A downtown without clear pedestrian advocacy: the Fort Worth example.

Many years ago—before I even had conceived of this blog—I was an intern for a university semester at WalkBoston, which was (and remains) the signature pedestrian advocacy organization for Bean Town.  Founded in 1990, it was the first of its kind in the country.  Since then (and since my internship), WalkBoston’s scope and ambitions have grown to the extent that the org recently rechristened itself WalkMassachusetts, which, though it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, shows an effort at encouraging pedestrian-friendly landscapes at a statewide level.  At the time I worked for this organization, its role—beyond simply raising awareness of pedestrian safety issues in an era that predated Vision Zero—was to contribute a sizable, well-researched narrative on any major new development proposal in the city of Boston, offering a detailed analysis of the design features and how they might positively or negatively affect the immediate pedestrian environment.  In situations where WalkBoston’s critique of the site plans was overwhelmingly negative, the Boston Civic Design Commission (among other agencies) could slow or even thwart approvals to a major project.

Comparatively few cities have a pedestrian advocacy organization with sufficient power and influence as WalkBoston; these organizations typically can only operate in high-prestige or “alpha” world cities, where new construction in the downtowns can expect to meet exceptionally high standards for aesthetics, quality, security, and sustainability.  These high standards inevitably cause projects to come into fruition both slowly and expensively, but this is Boston we’re talking about: it’s an expensive town.  And it’s common knowledge in the development community (as I learned from my time as a student there), that the average developer can expect to witness the completion of no more than three major projects during his or her career.  But it sure has retained a good pedestrian environment.

I enjoyed my brief time at WalkBoston and continue to believe it has helped continue the walkable nature that characterizes much of this colonial city.  But the community support for WalkBoston is not easy to replicate in cities that lack its educational clout, its size, its tendency to attract high-caliber tech jobs, or its overall transaction costs—i.e. the elevated price tag for doing business.  Pedestrian advocacy in most of the country is decentralized.  As a result, many shortcomings slip through the cracks.

Fort Worth, for example, is not at Boston’s scale of prestige when it comes to development or pedestrian advocacy.  I don’t intend for this to be a knock on Fort Worth; in many respects, Boston (and most northeast cities) would kill to have Fort Worth’s population growth.  But Fort Worth, like most cities in Texas, promotes a comparative ease in conducting business without those regulatory hurdles that make Boston so laborious and pricey.  Even if Fort Worth had a pedestrian advocacy organization as rock-solid as WalkBoston—and my superficial research suggests that it does not—I cannot imagine civic support in Fort Worth ever being so strong as to permit blistering critiques of new real estate developments for the public record, to the extent that such critiques may slow or even jeopardize that development altogether.  With land costs that are significantly lower than most of Massachusetts, Texas cities protect a more libertine, “homesteader” attitude that allows new edifices to blossom quickly and easy, albeit often with lesser regard for aesthetics or a consistent pedestrian-friendly ambience, as my critique last year of the convention center proved.

The Fort Worth Convention Center is about half of a great building: an attractive and inviting entrance from one of the two north-south streets that flank it, but austere, blocky, and foreboding from the other street perspective.  Complementing this critical building is a major hotel a couple blocks away that no doubt serves the convention center: the Hilton Fort Worth.

There it is, on the left side of the street, measuring fifteen stories, with the elaborate ornamentation on the top floor. 

Though Hilton Worldwide is an older company, founded in Texas in 1919, the building began as an independently operated enterprise: the Hotel Texas, opening in 1921 to capitalize on the rapidly maturing city’s need for luxury accommodations spread across 600 guest rooms.  Popularity prompted expansions in the early 1960s—a Crystal Ballroom on the second floor—then, in 1968, an annex in the adjacent block to the east, crossing Commerce Street via a skyway, capitalizing on the newly complete Convention Center.  Sandwiched between these two construction improvements, President John and wife Jackie stayed at the Hotel Texas (at that time a Sheraton) and gave a speech at the Crystal Ballroom—his final speech in November 1963.  In the late 1970s, after Hyatt Hotels purchased the property, it underwent another renovation, forcing its closure for over a year, though architects preserved the elaborate façade.  The effort was diligent enough that the National Park Service admitted the building to the National Register of Historic Places at the onset of the closure.  Radisson purchased it in 1995, then Hilton finally claimed it a decade later, shuttering the annex across Commerce Street but upgrading the interiors once more.  The Hilton Fort Worth has belonged to the lucrative family Historic Hotels of America since 2015.

Meanwhile, the complete sequestration of the annex (on the right side of the skyway in the above photo) has allowed it to undergo a separate renovation into a Le Méridien Hotel, slated to open in the very near future and already accepting reservations.  

