Texans are famous for a charismatic hospitality that blends traditional values with a genuine good time. Fort Worth's Sundance Square Plaza is a prism for this practice at a large scale, a place where everyone can feel at home. The former parking lots on Main Street welcome thousands of visitors weekly to a dynamic tableau nestled within the rich architectural detailing of the city. Equally welcoming on a peaceful morning or a lively evening, the Plaza's water and light form the backdrop for public life. Its interactive fountains and giant, operable umbrellas provide opportunities to play and relax unlike any other in the surrounding area, complementing a diverse community program that revels in everything from daily exercise to festive annual celebrations. Forming one of the safest, cleanest, and most walkable areas in the city, this spirited social hub is known as the Heart of Fort Worth.
Sundance Square Plaza is the capstone of a 30-year endeavor to regenerate the historic core of Fort Worth, Texas. For decades the downtown civic center was a pair of parking lots bisected by Main Street. With a rapidly growing populace and community-centric roster of events, city officials had nowhere else to host holiday parades, art festivals, and other gatherings. During that time, several successful projects catalyzed the site's transformation into a vibrant commercial, business, and entertainment district. However, the historic core lacked a center until the Plaza was built.
Sundance Square Plaza is the one acre "living room" of the city, a place where public life thrives. The site punctuates the half-mile, brick Main Street Corridor, which is anchored at its ends by the Federal Courthouse and the Fort Worth Convention Center. Seamlessly dovetailed into the historic fabric of Fort Worth, this development strengthens the identity of its community by offering a rich program of social interest.
A Backdrop for Public Life
The landscape architect worked closely with the client and city planners to meet the demands of their anticipated daily and seasonal activities. The Plaza hosts ten free public events per month, which include holiday celebrations, festivals, parades, concerts, yoga classes, movie nights, and more. This commitment activates the city's diverse population and Landscape Architecture Foundation surveys reveal that the overwhelming majority of residents feel the Plaza improves their perception of the city and creates a sense of identity.
Of course, a strong dose of Texas hospitality is key to this perception. Flowing circulation and multiple options for seating offer accessible comfort with nearly 300 moveable chairs, 24 seven-foot benches, and 392 linear feet of seat walls. Cafes, restaurants, and pubs provide hundreds of additional seats for alfresco dining along the Plaza's edges. Nearby, a glassy pavilion and stage grace the site for benefits and live performances, equipped with permanent audio and visual equipment to encourage vibrant visitor experiences.
To ensure high performance on any occasion, the design team developed several integrated options for program modification. Designing for this degree of flexibility requires precision and restraint. Ramps were graded to seamlessly address the site's 4-foot north to south drop, and site furniture and fixtures are either collapsible, portable, or embedded in the floor system. Careful coordination was undertaken to integrate functional needs with a paving pattern that resembles a woven carpet, in which clay tones complement the historic Thurber brick on Main Street.
The result is a refined setting that encourages people to engage with their community as well as in smaller, unplanned groups. Visitors say that the Plaza improves their health and quality of life by providing them with places to relax, stroll, and play. As it matures, its flexible design promises continued support for new programs and happenings.
Programming for the Environment
Climate was one of the biggest challenges facing the Plaza's execution. With average highs in the mid-nineties during the summer months, the need to keep visitors cool and limit their exposure to the elements is critical to their enjoyment of the place. In order not to overcrowd the program, the landscape architect had to identify elements that could multitask as both social and environmental features.
Primary among these is a grouping of landmark, operable umbrellas, the first of their kind in the United States. Reaching 32 feet high and spanning 40 by 40 feet, they create a collective 6,400 square feet of shade and reduce mid-day pavement surface temperatures by 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Visitors are known to stop and watch the Teflon fabric unfurl from their telescopic masts in the mornings, although this can be retracted if cool temperatures entreat sunlight to warm the rich brick pavers. In the evenings, the umbrellas are illuminated by color-changing LED lamps that engage the entire Plaza in a brilliant light show.
