Tourists land in Fort Worth, ready to kick up their heels with some cowboys and culture, and promptly hustle over to Sundance Square.
Then, for some, the puzzlement sets in.
“We get the ‘Where is Sundance Square?’ questions. ‘How do I know I’m in this place that people are talking about?’” says Johnny Campbell, Sundance Square president and CEO. “So we ask them where they are. They say, ‘I’m at Third and Main.’ We say, ‘You’re standing right in the middle of it.’”
That’s long been the mystery of Sundance Square. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “There is no square there.”
And yet, Sundance Square has become as emblematic of Fort Worth as the Stockyards. A magnet for retail, restaurants, entertainment and people-watching, Sundance Square is one of the main reasons Fort Worth is regularly recognized among the nation’s best downtowns.
On Friday, Sundance gets its square.
The city will unveil Sundance Square Plaza, a $110 million project that turns a couple of parking lots and part of Main Street into a pedestrian-only town square, finally giving Fort Worth a true center, a beating heart of traditional urbanity and a gathering spot for civic celebrations.
Bounded by Third and Fourth streets on the north and south, Commerce and Houston on the east and west, the 55,000-square-foot Sundance Square Plaza includes a performance stage, a fountain, a wave wall, bike racks and four futuristic 32-foot-tall, high-tech white umbrellas — opening each morning like flowers — providing relief from the heat during the day and coming to life with lights at night.
Surrounding the square are three new mixed-use buildings, with retail/restaurants on their ground floors including Del Frisco’s Grille, Taco Diner and Bird Cafe, the highly anticipated eatery from Fort Worth restaurateur Shannon Wynne of Flying Saucer and Flying Fish fame. But it’s not all about the sleek and the modern and, in that way, it’s typically Fort Worth.
The Chisholm Trail Mural, created on the side of the 1902-era Jett Building by artist Richard Haas in 1985, now has a prominent place on the northwest side of the plaza.
“In addition to new construction, that project is also a preservation project,” says architect John Roberts, a senior associate at the Fort Worth firm of Halbach-Dietz, via email.
“Sundance Square asked for historic and cultural landmark designations for the Land Title Block and Jett buildings,” continues Roberts, who also runs the site fortwortharchitecture.com. “These two buildings are definitely landmarks and I think they may be getting lost in all of the celebration of the plaza and the new buildings.”
Expectations are high, then, that this uniquely Cowtown creation can inject new life into downtown — which has had to share the spotlight in recent years with growing entertainment districts in the West Seventh Street corridor and along Magnolia Avenue in the near south side neighborhood — and finally make good on the promise Sundance Square designers made three decades ago.
“When I go to cities, I don’t just look at buildings,” says Fort Worth architect Joe Self. “I look at parks and urban space. … In Paris, Rome, New York or London, it’s these nonbuilding spaces that actually make the city. The buildings are wonderful, but the things that most people enjoy are the spaces. If you have a great space, you have a chance to have a great city.”
From parking to plaza
Having a central plaza was long part of the plan to revive downtown that began to take shape in the ’80s. But a dispute between the Bass family, the developers of Sundance Square and the descendants of transportation pioneer R.C. Bowen, who owned a parking lot at the center of where the plaza was planned, kept it on hold.
In 2004, urban planner Fred Kent, president of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, a group that campaigns for and designs pedestrian-friendly urban spaces, bemoaned how this battle was keeping Fort Worth from reaching its potential. He said that the city could have something to equal to Krakow’s Rynek Glowny Central Square in Poland, considered one of the finest plazas in Europe.
“When you see something so great [as Rynek Glowny], you think of a place like Fort Worth,” he told the Star-Telegram at the time. “It’s the only city I can think of that has that kind of opportunity right in the heart of downtown, I promise you.”
The fight finally was resolved in 2009 after the group of 20 heirs sold the land to the Sinclair Group (which owned the nearby Sinclair Building). The Basses subsequently purchased the 15,000-square-foot tract from Sinclair. Then efforts shifted back to building the plaza, but plans had changed in the interim.
“At one point, it was going to be modeled after Union Square in San Francisco and there was going to be a big underground parking garage,” says Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, whose district includes downtown. “That would have meant removing or moving historic buildings, and none of that was viable.
“Since the original concept, needs have changed,” he continues, referring to the fact that, back then, it was assumed everyone would be driving. “We recognize more modes of transportation than motor vehicles and there are people who live downtown now.”
Of course, Fort Worth isn’t the only city that has tried in recent years to re-create an urban gathering space at its core. It seems to have become something of an obsession in urban-planning circles, with other area cities, like Arlington with its Founders Park/Levitt Pavilion, getting in on the action as well.
Some, like Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park (which celebrated its first anniversary last month) and New York’s 19th-century Bryant Park (redesigned and reopened in 1992), have received global plaudits. Others, such as Dallas’ deserted Victory Park (currently undergoing a revamp) or Los Angeles’ historic and renovated but still unloved Pershing Square, which the Los Angeles Times recently described as “uninviting,” “dreary” and “sun-scorched,” not so much.
Donald Gatzke, University of Texas Arlington dean of architecture, says that unlike Victory Plaza, Sundance Square seems to have the recipe for success. “There’s a wider variety of spaces and scale of space in Sundance Square than there is in Victory Park,” he observes. “They’re different situations. Victory was new construction, trying to add an element to the city. Fort Worth had the advantage of this being in the center of an already intact fabric.”
