The Turnaround: How Fort Worth’s once-moribund downtown became No. 1

Scott Nishimura

The lead to the story on downtown Fort Worth’s No. 1 ranking probably sums it up best: Horses, wagons and longhorn steers parading through downtown might seem strange, but in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s a tradition. The annual All Western Parade, which marks the start of the Stock Show and Rodeo, draws more than 100,000 spectators and demonstrates how this ever-evolving metropolis remains close to its agricultural roots. Few downtowns have achieved the cohesion between cowboy culture and urban sophistication that Fort Worth has.

Not a bad description of downtown, but it was not always so.

When the Fort Worth Business Press set up shop at 501 Jones St. in 1988, downtown Fort Worth was rarely thought of as a prime destination – for dining, for shopping, for, well, for much of anything. Stores were closing, buildings were boarded up, there was little night life beyond the eclectic Caravan of Dreams music venue, and there was definitely no residential presence. The Bass family’s landmark Sundance Square development was barely off the drawing board. “You either get better or you get worse,” said John Roach, then-CEO of Tandy Corp. “We were on the ‘worse’ end.” Bring on the dreams. Downtown’s resurgence – and the subsequent spread of development to West Seventh Street, the Near South and North Side – has been one of the most spectacular chapters in Fort Worth’s growth story during the last quarter-century. Back then, it was an idea just emerging as a plan: A premium office market, people living downtown, Cowtowners surging into the city center for work and play, a burgeoning hotel inventory. Today, it’s reality: • 3,000 residential units, about two thirds built for rental, boasting a downtown population of 5,600. • 2,642 hotel rooms – up from 1,630 – fueled by several projects, including the 2009 opening of the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. • An estimated 56,300 people working downtown, according to the economic development nonprofit Downtown Fort Worth Inc. (The organization has no downtown workforce numbers for 1988.) • Class A office occupancy of 85.2 percent at the end of 2013, despite the addition of 425,908 square feet of new inventory.

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Performance Hall With Ed Bass leading the charge, the Bass family has been downtown’s major benefactor, now owning 35 downtown city blocks and more than 4 million square feet of space under the Sundance Square umbrella. The $67 million, 2,056-seat Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall at 525 Commerce St., which opened in 1998 as “the last great concert hall of the 20th century, owes its existence to Ed Bass’ vision and fundraising prowess. The hall, built entirely with private money, is home to Fort Worth’s symphony, opera and ballet as well as the internationally renowned Van Cliburn piano competition and a variety of concerts and shows. The city was a strong public partner. Under the leadership of the late Bob Bolen, mayor from 1982-1991, and subsequent mayors and city councils, Fort Worth kicked in with a public improvement district in 1986 and a Tax Increment Finance district 10 years later that helped clean up the area, provided free parking and more police, and put on events like the Main St. Arts Festival. Other private money moved in. Omni Hotels, for one, opened the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. XTO Energy founder Bob Simpson bought and renovated eight historic buildings for his company’s office use. Banking’s expansion, the oil and gas industry’s takeoff, and the removal of several large buildings such as Simpson’s from the inventory led to the office market surge.

Tornado Along the way, downtown parlayed bad news into good. The Bank One Tower, slammed by a tornado in 2000, was turned into condos, boosting downtown’s residential inventory at the same time it removed office space. The tornado’s destruction of a church led to Pier 1’s purchase of the site and construction of a headquarters tower. And there was the phone call that Sundance Square CEO Johnny Campbell took in 2004 from a broker representing an Arlington homebuilder who wanted to move his business downtown. Campbell was about to lose Pier 1 and another major tenant from the City Center, the Basses’ twin-tower office colossus. “We had no [tenant] prospects whatsoever,” he recalled. Along came D.R. Horton, the homebuilder. “It was like an instant reset,” Campbell said. “Occupancy just started going up and up and up.” Ed Bass declined to be interviewed for this article but accepted an award recently and attributed Sundance Square’s success to several factors: “One, the power of an idea – the right idea – to have a lively 24/7 environment in which to work, live and play. Two, great partners like the city, the county, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the Chamber, the property owners and merchants. Three, a fabulous management team to operate it, and four, you – the people of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. If we’d built it and you’d not come, we wouldn’t be the place to be.” How far has downtown come? The top piece of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s strategic 10-year plan in 1993 was to persuade people to live downtown. The new 10-year plan, which was just approved, calls for better educational opportunities for people living and working downtown. “So you can see the progression,” said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. The new plan also calls for an additional 2,500 downtown residential units in the next 10 years and 7,500 more in the “greater downtown” area that includes West Seventh Street, the Trinity River Vision-Trinity Uptown development, the Near South Side and the area labeled Near East. The Basses developed the Americana Hotel – now the Renaissance Worthington – in the late 1970s, connecting it to the newly built Tandy Center. They built the City Center towers in the early 1980s and spent years filling them with tenants. In 1980 and ’81, Sundance renovated its first two buildings at Sundance Square – Blocks 41 and 42, which today include Razzoo’s, Riscky’s Barbecue and Haltom Jewelers.

