Fort Worth

Panel calls for “decking over” railroad yard on west side of Fort Worth’s Butler Place

Looking almost like barracks, Butler Place is in the foreground of this west-facing aerial view of Interstate 35W, Interstate 30 and downtown Fort Worth in February 2014. The rail yard is between the interstate and downtown.
Looking almost like barracks, Butler Place is in the foreground of this west-facing aerial view of Interstate 35W, Interstate 30 and downtown Fort Worth in February 2014. The rail yard is between the interstate and downtown. Star-Telegram archives

Experts recommend building a 70-acre deck over the rail yards on the eastern edge of the central business district as the way to redevelop Butler Place, ending the public housing site’s isolation from downtown while creating new land for development.

Michael Lander, president of the Lander Group, a Minneapolis real estate development firm specializing in urban infill projects, who headed the panel of seven professionals, said Friday that the idea is ambitious — and costly — but that Fort Worth could pull it off.

“You gave us a challenging site,” Lander said, but he added: “You’re running out of room. It would be a significant infrastructure investment. It’s happening in more mature places in areas running out of land with very high values.”

Only about 30 downtown blocks are available for redevelopment and that land will likely be gone within five years, Lander said.

He pointed to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, a 5.2-acre park created by decking over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, and similar plans to build over the rail lines at the busy Union Station in Washington, D.C., where such a proposal has been used.

The professionals suggested rebranding the redeveloped site as Terrell Hill, the area of the historic I.M. Terrell High School. The Fort Worth school district is renovating the city’s first high school for black students to host its magnet programs.

The panel of urban planners and real estate experts was selected by the Washington-based nonprofit Urban Land Institute, which was asked by the Fort Worth Housing Authority to help determine what should be done with Butler Place as the face of public housing changes in the U.S. and the end nears of locating the poorest people in one location.

The panel toured several Fort Worth areas and interviewed nearly 100 people over the past week.

Butler Place, home to about 900 residents, opened in the early 1940s, one of 52 public housing complexes built as part of the Works Progress Administration work-relief program. It is on the east side of downtown, bounded by Interstates 30 and 35W and U.S. 287. Although the property has been renovated over the years, the 75-year-old complex needs a major overhaul. The site became isolated over the years as highways were built around it.

Housing Authority President Naomi Byrne said the panel provided a great and grand vision, particularly the idea of decking over the rail line to improve access to Butler Place.

“I don’t think any of us are surprised about the difficulties of redeveloping the Butler site, but what the panel was able to bring was some really creative and innovative ideas,” Byrne said. “It’s definitely something our board and the other partners will need to consider as we move forward with the planning. It’s not a bad idea.”

Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., agreed that the panel provided some exciting ideas to follow up on.

“That’s a big vision and the amount of land available for redevelopment is starting to run out,” Taft said. “The idea of creating new land in an innovative way like that makes a lot of sense to explore. There would need to be very serious conversation with the railroads.”

The panel suggested that the housing authority should not sell the 42-acre Butler site, but as part of the redevelopment should repurpose some of the structures into artists’ spaces and museums, and phase in development over several years to maximize land values. The experts did, however, call for demolishing the remainder of the buildings.

Initially, the panel suggests adding as many as 150 residential units on the Butler site, but the entire Terrell Hill development could support up to 2,500 units, as well as some office space, shops and restaurants.

Lander suggested that redeveloping Butler Place and adding the new land could produce $2 billion in value at today’s prices.

“Market conditions are good,” Lander said. “It will take long-term planning, patience and persistence. Our panel learned Fort Worth thinks big. We think you’re up to it.”

The Housing Authority, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Initiatives, the city and the Fort Worth school district sponsored the Urban Land Institute panel. Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Initiatives is the charitable affiliate of the nonprofit advocacy group Downtown Fort Worth Inc.