After more than eight years of planning and construction, the owners of a historic fuel station in west Fort Worth’s Lake Como community say the property is back on track to becoming an art gallery and studio.
The co-owners of the Crossroads Studio and Gallery property, longtime Fort Worth residents Erika and Sean Meredith, are working with structural engineers and the city of Fort Worth to revitalize the old building into a community cornerstone.
Built in 1926, the original Lake Como Service Station was first operated by local resident and entrepreneur W.C. Alexander. The location has also served as a storefront for John’s Country Store and a restaurant called Clara’s Cafe.
The newest owners want to transform the old building into a place where art, history and the environment intersect. But, over the eight years they’ve owned the property on 5301 Houghton Ave., they’ve run into a series of hurdles that have delayed redevelopment.
The multiyear project began when the owners purchased the property in 2014 during a city tax auction out of fear that another buyer would tear down the historic building.
“When we grew up, my husband and I lived very close by to Como – we always saw it as a cool old building,” Erika Meredith said..
After winning the auction, the owners knew it could be a great place for the community to gather. Thus, the idea of Crossroads Studio and Gallery was born.
“I feel that art brings people together – people relate to art and anybody can make it. The location right by the lake was perfect,” Meredith said. “We wanted to bring people together with the arts and nature but honor the history and heritage of the Como neighborhood.”
However, the Merediths soon discovered there were four aging fuel tanks underneath the building. The presence of the tanks possibly contaminated the soil, marking it as a brownfield.
A brownfield, by definition, is an abandoned or underused building or vacant land that has real or perceived environmental contamination that prevents redevelopment, according to the Fort Worth Brownfields Program, which the city runs.
In order to move forward with redevelopment, the fuel tanks had to be removed – and the Merediths needed the funding to complete the cleanup.
After discussing the issue with the Merediths, Fort Worth’s specialists were able to connect the owners to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which accepted the Crossroads Art Studio site into their brownfields program in December 2016 and completed two phases of environmental site assessments.
The TCEQ provided funding for the tanks to be removed and collected samples to determine if contaminants were released into the ground, said Stella Wieser, a spokesperson for the TCEQ.
The results found that no release occurred and the TCEQ brownfields program concluded its involvement in August 2017, Wieser said.
“Environmentally, we now had a clean slate,” Meredith said.
Como property one of at least 350 identified ‘brownfields’ in Fort Worth
The Como property is just one of potentially thousands of brownfields across Fort Worth, said Cody Whittenburg, who oversees environmental health services as Fort Worth’s assistant director of code compliance.
“We [Fort Worth] have a rich history of industrial and commercial uses,” Whittenburg said. “When you go back through the environmental history books, you can see that there was a time where big cities didn’t take care of natural spaces.”
The EPA began the Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program in 1995, according to the EPA. The program has provided millions of dollars to local governments to enhance their local brownfields programs throughout the country, according to the Fort Worth Brownfields Program.
Applying for grants from the Fort Worth Brownfields Program
By federal guidelines, potential property owners or tenants must complete an All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI), the process of evaluating a property’s environmental conditions and assessing potential liability for any contamination, before making an offer on a possible property. Ultimately, if owners and tenants have questions about obtaining a property with possible environmental contamination, contact the program at BrownFields@FortWorthTexas.gov. To submit an application, click here.
The Fort Worth Brownfields Program started in 1999 with an initial assessment grant from the EPA of $200,000. City staff provide guidance and resources such as resource planning, environmental site assessments, cleanup planning and the removal of environmental contaminants, according to Fort Worth’s code compliance department.
There are an estimated 450,000 brownfields across the country. The redevelopment of these brownfields increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, uses existing infrastructure, removes development pressures from underdeveloped land and both improves and protects the environment, according to the EPA.
Industrial growth throughout the 1900s until the 1970s, when more federal environmental laws were enacted, resulted in contamination that Fort Worth has to deal with now, Whittenburg said.
In a 2020 Assessment Grant presentation, the city identified 350 possible brownfield sites scattered across the city. Fort Worth does not provide a public map of assumed brownfields due to potential decrease in property values, said Hayley Mann, senior environmental specialist and the brownfields program coordinator.
