Fort Worth Today and Tomorrow

Mr. Costa: I'm Fernando Costa from Fort Worth and I'm delighted to have the opportunity to spend time with you here this weekend. I hope to explain how we're applying some of these lessons to a specific community in Texas: Fort Worth.

I expect that most of the folks in this room have had occasion in the last ten or so years to visit Fort Worth. If you have, if my assumption is correct, then I believe we have here witnesses to the kind of growth and change that we've been experiencing. It's been remarkable.

Yet Fort Worth is still Cowtown; it's still The City Where the West Begins. We take a great deal of pride in that western heritage. At the same time, we have a lot to learn about preserving and even enhancing our quality of life while to accommodating extraordinary growth. I'd like to take a moment to impart some of these lessons to you as I believe that they are relevant to communities large and small throughout our state.

I begin with this notion of cowboys. Cowboys and Culture is more than a marketing slogan in Fort Worth, it's truly a way of life; that mix which is so special, not only in Fort Worth but in other communities across the state, that folks from far away may find hard to understand. It's a reality of life in our community.

We have many special places in Fort Worth that celebrate our unique culture.

Sundance Square in the heart of downtown Fort Worth, featuring Bass Performance Hall designed by David Schwarz. It’s a great place, a very active environment and it was practically dead as recently as 30 years ago. Today it is one of the most vibrant places in Texas. Our cultural district is home to several world-class museums designed by some of the finest architects in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, the Amon Carter Museum. Ron Tyler is Director of the Carter and it was design by none other than Philip Johnson, who did most of his great work right here in Texas.

We've spoken at length today about the Kimball Art Museum, a masterpiece by Louis Kahn. Just two weeks ago we heard the announcement about a new building to be a part of the Kimball campus to be designed by a long-time associate of Louis Kahn, Renzo Piano, who has unveiled a schematic design for a new building that I believe will be sympathetic and compatible with the masterpiece of Mr. Kahn. And, of course, the Modern Art Museum, the newest addition to our cultural district, designed by Tadao Ando, already a great piece of architecture on the Fort Worth landscape. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the historic stockyards; an icon of the Old West which continues to be vibrant to this day.

These kinds of places and what we call the “Fort Worth way of doing business” have given rise to a greater attention being assigned to Fort Worth and, in fact, recognition recently of Fort Worth as one of America's most livable communities by Partners for Livable Communities. We take a great deal of pride in that designation, though we're keenly mindful of the problems that we face as we seek to accommodate rapid growth.

Here is a shot of the Fort Worth city limits which encompass over 300 square miles. Equally important, in the yellow area, is the extraterritorial jurisdiction, another 300 square miles; all told over 650 square miles of planning area within Fort Worth jurisdiction. And we're growing very rapidly. Our population now exceeds 700,000. As you can see, it exceeds the bottom line which represents the population forecast from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. If we continue to grow at the current rate, it's not inconceivable that in 20 years that we'll approach the 1 million mark.

Here you can see a graph of the fastest growing large cities in the United States. Growing at three and a half percent per year over the past seven years, Fort Worth is actually the fastest growing big city in the country. We have now reached the point where we're the 17th largest city, having recently surpassed Memphis and Charlotte and Baltimore. Austin, with Mayor Wynn carrying the flag for them today, is well ahead of us and continues to grow at a rapid clip, addressing some of the very same issues that we're facing in Fort Worth.

Where is that growth occurring? Well, if you look at a map of the single family building permits, much of that growth is actually occurring outside of the central city in the far north and far northwest parts of Fort Worth, an indication of what many of us might describe as suburban sprawl. These are just building permits issued during the first ten months of this calendar year.

What's the national economy done to our building activity? Well, with respect to single family residential, the market has plummeted in the past two years. That's not surprising. But if you look at it in some historical perspective, we are really back to a more normal rate of growth. So we're still doing remarkable well even in a weak national economy.

If you look at the total volume of residential and commercial activity, you'll see that we project for calendar year 2008, to have the second busiest year in the history of Fort Worth with respect to the valuation of construction in our city. Here is a map showing you the locations of some of the higher priced commercial projects, including the new Omni Hotel and Condominium in downtown Fort Worth.