Amidst the changing of hands and the periodic upgrades, Hotel Texas/Hilton Fort Worth has retained its identity as a landmark fortuitously sited between the Convention Center and the Water Gardens to the south, and the primary node Sundance Square (featured in the initial photo to this blog article) to the north.  It’s a great location for Fort Worth’s walkable, compact downtown, where any well-attuned tourist can spot the unusually small size of its blocks—particularly anomalous in a state that does everything big.  But the same smallness of the blocks means that the average square in Fort Worth’s downtown can’t fit as many structures and cannot grow laterally without bumping up against a street, hence the annex opening 60 years ago across Commerce Street, linked to the original Hotel Texas by a skyway.

And, most importantly for the purpose of this article, there’s this oddity on the south side of the building:

Is it a service road or through street? No pedestrian advocacy in DT Fort Worth

It doesn’t look like much more than a canopied space for the picking-up or dropping-off of hotel guests, potentially through a taxi, a rideshare app service, or the hotel’s valet service.  It’s all fine and good for a hotel of this caliber to offer such an amenity and the physical space to accommodate it.  But there’s a catch, clearly visible from a greater distance and the other angle:

Is it a service road or through street? No pedestrian advocacy in DT Fort Worth

The road passing in front of the Hilton, partially covered by the protruding overhang, isn’t really a service drive; it’s just another street within the downtown grid.  East 8th Street, to be specific.  The road is one-way westbound, so the cars are approaching me from my east-facing vantage point of the above photo.  But there’s little aside from fancy brickwork to indicate Hilton’s claim on the road as part of managing the flow of guests arriving by cars (or shuttles). This map helps clarify.

The segment of East 8th in front of the Hilton is very clearly still part of the public right-of-way, yet it’s also the spot where people get dropped off at the shoulder, in what would normally be metered on-street parking.  The photo below, at a medium distance again looking westbound from the directional flow of cars, may demonstrate this better than the others.

Is it a service road or through street? No pedestrian advocacy in DT Fort Worth

Motorists can slow to a stop and pull over in relation to the Hilton.  Or they can just drive right on through the block, since it is just another street.  My guess is the Hilton has some special use agreement with the City of Fort Worth so that it can engage with vehicles differently than it otherwise would; it (or Sheraton, or Hyatt, or Radisson) already clearly purchased air space over East 8th to build the overhang.  This design may be the only opportunity given the small block; directly across from East 8th is a small plaza commemorating JFK.  And, though it fundamentally works as both a through-street with drop-off lanes, it is exactly the sort of confusing pedestrian environment that a pedestrian advocacy organization like WalkMassachusetts (formerly WalkBoston) would have blasted in a development review.  People see the subtle brick, the inconspicuous curb cuts, the Hilton branded overhang, and they will think its a service road.  Pedestrians could just hop right out carelessly, all while other cars continue passing right through, treating it as a city road and potentially going as fast as 25 miles per hour.

Pedestrian advocacy would push for a solution that is less confusing for pedestrians.  Yet it’s quite possible that Hilton Fort Worth has no other option; East 8th is a generally minor street, only about six blocks long, and it doesn’t link anything too significant.  So it’s probably a better road to claim for drop-offs than busy Commerce or Main streets on the east and west of the building footprint (respectively).  But it’s a weak solution that seems to be asking for a pedestrian alighting at the hotel to nonchalantly step out into through traffic.  Not a design that the City of Boston would tolerate amidst its heavy purview over pedestrian safety in new development proposals, courtesy of a dedicated pedestrian advocacy organization.

And Hilton Fort Worth is not the only location.  On the south side of downtown, I spotted a more significant violation, albeit one not overtly tied to private development.

It might look like a highway interchange, and in most respects it is.  But the overhead ribbons of pavement represent the exit ramps providing vehicular access to Interstate 30 to the immediate south.  I’m standing on West Lancaster Avenue, one of the primary east-west arterials in the entire city, essentially serving as an unofficial southern border to downtown Fort Worth.

Here’s what the busy street looks like from a map:

Screenshot

I’ve circled the problem area in purple.  At the time of these photos, I am walking along the side of this street, less than a mile from the Hilton Forth Worth and other downtown amenities.  The opposite side of West Lancaster Avenue isn’t any better:

Stroad in Fort Worth (Lancaster Ave): clearly lacking pedestrian advocacy

Peering westward along Lancaster, it’s easy to see where the environment degrades without pedestrian advocacy.

