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This downtown Fort Worth park could be resurrected, but it’ll take about $40 million

March 5,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram by Luke Ranker here.

Heritage Plaza is fenced off and hasn’t seen visitors in more than a decade. But a $40 million plan to expand and reopen the park in downtown Fort Worth could provide a new highlight on the North Main Street corridor in time for the city’s 175th anniversary.

The plan would require funding from multiple sources, including money from the city and private donors, but would reshape the area around the historic Tarrant County Courthouse and connect downtown to the Trinity River in an “elegant” fashion, said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

The concept is in its infancy in terms of gaining public and private support, Taft said, but could give the city a unique riverfront park that pulls visitors all the way from the water gardens south of the convention center through downtown to the river.

“We have a story to tell in downtown, and we call tell it through our parks,” Taft said.

If funding is found and designs are approved, the park could reopen by June 2024, the 175th anniversary of Fort Worth’s founding. The plaza was first constructed near the original site of where Fort Worth was established by Maj. Ripley Arnold in 1849.

The Fort Worth City Council is scheduled to vote March 17 on a design contract with Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and to allocate $1 million leftover from the 2014 bond election for park improvements to kick start the project.

Johnny Campbell, president and chief executive officer of City Center Management, a downtown property management company, said the plaza’s easy access to the river and large public space would encourage interest in downtown real estate.

“If you buy in to the notion that creating comfortable human space is what public space should do, there’s a huge opportunity for improvement right here,” he said.

Renderings from local firm Bennett Benner Partners imagine a grand pedestrian-friendly garden. Taft stressed that the current renderings are merely concepts, and the design could evolve pending funding and more public input.

Sidewalks along Weatherford and Belknap would be widened at the four corners of the courthouse square. The “bump outs” would result in the loss of a few parking spaces but would shorten the walk across Weatherford and Belknap. That change would make it easier to walk to the plaza and create better visibility for both pedestrians and drivers, Taft said.

On the north side of the courthouse, the short stretch of East Bluff Street that forms a loop from Belknap at Commerce Street to Houston Street at Belknap would be blocked at the entrance to North Main Street. In its place, renderings show a long pool with fountains stretching through Paddock Park to Belknap Street.

In Heritage Plaza, the 1970s water feature would be restored and surrounded with walking paths. Stairs and gardens would connect the plaza at the top of the bluff with a landing on the Trinity River. From there, a possible pedestrian bridge could connect to the future Panther Island development.

The bluff creates an 80-foot barrier to the river, so to make it more accessible, a canopy walkway could zigzag through the trees at a gentle slope. Each switchback in the wheelchair-accessible path could house an historical marker or kiosk that showcases Fort Worth’s history from an inland sea and fossil beds to the city’s founding as a fort overlooking the Trinity River.

“We can leverage the topography of the bluff here in a unique way,” Taft said. “That’s something not a lot of cities in the south can do.”

Fernando Costa, an assistant city manager, told council members Tuesday the city could look at using $12.5 million from the upcoming 2022 bond program, which requires voter approval, for the project. There’s another $500,000 left from the 2014 bond and $1 million available from a special downtown tax district. The city would also be asked to pay about $3 million over 10 years for maintenance, bringing the public investment to about $19 million.

Another $20 million would be needed from other sources, Costa said. Private donors have already funded about $1 million worth of preliminary design and engineering work that included placing geological sensors along the limestone bluff to ensure the ground wasn’t shifting. But more private investment would be needed. Money could also be available through the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Tarrant County and the state, though those agencies have not committed yet.

Restoring just Heritage Plaza would cost $2.5 million plus $1.3 million for new landscaping in front of the plaza, according to an itemized budget proposal. The river staircase and canopy walked would cost a total of $7 million, and Paddock Park’s water feature is estimated to be about $1.8 million. Street work, including improvements to Franklin Street along the river, would cost almost $7 million. A more than $9 million contingency is built in.

Heritage Plaza has been closed since 2007 when city leaders feared the aging plaza could become dangerous.

Today, a chain link fence guards the plaza’s fountains, which from the street look more like a ruined foundation than the urban water park designed by Lawrence Halprin in the late 1960s. Halprin was a master landscape architect who designed Skyline Park in Denver, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Keller and Lovejoy fountain parks in Portland, Oregon.

The plaza was built a few years after the Fort Worth Water Gardens in the late 1970s and followed the same theme — combining elements of water and stone to create a downtown oasis. Now leaves and dirt are now gathered in the fountain’s pools.

“When you’ve got a broken down jalopy in your front yard, it’s not good for your property value” said Campbell. “It’s a little bit that way with a gateway to downtown. We have this obvious asset, but when you glance at it now, it sort of takes your mind to a negative place.”