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ON A NEW TRACK - FW train station booked to become luxury hotel

For much of its life, the Texas & Pacific Railroad station was the crossroads of Fort Worth.

Developers are hoping that the now-vacant landmark will again be a centerpiece for the city after they convert the building into a luxury hotel.

"We looked at using the building for office space, and we had a feasibility study done for converting it to apartments," said developer Ed Casebier, managing partner with Renaissance Development Co. "But at the end of the day, a hotel made the most sense."

But not just any hotel.

To capitalize on the historic building's past, the developers are planning a railroad-themed hotel where guests will sleep in converted Pullman cars and eat supper in what was once the train station's diner.

Work is expected to be completed by 2002, and several national chains - including Hilton, Westin, Wyndham and Crowne Plaza - have expressed interest in running the new hotel.

"What was originally office space on the upper floors of the building will be used for more than 300 hotel rooms," Mr. Casebier said.

"We're fortunate that this building was constructed in the days before air conditioning, so the floors are small with lots of windows and ideal for hotel rooms."

The 12-story station and office building was built in 1931 as an art deco palace to house the Texas & Pacific Railroad's headquarters. With its elaborate brick and stone exterior, the building on downtown Fort Worth's south side was the city's transportation center, its soaring lobby decorated with polished marble, chandeliers and intricate painted ceilings.

"It's probably one of the best preserved buildings of its kind in the state," said Libby Willis with Historic Fort Worth. "We're very fortunate that it's survived in pretty much the original condition."

The Texas & Pacific Railroad merged with Missouri Pacific in 1963, and Mopac has long since been gobbled up by Union Pacific.

The station closed in 1967, when rail passenger service was taken over by Amtrak and relocated to a smaller station a few blocks away. Since then, the building has housed federal office space on the upper floors, but the lower levels have been mostly vacant.

The developers intend to preserve most of the T&P station's interior and faade. The former waiting room will become the hotel's lobby.

An antique steam locomotive will be placed in the former passenger concourse. And the second-floor platform area where trains once lined up for passengers will be enclosed to house the converted rail cars that will house 24 luxury suites.

"Each passenger car will be divided into two two-bedroom suites," said Mr. Casebier, who formerly worked with Woodbine Development on the redevelopment of Fort Worth's historic Hotel Texas. "It's going to be a tourist, theme-based and businessman's hotel."

The developers also plan to build a new wing on the building's east side for a parking garage, hotel ballrooms and meeting space.

Good company

The T&P station project will be patterned after similar railroad- themed redevelopment projects in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Nashville, Tenn.

Construction will cost about $50 million, and the developers are working on a public-private sector financing plan. Compared with building a new full-service hotel, the conversion of the historic railroad building is a bargain.

"We think our cost will be about $148,000 for each room," Mr. Casebier said. "If you built a full-service hotel from the ground up, it would cost over $200,000 a room key."

Those economics are driving similar historic building conversions all over the state.

Developer Steven Holtze turned Dallas' historic Magnolia Building into a 330-room luxury hotel last year, and he is working on a similar project in Houston.

Also in Houston, another development group is transforming the historic Humble Oil office building into a hotel.

"We're going to see more of this," said hotel analyst John Keeling of Houston-based PKF Consulting Inc. "In New Orleans, we are even seeing two old department stores becoming hotels.

"One of the advantages you have with an adaptive reuse is that you can buy these buildings for a lot less than they would cost to build," he said.

Popular alternatives

The historic buildings also are popular with travelers.

"Interesting hotels are where people want to stay," Mr. Keeling said. "The old glass box just doesn't go far enough these days."

He said the T&P project is particularly good for Fort Worth, where the downtown convention center is being expanded.

"They are certainly light on full-service hotels downtown," Mr. Keeling said. "If anything, the 300 rooms they are planning won't be enough."

Fort Worth preservationists see the T&P station as the key to redeveloping downtown's entire south side.

"Their project is tremendously important, not just for the building itself but that whole area," Ms. Willis said. "Because the Lancaster corridor redevelopment is so important for the city, the first project out of the chute is very critical."

To spur redevelopment, the city and the Texas Department of Transportation are removing the elevated section of Interstate 30 that runs along Lancaster Avenue. The freeway has been rerouted to the south.

"The freeway construction in the 1950s cut off this area from downtown," Mr. Casebier said. "That's one of the things that has kept things from happening with this building."

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority also is putting its new Trinity Rail Express station, which will open next year, at the T&P building. That move will connect downtown with Fort Worth's suburbs, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and downtown Dallas.

"I've been an owner of this building since 1978, and now I'm an overnight success," said Halden Conner, one of the partners in the project. "But the truth is that only now is the timing just right for this deal."


The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
Steve Brown