The West 7th Street corridor was once envisioned to be the antithesis of Fort Worth’s infamous Hell’s Half-Acre.
The early owners of the land, the Van Zandt family, one of Fort Worth’s pioneer families, even added deed restrictions banning the sale of alcohol for future generations, or risking reverting the property to the Van Zandts.
A court decision striking those restrictions in 2008 opened the door for a new culture to take over. Fast forward 170 years since the founding of Fort Worth, and West 7th Street is home to the city’s busiest bar district.
But as the number of bars grows, so has the crime rate.
“I think a lot of folks were surprised by how many bars opened and to such an extent that the bars began to represent a significant part of the district’s character,” said Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa. “(It) creates a delicate situation in which we seek to balance what’s best for the bars with what’s best for the residents who live in and around the corridor.”
Unofficial bar designation
In his 38 years of running his art framing and museum conservation store on West 7th Street, James McAlister, 67, has witnessed the evolution of the area. But during the past few years, he’s been hesitant to go down to the area by Crockett Row, nearly 6.5 acres of dense mixed-use retail and residential properties, during the evenings.
“It’s a nightmare,” said the owner of Henson McAlister Master Picture Framers. “I can’t even go down there anymore at night without seeing multiple young people vomiting on the streets. That’s not an exaggeration.”
And sometimes, the bustling nightlife will cross west of University Drive and end up in front of his store, he said.
McAlister is no stranger to cleaning up the empty cups and bottles littering the front of his store before the 10 a.m. opening time. Sometimes, he will also clean up vomit in the front parking lot.
For McAlister, it’s almost become a Deep Ellum problem, he said.
Deep Ellum, Dallas’ arts and entertainment neighborhood that includes many bars, has seen a rise in crime and violence over the past few years.
Since 2010, about 17% of all new alcohol permits issued in Fort Worth were in the 76107 ZIP code. According to data from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, 50% of those 109 Cultural District alcohol permits were issued in the past three years.
In comparison, Magnolia Avenue and the 76104 ZIP code made up only 10.5% of all alcohol permits issued between 2010 and 2022. Downtown alcohol permits were about 7%.
Emil Bragdon is the owner of the Reservoir, Whiskey Garden, Your Mom’s House and Junk Punch on West 7th Street and has been in the area since 2012. He argues that the presence of the bars is an economic driver for the area and plays a large role in attracting other retail options.
“It’s increased property values across the board,” Bragdon said. “Some people may not like (the increased number of bars), but they are reaping the benefits from their higher property values.”
West 7th Street, which connects downtown Fort Worth to the Cultural District, is zoned for mixed-use, which includes high-density commercial and residential. Before that, it was a warehouse district.
The district was anchored by the former Acme Brick headquarters, which relocated to the southwest part of town in 2006. That area was not a pleasant part of town, Ken Randall, chair of the West Area Board of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, said.
“If you didn’t have business there, you didn’t go,” he said.
The redevelopment of that area began after the March 2000 tornado that ripped through Fort Worth and caused about $450 million in damages. A movie theater came in, and various restaurants lined the streets. High-rise apartment buildings housed residents looking for a walkable area.
Despite the prime location of West 7th Street, some vacant lots and retail storefronts remain. According to the city of Fort Worth, there was 142,600 vacant square footage in the urban village in 2017.
As people began to notice the vacancies, some were quick to point fingers at the bars. But Costa said it’s hard to deny the indirect role bars have had on the corridor.
“I don’t want to blame it on the bars, but I think we can blame it on the behavior of bar patrons,” Costa said.
Data from CrimeMapping, an online database that compiles data from existing reports from participating agencies like Fort Worth Police Department, shows 170 reports of assault, driving under the influence, disturbing the peace and drug/alcohol violations in the past 180 days in a half-mile radius of the bar district.
Of those 170 records, 55% were assaults and 23% were drug and alcohol violations.
In comparison, West Magnolia Avenue had 75 reports in the past 180 days in a half-mile radius. Downtown had 100 reports.
West Division Commander Buck Wheeler acknowledged a spike in violent crimes during the months of May and June but has overall decreased since 2018.
“We have a lot of people moving to the area, and then on the weekends, there can be surges in the population and crowd in the evenings from anywhere from five to 20,000 people,” Wheeler said. “The combination of residential apartments mixed in with an entertainment bar district created some unique challenges. And I think that became very apparent in 2016- 2017.”
Older city data also backs this up. From 2015 to 2017, overall crime in the area increased by 38 percent, with most crimes taking place between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to a 2017 Fort Worth city presentation.
Vehicle and pedestrian traffic also mirrors those time stamps with late weekend nights racking up the most reports.
Many business owners have spoken up about the need for more police officers on West 7th Street. Mad Hatter pub owner Chris Jordan, 41, said the city is aware of the rising crime rate in the corridor, but that safety precautions should not fall solely on the bar owners.
“We don’t want people to be scared to come, especially women,” Jordan said.
Younger Partners Investments recently acquired Crockett Row in early August. The company promised to bring a new look to the urban village’s brand by making parking easier to find and free near Crockett Row.
“It is arguably the best real estate in Fort Worth. The location is phenomenal and has just been hit pretty hard by COVID,” said Moody Younger, co-managing partner at YPI. “It needed new ownership to come in and breathe life back into it.”
The goal is to attract more daytime traffic from the upcoming office spaces to future retail options.
“That will make a difference in the success of all the retail and restaurants that we incorporate into the center,” said Kathy Permenter, co-managing partner at YPI.
McAlister believes more regulations like reducing the bar density at Crockett Row are necessary to control the increasing number of bars in the area and thus reduce the crime rate.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You want to be able to keep mom-and-pop businesses. You want to be able to have those businesses survive,” he said. “But that’s really only possible when there is a cooperative effort among the majority of property owners in a geographic area to control the sort of tenants they get.”
Costa, the assistant city manager, described possible regulations on the bars as “impractical to administer or even questionable in legality.”
“Sometimes folks will say, ‘Well, you let (the bars) get away with breaking the law because you want the tax revenue.’ That’s not a valid criticism,” Costa said. “I think we expect everyone to abide by the law without exception. And we applied the law in the corridor in the same way that we would apply it anywhere else in Fort Worth.”
The West 7th core generated $2.7 million in property tax revenue in 2021. That same area generated $1.1 million in city sales tax revenue for the general fund in 2021.
That same year, Fort Worth brought in $563.8 million in property tax revenue and almost $247.5 million in sales tax revenue, according to the 2021 adopted budget.
After a 2018 meeting to discuss the future of the West 7th urban village with business owners, residents and city officials, the city greenlit several initiatives, including adding police officers to patrol the area and improving traffic safety by designating some roads one-way.
The West 7th patrol team was created in April 2018 to address the rising crime rate. Since its inception, crime rates have trended downward, said Commander Wheeler.
“That first year that that team was put in place, there was over a 50% decrease in violent crime, just to give you a snapshot of how impactful that team was in that area,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler also noted the West 7th Street corridor has the largest concentration of police officers than anywhere else in the city. Even on days when the West 7th Street patrol team is understaffed, officers from outside the team – like neighborhood police officers – are added to the rotation.
“There have been weekends where that team is not fully staffed,” the commander said. “However, there have been more weekends where we have been overstaffed. Especially during the summer, there have been several weekends this summer where we’ve had an additional eight to 10 officers on a Saturday night.”
Bar owner Bragdon said the city’s response to the demand for more officers has been passive and sluggish.
“In the past 18 months, I would say crime has probably been the worst it’s been, and it’s because of a lack of effort from the city of making sure they’re listening,” he said. “Every time we tell them we need more police officers, they do something completely opposite that does not fix the situation.”
Costa said bar owners have also hired their own personal security in some instances and have been cooperative with law enforcement.
Bragdon said he has used private security since 2012, but the safety concerns are outside the bars, not inside.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Beck held a meeting on Crockett Row with residents and business owners in June to find ways to “promote mutual coexistence,” Costa said, describing the meeting as successful.
With several projects underway and in the pipeline for West 7th, the next decade could determine whether the urban village stays its course or pivots yet again in a new direction.
Bowie House Hotel, a 120-room boutique hotel at 3716 Camp Bowie Boulevard, is set to open in fall 2022. Crescent Real Estate’s mixed-use development will also bring 168,000 square feet of office space, 167 luxury residential units and a 200-room premium hotel.
The Van Zandt, a 250,000-square-foot mixed-use development luxury multifamily, office and street-level restaurant/retail space, is also coming to 2816 W. 7th St.
The future of Farrington Field, Fort Worth ISD’s historic stadium, could bring additional entertainment options to this side of town.
Costa said the next 20 years might bring considerable change to the character of West 7th Street, which has already seen massive changes in the past two decades.
“We need to make good decisions to ensure that that change is going to be beneficial to everybody.”
As for McAlister, the owner of the framing store, he has no plans to leave West 7th Street.
“My business partner and I aren’t going anywhere. We’re going to be here for a long time,” he said.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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