Showdown: History and the future face off in Fort Worth Stockyards

Cowboy Steve Murrin in the pens at the stockyards

The already controversial plan for redeveloping the Fort Worth Stockyards got more contentious last week when a national preservation group waded into the fray, declaring that “a large-scale redevelopment project would forever alter the character of the Stockyards historic district.”

That blast came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as it released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places – a list that included the Stockyards along with 10 other sites ranging from the Grand Canyon to Little Havana in Miami, Fla. The group released its list on June 24, just a week after a 15-member task force got its first glimpse of design standards proposed for a 925-acre Stockyards Overlay District being mapped out by the city to guide development in the area.

Saying in a press release accompanying its list that “insensitive development threatens this historically significant place” the National Trust for Historic Preservation took aim at the $175 million project planned by the partnership of California-based Majestic Realty and Fort Worth’s Hickman family, which owns the 70 acres in the Stockyards on which the planned mixed-use development will sit.

The group said it believes “the local preservation community should be part of the city’s dialogue about the district’s future” and that “establishment of of a local historic district would be the most effective solution to the threat of insensitive development.”

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“Commissioning a historic resources survey of the Stockyards will help Historic Fort Worth and local preservationists navigate the preservation issues and will aid communication with the City of Fort Worth and its chosen development partner, Majestic of California,” the preservation trust said in its release. “The survey outcomes would greatly assist local property owners in pursuing designations and taking advantage of local, state, and federal preservation financial incentives.”

The Majestic-Hickman plan is a burr under the saddle for many who believe the project could alter the character of the area, which serves as a symbol of Fort Worth’s cattle-industry past.

Steve Murrin, who has been a vocal critic of the Majestic-Hickman project despite his partnerships with the Hickmans on projects including Billy Bob’s, said he hopes the “endangered” designation will help people realize the need for a local Stockyards historic district that would make it harder to demolish historic properties.

“It certainly ought to be a wake-up call to [Majestic owner Ed] Roski and the mayor that trading those cattle pens for modern-day restaurants and retail is foolish,” Murrin said. “Our national and international reputation is what tourism in the Stockyards is based on. It’s not just preservation for preservation’s sake. It’s good business.”

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The Stockyards attracted about 3 million visitors last year, according to local officials.

Being named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation list carries no legal teeth, but it does call attention to the development issues facing the historic area. Historic Fort Worth Executive Director Jerre Tracy said the group nominated the Stockyards for the designation, but it has done so in the past without success.

Philip Murrin, Steve Murrin’s son and a partner in another proposed Stockyards development, said he hopes the National Trust listing of the Stockyards as an endangered historical site will “force the conversation about preservation.”

“Hopefully, this announcement will help educate and empower the public to make themselves heard,” he said.

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But the announcement will have little impact on the work of the Historic Stockyards Design District Task Force. It is charged only with developing design guidelines and standards for new development, including the Majestic-Hickman project. The standards will not apply to existing property, nor will the ordinance deal with historic preservation, much to the dismay of some task force members who believed that was what the council asked them to accomplish.

Philip Murrin said he agreed to be on the task force because he believed he would be helping craft form-based codes, a type of zoning regulation used in other historic districts to ensure that buildings fit into the area around them.

Instead, he said, the task force is creating design standards “with no teeth.”

In a May 19 update to the City Council, Deputy Planning Director Dana Burghdoff explained that it will be quicker and cheaper to develop the design standards, which can be the basis for later form-based codes that take longer to implement.

“The real question is, does that draft do anything to preserve the integrity of the Stockyards?” Philip Murrin said. “It’s real clear to me that the task force is ultimately held responsible for the city’s stated goal of preserving the Stockyards, but we don’t have the tools to do that.”

Task force member Bob Adams, a board member of Historic Fort Worth Inc., handed over an eight-page rewrite of the first design draft, which was presented June 17 by consultant Randy Gideon.

Adams and Historic Fort Worth’s Tracy said that their proposed changes, along with other task force suggestions, are intended to make it clear to the city and the public what the document includes.

“The council is looking for us to do the right thing,” Adams said. “We want to do it right but this is really about new development, not preservation. If we want to do it right, we really need the Stockyards declared an historic area.”

Majestic’s vice president, Craig Cavileer, doesn’t share Adams’ view that preservation belongs in a design document. But he does believe the standards should address maintenance of existing buildings.

“Say someone owns an old building that is worthy of historic designation but the owner chooses not to list it himself,” Cavileer said. “It’s falling down. It’s unsafe. There’s plywood all over the front of the building. Currently there is no mechanism to require or induce that owner to take care of his building.

“The focus seems to be on what’s happening in the future. Why don’t we start with what we have, take care of that and then address the remodeling?”

But Tracy said preservation groups try to remind the public that historic properties are irreplaceable and will be lost without a change in direction. Although her group has placed the Stockyards on its own endangered list twice, sometimes it takes an outsider to get the point across, she said.

“With all of this new development set in motion for the Stockyards, it is time for the people of Fort Worth to ask the council to use its power to designate Fort Worth’s irreplaceable historic Stockyards a Local Historic District,” Tracy said.

Task force member Keith Powell, president of the Fort Worth Stockyards Business Association, said he’s not sure all Stockyards business and property owners want such a historic designation.

When Powell asked Stockyards businesses to help fund the task force consultant and share their views at public meetings, a number of longtime businesses had no interest in participating.

“A lot of property owners are saying, ‘I can’t build a building over five stories?’” he said. “We’re seeing that pushback now. An email circulated by businesses on the west side of Main that says, ‘We don’t want to be a part of any of that. Don’t include us in your design principles.’”

District 2 Councilman Sal Espino, who represents the Stockyards, has heard similar comments.

“Not everybody is in agreement,” Espino said. “We’re already getting emails from people who don’t want to be in the overlay district. Some people may be taking the stance, let things lie, not make improvements on their property.”

Despite some confusion on the task force, Cavileer is optimistic that the group can finish the design document by its new August target date and turn it over to the council for approval. He is eager to unveil his master plan for the 1 million-square-foot development at the July 29 task force meeting.

“Until the council adopts standards, anyone could do whatever they want in the Stockyards without restrictions on design,” he said. “Until the change to mixed-use zoning [July 15, 2014], there were zero standards.J

“That was a significant first step. This [design standard] is a significant second step. Right now that’s what the task force has been asked to do. We’re excited to be a part of it.”