During his days as a Tarrant County prosecutor, J.D. Granger needed to kill time while waiting for juries to return to the courtroom. Not infrequently, he would look out from a courthouse window onto a picture-perfect view of the Trinity River in downtown Fort Worth.
There was a catch, Granger said. Hardly anyone used the river for recreation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once the sun went down, darkness enveloped the area because of a lack of outdoor lighting.
“I thought: We could do something so much better with our river,” Granger said in his first sit-down interview about Panther Island since 2019. “I went ahead and talked to our congresswoman – you know her well, my mother – and told her it’d be so easy to put a par-three, lit golf course down there. It would be beautiful.”
With the encouragement of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, J.D. Granger took his ideas to the board of Streams & Valleys, a nonprofit group focused on improving community access to the Trinity.
The golf course never took shape. But J.D. Granger, who once dreamed of running for district attorney, soon found himself at the center of a generation-defining flood control project – one that continues to loom large in the minds of Fort Worthians two decades after its public introduction in 2003.
With its dual promises of flood protection and economic development, the $1.16 billion Central City / Panther Island project has been trailed by controversies over ballooning costs, frustrating bridge construction and years-long delays to obtaining federal funding.
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J.D. Granger’s leadership of the project between 2006 and 2022 earned intense scrutiny, not least of all because of the perception that his ties to the congresswoman were hurting its chances of moving forward in Washington. With federal officials passing over the project year after year, some doubted Panther Island would ever come to fruition.
Thanks to an infusion of $403 million in federal funds last year, Fort Worth leaders are confident the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will fulfill its end of the bargain. The corps plans to build a 1.5-mile bypass channel to reroute part of the Trinity, a move that will protect 2,400 acres of Fort Worth property from disastrous flooding and take pressure off the city’s aging levee system.
“It doesn’t matter what we do on Panther Island, or any other development, if we don’t fix the flood control,” said Dan Buhman, general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District. “It is foundational to the rest.”
With an expected completion date of 2032, the bypass channel will create the appearance of a natural island on 800 acres of former industrial land between downtown and the predominantly-Hispanic Northside neighborhood. The corps is heavily involved in the “Central City” flood control elements, but says it has no role in the “Panther Island” economic development portion of the project.
Fort Worth’s political and economic power brokers have little doubt that Panther Island has the potential to transform a historically disinvested zone into a multi-use riverwalk development connecting downtown to the Stockyards, the city’s top tourist destination. Government agencies and business groups have tasked consultant HR&A Advisors with creating a new strategy to develop the island.
However, project leaders acknowledge that years of negative headlines have taken their toll on the public’s perception of Panther Island. Reactions to the project range from excitement over its possibilities to frustration and confusion over how it will be implemented over the next several decades.
Ultimately, leaders across the city, county, water district and private sector must pick up the baggage associated with Panther Island and find a way to move forward, said Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker. This moment is an opportunity to re-instill transparency and understanding in the project, Parker said.
“My North Star on this project is, it’s transformative for our city,” Parker said. “I guess I could lose sleep over what kind of baggage I’m taking on, I don’t think that’s the prudent way to go about it … Is it worth the fight? Absolutely, it is.”
A demand for flooding solutions dating back to 1949
Since Fort Worth’s earliest days as a U.S. military outpost, city leaders have struggled to control, shape and use the Trinity River. After historic floods ripped through Fort Worth in May 1949, news reports described the river in dire terms, highlighting its “rampages” and “assaults.” One 1950 Star-Telegram article called the Trinity “a stubborn foe.”
Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price recalled her parents being among the residents affected by the storm, which killed at least 10 people, caused millions in damages and left more than 13,000 people homeless.
“It was traumatic,” Price, who was born later that year, said.
As a result, Fort Worth leaders rushed to prevent another devastating event by approving a $7- million bond — about $90 million in today’s dollars — and creating a new taxing district to support flood control along the Trinity. Most importantly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began improving and expanding the city’s existing levee system to prevent disastrous flooding in Fort Worth’s central city.
The system was built to protect an estimated population of about 350,000 people — a sliver of the 935,000 people who call Fort Worth home today. Rapid population growth and development, along with a growing concern that the Trinity had become a dumping ground for industry and residents, prompted city and water district leaders to envision what an update to the levee system would look like.
Between 2001 and 2003, nonprofit Streams & Valleys and the Tarrant Regional Water District cemented ideas for Panther Island and river beautification projects in the Trinity River Vision master plan. The organizations hosted more than 200 public meetings to gather input on what residents wanted out of the Trinity, J.D. Granger said. Overwhelmingly, he heard residents say they lacked access to the river.
“The plan was to make it a community that we are building for our kids and their kids thereafter,” he said.
The document included a blueprint for Trinity Uptown, an island near downtown that would address the city’s growing concerns over flooding while also transforming a former industrial zone into a tax revenue-generating hub of waterfront real estate. That plan would later earn the title “Panther Island,” a nod to Fort Worth’s “Panther City” nickname.
