Fort Worth Sundance Square: Tenants upset over downtown exodus

The heart of downtown Fort Worth has struggled to fill space and left current tenants frustrated by a lack of communication and vision.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Sundance Square has for years been the heart of entertainment in downtown Fort Worth — both attracting and benefitting from tourism, and providing fine restaurants and retail for the fast-growing city to enjoy.

Recently, though, it’s struggled to fill space, fought publicly with a downtown advocacy group and left current supporters frustrated by a lack of communication and vision.

Since the start of 2020, at least 25 tenants have left Sundance Square, including large anchors like H&M. Revolver Taco opened and closed in just a few months, and before it even put up a sign to announce its presence. Arcadia Coffee just opened in December of 2021, then announced in late March it would be shuttering its Sundance Square location.

This week, another major anchor and Fort Worth staple — Reata Restaurant, which has been in Sundance Square for nearly 20 years — announced its plans to leave.

Owner Mike Micallef said Wednesday that the restaurant’s lease is up in June of 2024, and that they had not received an offer to renew from Sundance Square, with management turning down their request to meet face to face.

“We have made the decision to search for a new home,” Micallef said. “A different location will not change who or what Reata is.”

‘I call us survivors now’

Dr. Marie Holliday’s dental practice opened in Sundance 30 years ago.

“I wanted to be the Doc Holliday of Sundance Square,” Holliday joked.

Her Flowers To Go store around the corner on Houston Street has been around for 16 years, and is now surrounded by recently shuttered businesses. Her perfume shop closed during the early months of COVID, but she said the disease that shuttered businesses across the country is only a partial excuse for the issues now facing Sundance Square.

“I’m not the only person that’s concerned,” Holliday said. “There are lots of us that are concerned. The existing tenants, I call us survivors now.”

Holliday then added: “There is not a clear understanding of the direction” of Sundance Square.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, “and I’m from Fort Worth. This is my home.”

For decades, Sundance was a model for urban renewal. Forty years ago, the Bass family created the 35 blocks of Sundance Square, constructing new buildings alongside renovated historic ones.

The central plaza opened in 2013, and has hosted major events like ESPN’s College Gameday and the annual Main Street Arts Festival.

Whit Smith, whose human resources company is in the nearby City Center Towers, was at the plaza’s grand opening.

“There was hardly a place to stand in that plaza as Ed [Bass] unfolded it, and opened up umbrellas,” Whit Smith said. “It was energy on steroids.”

Smith, though, said it’s obvious the buzz that surrounded the district has faded.

“There is no more energy, he said. “It is a shell of what it used to be. There’s really a lack of leadership.”

Tenants’ issues with leadership

Sundance’s leadership has shifted over the past several years, and current and former tenants said those changes are a major reason for its decline.

In 2019, Ed Bass and his wife Sasha, now co-owners of Sundance, took over control of Sundance Square while Sid and Lee Bass would own City Center. WFAA reached out to the Bass family for several times for comment on this story, and did not hear back.

At the beginning of 2020, Sundance’s property management company also changed, and tenants WFAA spoke with said they noticed communication with ownership became sparse.

Tenants also said they felt owners lacked empathy during the first year of the pandemic. That’s when conflicts with between tenants and ownership began to increase.

“I observed what I felt was a lesser standard of the maintenance and upkeep,” said Mark Daniel, whose law firm moved out of Sundance in November after 36 years. “I didn’t see the attention detail I’d seen in decades past.”

Daniel talks about Sundance in the past tense.

“It was the centerpiece of downtown, and it was our core,” he said. “The decline of Sundance Square to where it is today is one of the saddest chapters in Fort Worth history. I sincerely believe that.”

“Everyone is feeling that way,” Holliday said. “They are feeling that way because we don’t feel like we’re getting support.”

Sundance Square management denied a request for an interview, and did not respond to repeated calls and emailed questions.

WFAA spoke to nearly a dozen current and former tenants who shared concerns about management. All declined on-the-record interviews, citing concerns of retaliation from management.

Besides a lack of upkeep with landscaping and building maintenance, many tenants also blamed the current situation on parking, with Sundance ending its often-used free valet system for one that charges $21 for stays lasting beyond an hour and a half. Others mentioned that tenants pay a marketing fee to the district, but said Sundance’s social media accounts don’t promote its businesses enough. Sundance’s Twitter account has tweeted once since April of 2020, and its Facebook page has not mentioned one of its businesses since December.

The most common complaint, though, is that communication with Sundance Square management is lacking — and often combative when it occurs.

“It’s just a fight that’s not even necessary when you’re so used to compromising and having conversations,” Holliday said. “It just stopped communicating. We stopped having holding meetings.”