Stroad in Fort Worth (Lancaster Ave): clearly lacking pedestrian advocacy

The sidewalk just ends. In fairness, this portion of West Lancaster Avenue fits the textbook definition of a “stroad”, a fundamentally urban street that engineers have expanded to maximum vehicle-carrying capacity, while offering a passing semblance of former pedestrianism through sidewalks, crossings, and a rudimentary attempt to orient buildings to the street (rather than surface parking lots).  Its essence does not accommodate pedestrians kindly.  But this stretch of Lancaster Avenue remains close enough to such nodes as the Convention Center and hotels that it continues to host vestiges of pedestrian activity.  Yet for at least a few blocks, the stroad doesn’t even offer sidewalks.  

In fairness, I don’t think transportation engineers designed this oversight recently.  These exit ramps linking West Lancaster and some of its intersecting streets with I-30 have been around for decades.  My suspicion is that the last major intervention took place in the 1980s, a time when even sidewalks were barely a consideration.  In an attempt to “shore up” traffic flow close to downtown, quite a few public works efforts from 1960 to 1990 took formerly pedestrian-scaled streets on the fringes of the downtown, “upgraded” them to a higher level of service with generous turn lanes and sweeping exits, removing what traces of pedestrian accommodations previously existed.  Simply put, the construction team probably ripped up the sidewalks along the streets to build traffic improvements, then never reinstalled them.  Pedestrianism wasn’t a high cultural priority in 1980.  Both sides of West Lancaster—except for the part I circled in purple—have adequate sidewalks and crosswalks at every major intersection.  I was jogging along Lancaster at this location and stumbled upon an area where I had no choice but to maneuver though exactly what this Google Street View depicts, walking freely among the cars or in the grass.  No picnic.

If a pedestrian advocacy organization like WalkMassachusetts existed in Fort Worth (or Texas), it could organize “walk audits” to collectivize interested citizens to test the pedestrian environment in dedicated districts, flagging the problem areas.  This stretch of Lancaster Avenue, just outside the downtown core but close enough to fall in its purview, would definitely benefit.  This critique of downtown Fort Worth—somewhat an extension of what I offered previously in my article on the Conventions Center—should not discount the fact that this booming city’s downtown is growing, most likely with far more construction cranes (in proportion to its size) compared to staid Boston.  Perhaps the level of oversight achieved in Boston is a bridge too far for the pro-growth sociopolitical culture embraced by the majority of the population in Fort Worth.  But a pedestrian-vehicle collision is far more likely in the environment that Fort Worth fosters in its downtown.  Without organized pedestrian advocacy, things slip through the cracks.  Or, as is the case here, between the blocks.

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4 thoughts on “A downtown without clear pedestrian advocacy: the Fort Worth example.

  1. Anonymous

    Lancaster Avenue was actually the route of I-30 through the downtown area (the freeway was on a functionally obsolete elevated viaduct) until it was rerouted to its current alignment in the early 2000s. So any construction you saw dates to around that time.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing this detail. It makes sense to me, if my mental image is accurate. Are you saying that I-30 ran above Lancaster Avenue up until the early 2000s? If so, that explains where there was relatively little development along this stretch of the street until recently, especially on the north side. Or did W. Lancaster Ave essentially become I-30 for a mile-long stretch on the south side of downtown?

      It’s hard for me to believe it was 100% limited access, because there are some obvious pre-interstate buildings on the south side of Lancaster that still survive–like this enormous beautiful (and seemingly vacant) Art Deco wholesaling building: https://maps.app.goo.gl/jabbKDQeLKU8YEvN9

      My assumption is that I-30 ran above, and local Lancaster Avenue traffic ran below. What prompted the realignment? Sounds like an expensive effort, though it least it helps make W. Lancaster Avenue a functional urban street again–albeit a compromised one.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I really appreciate you sharing this–what a revelation (for me at least). It seems that Fort Worth got a head start on CBD limited-access freeway construction, since these discussions were happening in the late 1940s, before the Eisenhower system. And, at that early time, public outcry about business relocation carried far more weight than it did in the 1960s, when similar limited-access construction in downtowns became the norm…including the costly trenches that mustered such opposition in Fort Worth a decade earlier than most of the country.

          As much as the Vickery Alternative is an improvement for Lancaster Avenue, it’s hard to be sanguine about the effort at revitalizing Lancaster Avenue, 20 years after the elevated’s demolition. It is still a stroad, most of the land on the immediate north side of the street is still vacant, and the restoration neglected sidewalks for the equivalent of at least three city blocks. Hopefully development in the years ahead will address this, but Lancaster definitely isn’t that close to the hub of activity in downtown Fort Worth.

          Reply

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