For sale: A 250,000-square foot, three-story building on more than two acres of prime downtown real estate in one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
Only one issue. Said property is currently the Central Library.
It is part of a large-scale reorganization of the city’s properties, set in motion as Fort Worth prepares to occupy its new City Hall starting in 2023. But the Central Library sale was the one that touched a nerve with some residents. Upon the announcement, the Fort Worth Library got dozens of comments on Facebook expressing concern and disappointment about the building being put up for sale. Similar concerns were expressed on the Fort Worth Forum website.
Jeroy Davis, a Fort Worth resident who has lived in town for 44 years and used the Central Library for 20 years, said he understands a new library will be built, but he hopes it’s still downtown. He uses the library for the internet, movies and books.
“I guess I hope it’s progress,” Davis said.
Fort Worth resident Cathy Neece Brown is a big fan of libraries in general and the Fort Worth Library in Particular.
“I still have my kids’ first library cards,” she said. “It’s a big deal for us.”
She also uses the library in her professional life as vice president of mission support at the James L. West Center for Dementia Care in Fort Worth. She works to put on memory box workshops for caregivers and people with dementia. Neese Brown loves the current downtown library, particularly the children’s section, but she also understands that the library must respond to changes in the culture.
“You can check out hot-spots at the library and they have ESL programs which are important to this community,” she said. “The library is now more than just a place to check out books, so change is going to happen. But I still love the library.”
Downtown patrons won’t be missing out on services, city officials say. If the building gets sold, the buyer would help develop a new library location, according to a city release. The library would also find a temporary location to serve its patrons until the new location is built.
Relocating the Central Library to either a portion of the new development or another location downtown is similar to what Fort Worth has done with its Seminary South branch, which in late February moved into La Gran Plaza de Fort Worth as La Gran Biblioteca.
The city will require the ultimate buyer to make an overall capital investment in the building and land of a minimum of $100 million, David Berzina, vice president of JLL Fort Worth, the real estate company that the city uses to sell property, said. The building is one of nine city buildings that are under evaluation. As a city building, the property currently is not on the tax rolls, meaning any new private development will go toward the city’s bottom line.
“It will be challenging and difficult for JLL to evaluate and establish a value on the Fort Worth Public Central Library located at 500 W. Third St.,” said Chris Copeland, executive vice president at Fort Worth-based Southland Property Tax Consultants Inc. in a statement to the Fort Worth Report. “This is indeed a special-purpose property and any future user will require significant renovation/improvement costs.”
The city’s plans regarding the current library date back to 2017 when officials began looking at plans for a new City Hall, David Cooke, Fort Worth’s city manager said. That began a re-evaluation of land and buildings owned by the city, particularly in the downtown area.
“At that time, we were talking about if we did all that we talked about, do we, you know, want to move the library because we knew the library was underutilized,” said Cooke. “We have a lot of square feet in the downtown Central Library, but it’s incredibly underutilized.”
Acting library director Marilyn Marvin said the request is for a library that is about 90,000 square feet — 160,000 feet less than the current location.
Right now, only one of three floors of the Central Library is accessible to the public. Staff closed the basement at the start of the pandemic. The third floor remains unfinished. Library staff can access the third floor via a long ladder through a maze of hallways.
The unfinished floor reflects the sometimes-troubled history of the building.
The downtown library’s physical location has shifted three times over its 120-year history. The second location was built on land donated by Sarah Gray Jennings on condition that a library will be built.
When the downtown library moved to its current location in 1978 with funding from a bond proposition, the family sued the city. That had an impact on funding the building, Marvin said.
“By the time the legal battle was done, they only had funds to do the basement,” Marvin said.
The Library Foundation raised money to build two more floors of the building with a design by David M. Schwarz Architects in 1998, but the funds were only enough to finish one floor, Marvin said. Now, the building is outdated in some ways, Marvin said, like the old carpet and limited amount of electric outlets. A new library excites her.
“We can completely reimagine what a downtown central library will become from the ground up,” Marvin said. “How can we best serve the public downtown that we couldn’t in this building, just from an infrastructure perspective?”
She said she doesn’t know the exact reason why the library is for sale, but she has a guess: It’s prime real estate.
Officials like Cooke said one reason is underused.
“Maybe there’s a higher, better use for those two city blocks,” he said. “And when you think about two city blocks, right, we’re in the downtown of the 12th-largest city in the country. And over time, there’s a better use for those two city blocks.”
Berzina said there’s interest in the building, but the city wants to leave the property on the market for several months. Cooke made one thing clear: They aren’t leaving the library behind.
“We’re not abandoning a library. What we’re saying is, ‘Let’s do better on these two city blocks,’” Cooke said. “And we’ll find the location for a library downtown. It could be part of the new development; it could go somewhere else. So all those options to me are still open about what we do with the library location downtown.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the minimum investment a buyer would be required to make in the building and property.