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Fort Worth helping to revive historic street that will rejoin downtown after I-30 project

FORT WORTH - For nearly half a century, Lancaster Avenue has withered in the shadow of Interstate 30 but that wasn't always the case.

In the 1920s, before there was a Fort Worth-Dallas turnpike, Lancaster was part of the Bankhead Highway, which stretched coast to coast nationally and brought automobile passengers into Fort Worth almost as regularly as the railroad.

A trio of ornate buildings bore witness to that time. The Texas & Pacific Railroad Terminal, with stately ceilings of intricately colored plaster, the T&P Warehouse and the old main post office once served the area.

Then, in 1958, I-30 opened.

The 50-foot-high elevated freeway effectively cut the area off from downtown and the northern part of the city.

As traffic sped past on the new freeway, life drained from Lancaster Avenue and its buildings. The once vital thoroughfare became a glorified feeder road, the buildings dilapidated ghosts.

But the outlook will improve considerably in 2002 when the state highway department demolishes the old stretch of I-30 in favor of a modern, 100-foot-high elevated route that will run south of the Lancaster corridor.

For the first time in four decades, the historic road and its buildings will be reunited with downtown. It's an opportunity that city and business leaders don't plan to pass up.

The gateway

Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said many residents consider Lancaster Avenue the gateway to the city and downtown.

"In the past, Lancaster has been an obstacle," he said, "and we're trying to make it a catalyst in its own right. We're talking about redeveloping in the core area of the city."

Fort Worth has set aside $1.2 million in bond money to redesign Lancaster. Renovations could take $10 million more, city officials said.

Fort Worth resident Michael Sexton was intrigued by the idea of a rejuvenated Lancaster and began researching the roots of the Bankhead Highway as a hobby. Today he has maps from the 1920s and enough chunks of history about the road that he may write a book on the subject.

"That road once carried so much traffic that they had to build others, and eventually the freeway, to relieve it," said Mr. Sexton, who believes the Bankhead Highway route should be afforded the same attention as the legendary Route 66. "Here is a very early transcontinental highway that went through Fort Worth. That's a pretty big deal. The real history is the road itself."

These days, the part of the Bankhead route in North Texas is State Highway 180. The Fort Worth segment was named Lancaster in the 1930s.

Picking up steam

Fort Worth's Lancaster renovation efforts gain momentum next week as the second group of national consultants in two months visits the area south of downtown.

"The interest is just phenomenal," said Elaine Petrus, chairwoman of an advisory committee for the Lancaster Corridor Redevelopment Project. "Anything connected to Lancaster is getting people's attention. People have a real fondness for this area and have some great memories of how it used to be."

Opinions on Lancaster's revival have come so fast and furiously that even a longtime plan of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, called the T, to build a transit center for buses and trains at Ninth and Jones streets northeast of Lancaster has been questioned.

Consultants who visited Lancaster in April recommended the T&P terminal building instead for the transit hub, a proposal that wasn't popular with the T and could derail the fall 2000 start of the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter train that is to run between Fort Worth and Dallas.

But T officials agreed to halt construction until another group of consultants could visit next week , study the two sites and recommend between the two.

Ms. Petrus, a former board member of the T who voted for the Ninth and Jones site, said she didn't blame T officials for "feeling blind-sided."

"They're getting ready to turn dirt and here we are saying, "Let's wait one minute,' " she said. "But we can't afford not to. Sundance Square succeeded because people were on it every single day and people were paying attention."

John Bartosiewicz, the T's general manager, said that the agency has spent $1.5 million restoring the T&P terminal's main waiting room and that the building would be used as a stop on the commuter line. But he said it isn't right for the increased traffic of a transit hub.

"I'm as nostalgic as the next guy, and we'll have plenty of that for everyone," he said. "The decision to build at Ninth and Jones was done with a lot of public input and the approval of the City Council."

Lawmaker's interest

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, took an interest in redeveloping Lancaster when she was mayor. She said she believes that all of the efforts, including the T's, are related.

"We're talking about the future of downtown," she said. "We have to look now at what's beneath that highway. It's taken so long and the plans have changed, but we have to make it the best we can make it."

Pres Kabacoff, president of Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans, was the chairman of the first group of consultants. He said he is intrigued by the city's efforts to capitalize on its history.

"Fort Worth has a surprisingly interesting downtown," Mr. Kabacoff said. "It doesn't really have a national reputation, but it could have if Lancaster Avenue is done right. This is a real opportunity to connect the north and south parts of downtown and create a fantastic public space."

Fernando Costa, the city's planning director, notes that Lancaster is bordered by the already successful revitalization efforts of Sundance Square to the north and Magnolia Avenue in the hospital district to the south.

"Lancaster was once a great street and, we believe, will be again," he said. "We're looking at stimulating development there for the first time in more than 40 years."

The Dallas Morning News
Laurie Fox