City Council members are calling for calm after moving forward with hotly debated plans that would guide development in the Fort Worth Stockyards for years to come.
The action came late Tuesday night as the council set in motion the public hearing process regarding establishing boundaries for a historic district in the historic Stockyards. The council has already spent months handling the outcry of a process that sets design standards and guidelines for the Stockyards on the near north side and the area around it.
Based on recommendations from the task force that established the design overlay district, city staff submitted to the council proposed boundaries for the historic district. The council approved staff’s recommendation, but not without some emotionally-charged comments.
Councilman Sal Espino, whose district includes the Stockyards, said the council remains committed to preserving the Stockyards, but the process has to be public. The council, he said, is faced with a “balancing act” of deciding what’s good for the public, yet maintaining the rights of private property owners.
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“Now as we begin this, this is not the end of the public process,” Espino said. “It still continues. We’re going to continue to discuss boundaries. We are faced, really, with a balancing act. Everyone has a stake in what happens in the Stockyards.”
The boundary essentially includes what the public perceives as the Stockyards, or the historic buildings on Exchange Avenue east and west of Main Street, and areas north to Stockyards Boulevard and to near N.E. 23rd Street on the south. The east boundary would stop at Niles City Boulevard, and not include the former Swift & Co. property, commonly called the ruins.
Historic preservationists told council members the boundary is too small and should be enlarged to mirror the boundary set when the Stockyards was included on the National Historic Register. Some Stockyards area property owners stood to say the proposed boundary is too large, and some have requested their buildings be removed.
That included Fort Worth businessman Mike Costanza, who owns the Plaza Building in the heart of the Stockyards, among others. He said he and his investors have spent millions of dollars on their properties, all without public incentive.
“I believe in my property rights,” Costanza said. “I chose to invest my money and did what I thought was right.”
Council members said their approval was just to start the public process and vowed, again, to listen to all concerned. Their action also set into place interim controls that protects properties in the proposed boundary.
Their action, however, came one day after city staff approved 23 of 24 demolition permits for the partnership that has started work on a $175 million redevelopment project in the Stockyards. One permit is pending a review by the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission. The permit requests were submitted last week.
Half of the permits are to tear down structures in the former Swift & Co. property, which date to the early 1900’s. It does not include the brick wall or grand staircase to the Swift property along N.E. 23rd Street. In all, 17 permits are for structures outside the proposed historic district and seven are in the district, including a few historic scale houses and a large portion of the long cattle run and loading dock.
If we all work together and remain civil, Fort Worth has an incredible way of proceeding on good terms.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
Mayor Betsy Price told the crowd that city staff and council staff have worked hard and spent “countless hours” handling Stockyards concerns. She asked both sides to “keep the conversation as civil as possible.”
“It probably is not the final boundary,” Price said of their vote. “We are now opening the public process. We simply have to consider a wide variety of positions and interests of the Stockyards. If we all work together and remain civil, Fort Worth has an incredible way of proceeding on good terms.”
“You have our word, and you’ve had since we started this process, that we are paying incredibly close attention to every action that’s taken in the Stockyards,” Price said.
Councilman Dennis Shingleton echoed Price’s concerns.
“We can make adjustments, all for the betterment of all involved. I’m convinced of that,” Shingleton said. “We just have to get over this mistrust factor. I truly believe there is a mistrust factor on both sides. I’m not in favor of doing anything with this boundary right now. We’ve got to take this a step at a time and do what is right as we go along.”
The comments came after a number of historic preservationists applauded the council for their initiative to create a local historic district, as well as a form-based code district, in the Stockyards. The two districts are separate but work in concert with each other. A historic district offers the best level of protection from demolition and helps maintain an area's integrity.
“You have a good start. It needs to be bigger,” said Fort Worth resident and activist Libby Willis. “You all have the ability and opportunity with the authority you have ... to do the right thing for Fort Worth. They’re making investments,” she said, referring to the Heritage development.
“So are we as members of the public — $26 million worth. And for that, because of the public dollars invested, the time of the staff, your time, we deserve better. The Stockyards deserve better. Draw us a bigger boundary,” she said.
Dedicated to preserve
Heritage Development is a partnership of California-based Majestic Realty and Fort Worth’s Hickman family that in July revealed its master plan for the Stockyards. The Hickman’s have owned several Stockyards properties for decades. Last month, the developers said they will spend $40 million to preserve the historic horse and mule barns on Exchange Avenue.
In June 2014, the City Council approved property and sales tax incentives for the Stockyards Heritage project valued at the time at $26 million. Because the incentives will be paid out over 25 years and if the developers meet investment goals set by city staff, estimates are the value of the incentives could swell to about $67 million.
“Heritage Development remains unequivocally dedicated to preserve, protect and enhance our most valuable and viable structures,” said Kerby Smith, senior vice president of Majestic Realty. “Unfortunately, time, weather and neglect have caused significant deterioration and disrepair to many structures owned by Heritage Development.”
City staff will schedule a public meeting in December on the proposed historic district, followed by public hearings by the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission in January and Zoning Commission in February.
The issue returns to the City Council in March for a final vote. The council is expected to vote in January on the design overlay district.