One of Fort Worth’s best spots to grab a late-night street taco or catch a local punk band has long been Hemphill Street. The road isn’t just a local treasure. It’s an important thoroughfare between downtown and South Fort Worth.
It’s also in desperate need of attention. Despite the heavy flow of traffic, the intersection of Hemphill and Berry streets appears far from inviting. Half the storefronts are shuttered.
But brighter possibilities lie nearby. Just a few miles north, shiny bike-sharing stands and bistros draw thousands to West Magnolia Avenue, and just a few miles farther north, the West 7th Street corridor is booming.
And just like those two areas, the Hemphill/Berry intersection has been designated as an urban village, meaning that the city acknowledges the area’s importance to Fort Worth’s growth.
Next month, the city will begin giving the intersection a much-needed facelift. But several community leaders said the help is, while appreciated, long overdue.
For the project, approved last month by city council, the city will spend $916,853.85 on “new sidewalks, curbs … pedestrian lights … landscaping,” and other improvements.
City councilperson Ann Zadeh said in an e-mail that the improvements are intended to create a “safer, more comfortable, and appealing pedestrian environment. This first streetscape project in the urban village will contribute to a more walkable urban village […] and encourage redevelopment and revitalization” in the area.
Christopher Bonilla knows this part of town. Owner of The Bonilla Group, a land development consulting company, he grew up nearby and is a voting member of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force, a development advisory group with which the city regularly consults.
“That’s exactly what the project is going to be,” he said, “a touchup.”
As someone whose parents still live in the neighborhood, he’s grateful for the help and agrees with the city’s vision to make the area more pedestrian friendly. But touchups go only so far.
“We need more than curb appeal,” he said. “We need businesses to go along with it.”
Groups like Hemphill’s task force, he said, need to show stronger leadership in coordinating efforts between city and private businesses and developers. In addition to inadequate city funds, he said, local neighborhood associations have placed too many restrictions on the types of businesses that are welcomed.
“Unless it’s a Starbucks, [neighborhood association representatives] flat don’t want it,” he said.
Urban village guidelines like those for Hemphill/Berry, he said, often add structural requirements that are too restrictive. As an example, he cited a two-story Taco Bell at the intersection of Berry and 8th streets that has an unoccupied second-story office. The fast food company was required to include the space.
But Zadeh said property owners and developers are more likely to “invest in the enhanced urban design features required by [the] urban village plan if they expect others in the urban village to be held to the same standards.”
Higher building standards, she said, are more likely to lure private investment in urban villages.
David Cantu-Crouch, chairman of Hemphill’s task force, echoed Bonilla’s thoughts on the pace of progress in the area, but he didn’t see neighborhood associations as part of the cause of slowness.
“To be honest,” he said. “The [progress] on this [city] project has lingered. You would have to speak to the city of Fort Worth as to why. Hemphill is a really great street that has a lot of good things going for it. We need to work with the city [to improve communication] and ensure zoning and code issues are enforced in a timely manner.”
And, he added, the city needs to make ongoing improvements to the street’s infrastructure.
Fernando Florez, vice president of the South Hemphill Heights Neighborhood Association who co-founded the Hemphill Corridor Task Force in 1993, has been advocating for public funds to revitalize the area for more than two decades. He’s elated to see the street improvements finally come.
“The next battle we fought was to create an urban village, against some opposition, at the intersection of Hemphill/Berry,” he said, which brought along a neighborhood empowerment zone, opening the door to special programs like affordable housing and social services.
The victory “has helped both our residential and commercial areas,” he said. “So you see, this has been a long time coming. I am now the old man in all of this, and my goal is to mentor others so that projects such as this one can continue moving forward.”
Florez and community leaders plan to use the streetscape improvements to leverage the city to repair parts of the road around the intersection and entice investors.
Encouraging investment from local and outside developers is at the heart of the goal of the urban village, Zadeh said.
“These streetscape improvements are intended to encourage existing property owners to invest in their properties,” she said. “However, it often takes time for these changes to occur, because the real estate market has to respond to the incentives. Even in the Magnolia urban village, it took a significant amount of time before the original streetscape improvements on [the avenue] inspired a real estate market turnaround that led to the many new developments we see in that urban village today.”
Florez has found that city movers and shakers don’t always move as fast as he’d like them to on projects like this.
“I know how the game is played,” he said. “It will be up to us to push things [to] determine our future. No one will hand us anything. We have to fight for it.”
Cindy Vasquez, spokesperson for the city manager’s office, said construction is tentatively scheduled to begin sometime in August. The project, she said, will happen in one phase. No additional improvements are planned.
Bonilla knows revitalization is an uphill battle, and there are no guarantees. But he worries that that hill is steeper in areas that don’t fit the city’s picture of how Fort Worth should look.
“We have a certain income level here, and, once again, we don’t look like the typical West 7th Street person,” he said. “Berry/Hemphill is not in the arena area, and it’s not the Cultural District. Those areas have political clout with the folks downtown.”