A quaint two-story wine bar with space for retail and an apartment upstairs in the Near Southside is the kind of development Fort Worth wants and needs, according to its own comprehensive plan.
The building’s owners, Liz and Stephen Mears, found the city’s own policies worked against them at nearly every step in the building process.
Fort Worth’s subdivision ordinance is out of step with its goals of encouraging more development in neighborhoods like the Near and Historic Southside, said Travis Clegg, chairman of the city’s development advisory committee.
Now, the city’s Development Advisory Committee, the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth and the city are working to tailor part of the ordinance to make inner-city development easier. Clegg expects the city to fund writing the new chapter through the 2023 budget, to be finalized late Sept. 2022.
“The commitment from the mayor and … assistant city manager was that this was a priority,” Clegg said. “And that we’re gonna get it done.”
The Mearses, a married designer and contractor, thought obtaining liquor licensing and dealing with suppliers would be their biggest challenge in opening their natural wine bar, The Holly, at the intersection of Daggett and Galveston avenues.
Instead, obtaining city approval for their building and engineering plans set them back a full year and tens of thousands of dollars before their doors opened to the public.
“Yes, there’s all kinds of craziness dealing with distributors,” Liz Mears said. “But at least there’s a way forward whereas in the development process, no, you’re screwed.”
That’s why the city encourages infill development, mostly commercial buildings in older parts of the city. Committees are formed, tax increment financing districts are created, and fees are cut to encourage businesses to settle in Fort Worth’s historic core, where the city already has services.
What is infill development:
The National League of Cities defines infill as new development built on vacant or undeveloped land within an existing community, and that is enclosed by other types of development.
“This has nothing to do with zoning, or changing land uses or trying to push more dense development of any kind,” Clegg said. “We need easier rules. … Right now the roadblock is the language in the subdivision ordinance.”
Mears keeps a mental rap sheet of feedback for the city. Mostly, she believes the city should allow developers to submit their site plans, zoning application and community facilities agreement at the same time to expedite the process. Now, developers have to submit each plan individually and wait for one plan to get approved before they can submit the next.
What is a community facilities agreement
A community facilities agreement is a contract between the city and the developer, requiring them to construct public infrastructure around their building — things like trees, streetlights and drainage.
“If we say we care about small developments and smaller workspaces and people who actually live in the city they’re developing, I don’t really see that we’re doing enough to support that,” Mears said.
The subdivision ordinance requires developers to align with a set of standards. The documents have chapters on design standards, platting and submission requirements — there is currently no chapter specifically tailored for infill development.
This poses a problem, Clegg said. Small urban developers like the Mearses are required to comply with the same spacing and infrastructure standards as a suburban developer — and get a waiver if they are required to deviate from the rules, lengthening the planning period.
“It’s just too difficult,” Clegg said. “There’s too many rules and regulations that take too long and we’re losing good businesses and good opportunities because it’s just too much of a headache to do.”
The extra steps mean more money comes out of the Mearses’ pocket before her business even opens. Now, nearly a year after opening — the Mearses still feel the impact of delays.
“We have much, much more of a loan than I feel comfortable with,” Mears said. “For us to be in like the holding pattern for two years and then a bunch of expenses be added to our community facilities agreement, that could be business ending for someone.”
The new infill development chapter would help developers better align with the city’s requirements during the planning process.
The updated ordinance will not affect the zoning, community facilities agreement and permitting standards, but favorable planning requirements could make the engineering process smoother for infill developers.
The idea for a revised subdivision ordinance came out of the Development Advisory Committee, a city manager-appointed group of engineers, consultants, bankers, developers and subcontractors to increase communication between city staff and developers.
The late Philip Pool, a longtime architect and urban planner, called for changes to the city’s subdivision ordinance before his death in September 2021. The committee carried on his request. Both the city manager’s office and City Council members support writing a new chapter of the subdivision ordinance, Clegg said.
“It is hard to do work downtown. Because it’s not open land, you have so many different constraints,” Clegg said. “It’s hard to fit a square peg in a round hole sometimes, and we don’t need the added roadblock of rules that don’t support what we’re trying to do.”
The city will move forward with a request for proposals to write a new chapter for the subdivision ordinance. It will likely cost the city about $200,000 to get the new chapter written.
In the meantime, the city has been making small changes to ease the challenges developers face downtown, said Mike Brennan, president of Near Southside Inc..
The city made smaller, piecemeal adjustments to standards like the city’s driveway requirements. Normally, the city requires a 20-foot wide driveway. If a developer is building in a 50-foot lot, this standard could be prohibitive. At the site of one of the Near Southside’s first mixed-use commercial and residential buildings — with office space on the ground floor and apartments above, the developer had to get a waiver to build a narrower driveway.
