What happens when substantial new development collides with Fort Worth history and natural scenic beauty?
Recently, drivers on Oakhurst Scenic Drive have noticed “the great hillside clearing” on Fort Worth city property a few blocks north of the drive’s intersection with East Belknap Street. The city issued the work permit to a Dallas developer, who has built The Scenic apartments on the site of the now-demolished 1950s Scenic Village duplexes.
The developer has removed trees under 6 inches in caliper and brush, shrubs, and vines to ground level. The City said invasive chinaberry trees threatened the larger trees. Others said the clearing would facilitate the removal of trash and keep homeless people from living on the hillside.
Some opined that apartment tenants would have a clearer view of Riverside Park and the Trinity River. Some like the cleared-out space.
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But numerous residents of nearby neighborhoods bemoaned the loss of the screening vegetation because it contributed to the natural beauty of Oakhurst Scenic Drive.
The lush greenery created a sound buffer and aesthetic and economic benefits. Some wondered why the City did not require replanting of non-invasive Texas native plants to prevent potential erosion during heavy rains. One longtime developer, a resident of Riverside, said the clearing was not for apartment residents’ benefit but rather for the benefit of drivers, to be sure they can see the leasable apartments. Some noted bulldozers apparently removed attractive ornamental non-invasive trees.
Personal opinions differ, but the facts are these: Historically, the hillside has always been green and thick.
Oakhurst Scenic Drive was completed in 1937, designed by the well-known landscape architects Hare & Hare and built by Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers as a scenic park road. Structures behind the green space remained hidden. According to longtime area residents, homeless squatters have been non-existent.
The City owns the generous right-of-way immediately adjacent to the new apartments. The 2.7-mile Oakhurst Scenic Drive is an official City of Fort Worth Scenic Corridor listed in Chapter 6 of the Fort Worth Zoning Ordinance. From Yucca Avenue to Watauga Road, it is part of the Oakhurst National Register Historic District. South of Yucca Avenue, lawyers have found within the past 25 years (and a past City Council agreed) that the public land on the east side of the drive is park land.
Presently, the city forester has no authority to require developers to replant even beneficial Texas native plants in publicly owned areas they clear. Though city representatives initially invited Riverside citizens to adopt the public area, the Park Department now says the area is not adoptable. In the end, it seems only democratic that the fate of the public property on Oakhurst Scenic Drive should be the decision of those who own it — we, the citizens.
This is surely not a story about devastation that rises to the level of Hurricane Harvey. But it is a story about Fort Worth’s quality of life, history and natural beauty and how much of it we may lose in our rush to insert new development in the city.
This historic “little bit of the country in the city” built by Depression-era workers, enjoyed by countless residents for 80 years, and always acknowledged as a scenic asset should be conserved for current and future Fort Worthians to enjoy, not casually lost because the latest developer wants it cleared. The same goes for all other local scenic corridors.
At the very least, the city should use an inclusive process to take input from its citizens before anyone takes the “scenic” out of an official publicly owned scenic corridor.
Libby Willis is a past president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods. She is the author of “Fort Worth’s Oakhurst Neighborhood.”