In addition to the umbrellas, two water features help cool and define the space. A 65 foot wave fountain emits cascades of water in ever-changing patterns. Closer to the center of the site, a 3,120 square foot interactive fountain is a major draw for families, with 216 variable jets that shoot water up to 12 feet high. Great care was taken to assimilate the steel grates that house the combined jets, drains, and lights into a chevron paving pattern. Set flush with the pavement and illuminated at night, this feature can be turned off to provide extra gathering space for large events or movie nights that attract 1,600 guests at a time.
Planting also eases harsh conditions from the southern edge and along the streetscape. Native Cedar Elms and Shumard Oaks sequester 6,567 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. These drought tolerant plantings offer continuous shade at the perimeter. Together, the umbrellas, trees, and surrounding new buildings shade 22% of the Plaza, compared with only 7% shade pre-development.
The Underlying Challenge
Initially, onsite soils posed a major obstacle for structural support, drainage, and plant health. The existing limestone clay lacks a clear profile and the landscape architect had to work closely with a team of structural engineers, urban soils experts, and horticulturalists to ready it for the site's ambitious program. The Plaza's frequent crowd loads dictate the need for durable support systems with the ability to handle large trucks and service vehicles. Intensive design and coordination efforts have resulted in robust systems that protect the intricate paving, fountain plumbing, and tree root systems below the surface.
For instance, the allée of native Cedar Elms employs structural cells that prevent the compaction of planting medium from pedestrian and vehicular use. These elements also create extra space for stormwater runoff to filter through decomposed granite into 31 inches of custom engineered soil. Below this, an aggregate base with perforated drains allows the water to seep slowly into the earth. This and other considerations have lessened the site's peak stormwater flow rate for a rain intensity of 2 inches per hour by 18.8%.
Economically, this $110 million investment is encouraging the local market. Within the first six months of opening, the Plaza activated 90% occupancy in two new buildings adjacent to the site. Since its completion, downtown businesses have seen a 604% increase in potential gross daily revenue and 275,000 square feet of surrounding mixed-use development.
Of course, these benefits underscore the Plaza's true purpose of tying a community closer together. "Since opening, our Plaza has often been referred to as 'Fort Worth's living room,'" says the client. "We have hosted countless events including ESPN's coverage of the Men's Final Four, pep rallies for TCU, Plaza Palooza, and movie nights that have attracted thousands of people. But, just as importantly, we've witnessed numerous wedding proposals and impromptu reunions taking place in the Plaza. We are so honored that people have made Sundance Square Plaza their personal meeting place."
"This beloved and well-used plaza in the heart of downtown Fort Worth replaced a pair of surface parking lots with an animated and engaging space that has become the city’s living room. Designed for flexibility and a multitude of uses, this energetic project has become a catalyst for change in the city’s core. A combination of 300 movable chairs, along with fixed benches and seat walls, ensure that the site can adapt to a wide variety of functions such as festivals, concerts, and community celebrations. Its playful fountains and enormous shade-producing operable umbrellas make the space dynamic and a true community destination. Equally welcoming on a peaceful morning or a lively evening, the plaza is a spirited social hub that has emerged as a symbol of urban pride and an emblem of the richness of the city’s diverse cultures."
- 2019 Awards Jury
Sundance Square Plaza Project Team:
- Michael Vergason, FASLA, FAAR (Lead Designer)
- Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Ltd. (Landscape Architect)
- Project Team: Michael Vergason, FASLA, FAAR; Kameron Aroom; Beata Corcoran; Doug Hays, FASLA
- Owners Representative: The Projects Group
- Fountain Design: Fluidity Design Consultants
- Lighting Consultant: CM Kling + Associates Inc.
- Special and Lightweight Structures: SL Rasch GmbH
- Soils Consultant: Urban Trees + Soils
- Structural Engineer: Datum Engineers, Inc.
- Irrigation Consultant: Lynch & Associates
- Civil Engineer: Dunaway Associates
- Design Architect: David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc.
- Architect of Record: Bennett Benner Partners
- General Contractor: The Beck Group