Libby Willis: The National Trust knows history – and Cowtown

Local media continue to note the ongoing controversy about the proposed commercial redevelopment of the Fort Worth Stockyards, the most intact historic livestock processing center in the U.S. Recently, the debate moved to a higher level due to our Stockyards having been designated one of our nation’s “Most Endangered Places” by the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A recent editorial in Fort Worth Business would have us believe that the “preservationists on the Potomac” have no idea what’s really happening on the North Side. Perhaps we’re the ones who are ill-informed about what’s “really happening.”

For those who have forgotten, remember that some of Fort Worth’s most influential leaders have served on the National Trust’s board, including Ruth Carter Stevenson and Robert M. Bass, who served a long and distinguished term as chairman of the Trust’s board.

Recollect that, in 1984, the Trust established its first regional office satellite right here in Cowtown with the help of community stalwarts such as the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Burnett-Tandy Foundation, and numerous other local and statewide philanthropic organizations and individuals.

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Fort Worth Business also declared that the Trust’s endangered listing would have not “one ounce of significance in terms of the city’s future or that of the Stockyards” but we know from past history that the Trust has had a huge impact on some major developments in the city. With major Trust help during the 1980s, concerned citizens secured the demolition of the downtown Interstate 30 “overhead” after the state and city proposed modification to the structure which might have forever compromised our ability to preserve the Water Gardens, save key National Register listed landmarks, and make Lancaster a great street with redevelopment potential. Now we have Lancaster with more thoughtful, sustainable development on the horizon, thanks, in part, to the Trust.

The Trust was also indirectly responsible for a New Orleans developer’s commitment to rejuvenate the long vacant Blackstone Hotel, which some local entrepreneurs wanted to demolish. The developer learned about the building when he attended the Trust’s annual conference held in Fort Worth in 1995. He bought and renovated the building. Bingo, we saved a sacred place in Texas music history where Bob Wills recorded San Antonio Rose and the city realized tax revenue from a new hotel.

Only the Fort Worth City Council, in tandem with concerned community leaders, can do what really needs to be done for the Stockyards. If development is to be done well in the Stockyards area, then, in return for the $26 million in public tax incentives the city has given Majestic developers, a local historic district must be established for the Stockyards. No task force, no blanket high intensity mixed use or form-based zoning, no “Western themed” new development can ensure that the heart and soul of Cowtown will remain. Only a local historic district will do that and the National Trust was right to say so. We need more Quanah Parker, Bill Pickett and Steve Murrin, and less Disneyland on the Prairie.

Libby Willis is a past president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations and was the first executive director of the Fort Worth field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (1984-1996).