FORT WORTH — Less than a decade ago, the West Seventh Street corridor was largely a mix of warehouses, small businesses and old homes west of downtown and the Trinity River.But after a major makeover that included the transformation of the old Montgomery Ward building, the area that connects downtown and the Cultural District is now a bustling urban village, a pedestrian-friendly mix of trendy apartments, shops, bars and can’t-miss restaurants.Part of a citywide funding plan to breathe life into blighted areas, West Seventh quickly became the poster child for a successful urban village.Only 15 minutes away, on Fort Worth’s east side, residents of Stop Six hoped for a similar renaissance when their historic area was designated an urban village in 2005. The community launched a $50,000 study of infrastructure needs and potential economic development.But nearly 10 years later, Stop Six is still a project-in-waiting with sparse street lighting, run-down infrastructure and few sidewalks. A dilapidated, abandoned Dairy Queen, which is expected to be demolished this month, is the center of the neighborhood.“People really forgot that we even had this,” said Councilwoman Gyna Bivens, who represents the Stop Six area. “There has been no discussion, no emphasis, no plan.” Stop Six is hardly alone in its failed restoration effort. Of the 16 urban villages created since 2002 in the hope of bringing life back to the central city, only half have received city funding — and most of that has gone to villages in the west and in the central-city core.The distribution of funds has raised questions about the effectiveness — some argue the fairness — of the urban village program, especially as the Fort Worth City Council considers including $9 million for the inner-city renewal effort in the 2014 bond package.Regina Blair, president of the Stop Six Sunrise Edition, is concerned that the city has not been equitable in urban village planning. She has attended most of the public-input meetings for the 2014 bond, advocating for the Berry/Stalcup urban village in Stop Six.“We were under the impression that because we had a plan now, it would be recognized by the city, the City Council and someone there who would say — ‘We have a plan. Now we need money,’” Blair said. City officials, however, say urban village development is driven by the private sector. If investors aren’t ready to invest in an area, the city typically doesn’t. In addition, Councilmen Jungus Jordan and Danny Scarth say funding for the urban villages in the proposed bond package needs to be re-evaluated. Jordan said it’s a good opportunity to look at the problems faced by urban villages and learn from mistakes. “Trying to fit everyone into this same box is not going to work. We have got to look at the different personalities and lifestyles of each of the eight districts we have,” Jordan said, saying the urban village concept means little to people in outlying areas of Fort Worth. A success storyUrban villages were created to reinvigorate central-city areas that had fallen into neglect and disrepair. The villages are small, dense areas zoned for multiuse development and are pedestrian- and mass-transit-friendly. Across the country, they have been vital for combating urban sprawl, decreasing traffic congestion, increasing both sales and property tax revenue, and attracting the younger generation to cities, said Chris Zimmerman, vice president for economic development at Smart Growth America in Washington, D.C.West Seventh is an example of an urban village done right, said Barbara Becker, dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. Property values in West Seventh have jumped by about 200 percent, from $86 million in 2004 to $255.3 million in 2011. The project received $300,000 in city funds but also got millions in private investment and $4.5 million in outside grants.“They are working out well because certain areas needed the attention. And with that attention, they are viable to the private sector to build the kind of communities people want,” Becker said, calling West Seventh one of Fort Worth’s “economic engines.” If implemented correctly, the urban village concept rarely fails, said Karla Weaver, program manager with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. She has yet to see an urban village flop in North Texas. “It gives you a better target and focus. There are a million ways we can spend money. This whittles it down to some areas that need some TLC,” Weaver said. Concerns about urban villages Of Fort Worth’s 16 urban villages, 12 are located in just two council districts. District 9, which stretches from the near north side to Edgecliff Village, has six urban villages. District 8, which includes primarily the east side, also takes in six villages.Across town, the villages have received varying levels of support from the city — from $40,000 at the Six Points village on the northeast side to $2 million for the village at South Main. Most of them have been awarded grants from outside agencies, such as the North Central Texas Council of Governments, ranging from $50,000 to $4.3 million.The money has paid for sidewalks, lighting and other infrastructure to make the village safe and appealing for pedestrians and public transit.
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Councilman Joel Burns, who represents District 9 and its six urban villages, said the question is not whether Fort Worth should financially support them but which villages should get the funding.“This is not just for where we have problem areas and we throw money at it in hopes that there will be some sort of miraculous turnaround. We look at them quite critically,” Burns said. “Is the potential for redevelopment there and does the seed money help with redevelopment?”While Burns supports using the $9 million in the bond package for urban villages, some of his council members are skeptical. The $9 million is not designated for specific areas.Mayor Betsy Price and Councilwomen Kelly Allen Gray and Bivens all say they are not sure how much money should go toward the urban villages. Councilmen Sal Espino and Burns do not like the idea of reducing funding. Jordan, Scarth, W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman and Dennis Shingleton are all considering a reduction.Each district faces different challenges, and providing funds to address specific projects that are now partly funded or not funded at all in the bond program would be a better use of some of the money, Scarth said.Another concern is that the city created so many urban villages that it can’t address them all, though Scarth said the designation gives developers an idea of what the residents want.“I would put urban villages in the category of important but not urgent,” Scarth said.In addition, urban villages appeal to only part of the population, Jordan said, making the proposed $9 million “excessive.” Jordan also said this is a good opportunity to evaluate the problems urban villages are experiencing, like parking and noise concerns.Jordan and Scarth are advocating cutting the $9 million in half and using that to help create an $18 million pot of money to be split among the eight members to spend in their districts, and the mayor, who is elected at large.If a district really wants to see money go to an urban village, that could become a line item from its $2 million pot, Scarth said.But Burns said some of his colleagues miss the big picture. Since economic activity and property values skyrocket in these villages, the entire city benefits. “Many people are pretty incensed that you have a couple council members provincial about the fact that, ‘If there aren’t any urban villages in my district, then we need to divvy up that money.’ That is incredibly shortsighted in my opinion,” Burns said. Neglect on the east side?Don Boren has worked to bring development to the east side of Fort Worth for 15 years and has advocated for the Oakland Corners urban village since 2002.Boren, past president of the East Fort Worth Business Association and vice chairman of the Fort Worth Planning Commission, said the impression that east Fort Worth is a place for crime and homeless shelters means that larger developers tend to pass on the area.At bond meetings, Boren advocates for the Oakland Boulevard Library in the proposed bond package to be the focal point of the urban village. No other library is in the area.“We are not good enough to get high-quality development, but we aren’t bad enough to get the grants and things that generally come into really depressed areas. So we are just kind of overlooked, and what happens is everything ages and deteriorates,” Boren said. Oakland Corners, Ridglea, Historic Marine, Berry/Stalcup and others have not received city money because the city typically puts its funding where developers already are, said Randle Harwood, director of planning and development for Fort Worth.That leverages the city’s small infrastructure investment and promotes developers who are investing larger pots of money, he said. “Where is the best place for us to leverage those dollars? And that is not always geographically equitable,” Harwood said. Two, possibly three, urban villages could receive funding for infrastructure improvements if the $9 million is approved, but Harwood said the city has many pressing needs. He said the villages most likely to take off in the near future are Six Points in the northeast and Bluebonnet Circle near TCU. He also said the economic activity around Stop Six, the Berry/Stalcup urban village, could be interesting as Bivens pushes for development in the east. Boren said the city is making smart investments by waiting for developers to take an interest. But some areas will need more help attracting those investments, he said. “Every urban village is different and every urban village needs a different amount of assistance. West Seventh needs very little. We will need some,” Boren said.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984 Twitter: @catyhirst