Fort Worth has long had a free ride on parking, but that can't last forever

Built on the wide-open prairie, Fort Worth - with a population near 900,000 -- is now coming to grips with urban traffic and the loss of a former point of pride: plenty of free parking.
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Built on the wide-open prairie, Fort Worth - with a population near 900,000 -- is now coming to grips with urban traffic and the loss of a former point of pride: plenty of free parking.
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Living

Where to park in Fort Worth — and why it’s not free anymore

By Bud Kennedy

bud@star-telegram.com

September 08, 2017 03:58 PM

FORT WORTH

We think there’s parking near West Seventh Street, but mostly there’s not.

We think there’s nowhere to park near Magnolia Avenue, but there almost always is.

As Fort Worth’s population nears 900,000, a city built on the wide-open prairie is coming to grips with urban traffic and the loss of a former point of pride: plenty of free parking.

Development in the Cultural District, south and north sides — much under more recent standards that encourage business density and walking instead of front-door parking lots — has led to confusion and conflict over what’s private property, and exactly where to put a Ford F-150 truck.

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Maybe Sundance Square has spoiled us. The downtown shopping development offers 5,400 free parking spaces nights and weekends in lots and garages, with public money subsidizing 2,300 of those.

“I’m a big believer in planning for parking,” said Sundance chief executive Johnny Campbell, a 35-year veteran of downtown shopping developments nationwide.

“There’s a transition between where we are today and when we’re all riding hovercrafts to our final destination. But we’re not there yet.”

The sacred cow of parking

Maybe we just feel entitled to free parking in Fort Worth.

A half-century ago, the old Leonards Department Store downtown actually operated a mile-long private trolley and subway line between the basement of the Houston Street store and a 3,000-space lot near where Panther Island is now.

In 1991, when the City Council first debated charging to park at Will Rogers Memorial Center, museums and nearby businesses led a public outcry.

Then-Councilman David Chappell said: “We’re anxious that there not be any sacred cows. … This one may prove to be too sacred of a cow.”

It would be nearly 20 years before the City Council imposed a parking fee, in 2010, to pay off the 1,117-space Western Heritage Garage. Another new, 2,200-space garage is under construction for the new Dickies Arena. On social media, complaints about the $5-$10 garage parking fee mostly come from patrons of two near-monthly gun shows.

“If you’re going to charge to park,” a California visitor wrote on TripAdvisor.com, “make it a couple of bucks, not an arm and a leg.”

But just beneath, another visitor wrote: “Parking staff was great and plenty of parking.”

The row over Crockett parking

The most fiery flareups involve parking in the Cultural District and West Seventh Street area.

Phoenix-based Vestar operates 1,550 spaces in five garages solely for customers in Vestar’s shops or restaurants along Seventh or Crockett streets. (The center was originally named West 7th and was recently renamed Crockett Row.)

Unlike Sundance’s unrestricted downtown parking, the private Crockett Row garage is limited to patrons.

The sign at the gate has a 44-line warning message. Standing out in red letters: “Visit a Merchant Above Immediately Or Subject to Tow At Owner’s Expense.” (Nowhere does it say, “Welcome to Our Shops.”)

The Crockett Row merchants are almost under siege. They’re surrounded by busy bars and nightclubs that provide little or no parking.

“It gives us all the bad publicity when our developers were the only ones who counted on having parking, and all these other bars and restaurants were allowed to open without it,” said owner Kory Close of Sweet Sammies, an ice-cream sandwich shop.

Crockett Row manager Max Holderby has said his company wants to help arrange more parking for everybody, maybe involving the nearby Farrington Field high school stadium.

A new shuttle bus service that is in the works to start this winter, the Dash, would provide a ride to Crockett Row every 10 minutes from downtown or from Will Rogers parking areas, if available.

“There’s really not anything else available in that area for parking,” said Jeffrey Jones, the regional official for Chicago-based SP+ Corp., formerly Standard Parking, which manages some of the paid parking at Will Rogers.

“A shuttle’s not a bad idea.”

Four blocks is our limit

Jones and SP+ senior manager Brad Conner oversee more than 20,000 parking spaces in 30 local lots and garages, including some at Will Rogers and those at the Fort Worth Convention Center. (Disclosure: I pay to park with other Star-Telegram employees in an SP+ garage downtown.)

Fort Worth residents are more used to garages and pay lots than patrons from outlying cities such as Southlake or Weatherford, Conner said.

“The person who’s coming from the suburbs — that person is not used to paying for parking,” Conner said.

Patrons generally don’t complain about parking within a four-block walk, Jones said.

“People don’t like to pay to park, but usually you don’t get a complaint unless they get bad service — if it took too long or if they waited too long,” he said: “You expect something for your money.”

Meters: Where are they?

If you don’t park in a private lot or garage, there’s always a parking meter.

