Fort Worth

Two decades bring big changes to Fort Worth’s near south side

The patio of the Yucatan Taco Stand, formerly BJ Keefers, bustles with customers Thursday evening across from one of the medical offices along West Magnolia Avenue.
The patio of the Yucatan Taco Stand, formerly BJ Keefers, bustles with customers Thursday evening across from one of the medical offices along West Magnolia Avenue. Star-Telegram

If not for David Motheral’s desire to get into development and an old building with a hole in the roof, Fort Worth’s Near Southside might never have turned around.

In 1980, Motheral — whose family ran a printing business on South Main Street for many years — partnered with general contractor Rusty Haws to renovate a dilapidated 30,000-square-foot building on West Magnolia Avenue.

BJ Keefers restaurant would open there in 1983, beginning a 20-year-run as the neighborhood around it turned into a vibrant, booming area. But at the time, businesses and residents were fleeing the city for the suburbs, and bankers were leery. The loan request, initially turned down, was eventually approved.

“Times were bad on Magnolia, but we felt like we could get the job done,” Motheral recently told a gathering of near-south-side advocates and city leaders. “We knew it was a good location.”

Motheral’s instincts were right — the renovation attracted other businesses and developers to the area. Projects came slowly at first, but work never stopped and has accelerated in recent years. Now the area is so popular that some of the area’s early developers are worried that real estate prices are getting too high for them to stay active there.

Between 1960 and 1990, about nine businesses established themselves on the near south side. From 1990 to 2000, another 13 businesses moved in and that grew by 24 between 2000 and 2010. In the past five years, 64 businesses opened, according to Fort Worth South Inc.

Today, West Magnolia sports a variety of bars and restaurants, from The Usual to Cat City Grill and nationally recognized Ellerbe Fine Foods. Doctors’ and lawyers’ offices are mixed in along the street, as are businesses such as salons and shops.

A year ago, Suz and Frank Garcia opened Ephemera, a comics and terrarium boutique, after moving here from New York. The retail concept worked for them in Brooklyn for several years and Frank Garcia, who grew up on the near south side, decided to locate at Magnolia and Fifth avenues.

“There’s still a lot that’s going to happen here,” he said. “There’s a reason we set up camp here. This is much more of a neighborhood. And it’s been organic growth.”

About 10 years ago, undeveloped land on some less-desirable streets sold for $5 to $8 per square foot. Today, that same land, on average, might sell for $28 per square foot.

Eddie Vanston has developed more than 100 residential units in the area, starting with redevelopment of the Markeen Apartments at Daggett Street and St. Louis Avenue, which opened in 2000. He said the near south side has become so popular that he’s being priced out of the neighborhood by developers with deeper pockets.

“I’m not complaining. It happens everywhere,” Vanston said. “It’s been a fashionable place to be. It’s been a huge success.”

Fort Worth South formed

In the past two decades, the near south side has transformed from a blighted area into a trendy district where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent renovating older buildings. Fort Worth’s major hospitals are located nearby, and they too have significantly expanded facilities and services.

And much more is planned, with developers set to embark on about $584 million in new development. Of that, $349 million will be spent by Cook Children’s Medical Center over the next three years to expand facilities at Seventh Avenue and Pruitt Street.

“In 1995, the south side was a crummy place to be,” recalls Don Scott, who once served as president of Fort Worth South Inc., a nonprofit, member-funded advocacy organization that oversees development of the 1,400-acre area. The organization also oversees the Southside Tax Increment Finance District.

“Thirty percent of the land area was vacant, there were many old dilapidated buildings,” Scott said. “We had homeless issues, crack houses and way too many bars. People just didn’t want to be here. Neither did investors.”

But now they do.

On a recent sunny afternoon, joggers found their way east on Magnolia past a couple enjoying a late afternoon beer on the sidewalk patio at the Boiled Owl Tavern. About a dozen patrons were inside Kent & Co. Wines. A landscaper was planting flowers along the sidewalk edge of a parking lot adjacent to Zio Carlo Magnolia Brew Pub, and next door, the SiNaCa glass studio had its large garage doors wide open.

At Bombshell Beauty Factory, at 909 W. Magnolia, co-owner Crystal Valencia was taking a brief break, waiting for her next customer to arrive.

