Mule Alley in the Fort Worth Stockyards has been repurposed as a mixed-use district where office space, retail, and hospitality activate what were once barns and stables.
Architect Bennett Benner Partners
General Contractor Commerce Construction Company
Structural Engineer JQ Engineering
MEP Engineer Summit Consultants
Civil Engineer Kimley-Horn
Landscape Architect Lifescapes International
The horse and mule barnes at the Fort Worth Stockyards occupy a large tract within the district’s cultural heart along Marine Creek. Built in 1912 as a replacement for the original structures, which succumbed to fire, the stables contributed greatly to the fabric of the district, though their use for the livestock trade came to an end well before the Stockyard’s historic designation in 1976. Aside from the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame museum, a trail riding company, and a gift shop occupying the storefronts along East Exchange Avenue, the complex sat largely abandoned and neglected until the Stockyards Heritage Development Company invested $175 million in their Stockyards properties, including the renovation of Mule Alley.
Mule Alley balances the Stockyards’ evolution into a mixed-use urban district and tourist destination that trades on its historic character through a thoughtful rehabilitation of the 1912 built fabric. The adaptive reuse project was led by Fort Worth architectural practice Bennett Benner Partners (BBP), which subdivided the 180,000 sf of brick, concrete, and steel barns and stables into a series of leasable spaces. These spaces are characterized by double-height volumes with elevated catwalks and haylofts, which were once used as platforms for traders to view and feed the equines on the floor below.
As a mixed-use diagram, the project is straightforward. Public programming along the northern edge focuses toward the Livestock Exchange Building — the heart of the Fort Worth Stockyards district. Mule Alley runs perpendicular, toward the south, from E. Exchange Avenue to the site of a future hotel, with stables and barns lining both sides. The entrance to the alley is through an existing gateway framed by two-story towers. The alley itself has been transformed into a pleasant, tree-lined, walkable corridor. The barns and stables on the west side are now mostly retail and restaurant spaces, and those on the east side are mostly offices, currently occupied by a tech company, Simpli.fi, which funnels digital advertising campaigns into local markets.
The rehabilitation walks a line between retaining historical character and providing tenants a desired amount of storefront visibility and exposure. Storefronts were scaled to the original rough openings within the rehabbed brick facades. Signage is respectfully set among the brick through the use of transparent graphics atop the framed openings and blade signage that complements the existing metal detailing.
Second Rodeo Brewing, which occupies a building adjacent to the breezeway, features a new roof with an operable skylight that maintains the profile of the original, pre-fire structure. A patio for the brewery further activates the creek edge.
BBP’s tenant guidelines set the tone for the historic quality of the interior spaces and offset the desire for larger storefronts. Each tenant benefits from the double-height volumes and existing character. Catwalks above serve as the back of house, with each tenant creatively expressing a program that is traditionally kept out of sight. Where collaboration between BBP and tenant designers occurred, MEP and tenant lighting stand free of clerestory light exposure and are visually worked into the design of the existing spaces. Among the more adventurous and pleasing examples of tenant fit-out are Shake Shack by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, Provender Hall by interior designer Kate Murphy (with BBP), and a future Avoca coffee shop by Mitchell Garman Architects.
Mule Alley, when considered alongside its recent typological counterparts in Fort Worth, is refreshingly atypical. Mixed-use development has become formulaic, driven by efficiency and economics and focused primarily around a “theme” or story. Clearfork, WestBend, and Crockett Row are recent examples whose ambitious plans are inherently similar by model: Get the diagram right, make the parking count appropriate, double load the retail, detail the central street, and add some wayfinding. The people will come.
While Mule Alley breaks a number of these failsafes (for example, it has very little parking), it has been successful and is almost fully leased — 90 percent to be exact. This shows that the best mixed-use can happen when working with the historic fabric and taking care of it. The respect that BBP showed in their handling of Mule Alley will hopefully serve as an inspiration for how we handle future development in Fort Worth and beyond. “I see Mule Alley as a metaphor of our city,” says BBP Principal Michael Bennett, AIA. “It is taking our history and the public’s perception of our city and evolving it into something new.”
Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at CallisonRTKL in Dallas.