Out of Gas

How fast will Fort Worth development adjust to energy disruption and a future of fewer cars on the road?

It was a jarring statement, especially in Texas, whose denizens consider the ability to drive around one-per-Suburban nearly a birthright. “Any child born today will never drive, never, ever,” Tony Seba, the futurist who’s predicting the demise of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and parking, told the several hundred people who jammed the Omni Fort Worth Hotel for the annual dinner of the Near Southside, Inc. nonprofit in early March.

In Seba’s mind, spending a lot of money to own a car is already not worth it, given the high costs of buying, maintaining, repairing, fueling, parking and insuring it, compared to the costs of getting around on public transit and services like Uber and Lyft. Autonomous self-driving cars, already being tested, will force the issue, dramatically lowering transportation costs, disrupting old-line industries like oil and gas, and rendering oceans of parking obsolete, he says. These changes will start in dense urban centers and move out from there.

“This disruption is not in the future,” Seba said, as the partygoers shifted in their chairs. “The only question is, What are you going to do to prepare for it?”

Farfetched? Such ideas are getting a hearing in Texas. In Austin, a developer plans an apartment tower downtown with no new parking, relying on the city’s ample network of alternative transportation services ranging from ride-sharing to delivery and availability of goods and services in the central city. The concept is reaching Fort Worth, too. Fort Worth Housing Solutions, co-developer of the planned Vickery & Main transit-oriented development on a Near Southside public transit parking lot outside T&P Station, is looking at paring parking to cut the projected project costs that are significantly over budget. The architect of the planned Magnolia Hotel on the Near Southside’s West Magnolia Avenue designed the garage space so it could be adapted later for some other use. And Near Southside, Inc., which has been leading the discussion in Fort Worth, has been looking for a small, planned multifamily development that might consider going with no parking or less than the standard ratio to cut construction costs.

The Near Southside might be the best place to try the idea in the city, given its large medical employment base, bus network, commuter rail, bike-sharing, access to rideshare services, and walkability, says Mike Brennan, the Near Southside planning director. Near Southside, which highlighted the planned Austin project at its dinner, had earlier brought the developer Brad Nelsen along on a tour that included a conversation with the Housing Solutions’ president, Naomi Byrne.

Of the Austin alternative transportation package, “we have a less robust version of each of those elements,” Brennan says. “We have everything except car share.” Zipcar, a sharing service that lets users rent cars from on-street or parking lot locations using a mobile app, is slowly expanding in North Texas and has locations at TCU and the University of Texas at Arlington, but not elsewhere within Fort Worth or Arlington. Users rent cars via mobile app by the hour or day from those locations and must return them there.

Austin in the Lead.

In the Austin development, which will be called The Avenue, the developer removed parking from the plan for its 30-story, 135-apartment tower at a $10 million construction savings, Nelsen said during a presentation at the Near Southside dinner. The carshare service Car2Go – a competitor to Zipcar - will post three cars on the street in dedicated spots in front of the building, Nelsen said, and Austin B-Cycle bikeshare will also have a station on the site. Nelsen is designing the first floor of the building with ample storage space, including refrigeration, to be able to accept deliveries of everything from food to household items. The building will also have a ground-floor restaurant, five floors of office space, a fitness center, community room and pool deck. For tenants who have cars, Nelsen is arranging to lease a small number of spaces in a nearby garage.

Why it will work, Nelsen said: Downtown’s density, large numbers of bars and restaurants, entertainment options like movie theaters and live performances, 86,000 employees, and significant choices among alternative transportation and delivery providers.

The city of Austin set the stage in 2013 when it abolished minimum parking requirements in the central business district, allowing developers to determine how much parking to provide. His lenders also bought into the proposal, Nelsen said during the Near Southside dinner.

“It’s huge,” Nelsen said. “The lending community will always be the last to come around.”

Better Parking Plan for Vickery & Main?

Fort Worth’s Vickery & Main plan for the transit-oriented development includes 250 apartments, parking and other mixed uses. The plan calls for 300 parking spaces for the apartment tenants – slightly more than the standard one-to-one ratio in multifamily developments under construction in Fort Worth today – and 300 for transit. T&P is home to the west terminus of Trinity Railway Express trains to downtown Dallas, and in 2018, TEX Rail will begin running between T&P and DFW Airport. The T lot also has bus service and a Fort Worth Bike Sharing station.

Fort Worth Housing Solutions’ piece is estimated to cost $190 per square foot or a total $60-$70 million, including the 300 parking spaces for tenants. That’s over the typical budget of $130-$150 per square foot, Byrne said in an interview.

The most logical spot to look for savings is by cutting parking, which will cost an estimated $15,000 per space to build, Byrne said. Fifty-one percent of the building’s apartments will be set aside as affordable housing units – ones for tenants making 80 percent of area median income or less. Given that the building will be adjacent to robust public transit options, it stands to reason the development could attract some tenants who don’t have cars, Byrne said.

Still, the parking strategy would sit on another pillar, giving parking passes to tenants, and assuming many of them will drive to work during the day. “That opens the spaces up for daytime commuter use,” Byrne said. Transit users, who currently park for free in the T lot, would pay to park in the garage. “You would have more continued use of the parking spaces.”

