Fort Worth

Bright lights: Why plans for billboards near Dickies Arena have neighbors on edge

Dickies Arena starting to take shape

The countdown is on at Fort Worth's Dickies Arena with less than a year before Texas singer George Strait headlines a concert Nov. 22, 2019.
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The countdown is on at Fort Worth's Dickies Arena with less than a year before Texas singer George Strait headlines a concert Nov. 22, 2019.

The scenic, tree-lined views of University Drive and Lancaster Avenue that welcome visitors to Fort Worth’s Cultural District may soon be dotted with electronic billboards for Dickies Arena.

Preservationists and neighbors fear the proposal will harm the Cultural District’s character and endanger the city’s strict billboard code. Arena planners hope the signs will blend with the venue’s architecture and keep visitors out of nearby neighborhoods.

In the most recent proposal from the arena, five digital billboards, as high as 30 feet and more than 17 feet wide, would be placed on the edge of the Dickies Arena and Will Rogers Memorial Center grounds. An even larger sign, standing as high as 70 feet with a width of 35 feet, would be placed near Montgomery and West Freeway, facing Interstate 30 just east of the Montgomery Street Antique Mall.

The proposal skirts city ordinances that restrict billboards, particularly on scenic streets like the ones in the Cultural District, by establishing a special sign district roughly bound by Lancaster Avenue to the north, I-30 to the south, Montgomery Street to the west and University Drive to the east.

Originally up for consideration by the Fort Worth City Council in April, the time line has been pushed back to possibly this summer as the proposal is tweaked.

The sign’s primary goal will be to direct drivers to Dickies Arena, but screens will also advertise events at the arena, Will Rogers Memorial Center, Casa Manana, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the art museums. Mike Groomer, president and CEO of Event Facilities Fort Worth, said the concept was born out of concern for unwanted traffic in nearby neighborhoods.

“We’re trying to honor that commitment to keep traffic out of neighborhoods,” he said. “If done right we think this could benefit the Cultural District.”

The Ed Bass-backed Event Facilities Fort Worth partnered with the city to build Dickies Arena, though a second nonprofit, Trail Drive Management, is now responsible for operations.

Judy Harman and Margaret DeMoss, members of Scenic Fort Worth, question the necessity of the digital signs.

Most people visiting the arena, Casa Manana or Botanic Garden will navigate using GPS and cell phones, they argued. Those internet-equipped smartphones are also where people will learn about events.

“I don’t know anyone who decides what show they’re going to because of a sign,” Harmon said.

She pointed to TCU, which hosts hundreds of sporting events and lectures a year without digital billboards.

With renderings showing “Dickies Arena” in large letters on the signs, and the likelihood that messaging would include the names of major commercial sponsors, DeMoss said the billboards feel like the Cultural District is being re-branded to “The Dickies District.”

“That’s been offensive to many people,” she said. “It’s not in the tradition or history of the community.”

Brent Hyder, who lives in nearby Arlington Heights and owns property along Montgomery Street, agreed.

Though small commercial signs dot the west side of Montgomery in front of businesses, the east side, where two Dickies digital billboards are proposed, is largely lined by trees. Another sign is planned for the entrance to Dickies Arena, near Gendy Street across from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, on tree canopy-filled Lancaster Avenue. Two more are planned on University Drive, one at the intersection with Lancaster, where the Casa Manana sign is, and another near Trail Drive.

“This would give a very poor look to what is essentially the entrance to our museum district,” Hyder said. “It would take away from the elegance of this little cluster of museums.”

Three renowned museums — the Amon Carter, Kimbell Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — sit to the north of Dickies Arena and the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

Beyond the Cultural District, Harman said she worried the signage would erode the city’s billboard law. Since the 1990s, billboards, except those grandfathered in, have largely been banned across Fort Worth. Even though the signs are on city and nonprofit-owned land and would promote civic events, Harman said their presence opens the door to large commercial signs.

“I can’t imagine how the city can justify having billboards for themselves but not private business,” she said.

The special sign district comes with some guidelines, according to city documents.

The digital boards won’t play scrolling messages or videos, and their brightness will be reduced by 50 percent from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Nighttime brightness is capped at 1,000 lumens, a measurement of light. A standard 60-watt light bulb produces 750 to 850 lumens.

The signs also will only display messages for publicly owned institutions in the district with no unrelated advertising.

“This is designed to be a standard for the district into the future,” Groomer said, adding that the size of the billboards is the proposed maximum and actual signs may be smaller. “The concept we support is very restrictive.”

These sorts of billboards are becoming common, said Bill Ford, a principal lecturer on advertising at the University of North Texas. While ruining scenic views has long been a billboard complaint, when done right, they can be very effective for the advertiser, he said.

At 60 mph drivers have about three to four seconds to read a billboard. Digital signs allow a company to rotate several messages quickly and hit a large demographic— anyone driving by.

“The benefit to the consumer is great because they know what acts are coming up,” he said. “They inform and they entertain.”

No firm date has been set for the city council to consider the sign district. More public comment sessions will be scheduled as the zoning commission and the park board continue to vet the proposal.

“I think this can evolve and change into something that works,” Groomer said. “We’ve heard the concerns loud and clear.”

Both DeMoss and Harman stressed their support for Dickies Arena overall, calling it “a gorgeous addition” to the city.

“It should be celebrated in the Cultural District,” Harman said. “But, it should not define the cultural district.”

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