Well, if these trends continue, according to the Council of Governments, we're going to see increased suburban sprawl with the darkest areas on the map representing those areas that are likely to grow fastest in population. This is merely a forecast. We don't have to accept this view of the future; we can change it. It requires a conscious effort on our part today to make a difference in the way our community grows.

We can't ignore much of the activity that's occurring right now in the form of natural gas exploration under Fort Worth itself in what is called the Barnett Shale. This is one of the most productive natural gas formations in the country and it's located right under Fort Worth. In fact, you can see it doesn't even go very far into Dallas County. Fort Worth has been exceptionally fortunate economically to capture the benefit of the Barnett Shale. We have over 1,200 active gas wells in the city limits of Fort Worth. This is not in the countryside; this is in neighborhoods. You can imagine the land-use issues that are associated with the compatibility of natural gas drilling and industrial use with the residential environment.

Some of us have talked about suburban sprawl. I want to make reference to it in relation to Fort Worth without going into great detail. A study done not too long ago by Cornell and Rutgers for Smart Growth America looked at different characteristics of metropolitan areas, looked at the strength of downtown and other activity centers, residential density, the mix of housing and jobs and services within neighborhoods and street productivity as indicators of compact urban form and measured U.S. metropolitan areas with respect to those indicators and came up with an index called the Sprawl Index. The lower the number the more sprawling; the higher the number the more compact.

The national average by definition was 100. Fort Worth/Arlington was 77, not doing very well; Dallas, 78. Fort Worth/Arlington was in the top ten of U.S. metropolitan areas with respect to suburban sprawl. Not the kind of top ten listing that we enjoy having. Here's Fort Worth relative to other communities with which we compete for economic development. Again, 100 is the national average. Atlanta, the poster child for suburban sprawl, 58. Fort Worth and Dallas well below the 100 mark. Austin can take a great deal of credit for compact urban form. They have an index of 110. Denver and Portland, with which we compete for jobs, for families, well over 120. Those are examples of good, compact urban form.

So what can we do about it? We know about the effects of suburban sprawl. It's not healthy; it's not good for the economy. We have a comprehensive plan which we update every year and relate to the city budget as our principal means of making policy decisions about the city's growth and development. We outline a broad vision for the kind of community that we want Fort Worth to become. We want it to be commonly recognized as the most livable city in Texas. And we go on to explain what we mean by that livability.

We have certain themes that begin with economic growth and meeting the needs of a rapidly expanding population. And we go on to talk about revitalizing central city and promoting compact mixed use and industrial growth centers and celebrating one of our great natural resources, the Trinity River. This is a map that depicts locations of those multiple growth centers that are located throughout Fort Worth. We know that we can capture much of the development in downtown. But there are many other parts of Fort Worth that have the capacity in their infrastructure to accommodate that kind of development.

Let me just mention three big projects that we have underway in an attempt to transform our community with respect to the pattern of development that we've been experiencing and so as to arrest the kind of suburban sprawl that's been affecting all of our cities and metropolitan areas throughout the country.

The first is Trinity Uptown, a big project actually conceived by a Canadian architect, Bing Thom, who we brought to Fort Worth to help us to generate ideas about the Trinity River. The idea is to build a new bypass channel that runs along the railroad tracks on the west side of downtown and thereby allow us to remove the levees, the structural systems that currently separate the city from the Trinity River, bringing development down to the water's edge and effectively doubling the geographic size of downtown Fort Worth with higher density residential and mixed use development.

It is an extremely ambitious project that's already receiving considerable funding, both locally and from our federal partners in Washington. Congresswoman Kay Granger has been instrumental in making this project a big priority in Washington.

Some important development projects are already occurring in Fort Worth as a consequence of that vision for Trinity Uptown: a new Tarrant County College downtown campus, a new development around the LaGrave Field, our minor league ball park, home of the Fort Worth Cats; a new building for Chesapeake Energy which was originally built for Pier One Imports, and Trinity Bluff, a higher density residential development overlooking the Trinity River.

