The Fort Worth City Council voted late Tuesday to create a historic district around the core of the city’s iconic Stockyards district. In a historic district, developers that want to build or expand must have their plans reviewed by the city to make sure they are compatible with the neighborhood. The decision came after about three hours of public comments, including from preservationists who were hoping for much larger boundaries.
More than 150 people packed into the City Council chamber and the overflow room, many wearing large yellow buttons that read “Stockyards Go Bigger.” Paul Hunter was among those who pleaded with the council to pick the larger of the two proposed historic districts.
“How many ways must the city’s own commissions, local, state and national historical preservation bodies, and citizens by the thousands say to this council that the smaller historical district provides insufficient protections for the stockyards?” Hunter said.
The council approved a 60-acre district, even though the city’s Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission had recommended a district more than twice as large. Libby Willis said that since city leaders are giving tens of millions of dollars of tax breaks to develop the stockyards, they should use their seat at the table to preserve history.
“The job of historic preservationists is to identify what is important architecturally and historically,” Willis said. “The job of the city is to protect it.”
Others, though, saw a smaller historic district as a compromise. Mitch Whitten from the city’s tourism bureau said redeveloping parts of the Stockyards will help bring in more money from the three million visitors who check out the iconic district every year.
“People want more in the Stockyards,” Whitten said. “They love the Stockyards, they are looking forward to being able to spend more time there.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price tried to assuage some concerns that a $175 million dollar redevelopment plan underway in the Stockyards would destroy it.
“The Stockyards are not about to be bulldozed as the rumor has for a Disneyland park. It’s just not true,” Price said.
There are, though, almost two dozen outstanding demolition permits for buildings in the stockyards. The developers say they want to find ways to incorporate aspects of those old buildings into new ones, the mayor said. That fell short for Kip Wright, a preservationist.
“You offer the cannibalization of these historic structures: ‘Oh, we will demolish them but we will save bits and pieces,’” Wright said. “From what I’ve seen so far, I think developers are going to get everything they want tonight.”
Regardless of the council’s decision, those demolitions can’t be stopped because they were granted before a historic district was approved. But the developers from Fort Worth Heritage Development, the partnership with plans to develop a million square feet of the stockyards, hasn’t finalized plans for the structures, only some of which are historic.
After hours of testimony the council almost unanimously voted to go for the smaller boundary. Ann Zadeh was the only no vote – a vote she said she was casting because she wanted to vote for the larger boundary.
“I do not want anyone to think that this is a vote against the creation of a historic district, because I’m absolutely for that,” Zadeh said.
For Sal Espino, it was a question of balance. His council district includes the Stockyards. He says he wants to preserve them. “At the same time,” he says, “we know that the Stockyards are in need of major infrastructure investment. They are in need of a serious infusion of cash flow to redevelop it, to preserve it, to keep it going.”
“I believe taking on the larger area is government overreach,” said Councilwoman Gyna Bivens. She said a too-large historic district would scare away investment.
If politics is the art of compromise, neither side seemed terribly thrilled with the council’s decision. Preservationist Kip Wright called the boundary was haphazard, and said it was designed for politics and not for historic preservation. Wright has been conducting a survey of the historic buildings in the area.
“The city council ignored all of their advising committees as well as this historic survey and picked something that is incomplete and inadequate.”
Kerby Smith had been hoping the city council would kill the historic district all together. Smith’s with Majestic Realty, which makes up half of the partnership behind the massive development project. Smith says even the smaller district is going to make that project more difficult.
“We didn’t believe a historic district was necessary however if one was going to be placed, a smaller, sensible-sized one was appropriate. And that’s where we ended up last night with the council’s vote.”
This debate was years in the making – and it’s not the end of the discussion. Next month, the Fort Worth City Council will move forward with new standards that will help shape the look and feel of new development in the stockyards. It’s a debate that, no doubt, will be just as lively.