Bordered by U.S. Highway 287, Interstate 35W and Interstate 30, Butler Place is where Fort Worth merges into one from all directions. Yet, the triangular-shaped island property sits in isolation with limited connectivity with the rest of the city.
One of the 52 Public Works Administration projects as part of President Franklin D.Roosevelt’s New Deal, Butler Place opened in 1940 to house its first 250 Black families. By December 2020, the last of the 412 families left the property to new homes across the city.
The now-vacant 42-acre public housing complex could soon become a transformative economic development core for the city, officials say.
From next-generation transportation technology to corporate relocations and mixed-use development, urban planners and city officials are plotting the future land use of Butler Place with hopes of bringing lasting economic impact to the area.
“Right now there are no taxes being collected from this public housing. Now all of a sudden you got this million-dollar development,” said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Yeah, it’s in our best interest to have it as big as possible.”
However, a few hurdles remain that need clearing before any redevelopment is possible.
Butler Place accommodates 25 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Some are interested in preserving the site’s history, but no decision has been made about what to preserve. A federal restriction, unless removed, also limits the scope of any redevelopment project.
“We have all kinds of real estate experts, transportation experts, people that have been having this conversation for years because we do understand that it’s a huge asset,” said Mary-Margaret Lemons, president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions, which owns the property. “We want to make sure that it’s used to the best of its potential – we don’t know what it will be.”
A small arterial road, 19th Street, is currently Butler Place’s only direct thoroughfare to downtown Fort Worth. IM Terrell Way cuts through I-30 into southeast Fort Worth.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments is creating access to Highway 287 to the east, I-30 to the south, and reviewing building a roadway straight across underneath the railroad tracks over to downtown. The agency has purchased a narrow stretch of land for about $1 million in the southern end, where a walkable transit-oriented space is planned.
“We’ll blend it, blur it into downtown Fort Worth,” Morris said. “Maybe a really wide structure that has electric vehicles on it. We’ll do wide sidewalks, bike paths. So you’re connecting basically Seventh Street downtown and this into a seamless connection.”
Morris estimates his agency will allocate up to $30 million for transportation improvements in the area.
“And then by providing transportation,” he added, “we can increase the value of that economic development for the best interest of bringing an Amazon or bringing Google or someone who would love to come to Fort Worth and need all that land.”
To connect Fort Worth to Dallas, Trinity Metro also might bring high-speed rail to Butler Place.
A 2017 planning study, conducted by Gateway Planning Group in coordination with Regional Transportation Council and Trinity Metro, recommended Butler Place as one of the options for a potential station location for a high-speed rail alignment.
“The property holds great possibilities to the advancement of many of the city’s goals,” assistant city manager Fernando Costa said. “For economic development, for affordable housing and possibly other ideas as well – it’s a great opportunity.”
The 81-year-old properties in Butler Place have deteriorated over the years.
According to Fort Worth Housing Solution, it was receiving about $1.2 million per year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for maintenance of its housing units.
In 2014 when Housing Solutions examined Butler Place, the agency decided relocating and closing the property was a better use of the funds available, Lemons said. The nonprofit acquired a new downtown headquarters in January.
HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program enabled new funding for efforts to relocate the residents to different parts of the city, adopting the approach of deconcentrating affordable housing.
“There’s all different types of people that make up our community. We should have all different types of people in every part of our community so we don’t have any large concentrations of low-income families anymore,” Lemons said. “We have moved from the traditional 1940-style public housing into mixed-income communities.”
HUD has in place a Declaration of Trust for Butler Place. The declaration is a legal obligation that binds HUD’s interest in the property.
Until the property receives a release from HUD, Butler Place can operate only as a public housing entity.
The nonprofit is looking to sell the property, but has turned down several offers but has not disclosed any details.
For now, Lemons said, she is focused on more immediate concerns rather than speculating possibilities.
“We’re still working through the processes with HUD to have the property be able to be disposed of,” Lemons said. “And we’re still working with our local committee here to finalize what their thoughts and wishes are, and present those to our board so they can make all the decisions.”
The nonprofit hosted public workshops in September 2019 to receive the community’s input for the future of Butler Place. Many former residents, city administrators and community leaders, including members of the Butler Advisory Committee, took part in the forums.
The ideas discussed included the need to transform the area to bring new opportunities, such as accessibility, workforce housing, commercial and entertainment amenities, and shopping and grocery stores.
“You could ask ordinary people in Fort Worth about the place, and many of them will scratch their heads wondering where exactly (Butler Place) exists,” said Costa, who led the workshops. “Because they may never have been there. They may never have any reason to go there. In fact, because it has public housing, it possibly has been a place that people would have consciously avoided.”
Costa said the property is an important crossroad representing where the city is headed.
“We don’t know what the idea is to put the property on the market for a proper redevelopment. There are many, many possibilities that people have imagined. It’s the most desirable piece of property right in the middle of Fort Worth.” Costa said, adding the city might make the area a separate taxing district.
Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department will start its search for a consulting firm to study Butler Place’s land usage. The city staff are formulating a request for proposals for engineering firms that the City Council will explore and likely decide on by November.
The accessibility study will be funded by the North Central Texas council, which expects to set aside $2.5 million for preliminary engineering tasks and $1.25 million for the right-of-way acquisitions. The Regional Transportation Council is set to approve funding for the study this fall.
Morris praised Housing Solutions for having a great vision for Butler Place.
“And I think we should applaud that effort,” he said. “Because to be successful, we all should be in an integrated society, mutually supporting each other.”