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Rail station plan stirs controversy in Fort Worth's Mistletoe Heights

FORT WORTH -- Many Mistletoe Heights residents agree traffic is a growing problem in their century-old neighborhood.

But they disagree about a proposal to build a train station in their well-groomed area just southwest of downtown Fort Worth. Some support construction of a commuter rail station on the TEX Rail line, which Fort Worth Transportation Authority officials hope to open by 2016, saying such a project could lead to improvements on surrounding streets that would ease congestion. Others oppose a station so close to their neighborhood, fearing that it would lead to waves of cars on already crowded and narrow residential streets.

"The idea that a train would come into a historical neighborhood is so far-fetched I just can't believe it," said Katrina Pittman, a stay-at-home mom whose young family moved to Fort Worth in 2007 after living in the Washington, D.C., area. They bought a fixer-upper in Mistletoe Heights in 2008 and, she said, spent more than $100,000 on improvements.

"I'm concerned about traffic and noise, encroachment on the neighborhood and property values," she said, adding that she wouldn't object to a station farther away -- perhaps north of Rosedale Street, where it was originally supposed to be built.

The T is pushing the issue to the front burner. It has been planning the TEX Rail commuter line since 2005 and hopes to open the passenger rail corridor from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and the north end of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport by 2016.

One of the issues is where to build a station that would serve the bustling Medical District -- adjacent to Mistletoe Heights -- where hundreds of people a day might ride trains to jobs in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other healthcare employers within walking distance of the railroad tracks. By 2030, about 4,000 people will work within a half-mile of the station, the T's environmental study says.

The Mistletoe Heights Neighborhood Association will discuss the plan in detail Tuesday, then vote April 24. Officials at the T and the city say the attitude of the neighborhood, which has more than 500 households, will hold strong sway in determining where to place a train station.

Mistletoe Heights roughly comprises the residential area south of Interstate 30, north of Park Place Boulevard, west of the Fort Worth & Western Railroad tracks and east of the Trinity River.

"The neighborhood has to help us make the decision," T President Dick Ruddell said.

Change of plans

The T originally planned to build a station along Fort Worth & Western tracks just north of Rosedale, according to a draft environmental impact statement prepared in 2008. But it has become clear that that site is less than ideal.

The terrain is hilly, with limited space for a park-and-ride lot. Previous plans included surrounding the station with transit-oriented development, including businesses facing the railroad tracks. But that proposal has fizzled, as the nearby Midtown project has evolved with office buildings facing the opposite direction, toward Forest Park Boulevard.

T officials say that they could still build the station north of Rosedale but that in the past six months they have turned their attention to a 7-acre property a few hundred feet to the south, at the southeast corner of Mistletoe Boulevard and the Fort Worth & Western tracks. The land, just west of Baylor All Saints Medical Center, is separated from homes in Mistletoe Heights by only a creek and some trees.

Though some residents oppose the new location, others see it as an opportunity for the T and the city to address some long-standing traffic problems.

Brent Beasley, who has lived in a two-story, bungalow-style house on Mistletoe Boulevard near the tracks for about two years, is open to creating a quiet zone at the railroad crossing, with better landscaping, curbs, sidewalks and other features that would calm traffic through the area.

"We have traffic concerns anyway, even without the station. Maybe this is a good reason to get the T and the city to address some of that," said Beasley, who moved to Fort Worth after becoming pastor at Broadway Baptist Church.

Beasley said that he hasn't decided whether to support the station but that there's an appeal to being able to walk down the street and catch a train to DFW.

Opportunity arises

Some residents have asked why they weren't told sooner about the Mistletoe location. The T had determined that it would be too complicated to put a station there because of multiple owners and small homes, T board member Mike Brennan said.

But the property is now owned by Baylor Health Care System, which also owns Baylor All Saints Medical Center and several nearby properties. Baylor bought the land after a competitor's plans to and build a medical facility there fell through. The presence of a single owner, and an owner that is perceived to be cooperative, makes it much easier to make a deal, officials said.

"It became a possibility, whereas before it wasn't," Brennan said.

Baylor doesn't have a use planned for the property but is receptive to the idea of a transit center, Baylor All Saints President Steve Newton said.

"We were approached by the T," he said. "We are open to that consideration, provided there is thoughtful discussion with all parties, including Mistletoe Heights and the other neighbors."

He said that if the property isn't used for a station, Baylor has no immediate plans to build on it but that it is zoned medical commercial, meaning a medical building or similar development could go there.

In Dallas, hundreds of Baylor Health Care System employees ride light rail to their jobs each day. Of the company's roughly 19,700 employees, 700 have Dallas Area Rapid Transit annual passes, an official said. DART operates a station on its Green Line right outside Baylor's Dallas facilities.

TEX Rail crossroads

In some ways, the fate of the TEX Rail project rests with Mistletoe Heights, which in the first decade of the 2000s was instrumental in persuading the city and the North Texas Tollway Authority to develop the Chisholm Trail Parkway toll project in a way that minimally affected surrounding residential areas.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price recently called the T on the carpet for not building the TEX Rail project faster. As a practical and political matter, the agency can't afford more delays in deciding where to put the medical district station.

But the matter should be clearer after the neighborhood association's vote.

Association President Mike Danella just hopes that however the vote turns out, the discussion remains civil and neighbors remain cordial.

"Some people are dead set against it. Some are for it. Some people are just in the middle," Danella said. "Sometimes we just feel like a lot of things go right through us."

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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