Architecture firm growing again following recession’s slowdown

Scott Nishimura

Michael Bennett can trace the beginning of the recession for his architecture firm, Bennett Benner Partners, to October 2008 when some clients put the brakes on their projects.

“It was literally put down our pencils, stop drawing,” said Bennett, principal of the firm, the venerable, 58-year-old former Gideon Toal architects.

Work started flowing regularly again in 2012, he said. The firm today has 30 employees, fewer than half its pre-recession peak of 66, making it the county’s seventh largest architecture firm by employees in The Business Press’ 2013 ranking.

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But it has close to a year’s worth of backlog compared with the six months worth that’s more typical. And it’s been hiring again, taking on four new people in the last few weeks, Bennett said. (The firm does not disclose revenue or construction cost estimates.)

“We’re in an expansion mode right now,” Bennett said. “We have more work than we have people.”

And the firm, whose offices are in the Bank of America building in downtown Fort Worth, is in the middle of several high-profile projects. It did the drawings for the celebrated Sundance Plaza, which opened downtown last fall.

In the hot West Seventh Street corridor, it’s working on the Eyeworks building, a multistory mixed-use project planned on a visible, tight space at the southeast corner of University Drive and West Seventh Street.

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It’s designing WestBend, a multibuilding, mixed-use expansion around the River Plaza office building on the Trinity River off South University Drive. That project is restarting this spring after it went on the back burner during the recession.

Elsewhere, Bennett Benner is handling Texas Wesleyan University’s “Rosedale Renaissance,” the reframing of the East Side campus’ entry using elements such as a clock tower and new office building.

“That really is about changing a neighborhood,” Bennett said.

The firm is working on an expansion of the Presbyterian Night Shelter on East Lancaster Avenue to include residences for women, which Bennett calls a “transformational project.” And nearby, the firm is designing a building for the Fort Worth Foundation that will house a John Peter Smith Hospital clinic aimed at serving the homeless.

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Bennett Benner is also designing the next condo and brownstone phase of Southlake Town Square, expansions at the Westlake Academy, Fort Worth Country Day School and the Lena Pope Home, and a new office building on the BNSF Railway corporate campus in North Fort Worth.

And just in January, it learned it has been chosen as architect for a planned expansion at Fort Worth’s Tanglewood Elementary School. The project was approved by voters last fall and was a subject of intense neighborhood interest after the school district first floated a proposal to move the school west of South Hulen Street.

“We always get the hard projects because we’ve proven ourselves,” said Bennett, 57, whose children attended Tanglewood.

The firm doesn’t have a sense yet of where it will recommend taking the design, Bennett said. “We’ve literally just found out.”

All of this – plus regular design work on homes – amounts to a strong portfolio.

“We have a number of things going right now,” he said. “It sounds like a lot, but they’re in different stages in their development. A lot of these projects take years.”

The firm trades on its deep roots in, and knowledge of, the community. Founded in 1956 by engineer Don Kirk, it later moved to principals James Toal and Randy Gideon. Toal, who died in December, and Gideon sold their interest in the employee-owned firm in 2008 and retired in 2010.

Bennett joined the firm in 2004 as a principal and became CEO in 2008. Today, he and Bruce Benner are the two principals; Benner, 56, joined the firm 30 years ago and became a principal in 2000.

The firm’s reputation as a generalist, combined with its ability to “do some very unique projects,” has served it well, Benner said.

He’s working on a 160,000-square-foot addition at BNSF that can hold 600 people, with move-in scheduled for 2015. Besides corporate space, the firm also designs interiors of the passenger cars BNSF uses for functions and special tours, and its airplanes, Benner said.

“There’s not too many things that we don’t do some of,” Benner said.

The firm also has years of history working with the Trinity River (Toal helped draw the vast Trinity River Vision plan that’s driving redevelopment of the river around downtown and through the North Side) and is finding a new willingness among Fort Worth residents to face the river.

Bennett designed the Rogers Road Pavilion, which is now Tim Love’s Woodshed restaurant near Colonial Country Club, and the restaurant’s popularity has helped the river movement along.

The WestBend project of Trademark Property Co. includes about 100,000 square feet of planned new restaurants and retail, much of it oriented toward the river. Trademark hasn’t announced tenants yet except for one, a Dallas-based pizza chain, Grimaldi’s.

Bennett and Trademark CEO Terry Montesi say there’s a new willingness among patrons, restaurant and retail operators and developers to embrace the river.

“You can ride up on your bike and order pizza and a Coke, or pizza and a beer,” Montesi said. “We’re very excited about that.”

Bennett Benner is also one of the architects and planners working on the Trademark-led planned mixed-use redevelopment of a large part of the Lockheed Martin Recreational Association property on Bryant Irvin Road at the river.

While future uses for private property in the path of the Trinity River Vision plan will be market-driven, Bennett said the construction of bridges at key points – including the new West Seventh bridge – will spur interest.

“You start seeing these kinds of visible progress, you’ll start seeing private interest,” Bennett said. “It’s spurred interest in the river the way you didn’t see 10 years ago.”

The firm was in the middle of one of the critical real estate moves several years ago that led to the revitalization of the West Seventh corridor.

Justin Industries and its Acme Brick unit, which had been sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company, were interested in moving off West Seventh and out of their fortress brick buildings.

The architects asked the company’s employees what they wanted in a new headquarters. “Their first answer was more windows,” Bennett recalled.

Toal thought he might be able to secure a site for Acme along the Trinity River at Bryant Irvin Road, Bennett said. The property was held by the Cass Edwards ranching family, which envisioned mixed-use development on the river but was years away from moving on the project.

Toal helped facilitate the transaction, Acme opened on the riverfront several years ago, Berkshire sold its West Seventh property to Cypress Equities of Dallas, Cypress redeveloped it into a modern complex of apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and entertainment, and an Edwards-led partnership is now moving on developing the Trinity property

“If James hadn’t been so familiar with Fort Worth and what was happening, we couldn’t have pulled that off,” Bennett said of Toal.

Today, the firm focuses on architecture, planning and interior design, and has let other pieces go, such as economic development and structural engineering, which it jettisoned several years ago.

Even with its rebound and backlog, Bennett said, the firm is happy to accept new work.

“We haven’t forgotten” the recession, even if the impact was a lot softer and shorter in Texas, he said. “That was a hard thing to get through.”