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Bond, Bennett Benner Finally Building Fort Worth Hotel After Brutal Battle

The opposition was loud and relentless, but Bennett Benner Partners Principal-in-Charge Michael Bennett held firm. His company had already spent five years working on a hotel for Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue when the storm erupted, and he was certain the project is what the Near Southside neighborhood needs. It just didn’t know it yet. Even as a petition was filed against the hotel, he never considered changing gears for the site.

“It’s the right thing and the right place and time, and that makes it easier to stand up for it,” Bennett said.

A year and a half after Fort Worth commissioners overruled a neighborhood group’s complaints and approved the project Bennett Benner designed at 1205-1217 South Henderson St., the as-yet-unnamed boutique residential hotel is preparing to start construction.

Rendering of hotel on Fort Worth's Magnolia Avenue

The 167K SF hotel, which will be developed and operated by Bond Partners, will open in 2019 with 138 rooms, 15 luxury condos and a 10K SF privately maintained public park — the first condo/hotel development in this corner of Fort Worth.

Magnolia is becoming a quirky, pedestrian-oriented attraction, similar to Austin’s South Congress. Landowner Mike Dolabi, seeing the neighborhood evolve — and driving it himself as a part of the redevelopment of the historic Max Mehl Building — has been accruing tracts for more than a decade to assemble the hotel’s parcel. He brought on Fort Worth-based Bennett Benner in 2012 to determine the best use of the site.

Bennett said Magnolia has too many medical office buildings and other properties that don’t activate the streetscape. Even though zoning on the tract did not allow for hotels, that use felt perfect to Bennett, something “contributory to the type of environment Magnolia wants to be” and something that could draw in pedestrians. He envisions a place neighbors embrace as their own, somewhere to go for drinks after work or to host your daughter’s wedding reception. It will generate jobs, revenue and a hotel/motel tax to the area.

Bennett Benner Partners' Michael Bennett and Brandon Burns

The firm’s first plan was for a three- or four-story hotel with maybe 60 rooms, a pretty modest boutique, Bennett and Project Manager Brandon Burns said. Deeper into the process, it became clear the project only penciled if it became taller and denser. The highest point is six stories, which is within zoning approvals in the area, but makes the proposed building the tallest on Magnolia Avenue.

Bennett Benner had already been working with its local councilperson, direct neighbors and the Near Southside advocacy group, which had to approve any tax increment financing requests. The businesses and residents adjacent to it would be most impacted by any project, which made them a priority, Bennett said. They largely were on board, especially as his firm made some design adjustments based on their feedback.

But as Bennett Benner geared up to request zoning variances to build a hotel and a garage facing the street, he knew the project would become public and that there would be blowback.

Homes in the Fairmount Historic District

Bennett Benner’s biggest challenge is the project’s proximity to the Fairmount Historic District, full of homes approximately 100 years old. Its neighborhood association was by far the most challenging group to work with because it is so diverse, Bennett said. Some fully approved of the project. Others didn’t want a hotel, period, while others just wanted a shorter building.

He met with different factions of the association eight or 10 times through the zoning process, but about 30 residents emerged as ardent opponents to the project, some with accurate concerns and some with misconceptions, Bennett said.

Many residents were not aware zoning allows up to six stories, and many mistakenly thought the site is in the Fairmount National Historic District. A petition circulated by the Fairmount Neighborhood Association to halt the development received 498 signatures. Residents, who joined forces as a group called Don’t Shade on Magnolia, said they were not notified early enough or clearly enough about the project.

Opponents have cited concerns about density, traffic, flooding and worry that a hotel of this size would detract from the area’s uniqueness and its historic nature.

“A project like this is the opposite of the vision for Magnolia and the Southside of Fort Worth," one detractor wrote. "Don't allow a large out of state project to dominate the area and turn it into W. 7th or Dallas, please.”

To overcome the neighborhood’s biggest concern — the height — the design steps back at the top to make it feel smaller. It is six stories at the south half of the hotel and four stories on the north side. The lower portions of the building match heights of nearby properties, an attempt to blend into the neighborhood more.

“But, at the end of the day, it’s a tall building on a street that primarily has two-story buildings,” Bennett acknowledged.

Rendering of hotel on Fort Worth's Magnolia Avenue

The dust has largely settled; the team is working with the neighborhood again on ways to mitigate traffic (like providing 150 public parking spaces in the hotel’s garage, the equivalent of all the spaces on the south side of Magnolia Street between Eighth Avenue and Hemphill Street), which Bennett said has helped show they have similar goals.

His team is working hard through branding and design to make the project part of the neighborhood, he said, including using multiple brick colors to match surrounding materials and abstracting window trim from a neighboring building. Some initial opponents have come to support the hotel, particularly the privately owned park Bond will build for neighborhood use. Some just accepted the outcome, though they don’t like it.

“I think what they’ve come to realize is that we may be building a project that they’re not all completely excited about, but I think that they know that the project is going to happen,” Bennett said.

Ground broke in March, and vertical construction will begin this summer. It will last one and a half years, putting delivery at the end of 2019 or early 2020, Burns said. Construction financing has been agreed and will be in place soon, and $6M in TIF funds have been approved. Bond and Bennett Benner are finalizing utilities and partnership agreements, and design drafts are still being drawn up to perfect the project.

A name for the hotel is imminent —  “if you know the Magnolia area, you know it’s eclectic and known for its arts community, so the brand would grow out of that sort of concept,” Burns said.

The process has been slow and painful, but all the efforts with the neighborhood and the result are something Bennett is proud of.

“I have more gray hair and Brandon has less hair now than when we started,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to please everyone but we tried to listen hard to the people that would work with us … I think that’s the morally right thing to do on a project. It’s not our project or our client’s project, because it sits in a city that belongs to all of us.”