“We do not want to target a single property and make it appear that there could be environmental issues when there in fact could be none,” Mann said.
Fort Worth received its latest assessment grant from the EPA for $300,000 in 2020, Whittenburg said.
Using that grant, the Fort Worth Brownfields Program has completed 21 environmental assessments and has two more currently in progress, Mann said.
The program is looking to apply for additional grant funds this next federal fiscal year, Whittenburg said. If the city does not have available assessment grants to fund projects, they have resources to connect developers to other government entities, such as the TCEQ.
Owners getting ‘back on track’ with hopes for completion in 2026
Removing the tanks allowed for a fresh start in the Como property’s redevelopment process. In 2015 and 2016, the Merediths began hosting community outreach events to garner support for the project.
Crossroads Studio participated in the Tour de Fort Worth, a scenic bike ride that concluded in Lake Como. Over 200 riders attended with former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price in 2016. In 2018, the owners participated in the Cowtown Great American Cleanup to remove litter around the perimeter of Lake Como.
Currently, the owners are working on a “Landmarks of Lake Como” coloring book that will feature local artists and the sights and history surrounding Lake Como.
“We have yet to publish the coloring book and sell it as a fundraiser,” Meredith said. “But this is something we will get going … to help with the reboot of this project.”
While the Merediths are excited to move forward, they’ve run into challenges with the original structure. In 2019, the owners became wary of the roof’s stability as some parts of it had collapsed, Erika Meredith said.
“We were worried it [the roof] would fall and take down the rest of the building,” Meredith said. “But when we took the roof off, a column collapsed in the process.”
After removing the roof, the Merediths have run into unexpected challenges, including family obligations and the COVID-19 pandemic, that have caused construction to take much longer than planned, Meredith said.
The delays have led to an open code compliance case on the property because the building still has no roof and it is not meeting minimum building standards, said Justin Newhart, Fort Worth’s historic preservation officer.
The code compliance case could result in the owners paying a fine to the city.
“We don’t want the building to become dilapidated,” Newhart said. “But as long as the owners are actively working with our office on the rehabilitation of the structure, they won’t be fined.”
Redevelopment also presents other challenges because the property is designated as a historical and cultural landmark in the city of Fort Worth. As of Aug. 15, Meredith has submitted a Certificate of Appropriateness, the official application for rehabilitation projects for the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission, for repairing the roof.
The structure, one of a few historic gas stations left in Lake Como, has a unique style of construction that is not only a rarity in Como but in all of Fort Worth, Newhart said.
“We are working with a structural engineer to create a stronger foundation,” Meredith said. “But, all exterior work has to be historically correct, which makes materials more expensive.”
The city offers a Historical Site Tax Exemption to encourage the rehabilitation and preservation of historical structures that are important to Fort Worth. The exemption freezes the taxable value of a property at pre-renovation levels for 10 years after the project is complete to reduce costs, Newhart said.
Currently, the owners are working with a structural engineer to create a new structural foundation. It is important to the owners to save the building, but it “needs to be done right” to preserve the history, Meredith said.
The fuel station is a part of the historic Lake Como neighborhood, a self-sustaining African American neighborhood, said Ella Burton, current president of the Lake Como Neighborhood Advisory Council.
“We had everything right here in the community, our own drugstores, movie theater, skating rink, gas stations and a school,” Burton said.
The owners have received Lake Como’s “stamp of approval,” Burton said. Community members are excited that the owners are doing something positive, productive and educational with the space.
“It’s been great getting to know Como – the people have been amazing and welcoming and I don’t want to let them down,” Meredith said. “We are ready to get back on track, the next step is getting the roof on and we are looking for the right contractor.”
Once the roof is installed and the structure reinforced, completing the gallery is the next step. The owners hope to have the project completed by 2026, when the building itself turns 100 years old.
“I want the building to be a fully functioning gallery and fulfilling the mission of Crossroads Studio by then,” Meredith said. “We’re making progress slower than anticipated, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.