The communication breakdown goes beyond tenants.

Sundance Square has used its Instagram account to attack Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. over tree maintenance and landscaping.

Downtown Fort Worth is an advocacy group that helps manage planning and development.

What happens next?

Rich Bradley, the head of Washington, DC-based Urban Partnership and a man who has decades of experience leading downtown planning groups, said Sundance, the city of Fort Worth and Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. all need a shared vision and clear strategies to succeed.

Said Bradley: “It’s trying to get everybody together and say, ‘Where do we need to go to? What do we all want to do together? What’s the outcome we want to produce?'”

In a statement, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. president Andy Taft said the group “encourages Sundance Square efforts that lead to successful stores and vitality.”

“We look forward to working with them productively while we continue to promote Sundance retailers, restaurateurs, entertainment venues and the free downtown parking program that supports them,” Taft also said.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a distinguished professor of urban planning at UCLA, said working together will be a key.

“A downtown cannot be strong if it is a 9-to-5 downtown,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “There needs to be much better collaboration on coordination between the city and the private management.”

Loukaitou-Sideris believes Sundance’s struggles could impact all of downtown Fort Worth.

“When there is bad management and your favorite restaurants start leaving, people who have other options would go elsewhere,” she said. “Downtown is too large of an opportunity to miss for a city of this size.”

What city officials are saying

Other parts of Fort Worth have bounced back stronger from COVID than Sundance. The Stockyards district, for instance, has had a far stronger recovery.

The Texas Comptroller shares data of the sale of alcohol at restaurants and bars. In 2021, the top five businesses in the Stockyards sold on average 48 percent more than in pre-pandemic 2019. At the same time, Sundance Square’s top sellers sold an average of 4 percent less.

Mike Micallef, who has run the district’s signature Reata restaurant since 2002, shared on Instagram in January that his restaurant;s 2021 sales were down 10.4 percent.

“It’s sad for this community,” former tenant Daniel said. “I don’t think it should be in the state it’s in right now.”

Reached for comment on the situation, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said the city will “continue working closely with all stakeholders” downtown.

“As with many downtowns, ours was greatly impacted by the pandemic,” Parker said. “The city will continue working closely with all stakeholders committed to downtown and Sundance Square’s success on day-to-day items, as well as larger infrastructure progress in order to continue to improve downtown.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Beck, whose district includes Sundance Square, also said that COVID-19 impacted Sundance and pointed to growth in other areas of downtown — like the planned convention center renovation and Texas A&M expansion — as wins for the city.

“Like many other downtowns and entertainment districts across the city and the state, Sundance Square took a blow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Beck said. “A strong and vibrant downtown requires cooperation from all stakeholders, and it’s my goal to ensure the city remains an active participant in that process — so that all of downtown, from Sundance to the T&P, are bright and vibrant.”

“Get it fixed”

Despite the closures, Sundance has also seen at least seven new businesses open since the beginning of 2020.

But some, including an art gallery, are appointment-only operations, which tenants say doesn’t help the goal of increasing foot traffic. UCLA professor Loukaitou-Sideris said an increase in galleries targets a smaller, wealthier audience.

In early March, Sundance launched a new program searching for the ‘Next Big Idea’ in which it asked local small businesses to apply for the chance to receive accommodating lease terms, marketing and money to help build out their space. The goal is to both promote new Sundance Square businesses and fill its empty storefronts and restaurants.

At the same time, Holliday said her emails to Sundance are now blocked and that her calls haven’t been returned. The last communication she received from Sundance management told her they were considering repurposing her building, and it wasn’t clear if she’d be able to re-sign her leases.

“[It] feels terrible,” she said. “I am so disappointed. Where is the integrity in this organization?”

Many of the remaining current tenants are small business owners whose livelihoods depend on the success of Sundance Square.

“I pray that there’s more collaboration,” Holliday said. “There’s a lot of anger and disappointment with the way things are going. So many lives have been negatively impacted.”

Urban planner Bradley suggests Sundance should focus on finding its identity.

“I always define a brand as a promise of an experience,” he said. “What are you really offering?”

Loukaitou-Sideris said other cities have used cultural facilities, museums and stadiums to pull people from the suburbs to downtown. She believes large weekly concerts and restaurant open houses could provide a much-needed spark that Sundance Square is currently lacking.

“You really need to think of how to attract people to create this buzz,” she said.

Just a couple years ago, Sundance Square was the vibrant heart of downtown.

“Get it fixed,” nearby tenant Smith said. “This is a mess. It’s an embarrassment to this city.”

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