The Central City Flood Project could transform a partially blighted expanse of land just north of downtown into about 440 acres of prime real estate — also known as the Panther Island Project.
Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., is confident that will happen.
“Decades of underperforming land immediately adjacent to downtown have hindered the entire center city,” Taft said. “So we’re excited to have traction on getting this land repopulated with residents, businesses, schools, families and new buildings that will add to the energy of the urban core of Fort Worth.”
The city needs a plan for the area to ensure it capitalizes off the economic development opportunities presented by the project, said Robert Sturns, Fort Worth’s head of economic development.
What will be included in the city’s scope of work in the request for proposals:
- The city will hire a consultant to assess the existing plan for the area,
- Perform case studies
- Develop a real estate and economic development strategy
- Identify potential funding sources
- Explore development potentials for sites like LaGrave Field and a Historic Power Plant on the Island.
The city issued a request for proposals Oct. 13. The request will solicit bids from consultants from across the country. The report could also recommend zoning changes to the city’s existing zoning for the island.
There is no projected cost for completing the strategic plan, said Andrea Duffie, a spokesperson for Fort Worth’s economic development department. Similar strategic plans have cost the city about $100,000 to $200,000 to produce.
The project, which has experienced decades of delays, received over $400 million in federal funding this year, enough money to design and build two bypass channels. The corps recently projected the project will take eight to 10 years to complete.
A 2014 economic impact study, conducted by University of North Texas researchers, projected Panther Island’s wide-ranging footprint would generate jobs for more than 29,600 full-time workers and over $3.7 billion in annual economic activity.
The redevelopment plan is mostly unrelated to the completion of the Central City Flood Project and the work of the Army Corps, said Woody Frossard, environmental director for Tarrant Regional Water District.
“There is nothing that stops the private property owner from starting to do development today,” Frossard said.
Tarrant Regional Water district owns about 90 acres of land currently being used for the city’s levy system. The development plan will make recommendations on how to develop that land once the levees are able to come down, Frossard said.
Immediately after receiving federal funds for the project, the city started receiving unsolicited proposals from developers, Sturns said.
“A lot of the discussion was, ‘OK, before we pull the trigger on any of this stuff that’s been brought forward for development, let’s make sure that we’re in alignment on the plan and what makes the most sense for the city,’” Sturns said.
The city, along with the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., Tarrant County College, Tarrant Regional Water District, Streams & Valleys and Tarrant County mutually decided to contract a consultant, rather than produce the updated plan as a working group.
The consultant will give the project partners a broader perspective, and hopefully bring firsthand experience from working with other cities on similar projects, said Dana Burghdoff, Fort Worth’s assistant city manager.
“All of the agencies are really busy with all kinds of great projects and exciting things happening, and so just want to make sure we did it right,” Burghdoff said.
While Tarrant Regional Water District is the Central City Flood Project’s local sponsor, the city issued the request. The approach is designed to create a clear dividing line that the water district is focused on the flood control aspects of the project and the city is working on the economic development portion of the project.
The land could be used for retail, office space, residential, hotels and even a corporate campus, project partners said. The one uses that probably would be ruled out are single-family subdivisions and any kind of heavy industrial development, Burghdoff said
The new strategic plan will be the second iteration of a plan for the Panther Island Project. The city and Tarrant Regional Water District initially developed its plan for the island, also known as the form-based code, in the early 2000s and revisited it in 2016 — all before the project received over $400 million from the federal government.
In 2016, 28 individuals, including a consultant, served on the working group for development standards. Another 35 people served on the citizen advisory board for the plan.
A lot has changed since the original plan and form-based code were developed — a recession, a pandemic and other cities embarking on similar projects that Fort Worth can learn from, Burghdoff said.
The request for proposals will give the city the opportunity to update that plan, Burghdoff said.
Panther Island’s impact on the city’s economic development
A redevelopment project the size of Panther Island in the core of the city is unique, said Kenneth Barr, past chair of the Real Estate Council.
“Other cities would be very envious of us having the opportunity,” Barr said.
The Real Estate Council’s first priority is ensuring that the strategic plan defines the “highest and best development possible,” for the island, Barr said.
Michael Bennett, principal and CEO of Bennett Partners Architecture, led the efforts to issue a request for proposals to aid in the redevelopment of the island.
The land is primarily owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which owns over 130 acres. Tarrant County College also owns about 20 acres of property on the island, according to records from the Tarrant Appraisal District. Houston-based Panther Acquisition Partners has acquired about 25 acres over several years.
It’s important that land owners, especially the water district and Tarrant County College, have a mutual understanding of the highest and best use of the land, Bennett said.
“One of the things that I think would be a mistake was if we just sold it to someone who is wanting to build whatever the market says they should build,” Bennett said. “ While that’s a way for somebody to make a lot of money, it’s not necessarily the way to maximize the benefit to the city.”
When public entities like the water district and Tarrant County College own land on Panther Island, decisions can be made in the public interest, rather than with only profit in mind, Bennett said.
The consultants will look to cities like Pittsburgh, which recently redeveloped portions of the city’s riverfront properties.
“It’s having a big vision, and this plan fills in the way to accomplish it,” Bennett said.
The future of Northside
Panther Island abuts downtown and the historically Hispanic Northside neighborhood.
The redevelopment of Panther Island makes Olga Valazquez nervous. She has lived in the Northside for decades. Her parents, nieces and nephews still live in her neighborhood with her. She worries that the redevelopment of Panther Island could force out her family.
“What’s going to happen to us? Are we going to get bought out by the city or private investors? or what’s going to happen with our property taxes?” Valazquez asked.
As Valazquez approaches retirement, she worries that she’ll have to start over in a new location if the cost of living rises too quickly. She also worries her neighbors, many of whom are retired, may not be able to afford to relocate.
“It would be devastating,” Valazquez said. “It’s going to have a huge financial impact on a lot of people.”
However, the development could be good for the small businesses in the area, Valazquez said.
The Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has been working with Tarrant Regional Water District and the city to ensure the organization is involved in the planning process, said Anette Landeros, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber.
“They consider us one of their stakeholders and so we will be looped in along with the community to get plenty of feedback on what folks would love to see,” Landeros said.
The development of Panther Island will likely coincide with the chamber’s participation in the Main Street America Program, announced in August. The project will aid in the redevelopment of the Historic Northside.
“It’s an exciting time for North Main and the north main corridor, it has a prime opportunity to really shine,” Landeros said.
Hispanic-owned businesses should be involved in all the stages of the development process, from construction to retail, Landeros said.
“My vision for Panther Island is that it’d be a world-class place for tourists to come and visit and see the best of Fort Worth, but also a place where our local residents can enjoy and feel like it’s for them as well,” Landeros said.
Taft, of Downtown Fort Worth Inc, hopes the project will include lots of residential development. Those new residents will likely spend their money in downtown businesses, he said.
The study will give all the project partners the opportunity to help shape the development plan, Bennett said.
“I think this is a case where we do want to choose what our future is, to choose what our city is like,” Bennett said. “If we leave this to chance, then circumstances will decide what our future is, and I think this is an opportunity to form that future for our city.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the title of Kenneth Barr.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.