Woman’s Club of Fort Worth — Beset by High Operating, Maintenance Costs — Considers Leasing Parking Lot to Developer
By Scott Nishimura
The Woman’s Club of Fort Worth, founded in 1923 and beset with the high costs of operating and maintaining its historic complex on the city’s Near Southside, is studying the potential of leasing the club’s two-acre parking lot to a developer.
Such a lease could generate the income needed to ensure the nonprofit’s long-term viability, Jody Kneer Smith, the club’s president, said in an interview Tuesday.
“We are the recipients of two of the most beautiful blocks of property downtown,” Smith said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we have to become caretakers of what we’ve been gifted. We want to keep the property. We have to figure out how we want to maintain it.”
The club’s board voted overwhelmingly April 14 to explore a long-term ground lease of the parking lot to a developer, choosing that option over an outright sale, spending as much as $200,000 on repairs to the lot, or doing nothing, Sunnae Hiler, the club’s executive director, said in an interview. None of the board members voted to sell, she said.
A group of Woman’s Club members, headed by Annette Blaschke, who was president for two years through 2022, has led an inquiry into what to do with the parking lot over the last two years.
One new committee organized by Blaschke will sort market data the club has collected and set priorities for what the club needs from a long-term lease agreement. High among those will be the generation of lease income and the continued availability of parking to Woman’s Club members and guests, Blaschke, Smith and Hiler said.
A second committee that Blaschke will organize will be responsible for taking the prospective agreement out to requests for proposal from interested parties, they said.
Blaschke said the club wants to be prepared to seek requests for proposal by April 2024.
In presenting the options to Woman’s Club board members, “the hardest part for the women to understand (is) we’re still going to be the owner” of the parking lot, Blaschke said.
The property’s major maintenance needs far exceed the club’s $760,000 annual operating budget and the money it receives each year in returns generated by investments, club officials said.
For one, a major, necessary repaint of the club’s buildings would cost about $750,000, according to one bid, they said.
“This is a behemoth to take care of,” Blaschke said. “It’s fallen into disrepair because we just don’t have the money to deal with it.”
The Woman’s Club property has been nominated for inclusion on Historic Fort Worth’s 2023 Most Endangered Places list, to be announced at noon today in a public reception at Historic Fort Worth’s offices, Smith and Jerre Tracy, the organization’s executive director confirmed.
Club officials view the nomination as a significant, welcome boost in public visibility.
“That is a tremendous boost in the arm for us,” Smith said.
Blaschke was president in early 2021 when she took a call from a developer interested in taking control of the parking lot, for construction of a mixed-use development including components such as medical office and a parking garage, she said.
That triggered the start of the club’s inquiry into its needs and resources. Blaschke told the developer immediately that the parking lot wasn’t for sale.
“It’s always been that way,” she said. “We’ll be here forever and ever.”
The lot, on the north side of the Woman’s Club buildings, is bounded by South Ballinger, West Peter Smith, and South Lake streets, and West Tucker Street, a private drive.
Development on the lot would be subject to the city’s Near Southside form-based design codes.
“Anything built there would have to adhere to the same urban, pedestrian-oriented design approach of all new projects in the district,” Mike Brennan, president of Near Southside, said.
The property is classified NS-T5, which is very flexible on permitted uses and allows a wide range of commercial and residential uses. Base height limit is five stories, but if the proposed development project meets one or two criteria, the height limit could go up to eight or 10 stories, Brennan said.
One of the criteria: the project must provide at least 75% of its parking within a multilevel parking garage, and meet all relevant provisions of the code. Parking garages are not allowed to front a public street, unless approved for a waiver from the Urban Design Commission.
“Developers should not assume that they’ll get the garage-related height bonus, unless they are confident they will locate the garage fully on the interior of the site, wrapped with other uses,” he said.
The other criteria: the proposed project contains a mix of residential and commercial uses — at least 20% residential uses and 10% commercial use, measured by floor area.
The club’s membership has eroded over the decades, with trends moving toward women in the workplace. Smith recalls she was president of the club’s Junior Woman’s Club in 1976, when it had 750 members and a waiting list. Today, the Junior Woman’s Club, whose members can matriculate to the Woman’s Club membership when they turn 40, has 200 members, she said.
The Woman’s Club, which has 1,200 members, recently raised its member dues by $75 a year to $425 to help fill the operating budget gap. “Our dues do not begin to cover our expenses,” Smith said.
The club has been working on expanding its fundraising reach. It’s seeking a new caterer to rent its commercial kitchen, which was rented until several months ago. The gap between member dues and the operating budget has been about $400,000 annually, Smith said. Fundraisers and gifts fill much of the hole. This club approved the current year’s budget with a $35,000 shortfall, but has filled that gap and is in the black, Hiler said.
The Woman’s Club is on the National Register of HIstoric Places, is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, and is an Historic and Cultural Landmark for the City of Fort Worth. Those make the Club eligible for significant financial incentives for repair and improvements, something the club has started to explore.
“The historic designations on the buildings qualify The Woman’s Club for state historic tax credits which are worth 25 cents on every dollar invested in an approved restoration project,” Tracy said. “That is money that will also help The Woman’s Club restore and maintain their gorgeous buildings.”
Staff writer Tori Couch contributed to this report.