Where once there were two parking lots on either side of Main Street in the center of downtown Fort Worth, there is now the much-loved and much-used Sundance Square. The Square has become an integral part of the downtown Fort Worth experience, hosting events both large and small, and taking on an increasing role in the life of the city.
PPS has proudly played a major role in the Placemaking efforts of Fort Worth; our participation in this evolution of Sundance Square and the surrounding community is the most recent example. In helping to shape the design and program of this plaza, PPSers facilitated public workshops that included community stakeholders, event producers, city officials, and members of the general public – a common starting point in the Placemaking process. Through these discussions, it became clear that people mostly thought of downtown Fort Worth as an area to pass through, but not a destination in itself. There wasn’t enough seating or shade, for starters, and the area was underutilized. During the week it was bustling, as well as during weekend events, but other times it felt desolate. The community also felt that the variety of stores and services were great, but the neighborhood could use more places for food and other necessities.
Based on these findings, PPS provided an activation plan that gave the ideas of the community a physical presence on the square. Ideas like shade structures, water features, and active edges made the square into the destination that it is today, giving the people of Fort Worth a new reason to go downtown. All of these findings reinforced what Sundance Square Management wanted to do, but PPS brought more people into the process–people who were excited about the possibilities, who were financially and emotionally supportive, and who cared deeply about the project.
The history of of Forth Worth is very important to its residents. The town played a big role in the great cattle drives of the late 1800s, for example, as it was home to saloons, gambling parlors, and dance halls that cowboys on the Chisholm Trail would frequently visit. Part of maintaining that link to Fort Worth’s history was preserving the Downtown’s physical character. With its streets of red brick and buildings that have been restored from the turn of the century, the town needed a plaza that was visually coherent with the rest of the neighborhood while also gesturing towards the future. Therefore, while maintaining these links to the past, the Sundance Square Management firm also wanted to create a new space that would serve the city’s current visitors and residents.
One of the biggest hurdles of this project was closing down a block of Main Street for the plaza, but this was also totally necessary. To help alleviate this, the firm turned otherwise blank construction fences into canvases for a locally-based art project called “The Biggest Comic Strip in Texas.” By breaking the downtown street grid and taking up two blocks, the plaza is accentuated and feels more special because that middle ground is for people. Downtown Fort Worth was already very walkable and a large portion of its traffic traveled via Commerce and Houston streets, so the hurdle was much more mental than physical. And it was worth it.
The management firm then brought in Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, LTD to work on the design for the new square. Based on the PPS recommendations, they started in on a plan that focused on maintaining active edges. By capping off the ends of Commerce Street and Houston Street with buildings, they were able to really create the active edges they envisioned. They leased out the ground floors of each building to commercial establishments so that people were coming and going from the building at all times, in and out of the plaza. At the time of opening, the Commerce Street building’s ground floor was completely leased out to a variety of business including RadioShack, Del Frisco’s Grille, The Silver Leaf Cigar Bar, and Bird Café.
This active edge on Commerce Street edge is augmented with giant shade umbrellas, and a stage for small and large events reaches into the plaza from buildings on the Houston Street end. They maintained the Jett building and added a slightly raised, glass-encased café building to the edge along 3rd Street. Along the 4th Street edge they blurred the line between sidewalk and square with trees and moveable public seating. These active edges make the square successful, but they also bridge the gap between the square and all of its surrounding retail establishments. All of their efforts went into balancing the needs of the everyday users and visitors – the trees and public seating make it a great weekday lunch spot and the big events make it a great destination.
The architects also incorporated a number of water features, a more traditional fountain, a jetted fountain, and a fountain wall. The jetted fountain is great for playing in and for cooling off from the warm Fort Worth weather. The fountain wall quiets the area around the cafe, distinguishing the cafe from the other parts of the space, while also adding a point of interest under the umbrellas. The water features are a theme throughout the plaza, each its own activity within the larger destination of the plaza. All of these details are both beautiful and functional–making the square a pleasant and interactive destination for the entire community.
Sundance Square opened to great acclaim in November, 2013. As project developer Ed Bass explained, “The plaza establishes a true centerpiece in downtown Fort Worth that will become a destination for generations to come.” The International Downtown Association agreed, awarding Sundance Square with its coveted Downtown Achievement Pinnacle Award in 2014.
People want public space. They want space that is their own, that belongs to the entire city, that is consistently active, and that offers sun or shade and a place to sit. They want cafés and concerts. And if they’re in downtown shopping, they would love a place to have dinner with a view of what everybody else is doing. They want a place that nods to the city’s history while also responding to their contemporary needs. And if there’s a public space that answers all of these needs and becomes a destination in and of itself, people will go downtown and stay there, and the retail and dining establishments will flourish.