Customers of the retailers in the building would be encouraged to park on Vickery Boulevard, Byrne said.

“I think everyone’s open to discussing it as long as today’s needs are met and there’s some adaptability going into the future,” she said. On how financing partners might respond to the paring of parking, Byrne said, “I can’t imagine the lender not supporting that, because it could be a revenue generator.”

Byrne stressed Vickery & Main is not on the front-burner for Housing Solutions, whose current focus is on developments with federal “rental assistance demonstration” units – Section 8 public housing. Housing Solutions is trying to move redevelopments of the Cavile Place housing project in Southeast Fort Worth and Butler Place east of downtown, both Section 8 developments, forward. “That’s our focus for the next few years,” she said.

Re-Designing the Garage.

If car-light, or no-car developments are some time off for Fort Worth, the design of adaptable garages is moving to the front of conversations. “We’re starting to think about how to design a garage so some or all of it can be converted to some other type of use at some point,” says Michael Bennett of Bennett Benner Partners, the architect who designed Vickery & Main and the planned Magnolia Hotel.

Bennett designed the Magnolia garage – it has one floor underground and four above, and a total 470 spaces to serve the hotel and surrounding businesses – with flat floors, appropriate floor heights, and ramps on end so the space can be adapted later for some other use. “It all happens at one end of the garage; the rest of the garage is flat,” Bennett says.

Vickery & Main has conventional ramp design. “We will look at that and see if we can make it work,” Bennett says. “Any garage we do from here on, we do from the point of, we can make this garage convertible.”

Pulling the Trigger - Almost.

At least one Fort Worth developer considered the idea of a multifamily development with no parking. Last year, Joe Frank built two townhomes on College Avenue on the Near Southside with traditional parking, at a total $460,000 investment.

His original idea for the site: five apartments on the small 50-by-100 lot with no parking. “To have parking, you’d have had to have another lot,” he said.

Frank noodled on the idea with Near Southside. “We were egging him on,” says Brennan, who told Frank he thought the on-street parking and Near Southside’s transit network would serve the development.

“There was plenty of parking on-street to park cars, but I was extremely apprehensive about what the market was going to do,” Frank said.

Frank says he had multiple other conversations with brokers and tenants at a nearby 14-apartment property he owns. “The brokers were excited about another concept for the district,” Frank says. “My tenants were lukewarm.”

Frank also had an early conversation with his bankers, Don Waters and Donna Moon of Liberty Bank, who’ve backed 40 deals for him since 2006.

“Moon said, if you think it would work,’” Frank says. “I think they would have done it. But I wasn’t willing to put my reputation and money on the line.”

Skeptics of parking-light or parking-free developments in Fort Worth point to big gaps in the public transit system.

“I suspect we will see them; I say we’re years away,” Lori Baldock, banking center president of Southwest Bank’s Midtown branch and a Near Southside board member, said in an interview. “The mass transit system doesn’t exist for that.”

Baldock has a litany of questions. “What are the alternatives to privately owned vehicles? Does mass transit exist? And then, how do you address peak demand? It requires a dense urban environment. Can anybody afford to live in that urban environment? Affordable housing is a huge factor. If this project starts to struggle, how do you retrofit for parking if you miss the mark?”

Southwest Bank, known for its eagerness to finance local development, isn’t eager to look at parking-light deals, Baldock says. “Parking is a No. 1 concern for us in a development,” she says. “Things would have to evolve pretty significantly for us today in this market.”

But Seba, the planner, says change is coming faster than most people might recognize and is being driven by simple economics. It costs 70 cents per mile today to own a car, he estimates. The combination of car sharing, self-driving, and electric cars will drive that to 3-5 cents per mile for transportation as a service, effectively making vehicles that operate on fossil fuels obsolete, he says.

“This is just about economics,” says Seba, who lives in San Francisco and is a lecturer on entrepreneurship, disruption, and clean energy at Stanford University. Electric car technology is dropping in price with battery innovation, and “electric cars can last maybe a million miles. Today, when we own cars, we don’t think about cents per mile. The metric is going to change. People are going to be thinking about it differently.”

Seba estimates these trends will eventually open up 446 acres of parking on the Near Southside for some other use, or 32 percent of the footprint. “Parking is going to be obsolete,” he says.

Ann Zadeh, the Fort Worth City Council member whose district includes the Southside, downtown, Oakhurst, and West Seventh, is on board with the idea that there will be less of a need for parking in the future in the central city. How fast it will occur is another question.

“People can agree that we’re moving in that direction,” she says. Zadeh has asked the city staff to analyze parking and needs across the city. “We’re constantly trying to fix things instead of looking at them in a comprehensive way.”

Bennett thinks the diminution of parking will happen. But in Fort Worth, “I think it’s going to take some time. It goes back to the idea that I don’t know if our network is complete enough.”

Under the Bus: the T.