That’s why, even when there were parking lots blanketing much of the space, Sundance Square had managed to gain national attention. ESPN chose to stage broadcasts there in 2011 during the Super Bowl and will return in April 2014 to set up its studios for coverage of the NCAA Men’s Final Four, to be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. (More immediately, Nov. 7 kicks off the start of the Lone Star Film Festival in Sundance Square.)
“It’s noteworthy that Sundance Square has been functioning very successfully … and has an image and identity, even though most of the time it was filled with cars,” says Gatzke. “This is just giving a physical manifestation to what was already embedded in people’s minds.”
Landscape architect Michael Vergason — whose Virginia-based firm has worked on projects as diverse as Houston’s Rice University, Monticello and the historic city of Petra in Jordan — says his goal was to give Fort Worth a place to catch its breath, to be, as has been said of Sydney, Australia’s famous Royal Botanic Gardens near the iconic Opera House and Vancouver’s Stanley Park — “the lungs of the city.”
“Imagine a kind of civic living room for the community,” he says. “Every city needs spaces where it’s allowed to breathe.”
Of course, Vergason was working with much less acreage and greenery than those expansive parks. Plus, he faced a couple of challenges when coming up with the plaza’s design. First, it had to be both expansive and intimate.
“[Sundance] had a very robust list of programming envisioned for the place before we even started designing,” he says, referring to events like Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival, the annual holiday tree lighting, the Parade of Lights and the Stock Show Parade. “A central tenet was they were interested in maintaining a great degree of openness, especially in the middle. … But how to design a place that was comfortable for big groups but at the same time make it comfortable when it’s quiet?”
The other problem was the always uninvited guest: Texas weather.
He aimed to solve the first issue by keeping the center open and unobstructed but surrounding it with the water features and slightly elevated terraces where people can sit. “Water engages people. There’s the cooling effects and the beauty of it,” he says, noting that the wave wall is both “quiet and reflective.”
The towering mechanical umbrellas are the answer to the second quandary. “They give you 6,400 square feet of shade, which otherwise is difficult to provide,” he says.
Though the umbrellas were a practical solution, Vergason believes now that they could become “the signature of the place.”
“There’s nothing like them anywhere in the country.”
Too much of a good thing?
Of course, none of this means anything if people don’t use the plaza.
Certainly, the success of Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, which was expected to welcome its millionth visitor last weekend, shows that North Texans will get out of their cars to hang out in a public space if it’s inviting enough. Sundance Square plans to ramp up it’s schedule of public events, including a New Year’s Eve celebration with the popular local band Professor D.
“I expect it’s going to be very successful,” says Gatzke. “I know they’ve got a full program of activities that are going to be scheduled. … Sundance Square and the Basses are very much attuned to the reality of what should be in that public space, have it programmed with activities on a regular basis, and they are prepared to support it.”
Bill Katz, owner of the sports bar Frankie’s on West Third Street, is thankful that the plaza is completed, as the “construction was scaring people away” from downtown, though he still has to contend with construction from the City Place development “making my life miserable.”
“Once everything gets open, we’ll have to wait and see,” he says, though he’s cautiously optimistic that the Basses wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think it would be successful.
But Sundance Square Plaza is coming online at a time when other entertainment districts — including West Seventh Street and the near south side — are expanding and have been nabbing the lion’s share of the attention recently with a steady stream of restaurant and entertainment venue openings.
As the spotlight returns to downtown, could this be a case of having too many choices? Of too many places chasing too few entertainment dollars?
“Each of these areas is improving and have their own draw and attraction,” says councilman Burns, who also represents the West Seventh area. “They’re very different destinations but they feed off each other. I just wish we had more modern transportation connecting those communities.”
Eric Tschetter, owner of the long-running Fort Worth bar/restaurant The Pour House — which four years ago moved to West Seventh after being a downtown institution — isn’t so sure that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“It will be interesting to see if people start going back downtown,” he says. “They switched to West Seventh, [but] everyone’s going to try the new thing. My thing is I just don’t think Fort Worth has that many people going out. We’re adding bars and restaurants faster than the population. When we opened, we were packed, and now there are so many places you can go: here, on University, Camp Bowie or downtown.”
Down on Magnolia in the near south side, Mike Brennan, planning director for the non-profit development group Fort Worth South, isn’t concerned. “We’ve known that the plaza was to be the centerpiece of Sundance Square for years,” he says. “But everybody is working to bring as many residents as possible to all of our areas. … These three areas are becoming destinations, attracting people from throughout the region.”
He says one way the near south side is attracting attention is through special events, such as the next Open Streets, in which part of Magnolia Avenue is turned into a pedestrian hangout with art, food trucks and a skate park, on Nov. 10. “These events are really about attracting people,” he says. “Making sure more and more people see these areas and the transformation that has happened in the last decade.”
“When we look at the things happening along Seventh Street and the near south side, we saw that as validation to the Sundance vision of 30 years ago,” says Sundance’s Johnny Campbell. “Sundance sales have grown through all of it.”
Campbell says he will know that Sundance Square Plaza is a success when locals and visitors head there even when there’s no big event, much like what has happened with Klyde Warren Park.
“If people say, ‘I’m going to go downtown. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but there’s going to be something going on,’ that’s what we want,” he says. “If we get that in the minds of people, we’ve done our jobs.”