Inside the tree dispute between Sundance Square and Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

May 13,2022


See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Harrison Mantas here.

Sundance Square management and the downtown business advocacy nonprofit Downtown Fort Worth Inc. have taken their shrubbery spat to the city of Fort Worth, according to emails and documents obtained by the Star-Telegram from an open records request.

Downtown Fort Worth Inc. contracts with the city to manage a downtown district that uses money from a dedicated property tax to maintain city property, including plants and trees. Before this dispute, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. had a handshake deal with Sundance Square to let it manage some trees and plants around its 37-block property.

Trouble started in 2021 when representatives from Downtown Fort Worth Inc. tried unsuccessfully to get Sundance Square to fill empty planter beds around its property after the winter freeze, according to an email to the city and members of the advisory board from Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

Downtown Fort Worth Inc. tried to send its own contractors in to plant the beds, but they were rebuffed by Sundance Square employees and even Sundance Square co-owner Sasha Bass herself, according to a letter from Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s lawyers to the city.

Another time, Sundance Square employees blocked Downtown Fort Worth landscapers from using leaf blowers because “they spread Covid around,” Taft wrote in a Dec. 4 email to Sundance Square spokesperson Bryan Eppstein.

Sundance Square workers also cited COVID-19 when they stopped a Downtown Fort Worth Inc. contractor from cleaning the sidewalk in front of Yolk, at 305 N. Main St., according to a separate email from Nov. 9, 2020, that Taft shared with the Star-Telegram.

In January, an advisory board overseeing the special downtown district rejected an offer by Sundance Square management put the handshake deal in writing. The consensus among the board was that no single property owner should take over the responsibilities of the district.

Sundance has appealed that decision to the city’s director of economic development, Robert Sturns.

The dispute over the landscaping is part of a wider dispute over the look and feel of downtown Fort Worth as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taft and lawyers for Downtown Fort Worth Inc. wrote in emails that Sundance Square management has eschewed the collaborative spirit that traditionally guided the direction of downtown.

Both pointed to instances when Sasha Bass acted unilaterally to alter or remove public property without consulting the downtown district or the city.

Bass admitted that she directed the removal of city grates from trees abutting Sundance Square’s property during a Nov. 4 meeting with council member Elizabeth Beck, Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s lawyers wrote in their letter to the city.

 

An aborist hired by Sundance Square asserted that some grates were cutting into the root systems and needed to be removed for the the trees’ health. However, the grates are city property, and Sundance should have gotten permission from the city or the taxing district, the letter argues.

Sundance Square crews also unplugged or removed twinkle lights in several downtown trees, according to a Dec. 30 email from Taft to the city.

Sundance Square argued these lights were strangulating the trees, but Downtown Fort Worth Inc. pushed back saying the trees are city property and either the city or the taxing district needed to be consulted.

Sundance Square has been maintaining the plants and trees around its property since its founding in 1979, its lawyers asserted to the city in a March 18 letter, which Sundance shared with the Star-Telegram.

The letter argues the handshake deal to maintain the trees was between Sundance and the city, and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. had no right to throw out that deal.

Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s lawyers balked at this assertion, and wrote any agreement between Sundance and the city would violate the city’s contract with Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

Sundance’s lawyers also alleged Downtown Fort Worth Inc. rejected the tree agreement to retaliate against Sundance because it would not allow its plaza to be used for the Main Street Arts Festival.

But Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s lawyers rejected the allegation, writing that Sundance cut off communication about use of the square in December 2021, and that it did not learn it was unavailable until a Feb. 9 Star-Telegram article about the dueling arts festivals, according to the letter from Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s lawyers to the city.

If Sundance or Downtown Fort Worth Inc. disagree with Sturns’ decision, they can appeal to city manager David Cooke. Cooke. He or someone he designates will make the final judgment.

Larry Anfin, chairman of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s board of directors, wrote in an email his organization is comfortable how the resolution process is proceeding and confident in the city’s ability to adjudicate the dispute fairly.

“We have every reason to believe that if this issue elevates to the City Manager, we trust the right decision will be made,” Anfin wrote.

Representatives for Sundance Square said they would comment after they reply to Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s letter to the city.

Citing criticism of Sundance’s decision to close the plaza at the beginning of the pandemic, Eppstein said in a January interview that Downtown Fort Worth Inc. has unfairly blamed Sundance Square management for downtown’s slow recovery.

Taft denied Eppstein’s assertion in a Jan. 26 email to the Star-Telegram, writing his only concern was the signal being sent by having the open air plaza closed for so long.

Other critics have been more vocal about Sundance Square’s management, claiming co-owner Sasha Bass has alienated long-time tenants, which has led to the closure of several locally owned stores.

Roughly 30% of stores in Sundance Square closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to reporting from the Star-Telegram in July 2021, however, that number was in line with many other downtown areas according to analysis by Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Shops and restaurants in Sundance Square are also heavily reliant on traffic from office workers, and only about half of the office workforce in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro has returned, according to data from security key card company Kastle Systems.