Sundance Square Plaza opens Friday in downtown Fort Worth

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Johnny Campbell, Sundance Square’s president and CEO, once asked Ed Bass when he would know that Sundance Square was a success.

Bass, who has led development of the 35-block entertainment, shopping, office and residential redevelopment project since the mid-1980s, said success would be achieved when other developers jumped in to start building their own projects around downtown.

In the past several years, that is exactly what has happened, with major developments taking shape west of downtown toward the city’s museums and south of downtown near the city’s major hospitals.

Now Sundance Square is preparing to mark another pivotal moment on Friday when it will fulfill a decades-old goal with the opening of Sundance Square Plaza, a 1-acre public gathering place in the heart of the development, between Third and Fourth, and Houston and Commerce streets.

“This has always been about being a catalyst,” Campbell said of Sundance Square. “If you look at the housing, West Seventh Street, Fort Worth South and Trinity River Vision, there’s a lot of development happening in the center city, all great signals of success. We’re seeing it.”

Sporting a 216-jet fountain that will light up at night and four 32-foot-tall umbrellas equipped with twinkling LED lights to provide shade, Sundance Square Plaza is bound to take downtown Fort Worth through a new transformation, urban experts say.

Of course, Sundance Square was a success long before other developers jumped into the market. Since the early ’90s, people have been living, working and dining in redeveloped historic buildings on downtown’s north end, and last decade two new buildings built to look as if they’ve been downtown for years were completed. Urban planning professionals and architects have lauded Sundance Square’s urban renewal efforts.

But the plaza will bring downtown Fort Worth another step closer to the Bass family’s vision of making Sundance Square a 24-hour-a-day city center. Events are planned all weekend for the plaza’s opening, including performances by the Fort Worth Opera and Jubilee Theatre. The plaza will be open until midnight for folks to walk around.

In recent years, Fort Worth has seen the rise of new entertainment districts, including developments that make up West Seventh Street on the near west side, and the trendy dining strip along Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth South, says Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group.

“The greater suburban area has wrapped their arms around the inner city,” Taft said. “This plaza represents the next evolutionary step in the urban offering.”

Although the concept of downtown plaza areas is not new — cities started building open green spaces in often congested urban areas some 40 years ago — they do provide an important sense of place, said David Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association, a group for downtown management professionals.

“Every city is unique,” Downey said. “The public space becomes an asset of the community. Success lies in how those assets are leveraged. How the space is programmed can drive a lot of different benefits.”

Campbell said it is too early to tell how much of an asset Sundance Square Plaza will be, but there is much anticipation. “I am beginning to believe we don’t fully understand that yet,” he said.

The area was created on what were two surface parking lots, widely seen as the square of Sundance Square. Although it was long part of the Bass family’s plan, the plaza couldn’t be developed until 2009 when Sundance was able to acquire a 15,000-square-foot portion of one of those parking lots.

The area has been a familiar gathering place for concerts, art fairs, sporting matches and an ESPN set during Super Bowl XLV week in 2011, among other things. It’s where the city’s Christmas tree is placed and where ESPN is returning in April 2014 for broadcasts during the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, which will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

It was these events and others that drove the plaza’s design. Sundance Square’s marketing staff sent a five-page list of the types of events that had been held, and what they imagine can be held, to the architects to work from. The space features a pavilion and other water features, including a wave pool, and patio space for outdoor dining for the new restaurants. Parades will still march down Main Street through the plaza’s center, which will be permanently closed to through traffic.

One of the plaza’s primary features is an outdoor stage complete with a green room that was built into The Westbrook, the office building on the plaza’s west side. It will showcase bands, movies and live performances.

“We started just the opposite of the way most places are designed,” Campbell said. “We said these events are what we need to be able to accommodate and then build a great place.”

Sundance Square announced the $110 million project two years ago, which also includes new office buildings that bookend the plaza on the east and west sides. The project also involves the further restoration of the Jett Building, which features the widely-recognized Chisholm Trail mural, and the Land Title Building on Third Street. Construction began 18 months ago. Lately, hundreds of construction workers have worked around the clock to finish the plaza in time for Friday’s opening ceremony and weekend events.

