Transformative Downtown Plan Unites Midlothian’s History, Vision and Community
Three Freese and Nichols projects have won Project of the Year Awards from the American Planning Association – Texas Chapter. The Midlothian Downtown Master Plan won the Gold Award for Implementation.
The City of Midlothian undertook a Downtown Master Plan that provides an overall strategy and guidelines for what future development could look like in the area. This includes addressing the design of building forms, streets, public spaces and branding strategies, coupled with a catalyst-based implementation plan combining market-based and city-based solutions in strategic combinations to build momentum. The goal of the plan was to reset Downtown Midlothian as an economic driver for the community amid transformative growth.
Midlothian is in northwest Ellis County, within a short drive of many regional amenities in Dallas and Fort Worth. At the same time, Midlothian still offers small-town charm within a major metropolitan area. As a result, Midlothian has begun experiencing rapid growth, presenting a risk of downtown losing its status as the heart of the community, but reframed as an opportunity through planning to reinvent downtown for a new generation.
Anchored by a public engagement effort that went viral locally through a combination of virtual and in-person efforts, the Midlothian Downtown Master Plan provides a variety of innovative recommendations designed with implementation and momentum-building in mind. It is specifically tailored to the unique needs and capabilities of Midlothian, involving municipal capital investment, changes to regulatory approaches, promotion techniques, smart public-private partnership opportunities, and reliable financing mechanisms. The successful, well-documented engagement created a level of political capital and community accountability that led to confident, transformative steps toward reshaping downtown through major investments.
The Midlothian Downtown Master Plan presents a visionary approach to address the city’s need of changing what downtown really is for a new generation while preserving the history and character of what makes it special. It creates a central public space, giving downtown room to expand and grow with its population while meeting critical community needs.
One of the issues the plan identified was the empty storefronts downtown. Innovative and agile public engagement demonstrated the ability to unify people behind a community vision. This included acquiring the Lawson buildings, an area of vacancy downtown covering more than 50,000 square feet. Now under a public-private partnership, it is under construction and surrounded by sidewalks allowing ample room for patio dining with direct access to convenient public parking within Midlothian’s historic downtown district.
The plan focuses on partnerships among the city, businesses and residents. To motivate a restaurateur or entrepreneur to locate in these buildings, the city was willing to consider various incentive options. These incentives included free building rent after a period of successful years of operation; long-term low-cost rent; and other incentive mechanisms.
The use of the plan’s highly favored engagement process broadened the accepted planning principles and has inspired more investment in downtown. Every storefront is occupied, and members of the advisory committee have even opened their own businesses downtown as a result.
Great planning involves the public and community stakeholders from the beginning of the process. This involvement allows the plan to build on local ideas and values and creates a sense of ownership in the community, which was critical to plan implementation and the necessary investments. This Downtown Plan is derived from a variety of public engagement methods that included a series of public input exercises to provide participation options that appeal to varying demographics.
A series of stakeholder meetings, coupled with a community festival, were held toward the beginning of the project to continue building an understanding of the wants and needs of the Midlothian community. Key issues and ideas were identified regarding business attraction and entrepreneurship, regulatory climate, the built environment and acquisitions, walkability and parking, events and residential uses. The stakeholder meetings were structured into a charette organized in a living room format that prompted active discussions, together with scaled “paper doll” urban design maps.
A public open house provided a comprehensive overview of the planning process including community input, analysis, vision and goals, land use and illustrative master plans, recommended actions, and potential implementation strategies. The planning team, City staff and advisory committee members explained the vision and plan content to attendees and the potential impacts on the community as well as their individual property.
An online public survey was conducted to dive further into key issues identified through earlier public input. With the survey going viral and generating a level of engagement documentation, the City Council felt confident in reordering the implementation to tackle the riskiest and most expensive projects first. Respondents were provided with an overview of the planning process, and an opportunity to identify their top priority issues and provide detailed feedback on each of their priorities.
The longevity of the Midlothian Downtown Master Plan has created high value in planning and increased the community’s appetite for the pursuit of similar initiatives. Within this implementation, it can be seen how the engagement methods for the plan were replicated in Midlothian’s bond program to verify community buy-in and generate ideas. The choice to tackle the largest projects first has demonstrated a near-instant return on investment for the Downtown Plan effort.
The city has observed significantly increased pedestrian and customer activity downtown since the plan was adopted coupled with increased occupancy of storefronts, furthering the public perception that a planning effort created an immediate impact. The private sector is also actively participating, including former members of the Downtown Plan advisory committee. There are multiple new storefront businesses downtown, and the Founders Row project, the restoration of historic homes, has been set in motion.
The plan’s efforts have sustained and achieved success beyond its general audience as it has prompted the City to update the Comprehensive Plan in a lead-up to a comprehensive update to the development regulations.