Analysis: Plaza opens new chapter in Fort Worth’s civic life

James Richards

Special to the Business Press

Addressing the crowd gathered on a crisp autumn morning for the official opening of Sundance Square Plaza, Mayor Betsy Price cut to the chase: “Sundance Square finally has a square!” And what a square it is. Unlike the majority of recently designed urban public spaces in the United States, which are reclaimed spaces on “leftover” or “found” sites at the fringes of downtowns, Sundance Square Plaza is set in the very heart of one of the most bustling, desirable and beautifully restored downtown sites in the country, astride what renowned urbanist and author William H. Whyte called “the best damn Main Street in America.” In this sense it is more in the tradition of the grand plazas of Europe, which become symbols of their cities, attract visitors from around the world, and energize commercial and retail activity in the surrounding districts.

The vision for the plaza has deep roots. The concept and precise location date at least to Fort Worth’s 1981 Central Business District Sector Plan, which called for “a large open plaza … to serve as a focal point of the core and as a space for special events, parades and festivals.” The idea was strong but not unique then or now; what is astonishing is the tenacity with which Fort Worth’s decision-makers in the private and public sectors have championed and protected the vision and its site in the ensuing decades. The ongoing redevelopment of Sundance Square has resulted in a stunning architectural context that surpasses the character envisioned in the drawings from the 1981 plan.

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The richness of this distinctive urban setting wasn’t lost on the plaza’s designer, landscape architect Michael Vergason. “Seeing downtown Fort Worth for the first time confirmed our instincts of the uniqueness of the place and of the opportunity for a plaza in this context,” he said. “The clear order of the city structure, the strong stem of Main Street that organizes the downtown, and the wonderfully walkable, richly detailed environment were points of departure for our thinking. The clients came to us with a robust program of expectations and activities. The challenge was to design a place that could accommodate that broad range of activities and large events, while making sure that the plaza was comfortable and enjoyable for individuals and small groups on quiet days.” Watching the crowds after the opening ceremony, Vergason was pleased. Working in Fort Worth with the Sundance Square team, architect David Schwarz, talented design consultants and top-notch contractors resulted in a collaboration that “surpassed our wildest expectations,” Vergason said. “The thinking for the plaza builds on timeless principles of good public space, then was kept as simple as possible in terms of design,” he said.

“It won’t be locked to a particular date, trend or style. The big moves were to create big open spaces, then animate them. The large fountain provides cooling, entertainment, and is participatory, and faces the fantastic Richard Haas mural. The umbrellas provide critical shade and a sense of scale. And the edges are more than just tenants and retail; they’re articulated and intricate to provide choice and human scale.” The plaza’s location and design are also expected to generate economic benefits. “The plaza is a great gift,” said Vergason, “but of course there are expectations that it support raised stature and property values of the surrounding buildings and businesses.” Indeed, ongoing research by Texas A&M University on numerous new, high-quality urban spaces around the United States points to increases in retail and restaurant revenues, residential and hotel demand, job creation and tourism.

Plaza patrons get it. On opening day, hundreds strolled through the new space, delighted in the fountains, interacted with street artists and performers, and occupied every available sitting spot on benches and moveable tables and chairs around the plaza’s edges. Those sitting on the north side of the plaza enjoyed a slightly higher vantage point on raised ledges and terraces, providing what urban designers call a “prospect” view of the ongoing show of ordinary people enjoying the city’s new outdoor living room. Others took in the remarkable panoramic view of the surrounding city skyline made possible by the plaza. So7 resident Debbie Paolini, who spent much of the plaza’s opening day people-watching from under the shade of the plaza’s giant umbrellas, said, “This is why we travel to Mexico or overseas … to see and experience places like this.” “This is a game changer for Fort Worth,” added Mike Paolini. “No one else in the region can offer this. We will spend a lot of time with friends here.” And so will many others. The plaza provides a central destination – a place where the whole city goes to celebrate, to see and be seen, to be at the heart of things. It opens up opportunities for vibrant public life and interaction that are rare in American cities, but that fit Fort Worth’s culture and civic spirit like a custom-made boot.

James Richards is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture, and co-founder of Townscape Inc., an urban design consultancy based in Fort Worth and Vancouver. He is the author of Freehand Drawing and Discovery, published by John Wiley and Sons.