Family plan The family’s plan picked up steam in 1991 with the opening of the AMC Sundance 11 – the first movie theater downtown in decades. In 1992, the Basses opened the 12-story Sundance West residential building with 59 apartments. The Sanger Lofts and retail building rehab and the 10-bed Etta’s Place bed and breakfast followed in 1993 and 1996. In 1996, the Plaza Block opened with the nine-screen AMC Theatre and Barnes & Noble bookstore. The 12-story Chase Bank building on Throckmorton Street arrived in 2002 and the 16-story Carnegie office building on West Third Street in 2008. In 2011, the TV sports network ESPN chose Sundance Square as its production headquarters for Super Bowl XLV. (And in April 2014, ESPN is back for the NCAA Final Four college basketball championship.) In 2012, Sundance announced that it would build three more buildings – the Commerce Building, The Westbrook and The Cassidy – and the Sundance Square Plaza. The plaza, which debuted in November, supercharges Sundance Square, Campbell said, by adding a highly convertible, “programmable” space that will draw traffic. “We’ve had an open expense account called Sundance Square Master Plan for 30 years now, and it’s still not closed,” Campbell said. Campbell, a Houstonian who spent years working for the Rouse Co. at festival marketplace developments such as Baltimore’s Harborplace, said Fort Worth’s central business district has benefited from major intangibles such as the city’s focus on downtown, close highway access, a historic courthouse and the “Fort Worth way” of doing business. In numerous other major cities, “you will look around and see these little satellite downtowns,” Campbell said. “In Fort Worth, you don’t see that.”

Focus The small size of downtown – framed by the Trinity River, Interstate 30 and Interstate 35 – has helped the focus, added Bill Thornton, Fort Worth’s Chamber of Commerce president. “These constraints have allowed us to really focus on a geography that’s manageable,” Thornton said. The downtown public improvement district, in which property owners in the zone agree to pay extra above their property tax so long as the money stays in the district, generates about $2 million per year. The district – the first in Texas after the city pushed a bill through the Legislature with the backing of Tandy Corp. and the Basses – has paid for amenities such as maintenance and landscaping, festivals such as the Main St. Arts Festival, and extra security. Among other services, the district has funded free parking downtown, which has been crucial to the restaurant and retail scene. So far, $70 million of the district’s original $72 million cap has been committed, but the City Council recently expanded the cap to $100 million. The development of downtown’s premium office market was aided by the removal from the inventory of properties such as the Tandy Center, Bank One Tower, the Neil P. Anderson building and several buildings purchased by XTO for the company’s own use, Taft said. XTO or its predecessor company Cross Timbers has purchased seven historic buildings encompassing more than 800,000 square feet of space since the early 1990s, renovated them and converted the space for its offices. Six were downtown and a seventh, the Swift Building, was in the Stockyards. XTO bought an eighth building – the Texas Building – and imploded it. ExxonMobil, which later purchased XTO, now owns all of the property. “That was very painful to give those up,” said Joy Webster, XTO’s project manager on the building renovations. Webster said XTO didn’t sense that it was affecting the office market by removing inventory. “It was a byproduct,” she said. “We were running out of space.” XTO paid $300,000 for its first building, the 186,000-square-foot Waggoner, in 1991, she said. Cross Timbers entered the building as a tenant in 1996. It was in disrepair, and the company, in exchange for signing a long lease, won provisions pertaining to maintenance. “If they didn’t do [the maintenance], then we could take our rent money and do it ourselves,” Webster said. “They didn’t, and we did.” Of the purchase price, “we’ve kind of cost-averaged it out with all the other deals we’ve done,” and the numbers still came out well, she said. Simpson is now renovating the former Fort Worth Star-Telegram building at 400 W. Seventh St. for the offices of his newest venture, MorningStar Partners. Webster said Simpson will own that building individually, not through the company. “We don’t want to lose another building,” she explained. “It was too painful.” Downtown hasn’t been without its share of mistakes as revitalization proceeded, however. Overpriced condos, for example, languished. “What hasn’t worked is where developers missed the market,” Taft said. “Those units found the market. They were adjusted in price until they sold.”

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The future Going forward, downtown faces big challenges, business leaders say. On the south end, Fort Worth has commissioned a study of its Convention Center and hotel supply and demand that should be completed soon. Keys in the study: What to do about the convention center’s aging arena, which takes up about a third of the center’s area, and how to add more full-service hotels. One of the goals of renovating the Convention Center is to increase its ability to hold two large meetings simultaneously, said Bob Jameson, president of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. The arena holds “no ticketed events, no concerts, and it’s not being used the way it was designed,” Jameson said. Downtown’s ability to draw retail continues to develop. “Our restaurant inventory is very strong,” Taft said. “The holy grail for downtown is the soft goods and apparel retail. We have a very good start at Sundance Square. We need more office workers, conventioneers, day trippers and residents. We can work very hard to recruit retailers, but we need to have the market to support them.” Sundance’s soft goods business has improved, Campbell noted, citing the Jos. A. Bank men’s store. “It does real well,” Campbell said. “We’ve grown a little, and we can do apparel retail now.”

Parts of this story appeared in the Fort Worth Business Press’ 25th Anniversary publication.