Fort Worth

Luxury town home project divides residents in United Riverside

A view of downtown from the United Riverside neighborhood east of downtown.
A view of downtown from the United Riverside neighborhood east of downtown.

A project that calls for building about 200 residences along the lower West Fork of the Trinity River near Fourth Street and Sylvania Avenue is in a holding pattern right now, but how it got to this point has some wondering if development is forever gridlocked for the Riverside neighborhoods.

At a recent council meeting, last-minute maneuvering by a couple of the council members took place to defuse tension and delay a vote for 30 days in an effort to see if the developer and District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, whose district the proposed project sits in, can reach a compromise.

Discussions will likely touch on what type of residences will be built and how many, and a lot about price. The developer, Ken Sumrall, is proposing some units to sell for $225,000, but some for as much as $500,000.

Gray said she’s not against development, it just can’t be something that would raise property values too high and force longtime residents to move out. She said she doesn’t want to see gentrification take place in the Riverside neighborhoods, fearing that over time people would lose touch with its African-American heritage.

“We are systematically across our city and a our country redeveloping central city neighborhoods with lots of density,” Gray said. “We are gentrifying our city. I’m not OK with that. That shouldn’t happen in every neighborhood. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it.”

Gentrification happens when older, deteriorated inner city neighborhoods are renovated and rebuilt by developers and other affluent residents. Several studies, though, have found that gentrification is not always bad, and that it can benefit a neighborhood.

A 2015 Philadelphia Federal Reserve study found that poor people are no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighborhood than from a non-gentrifying one, according to CNN Money. Neighborhoods can benefit from new job opportunities, homeowners can benefit from rising property values and crime can decline, CNN said.

Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, who conducted a nationwide gentrification study more than a decade ago, told NPR last June that it is natural for some families to move when neighborhoods change. But, he said that’s not always the case, even if they don’t want their neighborhood to change.

“My research shows that longtime residents aren’t more likely to move when their neighborhood gentrifies; sometimes they’re actually less likely to leave,” Freeman told NPR. “Often, residents appreciate certain aspects of gentrification.

“With gentrification, residents may no longer find it necessary to travel outside their neighborhood to have a sit-down meal or avail themselves of fresh produce.”

Community support

That’s why Opal Lee, 90, a well-known community activist, who lives about four blocks from the planned development, said she welcomes Sumrall’s project. He’s addressed the issue of the neighborhood being a food desert, she said.

Other developers have made promises about coming to east Fort Worth, but then it never happens, she said.

“I don’t think we can see eye to eye on this project,” Lee said. But, she added, “I believe this developer is going to do what he says he’s going to do. I’m hoping it’s going to enhance our neighborhood. I’m hoping we can get a piece of the pie.”

Sarah Walker, moderator of the Riverside Alliance, said she’s OK with the proposed development, too, as well as other development on the river’s bank. As long as it stays west of Sylvania Avenue, she said, many residents would like to experience what the near west side has experienced in the West Seventh Street corridor.

“It seems like east Fort Worth is dormant,” Walker said. “There’s no new development, no new businesses coming in. Nothing is happening east of (Interstate) 35.”

Project plans

Sumrall is seeking to rezone the property to a newer, and more flexible, urban residential zoning category the city has started offering, which would allow him to build apartments. He said he was willing to reduce that down to a different residential category that would limit that density.

Gray is offering B, or two-family, which would allow duplexes. Gray said many options exist to build luxury duplexes and four-plexes.

“I want it to be more restrictive,” Gray said. “It is not my intention to dismantle a single-family neighborhood. The development that will happen there has to make sense.”

Sumrall said his intentions were never to build apartments and he shared that when he met with the neighborhood organizations. His building at Fourth and Rayner streets that will be a mix of restaurant and retail space, and about 100 condominium units above. The project would front Fourth Street, and no one had any objection to that. It will receive mixed-use zoning.

