Fort Worth’s growth has spurred development at the speed of the Game of Thrones theme. Natives have marveled at new shops, houses, restaurants, hotels, and apartments that have sprung up in areas like West 7th, South Main Street, Fairmount, and Edwards Ranch.
Something was different about the proposed development in the Historic Stockyards District. When Fort Worth’s Hickman family and California-based Majestic Realty proposed a $175 million joint venture, many locals traded their pro-development pom-poms for protest signs, online petitions, and angry social media rants. In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the area of the North Side as one of America’s most endangered historic places in the country. And the natives marched down to city hall demanding answers.
To quiet the rabble, city council appointed a taskforce charged with creating design standards and guidelines for redevelopment in the area. But after months of meetings, the 15-member committee still hasn’t taken a single vote on any substantive issue –– the only vote they’ve taken thus far was to table a discussion.
Critics of the taskforce allege it’s doing exactly what the city wants: nothing. Many believe that city officials have already made up their minds that the development will move forward and that creating the taskforce was just a dog-and-pony show to give the illusion that the city tried to solicit input.
Stockyards real estate mogul and taskforce member Philip Murrin said he was under the impression that the group’s goals included preserving the area’s historical integrity, but the committee is still aimless after eight meetings.
“There are a handful of people on the taskforce that were only appointed to give the appearance of collaboration,” he said. “And I would be one of them.”
Some observers say the taskforce hasn’t gotten anywhere because many of its members are more concerned with their own interests than setting limits for development. Most of the people appointed to the committee are being paid directly by the developers, own a stake in the development, or are nearby property owners who stand to benefit from the spillover and spike in tax money. The taskforce, the critics allege, is nothing more than a group of competing interests.
One taskforce member who owns property on and around the north side of Exchange Street and west side of Main Street said he’s frustrated by the group’s gridlock.
“It’s like some people have their own agendas, and they just don’t want to get off of them,” Keith Kidwill said. “They don’t want anything to happen, and realistically I don’t think they understand what the taskforce was even put in place to do.”
Murrin believes some public criticism of the taskforce’s inactivity is unfair. He said the committee has never had the opportunity to deliberate and reach a consensus on what its goals are.
“If all we’re trying to do is encourage new development and an urban renewal project, then that’s one set of rules,” he said. “If you’re trying to maintain a heritage tourism area that’s responsible for growth and has a 130-year history, that’s a different document.”
The group is proceeding blindly.
“There’s a whole lot of pressure to get this done,” Murrin said. “I’ve even heard comments from our chairman that right, wrong, or indifferent, we’ve just got to get this finished. That’s really unfortunate in my mind.”
The most recent draft of the taskforce’s proposal doesn’t reflect the opinions of its members, the public, or any of the contributors, Murrin said.
“The whole document from the beginning is really just what city staff has put forth,” he said. “I looked through the latest [edits], and I can’t really figure out who is making the decision as to which edits and comments make it into the document. It’s certainly not the taskforce.
“In my mind, this is an enabling document for an urban renewal project,” he continued. “It has nothing to with preserving or maintaining authenticity.”
City officials did not respond to multiple phone calls from Fort Worth Weekly.
The taskforce has been charged with setting the boundaries of a temporary zoning overlay district to govern design and construction guidelines for the Hickman-Majestic property and other development in the Stockyards. Some members believe the overlay shouldn’t affect the area outside the new development. Others want the entire area to be protected from future developers.
Another major issue that the committee can’t seem to resolve is the height restrictions for new construction on the west and east sides of Main Street and the 70-acre area that Majestic will develop.
Kidwill said limiting the height of buildings will diminish their value, and many owners bought their properties with the intention of remodeling them. Most of the Stockyards is classified under a temporary MU-2 zoning, otherwise known as a High Intensity Mixed-Use District. The zoning allows buildings as high as five stories. An early draft of the taskforce’s proposal called for a restriction of 37-feet or roughly three stories.
Kidwill wants the taskforce to leave the zoning the way it is –– especially for the properties that are well outside of the proposed development and are not historically-protected buildings.
“Leave us alone,” he said. “Leave the zoning alone, and get us out of the fight. No historic buildings are in danger. There are already restrictions that protect historic buildings.”
Michael Costanza, who owns the La Plaza building on Rodeo Drive, said that restricting the height of buildings to three stories would cost the property owners millions of dollars. He has no plans to redesign his building, but he used it as an example to explain how much owners stand to lose if the three-story height restriction makes it into the recommendation.
“La Plaza is currently a single story,” he said. “It’s 104-years-old, the ceiling 24-feet high. If I wanted to increase the height of that building, I could only go to 37 feet. That would prohibit me from building up. It would be the difference between the building being worth $1 million or $4 million.”
Kidwell and others fear the public’s reaction to the proposed development in the Stockyards will scare Majestic away.
“There’s nothing in any of [Majestic’s] plans where they say they’re going to tear up anything” of historical importance, he said. “Why would they? That’s the area’s biggest asset.
“I’d hate for Majestic to pack up and go away,” he continued. “What would have happened if the Basses hadn’t taken care of downtown? They need to be real polite to these people. [People complaining] are trying to preserve something that was never in danger.”
Majestic did not return the Weekly’s phone calls.
Murrin said that now is the time to make the tough decisions to protect the Stockyards going forward, but he holds out little hope the taskforce will do that.
“If a developer is threatening to leave because of restrictions, then maybe it’s not the right developer,” he said. “I’m not anti-development. We’ve got a unique place that requires a unique set of rules. It needs to be handed delicately.”
He said he expects the political pressure on the taskforce will eventually break the gridlock but doesn’t think the group’s decision will have any teeth.
“It will ultimately make some decisions,” he said. “Will they be good ones? Probably not.”