“We love this area. It has so much personality,” said Valencia, who opened the salon two years ago with Jennifer Parten. They plan to offer holistic health services to tap into the medical business in the area.

“We never doubted our location,” Valencia said.

Motheral’s initial building loan set the stage for the formation of Fort Worth South. To secure the loan, and at the urging of the late Mayor Bob Bolen, Motheral said he agreed to sign for a $6 million federal grant to redo the streetscape along Magnolia Avenue. To do so, he needed to create a neighborhood organization.

Motheral’s work attracted the attention and help of near-south-side real estate agent Joan Kline. The two joined forces and others joined them along the way. Their neighborhood organization eventually became Fort Worth South Inc., which this year is celebrating its 20th anniversary with about 350 members.

In 1997, the real estate tax base of the near south side was $231 million. Today it’s $548 million.

Rebuild it and they will come

The near south side became a model for revitalization in other Fort Worth neighborhoods. Many of the city’s zoning ordinances that cover property uses are based on what has occurred there.

Some of those ordinances focus on what can happen to historic structures during development. It was a constant battle for near-south-side leaders to keep structures from being torn down, said architect Ray Boothe, who has completed several renovations.

“The fabric of the original neighborhood was still there,” Boothe said. “But it had been semi-destroyed by urban flight. We had lost a lot, but the historic resources we had were scattered up and down Magnolia, South Main and other parts of the district. There was no nexus of a lot of it left together.”

Phillip Poole, a Fort Worth architect and urban planner, principal of Townsite Co. in Fort Worth and an early leader in Near Southside redevelopment, said people started returning to the neighborhoods in the 1990s to recapture the “authentic urbanism” the area presented.

“We never believed urban flight would be a round trip,” Poole said. “We didn’t have rules to refill the way it used to be. Suburban rules are so different from urban rules. We had to come up with a way of helping investors and developers understand what we expected of them.”

Neighborhood passion fuels progress

In 1995, Fort Worth South hired Scott, a retired Burlington Northern executive, to take the helm. Scott ran the organization for a decade and was followed by Paul Paine, a retired Navy captain and former base commander of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, who this summer begins his 11th year as president.

It has been during Paine’s tenure that the bulk of the revitalization and building has occurred.

Paine said the passion of residents living in the adjacent, historic Fairmount, Mistletoe Heights, Berkeley and Ryan Place neighborhoods attracted him to the job. He said he immediately saw how the revitalization of Magnolia Avenue became a part of their public space. He gladly took on the challenge of keeping the revitalization going.

“We’re partners with these adjoining neighborhoods in this transformation,” Paine said. “That’s what is so neat, that we didn’t throw out the past to try and make something new. We didn’t want to make us something we hadn’t been.”

Paine is quick to credit Scott with setting a solid foundation for growth and sparking the energy.

To start, Scott was able to change the perception that the near south side was a dangerous place to be. Putting police officers on bikes and opening up a police store front helped with that, Scott said.

“By 1999, we were able to show the number of crimes was equal to and below what was happening in Sundance Square,” Scott said. “Things were changing for the good.”

Paine said the key to success has been the way projects have been handled. The area was ripe for redevelopment, not for unproven concepts that were being done elsewhere in the Metroplex, Paine said.

“We were very careful to bring back, revitalize an area and hang on to the fabric of the area,” Paine said.

The major hospitals and other health care businesses on the near south side, which accounts for about 39,000 jobs, are also committed to the area’s growth, Paine said.

The rebuilding of Magnolia was followed by work along West Rosedale Street between Forest Park Boulevard and South Main Street. Now South Main is getting an $8.6 million makeover that will feature dedicated bike lanes and parallel parking for businesses on the street.

Paine said the street improvements will transform the area just as West Magnolia Avenue did. Already, Victory Medical Center is building $72 million in facilities at South Main and West Hattie streets, and work is underway on the $34 million renovation and construction of High Point Apartments across the street, incorporating the historic Coca-Cola bottling plant building.

More will come, Paine predicts.

“South Main could be the tipping point for us,” Paine said. “It will get the energy we want. It gives us good connectivity to downtown.”

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727

Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST