When asked about the underpasses that act as gateways into both the Historic Southside and Near Southside neighborhoods, residents described them as dark, unwelcoming and scary. 

But a group is coming together in hopes of making those so-called urban gateways more welcoming.

Near Southside Inc., a nonprofit invested in revitalizing its namesake neighborhood, and Fort Worth Public Art are working with artists and community members to reimagine the underpasses at Rosedale and I-35W and South Main and I-30.

“These underpasses have been a barrier to other parts of the city,” Caleb Roberts, a project manager at Gap Strategies who is working on this project, said. “And as a great urban planning principle we’re here to make connections and not block people off from each other.”

The group held two meetings last week at the Southside Community Center and Amphibian Stage to give residents the opportunity to learn about the project and share their ideas.

Both underpasses fall within one of the city’s tax increment financing districts, commonly known as TIFs, which collect money for infrastructure improvement projects in designated areas. This status for the Southside/Medical District is set to expire in December unless an extension is approved by City Council.

Tapping into this program creates a tight deadline for gathering feedback, presenting a plan and getting the funding approved.

“My initial reaction was that it’s well overdue,” Howard Rattliff Jr. said. “I don’t know why it took so long and why, at the very end of the period used to get the funds, they quickly put these two projects together. But in the final analysis, it’s a good thing.”

The retired engineer, who is also a volunteer at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in the Historic Southside, hopes this project can draw people into the neighborhood rather than just driving past it.

I’d like to see some iron work like at the Stockyards … some sort of branding or some sort of calling card where, whether it’s day or night, they know they’re in that neighborhood,” he said in a small group discussion at the public meeting.

Patrina Newton, a recently retired senior planner with the city of Fort Worth’s planning and data analytics department, agreed that the tight timeline is not ideal. However, she hopes the group will use tools like social media, online surveys and the city’s communication and public engagement department to gather feedback quickly.

“It would have been good if there had been more of a time frame, but that’s not the situation we’re in,” Newton said. I’m glad that when they saw they had this TIF money that needed to be expended, that they made a decision, ‘Let’s move and not let the money just go to waste.’”

The borders of the taxing district are large, so Newton said she was happy to see a project in the Historic Southside that can help boost some of the other recent renovations nearby.

“I think like all of these projects … work toward the betterment (of the neighborhood), but none are a panacea,” she said.

The underpass at Rosedale St. and I-35W is one of the sites in a proposal to redesign two urban gateways in Fort Worth. (Marcheta Fornoff)

Mike Brennan, the president of Near Southside Inc., said the nature of the underpasses is one reason why these projects weren’t taken up sooner.

A lot of times projects are identified and prioritized because they are located in areas where there are significant private developments,” he explained. Both of these underpass (projects), they’re not initiated by a developer.”

But, their role connecting neighborhoods together is part of what makes them so important. 

“The experience of traveling through them, certainly on foot or on a bicycle but also in cars, is not very pleasant,” he said.  “And we’ve seen so many great underpass transformations across the state, across the country. We should all work together to improve conditions at these underpasses and really try to transform them into the gateways that they should be.”

Fort Worth Public Art selected Bill FitzGibbons and the cofounders of RE:site — Norman Lee and Shane Allbritton — to lead the design process and mentor a pair of local artists who have ties to the projects’ neighborhoods, but haven’t had the opportunity to create public art before.

Martha Peters, director of the city’s public art program, said that some projects like those at parks or in municipal buildings lend themselves well to emerging artists, but the location and needs of both underpasses are significantly more complicated.

“It requires a lot of coordination, and it really restricts what can be done there because of all the practical considerations for the transportation corridor,” she explained. “We thought this project really offers a unique opportunity to have a couple of artists selected who can follow those artists through the process and really understand what it means to not only do a public art project, but to create a work of art in what is a challenging environment.”

Applications for local artists will open on Fort Worth Public Art’s website soon, and a separate website is being built to host information about the project and allow residents to give feedback.

The group plans to spend September through October developing design concepts. Artists will present those ideas at town hall events in either late October or early November, and those plans and cost estimates will be presented at a taxing district meeting in early December.

If the funding is approved, Brennan says there are still several steps that will need to happen, including an environmental review, working with the Texas Department of Transportation, the city and railroad.

I wish that we had a team on board a year ago, and maybe we wouldn’t be as pressed for time,” he said. “I also think that the way that this is playing out, there’s plenty of time to put a great design idea together, working closely with the community.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on 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.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...