Yellow, blue and purple hues lit up the projector screen inside Christ The Risen King Church on a mild January afternoon. The land-use maps, presented by Legal Aid of Northwest Texas attorney Haley Varnadoe, showed what southeast Fort Worth residents already know when they step outside their front doors.
A slew of industrial facilities – including trucking companies, garbage collection sites and shipping centers – surround the majority Black and Hispanic community of Echo Heights. In turn, Echo Heights and nearby Stop Six residents have over the years complained of cancers, miscarriages and other serious health conditions they believe are caused or exacerbated by the incessant air pollution.
At the January meeting, organized by the Echo Heights and Stop Six Environmental Coalition, a handful of residents discussed where their community is headed – and how to move it forward.
What is the comprehensive plan?
The plan reflects Fort Worth’s goals, policies, strategies and programs that will help achieve the city’s stated mission of building strong and safe communities and develop a strong economy.
The plan helps city officials review zoning cases; identify budget priorities; prepare capital improvement programs; inform annexations; and establish development standards.
“We do need the jobs in the area, but we don’t need more heavy industrial development that is going to cause more problems and more harm to our community and our green space,” said Cedric Lee, a longtime Fort Worth resident who attended the meeting.
Fort Worth’s comprehensive plan classifies Echo Heights as an “industrial growth center” slated to bring similar companies to the area over the next several years. The designation has been in place since 2000 – the last time city staff launched a major campaign to engage the public about the comprehensive plan, which reflects Fort Worth’s long-term priorities and provides guidance for decisions related to growth and development, including zoning.
Twenty-three years later, city staff are gearing up to give the comprehensive plan a “reboot,” said Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant director of planning and data analytics. Staff agreed that it was time to do a more complete revamp of the plan, which is updated annually, he said.
The city soon will hire a consultant to conduct a communitywide public engagement process, including virtual and in-person meetings, and collect feedback on what city government can do to make Fort Worth a place where people want to live and work, Fladager said.
While his staff of seven has held open houses and attended community meetings upon request, the team doesn’t have the capacity to conduct a citywide survey each year, Fladager said. Residents have also weighed in at public city plan commission meetings.
‘Everybody’s got a role to play’
Fladager expects the consultant to specifically engage residents who know little about the comprehensive plan or feel that “nobody cares what they think.”
Timeline of changes to comprehensive plan
March 2023: Council expected to vote on 2023 comprehensive plan
Summer 2023: City hires consultant to lead public engagement; meetings begin
March 2024: Council expected to vote on 2024 comprehensive plan with small changes
December 2024: City staff begin presenting updated 2025 comprehensive plan
March 2025: Council expected to vote on “rebooted” 2025 comprehensive plan with significant changes
“We want to get those folks to be able to participate so we build a sort of ownership in the community, ownership of the city’s future, and a recognition that everybody’s got a role to play in creating a place that’s better than what it is today,” Fladager said.
Community meetings could begin as soon as this summer, and Fladager expects the process to last at least a year. City staff are waiting until after the May 6 election so they can include two new council members, in District 10 and District 11, in the campaign.
The timeline means public input will be reflected in the 2025 comprehensive plan, and the 2023 and 2024 documents will include little change beyond updated data and the adoption of new city master plans. City Council members are expected to vote on the 2023 comprehensive plan, which includes new maps reflecting the location of federal floodplains, in late March.
“What we really would like to see is a community that people want to be in and they want to stay in,” Fladager said. “We don’t want folks to feel like they have to leave Fort Worth in order to have opportunities or be innovative, or creative, or whatever it might be. We want to generate those opportunities here and we want to hear from those people.”
‘The community does not trust the city’
Fort Worth’s outreach efforts will run into a history of distrust between the city and the communities of color that call Fort Worth home.
Letitia Wilbourn, a retired Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy who co-founded the Echo Heights and Stop Six Environmental Coalition, expects city staff to “manipulate” the process so that the comprehensive plan will continue to support industrial facilities in communities like hers.
Over the past two years, Echo Heights re-established its neighborhood association and successfully fought a trucking facility across from an elementary school. Black and brown communities are often the last to hear about proposals to further industrialize their neighborhoods, deepening the gap between residents and city leaders, Wilbourn said.
“Even if (city staff) come over here, the community does not trust the city,” Wilbourn said. “They don’t trust anything about the city at this point. They see the city as the enemy, which they are. The city has put themselves in this position to not be trusted by its citizens.”
Gena Byrd serves as the environmental climate justice program coordinator for the NAACP’s Tarrant County / Fort Worth branch. She’s followed the comprehensive planning process for several years.
The city’s success in reflecting the priorities of people of color will depend on their dedication to reaching communities that are not as vocal and organized as Echo Heights, she said. Pockets of west and east Fort Worth, including the Como neighborhood and Stop Six, also struggle with industrial activity and pollution, Byrd said.
“Getting input from one prominent community, that’s not good enough,” Byrd said. “We have this in multiple places where they may not be speaking up. What are you going to do about those where it’s still happening, but you don’t have a prevalent person? Are you only going to address it if there’s a point person? Why not address it because you see it and it’s the right thing to do?”
Industrial centers unlikely to change, city staff says
Growth centers, including the one near Echo Heights, help create a balance of housing and nearby jobs so that city planners can reduce the amount of traffic congestion on roads and the associated pollution, Fladager said.
“Having neighborhoods nearby is not viewed necessarily as a bad thing because they can get to their jobs quickly, and you’re providing jobs close to where they live,” Fladager said.
Echo Heights is part of the Loop 820 East/Lake Arlington industrial growth center, while more affluent areas like Clearfork and the Cultural District are considered regional mixed-use growth centers. Other industrial growth centers include Alliance Airport, Walsh Ranch South and Loop 820 West/Aledo Road.
Industrial growth centers are defined as having a concentration of 10,000-plus employees per square mile. The city’s definition notes that “residential uses are generally discouraged within” growth centers, though the definition does not rule out nearby neighborhoods.
Changing an established industrial growth center designation is unlikely, Fladager said, unless development on the ground has drastically shifted and is inconsistent with the city’s maps. Changing the designation would not change the development that’s already taking place, he said.
That doesn’t mean redevelopment isn’t possible over the next several decades, Fladager said.
“If it’s an area where the buildings are reaching the end of their useful life or the property values are increasing to the point where the market is ready to step in and redevelop areas, we’ll look for those opportunities when we’re trying to identify potential new growth centers,” he said.
At a Feb. 23 work session, District 5 councilmember Gyna Bivens said her constituents, including those in Echo Heights, want a true voice in how their communities are shaped. After the May 6 election, Echo Heights and other portions of southeast Fort Worth will be represented by a new District 11 council member.
“Their thoughts are just because this started in 2000 doesn’t mean that it has to continue along this path,” Bivens said.
Residents will be more likely to attend public meetings about the comprehensive plan if they know that their concerns about environmental issues will be discussed, Bivens said.
While city staff have been responsive to her requests for information, Byrd is not optimistic the city will make substantial changes to its comprehensive plan based on public feedback. Fort Worth officials are appeasing critics by responding to their concerns on the surface, she said, but the proof will be in what makes it into the 2025 plan.
“We have to hold their feet to the fire,” Byrd said. “We’re not going to stand for: ‘Oh, it’s already there.’ That’s the point. That’s why we need to make some changes because it was bad, and it’s still bad, and they’re still doubling down.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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