How Fort Worth’s Near Southside balances arts and tech

The coronavirus pandemic has not stymied growth in Fort Worth’s popular Near Southside, though the shutdown did turn the Magnolia Avenue and South Main Street strips into quiet ghost towns earlier this year.

But the district has a lot more work to do to cultivate Fort Worth’s next generation of artists and businesses owners, said Mike Brennan, president of Near Southside Inc. Though the virus may continue to prevent in-person meetings, this fall Near Southside Inc. and partners will study the need for two new developments: a enclave for artists and other creatives and a tech incubator to spur startups.

Both hubs are in the early stages, but would be vital to Fort Worth, Brennan said.

“These are our two economic and cultural anchors,” he said.

The Near Southside is a cluster of neighborhoods roughly bound by Interstate 30 in the north, Allen Avenue in the south, Evans Avenue in the east and Forrest Park Boulevard in the west. It includes the South Main and Magnolia Avenue urban villages, the northern part of Fairmount, and the Evans and Rosedale urban village east of Interstate 35W.

Fort Worth’s tech and arts nucleus

Of the two concepts, a live-work space for artists is in the earliest stages. Nears Southside Inc. has partnered with Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace to study how the idea could work in Fort Worth. Conversations will begin Wednesday and Thursday with city leaders and members of the art community, Brennan said.

This hub would feature low-rent apartments for creative types along with studio or work space, he said. A coffee shop or small restaurant would anchor the development with one or two art-minded entities like a gallery or nonprofit. Public space, like an outdoor venue, would be crucial to create an atmosphere where artists and others can gather.

“All of those ingredients create this hub, you know, for the creative community and for the broader community,” Brennan said. “It’s located in the middle of the action and becomes another amenity for the community.”

Though the concept has not been solidified, Brennan said three sites have already been discussed, including vacant land in the South Main urban village and the abandoned 1927 Fort Worth Recreation building at 215 W. Vickery Blvd.

The Texas Arts Commission’s designation of the Near Southside last month as a state cultural district solidifies the cluster of neighborhoods as a center for art, and the Near Southside will celebrate the announcement this month with ARTober, a series of curated and virtual events that includes 17 new public murals.

Another concept — a nucleus for entrepreneurship — is part of a larger effort to brand the Near Southside as Fort Worth’s research and development core.

The area includes Fort Worth’s medical district and a high concentration of biotech and medical research firms. Promoters have touted the district, dubbed iter8 Health Innovation Community, as a way to promote the Near Southside as a tech center, but more incubator space is needed to attract entrepreneurship.

It’s likely workspace is needed for both new ventures that are moving from the idea phase into the early stages of development as well as space for entrepreneurs to scale up their company ahead of moving to their own property or being purchased, said Hayden Blackburn, executive director of Tech FW.

Exact Diagnostics is one of the most recent and best examples of the type of scaling Blackburn is referring to.

Jerry Boonyaratanakornkit and Richie Petronis took advantage of space in the Tech FW incubator and lab space at UNT Health Science Center when they started the company in 2015. California-based Bio-Rad purchased Exact Diagnostics for $60 million and will headquarter the lab testing supply company in the historic Katy Depot building at Vickery and Jones in the Near Southisde.

For other companies to have this type of success in Fort Worth, they need cheap lab space, which a startup hub would provide, he said.

But first, tech promoters will need to understand how much space is required and where it should be. Over the next few months the Urban Land Institute will study the Near Southside and the capacity of incubators before recommending a pilot development some time early next year.

“You never want to be like ‘Field of Dreams’: ‘If we build it, they will come,’” it’s more of what the true demand is,” Blackburn said, adding later that success with companies like Exact Diagnostics shows there’s a “great appetite” for this kind of space. “We can hit the gas pedal and really support more and make this an attractive place.”

Near Southside apartments

The Near Southside continues to be an attractive place to live, though Brennan said there is “an urgent need” for apartments below the market rate.

“There’s a need for a full spectrum of housing options for our entire workforce and for anybody that would want to live in the Near Southside,” he said. “That’s been a goal and it continues to be a goal.”

Before 2017, the Near Southside had 1,088 apartment, condo or townhouse units. Since then, nearly 3,000 units have been built or are under development, making way for nearly 4,500 new residents, according to a spreadsheet Brennan provided.

Brennan didn’t have an exact breakdown, but most of these units are market rate.

The most recent complex, The Cooper at 1001 West Rosedale St., opened last week and is the largest apartment building in the district with 390 units. (The Monarch and the Bowery also have more than 300 apartments.) The $65 million, five-story complex features floor plans from 540 to 1,810 square feet, with prices ranging from $1,200 to $4,000 per month.

The service industry workers that keep the Near Southside vibrant may not be able to afford apartments like those, but some lower rent options have recently opened or are in the works.

The 110-unit Mistletoe Station rents most units for those making 30%, 50% and 60% of area median income. Developers Saigebrook Development and O-SDA Industries took advantage of state housing tax credits to fund the project, which is at 1916 Mistletoe Blvd. near a proposed TEXRail station.

At another train stop, T&P Station, the 209-unit Katy Lofts would replace the Trinity Metro parking lot south of the station at Vickery and S. Main. This complex will have a mix of market rate and income restricted units.

Earlier this year, Fort Worth school district sold the vacant Magnolia Building, at 1066 W. Magnolia Ave., for more than $2.7 million to Urban Genesis. The Houston-based developer has proposed a four-story building with just over 100 apartments and two retail spaces.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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