New Urbanism with a Texas Twang
By Sandy Sorlien
Wednesday October 27: I arrive in Fort Worth grateful,
after a careening 80-mph cab ride from the DFW airport. My hotel is on
Main, a handsome red brick street with brick sidewalks. There are two
startlingly ugly glass towers looming over the downtown, with inexplicable
protrusions that make them look like cigarette lighters. These and a plethora
of brutalist parking garages mar an otherwise charming human-scaled downtown,
which has been largely restored and reinvented by the billionaire Bass
brothers and architect David Schwarz over the past two decades. The 16-square-block
area is known as Sundance Square and resembles Fort Worth's 19th-century
Hell's Half Acre mostly in its quantity of watering holes.
At a lecture on urban design in Schwarz's beautiful
Bass Performance Hall, a visiting new urbanist town planner announces
to the crowd: "What you've done here in Fort Worth is the BARE MINIMUM."
Later I go alone to the Chisholm Club bar to watch the Red Sox win their
first World Series since 1918. Everyone who drifts by is a Sox fan. The
maitre d' sees my Kerry/Edwards campaign button and calls security over
to have me removed from the state of Texas. We razz each other for awhile
and have a great time.
I go looking for a drugstore but cannot find one. Everyone says, "The
Eckerd's has closed; try the gift shop at the Worthington Hotel." This
minuscule shop is hidden away inside on the mezzanine, but it does have
what I seek: Post-it Notes. The NU planner's point was made, however;
no Main Street downtown is complete without a drugstore, hardware store
and shoe repair shop.
After dinner at the Chop House, a fine and beefy dark-paneled restaurant
on Main, our group walks back to the hotel under a row of small live oaks.
There is a constant chirping all around. We do not see a single bird,
and the sound is so pervasive we decide it's a recording, an artist's
installation to accompany the garlands of little white lights among the
On my pre-dawn run through downtown, finally I see the birds. They are
invisible in the trees, but as they fly off I see black wings against
black sky -- hundreds of grackles. A local resident tells me later that
live oaks are notorious for attracting grackles when other cities' deciduous
trees lose their leaves. People seem to like the atmospheric chirping,
but they do not like the residue on their windshields -- an unpleasant
side effect of nature in urbanism.
During the day, the Main Street area is curiously devoid of traffic either
vehicular or pedestrian. However, it comes to life on weekend evenings,
and this one is no exception. It seems safe and happy. A resident tells
me, "Parents drive in and drop their teenage daughters off downtown for
the evening, without giving it a thought." All day we have seen police
officers, mostly on bikes, in numbers out of proportion to the sparse
street life. Now at night they make sense, as young people fill the sidewalks
and cafes. A country rock band pounds at an outdoor patio until after
midnight; I can hear it through the heavy window of my 12th floor hotel
Shops are open late, so I wander into a few of them. My favorite is Leddy's
Ranch ("Outfitting Texans Since 1922"), an upscale establishment with
a stunning collection of snap shirts and wildly embroidered cowboy boots.
In a jewelry store I meet Yvonne, who shows me earrings. She seems very
interested in the new urbanist workshop I am attending in Fort Worth,
though she's never heard of the movement. I mention the awful parking
garages and ask if there's really a parking problem when downtown seems
deserted during the day. She says there is a problem because all the meters
have one hour limits. We discuss the need for liner stores on the garages
and infill on the surface lots.
A young couple comes through the open door and interrupts us. The guy
says, "Hey, can you tell us where to get a good salad?" I tell him the
food at Zoe's is good and that I enjoyed my salad. He looks at me with
suspicion. "But are they FAMOUS for their salads?" he demands. After they
leave Yvonne complains, "I hate it when people do that, just come in when
you're with a customer and ask a dumb question about going somewhere else."
About 50 of us from the workshop board a bus to tour some TNDs and new
downtowns in the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The bus takes
us past endless miles of strip mall/big box horrors. There's another Home
Depot every time I look out the window. I try not to look.
We see some interesting new urbanism at various communities including
Home Town at North Richland Hills, Legacy Town Center, Addison Circle
and a TOD in Plano. I am particularly taken with the high quality of the
new traditional architecture in Southlake Town Center, which was conceived
as the Central Business District for Northeast Tarrant County. It resembles
a traditional main street more than an outdoor mall, though in its retail
mix it tends to the latter function. The town square seems too big for
intimate connections; it splits the shopping district in half. On the
other hand, it draws large crowds for fireworks and other community events,
bringing the sprawling county together at least for an evening.
I find out later Southlake is another David Schwarz project. His are comfortable
places. Someone on our tour comments, "You know you have a traffic-calmed
street when visitors are unconcerned about walking down the middle of
it." According to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, local modernist
architects hate the "pastiche" traditional sensibility of some of Schwarz's
buildings. All I know is, I would visit downtown Fort Worth again. It's
a nice place for a walk, a meal and a conversation.
For night street photography like the picture of Fort Worth, take one
shot with the flash and one without. Without the flash, hold the camera
very steady. Because of the slower shutter speed, you'll get blurred people
and cars; the cars may even disappear. (Often that's a good thing.) With
the flash, the foreground will be illuminated and motion frozen, but the
ambient lights, like the ones around the building edge in the Fort Worth
picture, may fade away, and the background may go dark. Hedge your bets
and shoot both ways. The picture of Fort Worth was taken with a flash.