Shaking off pandemic downturn, downtown Fort Worth takes heart in construction, returning workers

Under construction: 969 Commerce St. (Photo by Brian Luenser, courtesy Downtown Fort Worth Inc.)

With the shroud of the pandemic lifting, downtown Fort Worth is regaining vibrancy with new construction projects, workers returning to offices and activities and events ramping up.

“There are a lot of really good things happening in downtown Fort Worth,” said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

One of the most noticeable changes is the amount of construction underway on projects that have been in the pipeline for a while but were slowed or stalled during the pandemic.

Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s website shows there are currently 28 projects planned or under construction downtown, including high-profile developments such as expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center and a major expansion of the Texas A&M University System’s law school facilities.

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Also underway or on the drawing board are 13 residential developments that will add long-anticipated high-rise living opportunities to downtown.

Among the residential projects already underway is Deco 969 at 969 Commerce St., a 27-story high-rise, multifamily development that will offer 302 luxury apartments and penthouses.

“It’s exciting to see construction cranes in downtown Fort Worth,” said Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Dana Burghdoff. “Ever since zoning existed in Fort Worth, it was expected that we would do something more than four-story multifamily developments downtown. It’s exciting to see it happening.”

The downtown area is expected to have 6,656 residential units in 2023, up from 5,395 in 2020, according to new research from Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

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The number of new hotel rooms is also growing, with downtown anticipated to have 4,018 rooms within the next year or so, according to the research.

The newest hotel additions include the Kimpton Harper Hotel, a magnificent redevelopment of the former XTO Headquarters, a 1921 landmark building at 714 Main St. The hotel includes 232 guest rooms and a lobby on the 24th-floor that offers spectacular views and a cocktail bar. Also opened in downtown during the pandemic: the 252-room, 16-story AC Hotel Fort Worth, 101 W. 5th St.

While the pandemic stymied convention business downtown, a significant turnaround is expected this year with 122,830 room night bookings for conventions, besting the 105,581 bookings in pre-pandemic 2019, according to data from Visit Fort Worth.

Besides the influx of convention-goers, events such as the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at nearby Dickies Arena and the return of the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival, a perennial favorite, are drawing local visitors as well out-of-towners into Fort Worth and downtown.

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A steady return of downtown office workers is also generating  traffic and commerce.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, along with Houston and Austin, leads in-person office occupancy in major metro areas with rates hovering around 50 percent, according to data reported by Kastle Systems, a security firm that tracks comings and goings in office buildings in various parts of the country.

Kastle’s data from March 9 shows that the Dallas-Fort Worth area had an occupancy rate of 50.7 percent, with the Houston area at 52.4 percent and Austin leading the country that week at 58.3 percent. The lowest rate of in-person occupancy that week was in San Francisco at 29.4 percent, and the average rate of the 10 metro areas surveyed was 40.5 percent

Taft estimated that downtown Fort Worth’s in-person occupancy hovers around 60 percent.

But many of Fort Worth’s returning workers could be on a hybrid schedule, working some days in the office and some at home.

During the recent 2022 Tarrant County Commercial Real Estate Forecast hosted by the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth, JLL Senior Vice President Cannon Camp said, “hybrid is here to stay.”

Cannon, who presented an overview of the Fort Worth office market, said business and professional services wound likely favor more in-office days while the technology industry will likely lean toward remote, but preference for a mix of the two will prevail.

Shunda Robinson, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at GM Financial in downtown Fort Worth, said a full in-person return to the office continues to present challenges for many workers.

With about 1,000 employees in downtown Fort Worth, GM Financial operates on a hybrid home/office schedule for its workers.

“We’re in the middle of a school year and a lot of people still have challenges with day care and after-school care,” she said. “I think we will see more people coming back to the office in the fall.”

The novelty of working at home is wearing off for workers and “they miss the interaction with others,” she said.

Despite all the activity and rejuvenation in downtown, underlying problems remain, particularly with the retail sector.

Local business owners and civic leaders worry that a withering entertainment district and an exodus of retail stores and restaurants from the 35-square block area of Sundance Square will drive locals and tourists to competitors such as Clearfork, Near Southside, West 7th Street, WestBend and the Stockyards, where the $175 million Mule Alley development transformed horse and mule barns into a vibrant shopping and entertainment district.

Free evening and weekend parking is available in several downtown garages and limited time free parking with retail or restaurant validation is an option in two Sundance Square garages. However, valet prices in Sundance Square have prompted widespread outrage, particularly at one location where prices range from $10 per hour to $40 a day.

Earlier this year, Sundance Square’s website listed 40 businesses that were open and 47 that had closed. The map with those listings has since been removed from the website.

In an apparent attempt to add more shopping opportunities to vacant storefronts, the owners of Sundance Square recently announced a competition called the Next Big Idea. Its aim is to identify “passionate entrepreneurs” who could operate their budding businesses in space previously leased by national brand retailers such as The Loft, Jos. A. Bank, White House/Black Market and restaurants such as 5 Guys Hamburgers, Taco Diner and Pizzeria Uno.

The businesses selected will join small retailers such Cary O’Keefe Jewelers, Urban Plantology and Coleccion Mexicana that are already set up in Sundance Square retail space.

“Locally owned businesses are critical to bringing vitality to any community,” Sasha Bass, co-owner of Sundance Square with her husband Ed Bass, stated in a news release. “We are searching for local entrepreneurs who are ready to bet on themselves; those who have lacked access to developments like ours, and who are ready to turn their passion into a full-time business.”

“We want to partner with them to help make their dreams a reality,” she said. “Sundance is open to everyone, including Latinx, Black, LGBTQIA, immigrant and women entrepreneurs who have historically been neglected by prime commercial real estate projects and investors.”

Miguel Martin, co-founder of Coleccion Mexicana, said Sundance Square is an ideal location to showcase hand-made artisan goods.

“As an artist, I always dreamt of having a store and studio that celebrates makers of provincial Mexico,” Martin stated. “I am able to make my art and share our culture. This has been a lifelong pursuit and I am now a part of a community that embraces culture and art.”

While the startups could shore up the slumping retail landscape, some long-term Sundance Square tenants have expressed concerns about rent parity with what they are paying.

But that is just one of the issues that has caused friction between the Sundance Square owners, longtime business owners and others involved in the management and oversight of Fort Worth’s central business district.

A disagreement erupted earlier this year over landscaping.

Sundance Square officials asked the board of the downtown Public Improvement District to formally adopt an informal arrangement that allowed Sundance management to substitute its own landscaping preferences for the city’s downtown landscaping theme. Sundance management hired an arborist to create a sample of their preferred design.

But the board rejected the proposal in favor of maintaining a unified downtown landscape design under the management of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

Shortly after the landscape decision, Sundance Square officials announced they would operate a separate art festival in the Sundance Square Plaza during the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival, which is run by Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

The Sundance Plaza fair will feature only juried local artists and performers from Fort Worth and North Texas.

The 35th Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival presented by PNC Bank runs from April 7-10 and will feature works of 200 juried national, regional and local artists as well food and beverage vendors.

Downtown Fort Worth Inc. officials said they offered to pay full rent for the plaza to incorporate the space into the arts festival but the offer was rejected. Disagreement over the jury standards of artists was apparently a sticking point.

A Sundance Square spokesman did not respond to questions for this article.