Fort Worth certainly is in catch-up mode with its transit network. The Fort Worth T, in rolling out its new master plan last year, identified the size of the system, infrequent service, inadequate service to areas with high demand, and lack of funding as four key issues the T faces. Twenty-five percent of the T’s revenue comes from bus fares and a half-cent sales tax; the T will need partnerships and other funding to tackle what’s in its master plan.

The T has limited service outside Loop 820. Numerous areas have high demand but are underserved, including Arlington, Grapevine, and Johnson County. The T estimates it provides service within a quarter-mile of only 29 percent of Tarrant County’s population.

Acting on the master plan recommendations, in 2016, the T implemented Route 64, the North Texas Xpress, serving Alliance and Denton from downtown. In April, the T rolled out a new set of routes that augmented service north of Loop 820 and added a crosstown route – meaning it doesn’t go through downtown – between the Stockyards and Ridgmar Mall, stopping at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base and River Oaks, a new partner.

The master plan lays out a long list of recommendations the T wants to address in the next five years: improving existing service; expanding to new areas; increasing frequency; improving connections; developing outlying hubs so all buses don’t have to connect through downtown; developing premium services like more commuter rail, bus rapid transit (light rail-like service with buses), rapid buses (middle ground between light rail and buses), street cars, and regional service; improving and expanding express service; improving facilities; and boosting transit access through better first and last-mile options, conditions around bus stops and park and rides.

The T has been going quadrant by quadrant in examining its service. “When we looked at all of our service areas, we found the North quadrant was the most confusing,” says Paul Ballard, who took over as the T’s CEO in 2014. The T has worked to simplify confusing routes, increase frequency, and strategically add service.

The East quadrant is the city’s best served, Ballard says. On the South Side, Hemphill Street is well-served, but the bus service is otherwise “hit or miss,” he says. The T is looking at starting a circulator around the Near Southside to support the bus routes, Ballard said.

In the West quadrant, the T wants to focus on express service from park-and-ride lots – “one of the things we’re finding is that not everybody wants to come downtown,” Ballard says – but it’ll need funding and partners like the agreement it struck with River Oaks to stop twice on River Oaks Boulevard.

The T is also in talks with Cultural District stakeholders on a potential circulator that would stretch from the Trinity River to the museums. The T is going out to requests for proposals on electric buses. “They want cool and sleek, and we’re going out [to RFP] and saying, what have you got?” Ballard says. Businesses have been offering support, but “the tough part is to obtain ongoing operating support.”

Some underserved areas in Northeast Tarrant County will see their service dramatically increase when TEX Rail goes into DFW Airport, and the T will redirect much of its bus service in the quadrant to the station, giving more incentive to suburban cities to come on as partners, Ballard says. “We build a tree trunk; you have to agree to fill out the limbs.”

Zipcar Growing in North Texas.

Another of North Texas’ transportation assets, the car-sharing service Zipcar, has been growing since it put in cars at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2012. Zipcar did an official Dallas launch in September 2014. It now has more than 60 cars in North Texas, spokeswoman Katelyn Chesley said. Most of the cars are in Dallas. Zipcar’s neighborhood sites in Dallas include Uptown, downtown, and Mockingbird Station. It’s also at Southern Methodist University.

In Tarrant County, it’s put in cars at TCU and the University of Texas at Arlington. At TCU, Zipcar has four vehicles and two locations. And at UTA, Zipcar has six vehicles and three locations. In North Texas, all Zipcars are “round-trip,” meaning they must be returned where they were checked out.

Zipcar rates start at $7.50 an hour and $69 per day and include gasoline and 180 miles of driving, allowing users to run errands or go out on day trips. Most of Zipcar’s Texas members own a personal vehicle and use Zipcar as a second, Chesley said.

Zipcar, which has one million members worldwide, doesn’t disclose local membership or usage numbers, Chesley said. In response to an emailed question about its expansion plans in North Texas, Chesley said, “We don’t have any specific expansion plans to announce at this time, but we’re always looking to provide more cars to more people in more places across Texas. We typically launch in cities and at universities that are dense, highly walkable and in need of innovative transportation that increases mobility while also making better use of roadways.”

Fort Worth BCycle Expands.

Fort Worth BCycle, the Fort Worth unit of the U.S. bike-sharing network, launched in 2013, has 45 stations today and is adding one later this spring outside the Ella Mae Shamblee Library in the Evans-Rosedale district. Twenty-five percent of traffic is from commuting, says Kristen Camareno, the executive director.

BCycle is rolling out a couple of new advanced bikes that will could make their way to Fort Worth and allow Fort Worth BCycle to extend its reach, Camareno says. One is the Smart Bike. “Right now, the brains are in the (BCycle docking) stations. With Smart Bike, they’re in the bikes. They have turn-by-turn navigation. It allows us to start looking at neighborhood stations” with fewer bikes than at a traditional station, which will augment the network’s first and last-mile links.

“The cost of 10 Smart Bikes is less than the cost of a traditional station and 10 regular bikes,” Camareno says. “It’s something we’re just beginning to think about as a board. We’ll need the funding to do it.”
The second new bike is the E Bike, which will be available in 2018. It has pedal assist. “This is the way to get to the office in summer without sweating,” Camareno says.