Although the flood control portion of Panther Island is stuck in a federal logjam, economic development plans on the $1.1 billion project are moving forward.
Private investment dollars are expected to ultimately shape a high-density, mixed-use urban district north of downtown at Panther Island.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for rerouting the Trinity River and cutting a 1.5-mile bypass channel that would make the 800-acre property an island. However, the corps did not include the project again in its work plan this year.
“Everything inside can happen right now without the bypass channel,” J.D. Granger, the executive director of Panther Island, said referring to the property’s core areas.
Some development is underway with more to come, Granger said.
A 300-unit multifamily property Encore Panther Island is nearing completion at the southernmost tip of the district. The $55-million apartment complex will open in August.
The first section of a highly awaited riverwalk development also was finished recently. In addition to providing pedestrian friendly recreational and commercial estate, the canal doubles as a stormwater system. The feature was inspired by the San Antonio Riverwalk.
When completed, about 9,500 feet of canal will flow through businesses and residential units at Panther Island development.
Conversations among developers, landowners and the city for future development projects are taking place, said Matt Oliver, Panther Island’s director of communications. Interest from the business community to develop the property is intensifying, he said.
According to a 2014 economic impact study, Panther Island expects to generate more than 29,600 full-time workers in the area. Developers anticipate building 10,000 housing units and 3 million square feet of commercial space.
“It’s not building a bypass channel that creates this cool development down there that is Panther Island,” Oliver said. The projects are “basically two separate things that just happened to be around the same area.”
The flood control portion hinges on federal funds. The bypass channel and other flood control measures can protect roughly 2,400 acres of areas adjacent to Trinity River, including Panther Island, that are susceptible to flooding.
The Texas Department of Transportation handles the construction of three bridges that connect Panther Island. The first of the three V-pier bridges, the White Settlement Bridge, opened to traffic earlier in April over dry land. The other two bridges are expected to open later this year.
The project’s enormity and the several entities in charge of the different aspects of the project has confused and frustrated a lot of people, Granger said.
“We don’t have anything else like this around here to compare it to. So that creates its own angst for people,” Granger said. “They just don’t know how to put their hand around it. That creates nervousness. We wouldn’t call it controversial.”
Money in the river bank
Tarrant Regional Water District’s part in the Panther Island partnership project involves appropriating local taxpayer funds for acquisitions, business relocation and environmental cleanup. The project has already received $102 million in local funds.
In a 2019 bond election, voters approved almost $250 million to finance the rising cost of the project.
A tax reinvestment district was also established in 2003 to help fund infrastructural and developmental needs of the area. In 2009, the district created to fund redevelopment along the Trinity River was expanded through 2044.
So far, TRWD has spent about $64 million in land acquisition, $54 million in relocation efforts and $7 million in demolishing structures in the area, according to a Panther Island report.
Granger said projects with big scopes like Panther Island could take multiple decades to complete.
“For people who like to have instant gratification, they’d be very frustrated working with us. It just doesn’t work that way,” Granger said. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”
More money remains to be spent
The water district is yet to acquire 19 parcels of land where the bypass channel is to flow. Three more relocations are left, and eight environmental sites need cleaning.
Plans for Panther Island started in the early 2000s. Since its formal inception in 2006, the project has received only 19% of its federal funding, with the last of it – $6 million – coming in 2017.
The Panther Island project is projected to finish by 2028, if federal funding arrives. That remains a big if, but Encore Enterprises, the owner of Encore Panther Island, is not as concerned about whether the project gets built as planned or not.
“Encore Panther Island will prevail regardless of the timing for completion of the overall Panther Island project,” said Charlie Keels, president of multifamily for Encore.
The residential development is commencing pre-leasing activities within the next two weeks. A clubhouse and waterfront recreational center will be ready in its first phase of opening.
“The location of our multi-family community in proximity to Downtown and recreational amenities at Panther Island are a real positive and one that will only improve as redevelopment efforts continue within the Panther Island Master Plan,” Keels said.
While large swaths of land in the area currently remain vacant, there are existing businesses that have thrived even though the appealing river-front entertainment district hasn’t surfaced yet.
Panther Island Brewing opened in 2014 and Coyote Drive-In Theater in 2011. The corporate office of Fort Worth’s favorite Chef Tim Love is also around the corner. There are also plans to revitalize the historic LaGrave Field, which the water district owns.
Developers are looking to offer more restaurants, bars and hotels in the area, Oliver said.
“People would want to come see this,” Oliver said. “There’b be [a time] where you’re choosing between I’m driving either to West Seventh, or going down here. Going there or on there. I mean, it’s the idea of what we want to see come out of the ground first. That product development is people living in that area and creating the environment.”