It’s the remainder of the project that has divided the residents living on the blocks to the south and east. Planned are about 100 town homes on the tract that stretches from Galvez to Fisher and west of Sylvania. It sits along the river bank.

Of those, 35 to 40 town homes would sell for about $225,000. The remainder would be $300,000 to $500,000.

Sumrall said he needs the density to make the economics of the project work and allow for the more affordable units. The price tag would be much higher if only single-family homes were built, he said.

At a March Zoning Commission meeting, Commissioner Will Northern, a residential real estate broker, said he sees the need for more dense development like the one Sumrall is proposing. Density often works as a “relief valve” to keep prices in check and demand grows, Northern said.

“Neighborhoods in cities evolve,” Northern said. “Fort Worth is evolving so quickly because so many people are moving here. It’s up to the development community to evolve with it.”

Still, Gray wants more restrictive zoning for this property. A year ago, Gray also denied a zoning request for a mid-rise project on Sylvania Avenue, just south of Sumrall’s proposed project.

“We are sitting on a gold mine. I recognize that, “ Gray said, adding, “You can’t give everything to the developer just because that’s what he wants.”

River influence

Decades ago, the United Riverside neighborhood was largely African-American. Now, the neighborhood is mostly Hispanic. It’s the neighborhood Gray grew up in and it’s where one of her sisters lives. They still own the family home there.

One of the more vocal opponents to the two proposed developments has been Gray’s sister, Phyllis Allen, who lives on the east side of Sylvania Avenue on Ennis Avenue. She has appeared before the zoning commission and the City Council saying living on the river should be for everyone, not just those with wealth.

She said she mostly objects to any development that takes away her access to walking trails along the river.

“I’m opposed to a developer that comes and takes the skyline from everyone in the neighborhood and gives it to a few people who can afford $250,000 and up town homes,” Allen said. “I’m opposed to the fact that I will be made to feel unwelcome in the neighborhood I have lived in for 60 years. I will die there, but I will die there among strangers.”

Many want development to come to the neighborhood, which has languished for years. Many lots are vacant and houses are boarded up.

That has not gone unnoticed by developers, who see the area ripe for redevelopment. It’s close to downtown and has good access to the highways. It offers phenomenal views of downtown. And for a city that has focused the past decade on developing the river, it’s the next logical spot.

It’s where the much-ballyhooed mega-million dollar venue Topgolf chose to locate.

J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is overseeing the $950 million Trinity River project, said five distinct districts have evolved along the Trinity since the work began, including the Left Bank, West Bend, Clearfork, Waterside and the River District.

‘Next big opportunity’

The sixth, he predicts, will be the lower West Fork starting at the United Riverside neighborhood.

“It’s the next big opportunity,” Granger said. “This is the next prime pocket to be rebuilt.”

Cory Session, a long-time neighborhood activist, sees that and encourages the neighborhood to see that as well. It was only a matter of time developers would get to Riverside on the east, he said.

“It’s never going to be single-family homes,” Session said. “We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. Other developers are going to come. Progress is coming. This developer has invited us to help design the look of it.”

Sumrall more than a year ago began buying up about 5  1/2 acres that were largely undeveloped.

Only a few houses were owner-occupied and he forced no one out, often paying three or more times what the property was worth, he said. In one sale, the property owner made enough money to pay for the care of an ailing grandmother, he said.

He said he is perplexed at the message he is getting from Gray, the neighborhood and the city.

“We’re good-minded people,” Sumrall said. “The city makes decisions that’s right for the city. I didn’t expect what has come about. We’re trying to navigate a course that meets all the criteria thrown at us.”

Sumrall gained the support of Councilman Cary Moon, whose District 4 abuts Gray’s district on the east side.

“We’ve spent a lot of time bringing redevelopment to east Fort Worth,” Moon said. “This is a chance for downtown Fort Worth to expand to the east side of 35. To me, this is a good thing. I hope we can make this project work.”

Sumrall’s case did receive a 30-day extension, but that came with a warning from Gray.

“Whatever happens, we’re voting May 2,” she said.