Years later, the city codified that waiver into law, allowing a development sitting on less than 10,000 square feet to build a 10-foot wide driveway. The new chapter would address all of the remaining small development issues in one large document, Brennan said.
The city is also working to solve a problem that set Mears back on her project, installing streetlights. Mears could not find a city-approved contractor willing to work on her small project.
The city is working to create a voucher program to help smaller developers install lights in areas with special development standards like the Near Southside.
“If you want small live-work spaces, which Near Southside says they want, (the city) doesn’t make any concessions to actually support small independent businesses when it comes to the development and permit process,” Mears said.
All these changes are to help the city better align with its own comprehensive plan, Brennan said. The plan outlines a general desire for compact, walkable, mixed use environments in older areas of the city.
“When a developer tries to do a compact, walkable, mixed-use development in that older area of the city and runs into the standards that are really intended to match drivable suburban development at the edge of the city, then you have a mismatch between the vision outlined in the comprehensive plan and the development standards that the developers actually have to abide by,” Brennan said.
Small developers face more challenges
James Walker, owner of James Walker Realty, primarily works in the Historic Southside. Despite being just a mile away from The Holly, where empty lots are common but not the norm, Walker’s developments chip away at a vast network of empty lots endemic to the Historic Southside.
Walker grew up in the Historic Southside and started buying up plots in the neighborhood after receiving his brokers license. He intends to build residential and commercial buildings around the neighborhood, slowly chipping away at the empty lots that attract crime and litter.
“If you want the area to change you’re gonna have to get in there to make a change yourself,” Walker said.
Walker hopes to create a new, better neighborhood for the next generation, filled with thriving businesses and homes.
“Once we get the first new structure over here, I think things will start happening,” Walker said.
The Evans and Rosedale corridor, which is partially included in the Near Southside TIF, has been earmarked for redevelopment since the early 2000s. It is slated to become the kind of urban, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that aligns with the city’s comprehensive plan.
“We just want the city to come in and do what they need to do and let us bring in development and do what we do,” Walker said. “I think it should be a collaboration like that.”
The Historic Southside presents a new set of challenges. Often, streetlights are burned out, litter fills empty lots and city amenities like parks and roads are run down, Walker said.
The city can be hard to get a hold of, Walker said. When he does interact with the city, officials are often enforcing standards of the Southside Tax Increment Financing District that don’t align with how people actually live in the Historic Southside, Walker said.
“It’s kind of hard to put a blanket over everything,” Walker said. “I think if you come here and you want to put rules, regulations, change things … Do an assessment and see what makes sense because we have a lot of challenges.”
The Holly is also the Mearses home. Adding a 2,800-square-feet residence above their business was an opportunity for the couple to continue investing in a community they cared about. Later, it’s one of the things that made the project feasible in the face of growing loan payments.
“If we did not live upstairs, if we were just working on a commercial building and we’re still paying a mortgage elsewhere, this building would not have been completed,” Mears said.
The city’s policies make it harder for small businesses who are invested in the community to make space in the city’s core, Mears said.
“We live here,” Mears said. ”We’re not just Dallas developers building an apartment building then leaving. We’ll be living here, we care about it. We wanted to try to do right by everybody.”
More resources for development
City staff is also adding positions to the development services department, as part of the 2023 budget. The city hopes additional staff will streamline the planning and permitting process for developers. DJ Harrell leads the department.
“I think DJ got every single thing he wanted,” City Manager David Cook said. “We are not only adding positions, but we’re also moving positions from other departments under his supervision.”
The salaries in development services are supported by fees paid for by developers. Pending the budget’s approval, as development speeds up or slows down, Harrell will have the opportunity to add or takeaway staff depending on demand, Cook said.
“All of this is in an effort to facilitate the development process,” Cook said.
Since the completion of construction on The Holly, the city has also added an express community facilities agreement, allowing smaller developers to jump in line ahead of larger developments. Mears also met with leadership in Development Services to discuss the issues she faced.
“I think that is super necessary for small developments in particular,” Mears said.
In the meantime, the Development Advisory Committee meets monthly to discuss how the city can make infill development easier.
“I think a lot of people are looking forward to getting this done and hopefully it makes it a little bit easier for developments in the inner city and the central business district to get creative,” Clegg said.
Still, even with the pending improvements to the development process, when customers inquire about the empty lot directly adjacent to The Holly, her experience with the city looms over Mears.
“I want to recommend that other small developers do what we did,” Mears said. “It’s hard to make the numbers work without feeling confident that the city will be on your side.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. 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.