All but two floors of office space in The Westbrook, on the plaza’s west side, and one-half of a floor in The Commerce, on the east site, are leased. The Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller law firm, the first tenant announced for the new buildings, is slated to move into the top three floors of The Commerce Building over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Two retail spaces remain available in The Westbrook, but those are reserved for soft goods retailers, Campbell said. The Cassidy, a third office and residential building at the southeast corner of Third and Throckmorton streets, is still under construction and should be competed in July of next year. Two of the six penthouse units are already leased and a list of more than a dozen names has been started for the other four units.

The plaza will not go unused. Sundance Square is preparing to have events every weekend if needed. These might range from concerts and pep rallies, to dinners for convention visitors or local school choir performances. Campbell expects it to be heavily used by the performing arts community. The pavilion already has been rented for three private business events by the end of the year.

It’s these interactions that draw people to center city plazas, said Jim Cloar, a Tampa-based downtown management consultant with 40 years experience as an urban planning professional. Plazas succeed if they are put in a location where the public can take part in it, he said.

Plazas are also spaces for people working downtown to get out of their offices and where downtown dwellers can walk to, he said.

“Downtowns are becoming fun again with new and younger generations coming in,” Cloar said. “Fort Worth has done a terrific job.”

Philadelphia, for example, is undertaking a similar project with the $55 million renovation of Dilworth Plaza, a 35-year-old area next to its City Hall and turning the multi-level concrete and granite space into a level area with grass, fountains and other amenities. The space will be programmed with concerts and other open activities.

Paul Levy, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Center City District, a downtown management district, and author of Downtown Rebirth: Documenting the Live-Work Dynamic in 21st Century U.S. Cities, said many cities are investing in quality public spaces as a way to remain competitive in the changing work environment. Dilworth Plaza is being done in a public/private partnership.

No longer do downtown developers just plan a single building. Instead, they plan amenity packages around them, such as parks, for workers and nearby residents, and tourists, he said.

“When you think about great cities … they have great public places in them,” Levy said.

People crave open space, said Kate Coburn, a partner in the New York-based HR&A Advisors, a real estate and economic development consultancy. She was in Fort Worth recently to tour the plaza and said Sundance Square Plaza is poised to become the neighborhood for the downtown dwellers.

“Sundance Square Plaza is going to be a home run,” Coburn said. “It’s going to be a place people are going to embrace.”

As such, the days of “urban pioneering” are over in downtown Fort Worth, Taft said.

“What we’re going to see is a growing degree of demand for residential, retail, office and hospitality space,” Taft said. “The research we’ve been doing, the prospecting we’ve been doing for developers, we’re going to hit a new phase in development. The plaza will add fuel to that fire.”

Downey agrees that plazas can grow the downtown economic environment, saying, “There’s never a lack of ideas for downtowns.”

The plaza will also likely become a case study for the Urban Land Institute, landscape architects, architects and planners, Coburn said.

“It will get a lot of professional focus,” she said. “The thought that’s gone behind it, it takes the idea of plazas to a whole other level. Everything they’ve thought about is so impressive.”

Added Taft, “We are all really looking forward to taking the barricades and cones down and being the city that people like us to be, again.”

About the project

The Commerce Building, 420 Commerce St., is on the east half of the block bordered by Main, Commerce, Third and Fourth streets. It faces Commerce and stretches from Third to the north side of the Land Title Building. The Commerce has 83,000 square feet on five stories, including 17,000 square feet of ground-floor shops and restaurants.

The Westbrook, 425 Houston St., is on the west half of the block bordered by Third, Fourth, Main and Houston streets. The Westbrook is 93,000 square feet on six stories, including 12,393 square feet of ground-level retail space.

The Cassidy, 407 Throckmorton St., will be an L-shaped building at the southeast corner of Throckmorton and Third streets. It will have 99,000 square feet on six stories, including 12,196 square feet of retail space and 12,187 square feet of residential space. The top floor will have six luxury penthouses.

By the numbers

1 acre is the size of the plaza

300,000 brick pavers and 17,000 pieces of stone make-up the plaza’s ground surface

Four, 32-foot umbrellas cover 6,000 square feet when opened on the plaza’s east side

Fountain with 215 jets is in the center of the plaza. Some jets will shoot water six feet high or they can be programmed to have a one-quarter-inch still pool

A 65-foot long wave pool is on the northeast side of the plaza

Restaurant and store openings

Oct. 29: Del Frisco’s Grille

Oct. 30: RadioShack

Nov. 1: Jamba Juice (reopens)

Nov. 19: Starbucks

December: Bird Café and Silver Leaf Cigar Bar

March: Taco Diner

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727 Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST

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