Another big project is Lancaster Avenue, the redevelopment of a street that actually had a freeway running overhead for many years, choking development in the south end of downtown. We have removed that freeway and have redesigned the street as a catalyst for economical development in the south end of downtown. Within the next few weeks we'll be installing six sculptures that you can see in the median of the street that will be lighted at night. The sculptures take the form of art deco elements; it's going to be a real signature piece and you will hear much more about it in the weeks ahead undoubtedly.

And again, private sector investment is occurring. As a result of that investment in our public infrastructure, a new Omni Hotel and Condominium, the largest commercial project in Fort Worth, which will turn the historic Texas Pacific passenger terminal into loft housing, actually high-priced condominiums. A new Sheraton Hotel and a new municipal parking garage characterized by the use of public art to bring that building to life.

Finally, I want to mention in the way of transformational projects, our Urban Village Development Program whereby we're changing the way we think about commercial districts and turning them into walkable mixed-use urban villages. Here's a map showing 31 commercial corridors, automobile-oriented commercial districts of a mile or more in length that were distressed in declining and economic activity. We wanted to do something about them. Every city has these declining commercial corridors.

I showed this picture just last week to our Realtors Association. I asked them where they thought this place was and I had 12 different answers. This is a fabricated image; it's nowhere. And yet, it's everywhere. This is what American cities look like today. No one in their right mind would want to go there to live or to work or to recreate or to do anything else of a legal nature. In fact, you don't even see a person on the streets.

We're going to change that picture. We're going to make it look something like this. And that, in fact, is what we're doing. We have 16 designated urban villages in different stages of transformation. We're using a strategy that involves capital improvements, economic incentives and mixed-use zoning that eliminates regulatory impediments to desirable development. Here is a picture of just one, the most successful urban village to date just west of downtown Fort Worth between downtown and our cultural district. It has projects like Montgomery Plaza, an adaptive re-use of a historic Montgomery Ward's building; Museum Place, a fabulous mixed-use project just north of the Modern Art Museum; South of 7th; and another project called West 7th. It's completely changing the west side of Fort Worth.

Let me mention what we're doing in respect to the transportation. We're shifting our emphasis from highways and arterial streets to rail transportation, as well as pedestrian activity. We're now pursuing a new commuter rail line that will extend from far southwest Fort Worth to the north entrance of DFW Airport. That is coupled with the proposed modern street car system. We have a study committee that will be reporting to the city council later this month with their recommendations for a starter corridor that will connect downtown to the cultural district, the hospital district and the lower income neighborhoods in southeast Fort Worth.

I'd like to close by summarizing some of the changes that we've made in the way we think about becoming a more livable city. We have changed our preferred development pattern from one of dispersal and sprawl to one of more compact multiple growth centers. We are changing the way we think about commercial development from single-use, automobile-oriented commercial corridors to mixed-use urban villages with walking environments that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Multi-family development is no longer a dirty word in Fort Worth. In fact, we're not seeking to scatter them and isolate them and fight them at every turn. We're trying to invite them in a targeted way to appropriate mixed-use districts. And neighborhoods are actually asking for apartments in their urban villages. It's a radical change from the way we thought about apartments as recently as a few years ago.

I mentioned we're moving to a multi-modal approach for transportation. Zoning is now done more proactively and inclusively. Most areas of Fort Worth are being changed with respect to the zoning, not so much by property owners individually in an ad hoc fashion, but by the City of Fort Worth itself understanding that zoning is a tool for implementing our comprehensive plan and that we ought to use that tool in an intelligent way.

Annexation is being used in a more intelligent manner. The comprehensive plan is what Mayor Moncrief calls our game book for making decisions. Citizens are no longer merely consumers of public services; they are our partners in the delivery of those services.

We've learned that among our keys to success are our common vision, consensus about where the community wants to go and taking the time to build that consensus, providing leadership, there's no substitute for leadership in the public and private sectors, creating partnerships across the board and always a bias for action. Don't study issues to death; move forward and take action. Thank you for your attention.

speaker costa Speaker Fernando Costa, Assistant City Manager of Fort Worth. Photo by member John Gullett.