On November 1, Fort Worth’s Sundance Square Plaza opened to the public. Sited on two former surface parking lots that straddled Main Street between 3rd and 4th streets at the center of the city’s entertainment district, the plaza is meant to perform as a modern-day town square. Paved in brick and animated by decorative fountains, the 55,000-square-foot public space features a permanent stage that can be configured for large or small concerts and events as well as a multi-use pavilion, bicycle racks, audio/visual equipment, and seating. The plaza’s most distinctive feature is four giant “urban” umbrellas that provide shade to some 6,400 square feet of space, protecting pedestrians from the powerful Texas sun during the day while providing a backdrop for a light display at night.
“We wanted to create a monument for people to come together,” said David Schwartz, principal of Washington, D.C.-based David M. Schwartz Architects (DMSAS). “It’s a front porch for the community; a modern version of how town squares have always been.”
While it only just opened, Sundance Square Plaza was conceived 25 years ago. In the 1980s, local developers hired DMSAS to create a master plan with the goal of transforming downtown Fort Worth—which had suffered the same declining fate as most U.S. cities in the post-World War II era—into a pedestrian-oriented urban core alive with a variety of cultural amenities, shopping, work spaces, and residences.
“When I first came to Fort Worth, I viewed it as a moribund city, but not a dead city,” said Schwartz. “The question was how you nurse the patient back to health. My simple notion was to be able to walk around one block and experience life on every edge.”
While the master plan took into consideration some 150 blocks, its focus was a 30-block zone at the center of the city, an area that became known as Sundance Square. That also happens to be the name of the development corporation that oversees the district.
“Sundance Square is now almost 4 million square feet,” said Johnny Campbell, president and CEO of Sundance Square. “We currently own and operate 32 buildings, a number of which we’ve developed as infill, but developed in such a manner to have buildings that appear to belong to the palette and history and feel of Fort Worth. I’d say that there’s a critical marriage between the master plan process and the ownership and operation, the easiest way to say that is that Sundance Square was developed upon urban planning principals mixed with commercial real estate to create a strong sustainable downtown.”
DMSAS not only designed the master plan, the firm also completed some 14 infill projects detailed in the plan, both ground-up buildings as well as renovations. These include mixed-use developments such as the Sundance West and East, which combine residences with retail, offices, dining, and cinemas; The Westbrook, which has retail at the ground level with five levels of offices above; and The Cassidy, also a mix of retail and office. DMSAS has also worked on civic and cultural buildings in the district, including The Tarrant County Family Law Center, an expansion of the Fort Worth Central Library, the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, and a renovation of the Sid Richardson Museum.
“I think one of the keys to our success is that the master plan architect has been at the table all the way through with owner and developer,” said Campbell. “There’s been a single consciousness about the greater aims of the project that has lived through all the years of development.” The proof of this success is in the numbers. Even during the darkest days of the recent real estate crises, Sundance Square’s occupancy rates never went below 91 percent.
Schwartz, for his part, is proud of the work his firm has done thus far in Fort Worth, but he believes that the job is far from done. “For me, it’s a question of leaving the city healed,” he said. “When you walk around downtown Fort Worth now it feels like a place. But there’s still a lot of vacant land, there’s still a lot to do.”