Fort Worth operates about 2,800 parking meters downtown, around Texas Christian University, in the Medical District and a few near Will Rogers. But they’re for short-term daytime parking for shoppers, students or hospital visitors, not for staying more than a couple of hours.

Oddly, there are no parking meters in the rest of the Cultural District or on the north or south side, even though cities such as Austin use metered parking day and night in busy entertainment or shopping districts.

The busiest parking meters are near City Hall and the county jail.

But if you’re looking for a place to park near downtown, the best bet might be the meters in the 100 and 200 blocks of Elm Street south of East Weatherford Street.

Those are the loneliest meters in town. In three recent checks, nobody was parked there.

The Tarrant County Courthouse and Sundance Square are a six-block walk west.

Take it to court

If you park somewhere, only to find when you return that your car has been towed, what then? If there wasn’t a legal no-parking sign warning that it was private property, tell it to the judge.

Texas law gives vehicle owners 14 days to ask the peace justice court to overturn the charge for towing and storage.

First, take plenty of photos. You’ll need to show the court where you parked and whether there was a warning sign at the entrance or somewhere on the lot.

Then, go down to the appropriate justice of the peace and file for a hearing. There’s a $41 filing fee.

“Typically, we want to make sure the signage is in accordance with state law, and that there was a reason for the tow,” said Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon of Fort Worth, whose court hears most of the cases involving downtown and the near north, south and west sides, including the Vestar garage at Crockett Row.

He has heard nine towing cases this year, he said. Not many people know they can file for a refund and also complain to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

“We never used to hear a towing case,” he said. (Nine in a year is actually an increase.)

If you lose in peace justice court, you have 21 days to appeal to county court. But that costs $269. You’re paying $269 to win back a $300-plus towing fee.

Our ‘parking problem’

Human nature plays a role as well. For at least 40 years, according to online archives, college presidents have been saying, “We don’t have a parking problem, we have a walking problem.”

“That’s an interesting and legitimate observation,” Downtown Fort Worth Inc. executive Andy Taft wrote by email. “We all want to park directly in front of our destination.”

Businesses promote downtown as a safe, clean place to park and walk, he said. The parking problems are outside downtown.

“Fort Worth is seeing challenges when high-volume businesses elect to cluster without adequate parking,” he wrote. Those shopkeepers and restaurant or bar owners are better off sharing parking or promoting ride-hailing smartphone apps, he wrote.

In the Stockyards, planners have debated where and how to include parking in the $175 million retail development there. Right now, it’s mostly on the outskirts away from congested Exchange Avenue.

In the medical district and Near Southside, public money also helps pay for free garage parking at 1201 Alston Ave., a block north of Magnolia.

It’s two-thirds full weekdays, said Mike Brennan of Fort Worth South. But less than half-full nights and weekends.

At night, he wrote by email, “there’s always a spot available.”

Is parking obsolete?

If you’re asking, “Aren’t businesses required to have parking?” — the answer in Fort Worth is generally no.

Fort Worth zoning laws require parking near residential areas or for specific uses, but other decisions are left to business owners.

In the city’s denser “urban villages,” business parking is intentionally reduced. The goal is to have more businesses, not parking lots using up valuable land.

City planners are already looking to the future: driverless cars.

A recent conference by the Arlington-based North Central Texas Council of Governments took up the topic: “The Game-Changing Impacts of the Driverless Car.”

The San Francisco-based Gensler design firm predicts driverless cars, delivery trucks, taxis and buses within 10 years, meaning many patrons will be delivered to or picked up at the front door. Parking lots will become dropoff lots.

It’s a safe bet we’ll still find a way to complain.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

Best and worst parking places

Downtown

Best: On nights and weekends, the absolute easiest place to find free Sundance Square parking is in City Center Garage 1, 201 Commerce St. On weekdays or during busy events, look for street parking meters along Jones, Grove, Pecan or Elm streets east of Commerce.

Worst: Don’t try to park on Main or Houston streets. If the parking patrol doesn’t get you, the grackles will.

West Magnolia Avenue

Best: Magnolia Green garage, 1201 Alston Ave. More than 300 spaces within a two-block walk of many restaurants.

Worst: The Fairmount neighborhood streets south of Magnolia Avenue. Neighbors mostly try to be friendly, but the mashup of bar drinkers and fried chicken customers is testing their patience.

West Seventh

Best: Any public street, particularly West Fourth, West Fifth, or Foch beneath West Lancaster Avenue and southward. (All those are a five-block walk, but that’s about as good as it gets.)

Worst: Any private lot or garage, period. Every parking encounter is inherently adversarial.

The Stockyards

Best: The asphalt parking prairie on the hill above Billy Bob’s Texas. For $5, you get parking and a skyline view good for fireworks watching.

Worst: The puddled, pock-marked back-alley pay lots in the alley off West Exchange Avenue behind Star Cafe and PR’s. Everybody is trying to park a big truck in a tiny lot, and some club patrons may not be in the most friendly mindset.