An increase in working remotely and lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have taken a toll on downtowns across the country. Cities have seen a 62% drop in foot traffic in downtown areas since March 2, 2020, according to data collected by real estate company Avison Young.
Now, Fort Worth officials – including Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the downtown management and advocacy organization – is trying to figure out how to bring people back to the streets of downtown as the pandemic changes the way people go to the office and work.
Among the strategies to revitalize downtown is a new 10-year plan to bring back events, build a new convention center and spur a wave of housing developments.
The plan, called “Plan 2033,” is a partnership with Downtown Fort Worth Inc., City of Fort Worth and Trinity Metro. It focuses on six areas: Business development, education, housing, retail/arts and entertainment, transportation and urban design — all of which were highlighted during Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s annual meeting on April 6.
Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., The City of Fort Worth and Trinity Metro are asking residents and stakeholders to take a survey about the future of the downtown.
Empty offices, hybrid work schedules
One obstacle is navigating office space and the change in commuting to work. Car counts by Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. indicate about 60% of downtown office workers are now going back to the office on any given day with many companies turning to a hybrid of in-person and remote work schedules.
The pandemic turbocharged the decline of downtowns – it already was happening following the Great Recession, Brookings Institution fellow Tracy Hadden Loh said.
Downtowns were on three trajectories, Hadden Loh said. Some cities were on the path to revitalization through mixed land use, some were sticking with the status quo and some were declining, she said. To recover from COVID-19, Hadden Loh said downtowns need to adapt.
“If they’re in a situation where office uses are like an excessively dominant part of the land use mix, they need to mix it up,” Hadden Loh said. “They need to diversify land uses.”
Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. reports an 83% office occupancy rate in downtown and noted the relocation of ONCOR and the Freese and Nichols headquarters that moved. Other relocations to downtown include Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc. which announced in mid-March a lease with City Center Fort Worth to occupy 13,994 square feet in the Wells Fargo Tower. In September 2021, Calvetti Ferguson, a Houston-based CPA firm, announced it was relocating its Fort Worth office to the top floor of One City Place.
According to a report from real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield on the Dallas-Fort Worth office market in the first quarter, Fort Worth’s central business district had a vacancy rate of 18%, while Dallas’ central business district’s vacancy rate was at 30%.
Speaking of the overall Dallas-Fort Worth office market, Ching-Ting Wang, director of Texas research for Cushman & Wakefield said the office market is continuing its recovery following the pandemic.
“Tenants’ preference for high quality spaces remain as the office market recovery continues and settles into the new normal,” she said.
According to previous Fort Worth reporting, a handful of businesses have closed or left downtown’s Sundance Square, including Bird Cafe, Taco Diner and Revolver Taco. H&M had a prime space, but closed late last year when the retailer shuttered several locations. An iconic restaurant, The Reata, is seeking another location.
The Reata’s owner, Mike Micallef, said he had over 400 emails from people either suggesting places for Reata to move or to discuss possible locations. He said he’s seen the change happening downtown.
“Monday’s a little bit slower and Friday’s really slow. But on a Wednesday, it might be more like 83 or 85%,” Micallef said. “Because I think what people are doing is, they’re just not coming back to the office for the whole week.”
People have returned to the streets, but he laments about the businesses in Sundance Square.
“There are busy streets, like they used to be,” Micallef said. “But it’s got to be tough to see that Sundance Square, right in the middle, that everybody is leaving.”
Hospitality, residential boom
The hospitality industry is one area that appears to be on the upswing, said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. Increased events at the city’s convention center has increased the number of travelers to the area.
“The day tripper, and the weekend traveler is knocking them dead in downtown,” said Taft. “We’re still missing the business traveler.”
Four hotels are under construction or have recently opened in the downtown area: The Avid Hotel, Le Meridien, Sandman Signature Hotel and Kimpton Harper Hotel. In late March, Irving-based ICON Lodging purchased 110 West 7th St., an 11-story, 101,390-square-foot office building in downtown that is likely to be repurposed as a hotel.
The city is also using $52 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for part of its plan to renovate the Fort Worth Convention Center. That’s something business owners like Micallef see as beneficial as they figure out how to get customers.
“The hardest thing about the restaurant business … is we do 45% of our business on Fridays and Saturdays, and the other 55% on the other five days of the week,” Micallef said. “So my whole focus on marketing is how do I get people to come into the restaurant Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.”
Conventions can be key to filling those spots, Micallef said.
“We think that the multifamily market in downtown is very strong, and that market segment
has long legs,” Taft said
A centerpiece of downtown’s new apartment developments is the 27-story Deco 969, which is currently under construction on Commerce Street. Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. said Deco 969 has opened the gates to more development.
An additional 2,875 apartment units are coming between 11 planned complexes and one under construction, according to Downtown Fort Worth, Inc.’s 2021 annual report.
In the planning stage are two 12-story apartment buildings, one at 1000 W. Weatherford St. and another at 1000 Jones St., according to Taft.
Scott Page, urban founder of Interface Studio LLC, which is consulting on the 2033 plan, said retail spaces and offices and how it’s used is important. But another critical part is events, like the return of the MAIN ST. Arts Festival, which he called the most cost effective way to do economic development.
Downtowns need to focus more on the streets than the skyline — like walkable roads, parks and accessible transportation, Page said. Another factor is making downtown a place where people want to gather. Part of that is avoiding what he calls the “Blahza” — plazas that don’t serve any purpose and tend to be empty.
Blahzas “are doing the exact opposite of what downtown’s are designed to do, which is to bring people together,” Page said. “In fact, they’re really separating folks.”
Some downtown amenities could be coming with an upcoming bond vote. Fort Worth residents will vote on whether to use $13.5 million to improve Heritage Park and Paddock Park on the May 7 bond election.
What’s unclear is how, or if, Sundance Square will participate in the 10-year Plan 2033. In mid-March, Sundance Square announced a plan that seeks entrepreneurs who have the “Next Big Idea” to create storefronts in the downtown area.
No one representing Sundance Square attended the Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. annual meeting. Sundance Square officials did not respond to multiple calls or emails about its involvement in the plan.
Sundance Square has been included in the 10-year plan, but it has not indicated whether it will participate, Taft said.
“They’ve been invited to participate along with all of our other members and we hope that they will,” Taft said.
As downtown emerges from the pandemic, Taft says the next few years look positive. Part of that is due to the $403 million the Panther Island plan north of downtown received to fund that long-awaited project that would provide additional flood control and redevelop 800-acres.
“The fact that Panther Island Project is on track … is huge, just absolutely huge for Center City Fort Worth,” he said. “If you jump up to the 10,000 foot view and you look at urban Fort Worth, and what’s going to bring urban Fort Worth back over the next 40-50 years, we have to think in those terms. That’s going to be huge for all of Center City.”
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at [email protected].
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