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What does Sundance Square have planned for downtown? Some of it is already happening

July 18,2021

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

On a busy Friday morning, Romy Venegan struggled to step away from customers at her Urban Plantology store on Main Street in downtown Fort Worth.

The small plant shop opened in January in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and just before the great winter freeze, but neither have kept visitors away. She had started collecting plants a few years ago — so many plants that even when her husband built a greenhouse at her Benbrook home there still wasn’t enough room. With the hope of one day opening a shop, she began traveling around Fort Worth, selling her plants at farmers markets. Eventually she saved up enough money to rent the space at 308 N. Main St. in Fort Worth’s popular Sundance Square.

“We’re loving it,” she said, during the lunchtime rush. “We are so busy.”

Local entrepreneurs like Venegan will be the future of Sundance Square as the Sasha and Ed Bass-owned property management group attempts to fill vacancies, said Bill Boecker, president of Fine Line Diversified Development.

Sasha Bass in particular wants to see local ownership in downtown restaurants and shops rather than chain stores, he said. That’s why Sundance Square started a push for local business owners to fill vacancies created during the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides Urban Plantology, Acadia Coffee, jeweler Cari O’Keefe and an Estelle Colored Glass importer have opened in Sundance Square this year.

Boecker hinted at another shop coming soon, along with the possibility of other new tenants, but wouldn’t give any details during a recent interview with the Star-Telegram in which he seemed confident Fort Worth’s downtown was heading for a solid post-pandemic rebound. Sundance Square, the 35-square-block shopping and entertainment district, is the dominant force in downtown and in many ways controls the look and feel of the city center.

“There’s a real bright future out there, and maybe it won’t take as long as some people anticipate, or maybe it will,” Boecker said. “But it’ll be done with quality no matter how long it might take.”

In June the Star-Telegram walked 104 blocks in the core of downtown from Belknap Street to Lancaster Avenue and from Calhoun Street to Lamar Street. The informal and unscientific count of ground floor retail and restaurant spaces found nearly a third were vacant. That’s not far off from a Downtown Fort Worth Inc. estimate that showed 27.2% of the street-facing square footage downtown was vacant.

It’s also in line with Sundance Square’s estimate, which Boecker said the district had about 30% vacancy. That’s up from roughly 10% before the pandemic.

That vacancy rate may seem high, but it’s in line with other cities, Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told the Star-Telegram back in June. It’s also not nearly as bad as Sundace’s occupancy in 1986 when Boecker started working for the Basses. Back then vacancy was closer to 50% for ground floor spots and as high as 64% in the City Center towers.

“We’ve been there before,” he said. “And with everyone pulling together we came out of it, as we will now.”

Many local favorites shuttered during the pandemic including popular eateries Bird Café and Taverna. Both the Rangers and Cowboys shops joined White House Black Market, Earth Bones, Retro Cowboy, Marie Antoinette Parfumerie and Jos. A Bank on the list of retailers that closed.

The increasing number of closures and changes to Sundance’s valet parking have made some business owners nervous about the future. But tenants who voiced worries to the Star-Telegram didn’t want to go on the record about specific concerns.

Boecker said tenants should not be worried.

The vacancies create an opportunity to bring new types of businesses to downtown and rethink what makes Sundance successful, he said. He pointed to Estelle Colored Glass as an example of the types of “innovation” property managers are looking for. Though the brick-and-mortar location has a limited number of items shoppers can take home immediately, it’s more of a showroom for the online store.

Boecker teased a possible replacement for Bird Café, a prime location that opens onto the plaza with a large outdoor patio, but he wouldn’t give details.

The plaza, once a downtown gathering place, has been closed during the pandemic. Though social distancing outside is safer and easier, Boecker said concern about gatherings has kept it closed. The west side, where the fountains are, is now open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on the weekends. Small shows are planned, but bigger concerts likely won’t return until next year. Tables, chairs and umbrellas will return to the east side in August, he said.

The long term plan for Sundance Square goes beyond new shops or restaurants to fill the vacancies.

The Basses own about 12 blocks east of the City Center towers and west of the railroad tracks. Today the area that spans basically from First Street south to Fifth Street is dominated by surface parking garages.

That land had been purchased with the hope of a major corporate relocation to downtown, but nothing has happened. Boecker said a corporate campus on some of the blocks is still a goal. As new residential units open downtown, the city center is becoming more attractive to companies, he said.

The Basses also want to build a park in that area, he said, likely with a dog park. With the high number of surface lots, that section of town is largely void of green space, so Boecker suspects a park would be well-used by downtown residents.

With city hall moving to the former Pier 1 building in the northwest corner of downtown, Boecker said the Basses envision the axis of downtown activity shifting. Third Street could become a major thoroughfare for visitors with a park or corporate campus as the key anchor on the east side of downtown.

The northeast corner may have developed quicker if more than one entity controlled it, but Boecker said the Basses would ensure whatever comes to those 12 blocks would complement the rest of Fort Worth’s downtown.

“In a situation where you want to make the dirt come alive, it’s important that you have a real strong desire to do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve been working on that for some time with Ed at the helm and with the efforts that Sasha is making, we’re going to get there.”

Locations Mentioned: Cary OKeefe Jewelry, Estelle Colored Glass, Fort Worth City Hall, Sundance Square Plaza, Urban Plantology