CDAT Blog Post | Community Design Action Team
In her book “North of the River: A Brief History of North Fort Worth,” J’Nell Pate tells the story of the North Side. The title suggests that this part of the city was defined by its relationship to the Trinity River. In the foreword, Bob Schieffer, CBS journalist and North Side High School graduate, writes that “as America becomes more homogenized, fewer and fewer of our cities retain individual identities.” He continues, declaring that this is not true for the North Side, “which will never be mistaken for another place or even another part of Fort Worth.”
Fort Worth is booming. Last year, it added about 54 persons per day, making it the third largest gain in the country, behind Phoenix and San Antonio, and moving Fort Worth to 13th on the list of largest cities in the U.S. The city has been busy investing in major infrastructure to attract development. In the North Side, the Stockyards are expanding with a new Design Overlay District. Tex-Rail, the commuter line to DFW Airport, which began operation in late 2018, has a station in the North Side, and the city hopes to attract development around it. The biggest project in Fort Worth is Panther Island. This flood control project will create an island in the heart of the city by using a bypass channel that will redirect flood waters and allow for the removal of existing levees, resulting in new waterfront property prime for development. Estimates are that 20,000 people will come to Panther Island to live and work there.
What does all of this mean for the North Side? Home to an established Hispanic community, the North Side, at times, feels isolated from the rest of the city. This isolation seems to be the result of physical barriers like the river and the railroads. From the very beginning, the Stockyards, once an economic engine of Fort Worth, provided jobs and opportunities for immigrants from Mexico and Eastern Europe, but they also brought with them the noise and smells of cattle pens and industrial zoning that was imposed on the area, many times without community awareness. This created distrust of the city by members of the community. Concerns about crime, safety, and gentrification have led to the creation of grassroots groups that call attention to these issues.
Over the past year, we have made a concerted effort to engage with the people of the North Side. Through interdisciplinary design studios at UTA, we conducted research to understand the history and current state of Fort Worth and the North Side neighborhood. We also held a series of community meetings to try to understand their needs directly. We took our students into the North Side, and we invited current and former residents and leaders from the North Side to come and visit our studio. It was important to us that they see what an architecture studio looks like and how we work.
After the analysis phase, the studios developed urban visions and master plans for the neighborhood. One of the key findings of the research was that population growth projections for the North Side were very high. Additionally, in order to mitigate urban blight, the city removed most duplex zoning from the area. This, we believe, was an overcorrection of a problem and can have a negative impact by not permitting higher levels of density to accommodate current and new residents in the area. For that reason, the studio was assigned to design infill housing, including duplexes, within the fabric of the neighborhood, as well as higher density multi-family housing along the major thoroughfares. This was to prove that there are ways of increasing density without damaging a neighborhood’s character.
In the spring of this year, we looked specifically at the convergence of public space, culture, and crime to develop ideas about a new hybrid police-community station. The students researched issues related to crime/safety along an important neighborhood commercial corridor and developed urban and architectural ideas to create a safe urban environment.
The work was then exhibited at The Rose Marine Theater and Gallery in the heart of the North Side in an exhibition we called “North of the Island?!?,” acknowledging Panther Island’s importance to the future of the neighborhood. The reception was well attended by a diverse group that included architects, planners, designers, academics, students, city leaders, policy makers, city staff, developers, and members of the North Side community.
This effort was supported by AIA Fort Worth through the Building Better Communities initiative, UTA’s “Open and Just City Symposium” and Landscape and Architecture design studios focusing on urban and social issues with my colleagues Dr. Taner Ozdil. In the spring of this year, UTA’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs awarded a $20,000 grant to continue research on the North Side.
Additionally, AIA Fort Worth’s Latinos in Architecture chapter has held their first two annual PERSPECTIVAS Exhibitions in the North Side. Together, these exhibitions total about two months of exposure and awareness of the growing Latino influence in the design professions.
Community engagement is mutually beneficial. It helps architects and designers use their skills to conduct meaningful work while encouraging underrepresented communities to enter the design professions and to have a permanent seat at the table. We have seen increased diversity within architecture schools — my undergraduate studio from the spring of this year included 11 Latinos/as out of a total of 14 students. While it is difficult to know why students choose a particular studio or instructor, some students have made it clear that they were interested in working on real problems in communities that reflect their own background. It is extremely encouraging to know that these students will graduate and become leaders in their practice and communities, and will bring with them experiences and perspectives that have, for the most part, been missing from the profession.
Dennis Antonio Chiessa, Assoc. AIA, is an assistant professor in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs.