Large crowds of Near Southside residents braved the bitter cold recently to see a pop-up park. Dozens of teenagers took turns skating down nearby West Maddox Avenue (just west of Hemphill Street), daring the occasional trick jump on donated ramps. The 1.3-acre park, also just west of Hemphill Street, north of West Allen Avenue, was the center of this experiment of sorts. Dubbed Hemphill Park for now, the open field, with its skate park, temporary dog park, vendor booths, food trucks, and bike ramps, represented tantalizing possibilities for a portion of the Near Southside that has long sought to entice major business investors.
With the help of volunteers and donations from groups like the Fire Station Community Center and Dallas-based Pacheco Koch Engineers, among many others, the nonprofit revitalization company Near Southside Inc. headed up the project, part of a grander scheme.
Envision Hemphill’s mission is twofold: to make Hemphill Park a reality based on community input and to remodel a portion of Hemphill Street, between Vickery Boulevard and Hammond Street, to slow traffic and accommodate bike lanes and streetside parking.
“Near Southside Inc. realized they should get community input on the park, so it doesn’t become a regular blah park with a few picnic tables and a sidewalk for walking around a circle of grass,” said James Zametz, founder of the small-business promotion group Keep Fort Worth Funky.
The Near Southside area isn’t short on parks, he added, but they do not always meet the needs of the younger, progressive-minded residents who live in the area.
Envision Hemphill is the culmination of a “couple of initiatives that have been going on for quite a while,” said Near Southside director of planning Mike Brennan.
Various groups, including the Hemphill Corridor Task Force, a 20-year-old pro-business, pro-development group, have been working to entice new businesses and address residents’ concerns for the Hemphill Corridor, the 5.5-mile stretch of road along Hemphill Street that is bordered to the north by Vickery Boulevard and to the south by I-20.
Envision Hemphill became a possibility after the city purchased Hemphill Park a few months ago, Brennan said. The second break came when Brennan and his staff noticed the city’s maintenance schedule next spring budgeted for the resurfacing of a portion of Hemphill Street.
Public interest in slowing traffic along portions of Hemphill Street became clear last September, when Near Southside staffers took advantage of the large crowds at Arts Goggle, an annual neighborhood art and music festival, to poll local residents. Near Southside asked them what changes they would like to see in the Near Southside area, which includes portions of the Hemphill Corridor.
“Elements like protected bike lanes and streetside parking to serve businesses were popular suggestions,” Brennan said. “But the top priority of the public is to improve safety, particularly for pedestrians and kids who cross Hemphill Street to get to school.”
Discussions continued through public workshops held last week at Fire Station Community Center, a public recreational center in the Fairmount neighborhood, one of the most popular and busy neighborhoods in all of Fort Worth.
Richard Riccetti, vice chairman of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force, said his group took a backseat during the workshop sessions to see what ideas area residents came up with.
“The discussions revolved around what an inviting block should look like,” he said. “We had three generations coming up with ideas.”
Residents, he added, had three core concerns: pedestrian safety, bike lanes, and the ability to attract new businesses.
Zametz said he is “encouraging residents to use the space to show the city our community wants this. The ideas that have come up make for a park that would get plenty of use.”
Zametz said he heard concerns, especially from the younger residents, about gentrification and the possibility that longtime residents may be priced out of rental homes. Another top concern for many Hemphill folks is the fate of the local homeless population.
Brennan said he is working closely with JPS Health Network’s homeless outreach team to get a “good understanding” of the needs of the area’s chronically homeless population. Development along the Hemphill Corridor isn’t intended to push out that population, he said.
Pat Bradley, president of the Fairmount Neighborhood Association, said revitalization will help the eastern side of Fairmount considerably.
Small patches of the street are a “little scary right now,” she said, referring to drug deals and prostitution that she and other Near Southsiders have witnessed firsthand.
The feedback from area residents she spoke with regarding Envision Hemphill has been overwhelmingly “positive,” she said. Like Brennan, she credits much of the breakthrough to the steadfast efforts of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force.
Early next spring, residents along a portion of Hemphill Street will see the first phase of Envision Hemphill come to fruition. While the plan isn’t finalized, Brennan said, there is “strong support for a project that will include one travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane, bike lanes, and side street parking.”
Building Hemphill Park may be a multi-year effort, he added. The New York City-based consulting group Project for Public Spaces will deliver recommendations in the coming months based on the feedback it received during recent workshop sessions. Brennan said the consultant group may recommend a phased approached to the park’s construction or even further pop-up demonstrations to gauge public interest in various concepts.
“It makes sense to test things out before investing a lot of money in capital projects to make sure it has the right ingredient mix that is popular with the community,” he said.
City Councilmember Ann Zadeh said Hemphill Street and West Magnolia Avenue share similarities, but the two streets have significant differences, too. The high flow of traffic along Hemphill Street means any effort to redesign the stretch of road for multiple uses needs to be done with safety in mind.
“The Hemphill Corridor is fortunate to have both individuals and groups supporting the overall goal of improving both the public and private aspects of the project,” she said in an email.
The Hemphill task force, she continued, has worked for “many years with support from the city to encourage appropriate redevelopment and improvements to public infrastructure” in the area.
Zadeh points to improvements at the Magnolia/Hemphill and Berry/Hemphill intersections as evidence of what is possible when the city partners with groups like the Hemphill Corridor Task Force and others.
But “multiple demands on limited funding are often barriers” to maintaining momentum, she said.
The biggest draw for the area is its rich history and affordable homes and business spaces, the Hemphill task force’s Riccetti said. In the near future, he sees the area becoming a “destination location” for new families, businesses, and startups.
Zametz said he is excited to see an important part of the Near Southside developing, but it will take community involvement to ensure the area maintains its historic identity.
“The people who invested in Magnolia Avenue 10 years ago saw what the street could be,” he said. “I think it will take those same kinds of people to see what Hemphill could be, but they need to understand this area.”