Matthijs Melchiors had an idea: Build and design a mini warehouse space for businesses that also included a residence for him and his family on the second floor so he could take care of the property.
Melchiors, a founder of MEL/ARCH architecture studio, has worked on the project for three years. The firm spent about $150,000 so far on getting the project started, located on 108 Cromwell St.
In July, Melchiors delivered bad news. In a Facebook post, he wrote that he was indefinitely pausing the project because of failed talks with the city’s zoning department.
“This project has proven to be too progressive for the city of Fort Worth whose mindset is stuck in the 1950s and 60s,” Melchiors wrote. “As with many other quality projects that have come before, our ARC space has now fallen victim to the chopping block of Fort Worth’s infamous zoning department.”
MEL/ARCH expressed frustration with the zoning and development process, which its says limits innovative spaces. City staff make decisions on projects based on what’s been allowed in the past. When ordinances aren’t clear, as in MEL/ARCH’s case, city staff interpret rules, which can frustrate developers.
“It comes down to maybe one or two people in a department that hold the power over a project, and it’s either a make-it or break-it type of situation,” Melchiors said.
The city has proposed $100,000 in the 2023 budget to make amendments to the zoning ordinance as needed. The ARC Space roadblock also has prompted District 8 Councilmember Chris Nettles to request an informal report looking at how to make the process more streamlined to avoid obstacles in interpretation.
“We need to take the extra steps and measures to make sure we read every interpretation the correct way,” Nettles said. “Because if we’re talking about an interpretation issue, do you know how easy that would have been resolved with a phone call?”
Up to interpretation
Melchiors’ project got hung up on a technicality in the city’s zoning ordinance. Developers and city staff alike use the zoning ordinance as a framework to determine what is allowed in a particular district.
Melchiors rezoned the property to all industrial. Because of that, Melchiors could build what’s referred to in the zoning ordinance as a “security residence” or caretaker space — a space where a staff member can live and take care of the property.
But city staff told Melchiors the residence was too large, and suggested that they use a conditional use permit. This would expedite it to the City Council and turn the 2.5-month process into about seven weeks.
Melchiors didn’t want to do that.
“What am I asking for?” Melchiors said. “Because basically, (the) legal framework that (the city is) operating under and that we are abiding by, doesn’t state anything to that effect. So why am I asking for an exception for something that’s not even in the regulations?”
Melchiors said he stood his ground. He feared the conditional use permit would not be approved or would be approved with stipulations that would require the firm to make significant changes to the project, which he already spent a lot of time and money on.
Melchiors sent a similar message as on his Facebook page to city staff, including councilmember Nettles, assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff and director of development services D.J. Harrell, announcing they are indefinitely pausing the project based on failed discussions with the zoning department. Melchiors forwarded the email to The Fort Worth Report.
Harrell saw Melchiors’ Facebook post and reached out. He said the obstacle for the project was that the residence was too large.
The zoning ordinance rule on security residences does not describe how large residence should be.
Natalie Foster, the spokesperson for the development services department, said the city has never seen anything like ARC Space.
“With all ordinances, it’s all based on the interpretation of past projects,” Foster said.
The size of the warehouse itself would be 9,000 square feet, Melchiors said in an email to Burghdoff. However, only the second floor would be used as a residence – 2,300 square feet. The bottom would be rented out to businesses.
Burghdoff responded by email after Melchiors clarified.
“OK, good. We can approve that as a security residence,” she wrote.
Harrell reached out to Melchiors in the first place because he doesn’t want the city to be behind the times on development, he said.
“We want to be one of the most innovative cities, right?” Harrell said. “And I get that we’re needing to evolve … from where we were, small-town Fort Worth to where we are going and where we want to be.”
Stacy Marshall, president and CEO of Southeast Fort Worth Inc. said he was bothered when the project was indefinitely paused. He calls the project a good opportunity for the area, which could bring more than a dozen new businesses to the area.
“It was my understanding that there was a miscommunication on a number of people’s parts within various departments throughout the city, and that everybody was working within a silo,” Marshall said. “And that’s something that, for me, doesn’t work well.”
More conservative interpretation of rules
Sometimes development requires compromises. Jie Melchiors, chief financial officer for MEL/ARCH, said that occurred when building their office park and headquarters made entirely of shipping containers, called Connex, located at 1201 Evans Ave.
When building Connex, Jie Melchiors said, company officials had to compromise on some elements of the design. They wanted to create one giant staircase for the building, but that wasn’t allowed based on code. Because the building was on a small lot, they also had to find ways to hide AC units. To do that, they needed waivers from the city to put some units underneath the staircase.
Matthijs Melchiors said the firm thinks differently about space and size requirements for an office or residence. He said he’s noticed differences in tolerance for innovative designs as they design buildings across the country.
“Depending on which municipality and cities we’re working with, because we do work all across the country, there are certainly places out there where they are more progressive,” Melchiors said.
Will Northern, a partner and broker at Northern Crain Realty who served as zoning commissioner for eight years, said getting something developed in the city is difficult.
He’s seen instances of a developer’s plans being stamped for approval, only to be paused by a field inspector even though the plans have been approved. It’s as if there’s two different sets of books that developers and city staff are looking at that makes the process challenging for developers, he said.
“The city is somewhat hypocritical,” Northern said. “They say they’re pro development. But hot damn, it is hard as hell to get something developed in the city of Fort Worth.”
Bowie Holland, president of Empire Holdings, said most city staff aren’t against innovation. There’s sometimes a difference of opinion on how rules are interpreted, and that’s not unique to Fort Worth. Staff has to be accountable for rules that elected representatives create, he said.
“They’ve got this rulebook that the City Council gave them, and they’re going to err on the side of being conservative in how they interpret that,” Holland said.
Holland said he’s experienced times where field inspectors had different interpretations, but there is an appeal process to find solutions to disagreements.
Travis Clegg, a principal and vice president at Peloton Land Solutions and a member of the city’s Development Advisory Committee, said field inspectors are licensed to see things that slipped through the cracks if it got approved by city staff, which looks through hundreds of permits a month.
Because of the volume, he said, city staff can miss things.
“I can definitely see how you could in some instances get approved through the plan process and you’re out there building it, and then the whole thing is put on hold because a inspector or your operations guys who are out in the field see something that is not in in line with the rules,” Clegg said.
Matthijs Melchiors said their project has made progress since he wrote the email and Facebook post.
Harrell assigned a project facilitator for ARC Space to ensure there were no more hiccups to the Melchiors’ development process, and Burghdoff approved the security residence for the plan. Still, he feels worried about the project going forward. The project isn’t permanent, and there might still be elements of the project that also have to go through the zoning department.
“Am I going to get pushback on other items? I don’t know,” Melchiors said. “I’ve definitely stepped on people’s toes. I know that. And that’s just a big question mark for me right now, but I guess I’m just tackling one step at a time.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.