the Trinity River, and water features are dry and empty. Stairs that used to lead down to the river are now blocked off by a chain-link fence with a sign declaring that the park is closed. The city has kept the grass cut and sandblasted the graffiti off the walls, but not much else has been done about the park’s declining condition.
Last year, management of the plaza was transferred from the Parks and Community Services Department to the city’s public art program, which is under the aegis of Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa.
He said he hopes to reopen the park as soon as safety concerns can be addressed — but that isn’t going to happen for a while. Because the city is so strapped for funds, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. has agreed to pay for the repairs, but a proposal presented last month shows that costs for even minimal fixes are running higher than expected. Private funding for the project means that Downtown Fort Worth Inc. won’t have to go through the city’s procurement process to choose contractors for the job.
“We have fountains that don’t work, and that represents hazards for people who might be walking around them and could possibly fall into them,” Costa said. “Some of the pavement requires restoration or reconstruction.
“Over the years Heritage Plaza failed to attract the kind of use that Lawrence Halprin had envisioned. It actually became a place that the public would associate with a lack of safety and security,” Costa said. “People didn’t feel safe going there and as a result didn’t go there, and yet it’s a remarkable attraction in a historic location that should be a magnet for people to enjoy.”
In early December, Costa and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. received a proposal from the OLIN landscape architect firm in Philadelphia for development of plans for minimal repairs and the work needed to make the park secure and accessible to the disabled. However, the price quoted for developing the plans was more than $1 million — and the cost for actually making the repairs is expected to be about $10 million.
Moreover, that $10 million wouldn’t pay for anything beyond the basics — it wouldn’t even get the water flowing again in the various fountains and pools. Some of the water features, as a temporary measure, might be filled with sand.
Costa said he discussed the OLIN proposal with Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.
“It appears from my conversation with Mr. Taft that the proposal from OLIN might be priced a little higher than what we had expected and might require some negotiation or even consideration of other options,” Costa said. “Our objectives are to make the park safer and more attractive by eliminating existing hazards, to make the park publicly accessible during the day and secure at night by replacing the existing perimeter fence, and to make the park accessible for people with mobility impairments. We thought that was a modest set of objectives and wouldn’t require extensive work to achieve. The project might be more complex than we had anticipated.”
Taft said OLIN’s proposed price was “a good deal higher than I think we are going to be able to generate.” The next step, he said, will be to talk more with the firm about its scope of services.
Halprin, who died in October 2009, designed the plaza for the U.S. Bicentennial celebration. Halprin is responsible for landmarks such as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Freeway Park in Seattle, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Since Heritage Plaza closed in 2007, it has repeatedly been listed as an important endangered landmark by groups from the National Register of Historic Places to the Cultural Landscape Foundation and Preservation Texas. It is the only work by Halprin in Texas
Halprin designed the park with walled-off spaces to provide seclusion for visitors and water features that the public could touch and interact with. But some of those features caused safety concerns. The drowning deaths at the Fort Worth Water Gardens in 2004 raised concerns about all of the city’s publicly accessible water features. A report prepared by what was then the Carter & Burgess engineering firm (since acquired by the Jacobs Engineering Group) even recommended fencing off the Heritage Plaza water features permanently, preventing the sort of interaction that Halprin had envisioned.
The lack of visibility made people feel unsafe, in part because the park’s secluded spaces also draw transients. Seattle residents have experienced some of the same concerns with Freeway Park. While Heritage Plaza never experienced any real crime problems, Freeway Park had a deserved reputation as a high-crime area. The City of Seattle addressed the issues with better lighting and landscaping and increased police patrols.
But not all Heritage Plaza’s problems are inherent in its design. Many of the issues, Costa said, are “structural deficiencies that resulted from inadequate maintenance.” The plumbing and lighting no longer function. The Carter & Burgess report indicated that some walls need to be torn down and replaced and all of the plumbing and lighting redone.
While some of the major goals for Heritage Park that were talked about in workshops a year and a half ago will have to be placed on the back burner, Costa seems optimistic that things are still progressing.
“I wish I could tell you we’re set to go, but it’s going to require more discussion to make that determination,” he said. “I’m hopeful that in the next few weeks we can announce that we are moving ahead to design the proposed improvements that will allow us to reopen Heritage Plaza to the public.”