Sundance Square Plaza opens

A. Lee Graham

Comedian George Carlin wanted a place for his stuff, but Sundance Square president and CEO Johnny Campbell simply wanted a place.

That wish came true on Nov. 1 as Sundance Square Plaza made its long-awaited debut.

Thirty years of planning and two years of site preparation met with a sunny morning as elected officials, project architects and everyday folk applauded the newly opened cultural crossroads bordered by Third and Fourth, and Commerce and Houston streets.

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“We needed it to be feature-rich so we aren’t out there programming,” said Campbell, referring to scheduling specific events for two parking lots transformed into the cultural epicenter of the 35-block Sundance Square development.

“It needed to be great in its own right,” Campbell said. Helping fulfill that vision was Michael Vergason, whose Virginia architectural firm served as landscape architect for the $110 million project. In his eyes, the 1-acre plaza reflected downtown’s uncluttered, straight forward layout. He vowed to maintain that theme by taking the reins of lighting and water feature planning, as well as other aspects that many passers-by might not consider.

“Fort Worth is so clearly ordered,” Vergason said of downtown’s street block alignment. “The thing I love is how finely scaled those blocks are, about 250 feet on each side, making for a very walkable city.”

Manhattan reflects a different aesthetic, one featuring both 1,000- and 250-foot blocks in what Vergason called its irregular grid. “It makes a world of difference in how you perceive a city,” Vergason said.

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Perception was everything on Nov. 1 as the two-block area teemed with residents eager to witness the latest step in downtown’s cultural transformation.

“We did some dancing at the last minute and saw a whole lot of things coming together,” said Campbell, who walked the plaza for days before its opening. No detail escaped Campbell’s notice as he fielded cellphone calls and received scheduling updates.

Meeting deadlines proved challenging, especially with maintenance crews digging up city streets to allow stormwater to flow beneath the plaza. Motorists and pedestrians alike endured construction for months, and project architects also felt the frustration.

“The utilities work was a difficult challenge,” said David Schwarz, whose David M. Schwarz Architects Inc. served as lead design firm for the project and has been the master-plan architect for Sundance Square since 1989.

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After designing the five previous Sundance Square buildings, as well as the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Center, Schwarz’ Washington, D.C.,-based firm tackled the latest addition determined to outdo itself.

“What’s so exciting to me is the vision we came up with 30 years ago is finally complete,” said Schwarz, who witnessed the fruits of his labor bathed in applause Nov. 1.

“The plaza really is very much meant to be a key factor in residential life, commercial life and really bridge everything together in the 24-hour nature of downtown,” Schwarz said.

That was the idea when developer Ed Bass aimed to make Sundance Square the city’s cultural epicenter.

What used to be two nondescript parking lots now boasts a 216-jet fountain that illuminates after sunset; four 32-foot umbrellas covering 6,000 square feet; a wave pool on the northeast side of the plaza running 65 feet in length; and a multi-purpose pavilion with bicycle racks, outdoor patios and seating.

Even before its transformation, the parking area teemed with activity when the city’s Christmas tree made its annual appearance. And few residents will forget when ESPN covered Super Bowl XLV from the location in 2011. But the space now invites folks to relax beneath the umbrellas, which offer shade during the day and color-changing LED lights at night.

“They’re entirely functional,” said Schwarz, describing the umbrellas – conceived by Vergason – as more than aesthetic. “Shade and climate were very important parts of the plaza when planning it,” Schwarz said.

Surrounding the square are buildings new and familiar. New to the development are the Westbrook and Commerce buildings, the former structure named after the historic Westbrook Hotel built in the early 1990s. About 55 percent of the six-story Westbrook space is leased, with some second and fifth floor space on the west plaza structure still available. Among its tenants are a Taco Diner and Starbucks Coffee Co. on the first floor.

The Westbrook also features a new digital clock above a permanent stage showcasing bands, other live performances and feature movies.

Meanwhile, about 91 percent of Commerce building space is leased, with only about half of the second floor available. Among tenants confirmed for the five-story building at 420 Commerce St. are Del Frisco’s Grille, which opened the day before the plaza’s debut; Bird Café; Silver Leaf Cigar Bar; and RadioShack’s new concept store.

Not to be outdone, The Cassidy boasts upscale residential space at the southeast corner of Third and Throckmorton streets. Two of its six penthouses already have been leased, Campbell said.

Mixing residential, retail and office uses in the same geographic area is nothing new. The West Seventh Street development is just one of many examples of the “New Urbanism” that’s reshaped urban planning in recent years. But Sundance Square is no Johnny-come-lately; it represents more than three decades of planning.

“Downtowns are an incredibly important part of any city,” Schwarz said. “They function as the front porch for the community. The plaza was conceived to be Fort Worth’s civic front porch.”

A University of Texas at Arlington professor agrees.

“It is the center of the city,” said Donald Gatzke, dean of the university’s School of Architecture. “It’s an antidote to the digital world, a place where humans can truly interact.”