Championed by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, then-Tarrant Regional Water District general manager Jim Oliver and local urban planner James Toal, the bypass channel plan earned approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006. The corps evaluated alternatives to the outdated flood control system, including simply raising the levees, but determined that the costs of acquiring surrounding properties to expand the levees outweighed the benefits.
The federal government is responsible for funding 65% of the Central City project and overseeing construction of the bypass channel and surrounding infrastructure. Meanwhile, the project’s local sponsor, the Tarrant Regional Water District, must front 35% of the cost through land acquisitions, environmental cleanups and relocations of water and sewer utilities, among other duties.
That’s where J.D. Granger came in. He was tapped in 2006 to lead the Trinity River Vision Authority, which fell under the authority of the Tarrant Regional Water District. The agency was formed to coordinate schedules between representatives of the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Streams & Valleys and the water district.
City and water district leaders ceded decisions over land acquisitions and contracts to the Trinity River Vision Authority, which was tasked with making sure timelines aligned within each government agency, said G.K. Maenius, Tarrant County administrator and the chairman of the authority’s board.
“If there was a hiccup in one area, how would that impact the overall critical path and the timeline of everyone else having to do something?” Maenius said. “That was a major role that the TRVA took up, and for those types of entities and the disparity of what they do, it was critically important.”
Over time, the Central City project grew in scale and scope, adding east Fort Worth’s Gateway Park into the mix to include more flood storage along the Trinity. In 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation broke ground on three bridges that would carry drivers over the bypass channel once it was built. Meanwhile, the water district continued cleanups of polluted properties throughout the Panther Island area.
“The water district has never slowed down since the day the project was authorized,” said Woody Frossard, the water district’s environmental director.
Federal funding woes force change
However, federal funding – or lack thereof – severely affected the speed that government agencies could move on the Central City project.
While Congress authorized over $500 million in federal funding in 2016, the project received just $62 million between 2006 and 2022. Funding fully stalled in 2018, when the project fell out of favor with the Trump administration. J.D. Granger attributes that to a negative relationship with Mick Mulvaney, then-director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger did not respond to interview requests.
“That was the most disappointing to me, because we were really moving well,” Maenius, who visited Washington to advocate for the project, said. “I don’t want to say it, but it was at a standstill or almost at a standstill, and so there were some tensions.”
Facing years of delays and growing concerns over J.D. Granger’s leadership of the Trinity River Vision Authority, Fort Worth officials began questioning the project’s strategy and feasibility. Traffic and cost overruns affiliated with the three Panther Island bridges alienated Mayor Price, who led the city between 2011 and 2021.
Price invited Texas Department of Transportation officials to town for public meetings over delayed construction, rising costs and impact to local businesses. While advocating for Central City to receive funding in Washington, she also called for the project to be scaled back and audited in 2018.
“There was lots of community consternation that that was Kay’s pet project,” Price said. “My concern as mayor was not the personalities and not the politics, but rather, how do we get the money?”
Meanwhile the Grangers struggled to secure federal funds for the construction of the bypass channel. Rumors flew in the D.C. media that the Grangers’ family ties were opening the project up to further scrutiny.
All project partners knew what they were getting when the Trinity River Vision Authority hired him to be the public face of Central City and Panther Island, J.D. Granger said. When the project hit its lowest point in 2018, he was poised to take the blame, he said.
“I told all the officials who helped create the project, I will take all of the heat for it … and I did,” he said. “I look back on it, and I don’t think the project could have happened any other way, because the first years were so hard that someone had to take on that role. I really believe that.”
In 2019, an outside review of the Trinity River Vision Authority’s management of Central City determined that the project had become too associated with recreation and real estate development rather than its stated purpose: flood control. The review also found the project suffered from unclear financial management, insufficient oversight and transparency, and an “opaque” management structure.
Soon after the report was released, former corps official Mark Mazzanti was brought on as a consultant to make the project more attractive to the federal government. While J.D. Granger remained a top leader within the water district, the Trinity River Vision Authority became an advisory board without its own budget or contract approval process. By late 2021, Panther Island was drawn out of Kay Granger’s congressional district and into that of U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
With the passage of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, the project received renewed interest in Washington. In January 2022, Central City received its most significant infusion of federal funding yet: $403 million.
“I’m really grateful that I made the ask. It was my first big ask of the administration,” Veasey said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would, because our city is growing rapidly and … we need flood control.”
The infusion of federal funds kickstarted a flurry of activity among both private and public entities invested in the success of the project, said assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff. The interest prompted Fort Worth officials and architect Michael Bennett, who took over a firm from the late James Toal, to begin revisiting the development plan for the island.
“I would hate so much for my city, and for generations to come, if we let this opportunity become something banal and really developer driven,” said Bennett, who works with the Greater Real Estate Council of Fort Worth and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. “This should be an opportunity for us to say this is all of our collective vision of what this new addition to our city could be and let’s not blow this opportunity.”
A new crop of project leaders look ahead
With new funding and leadership, the project is entering a new phase — or, at least, leaders hope it is.
“There have been so many bumps along the way,” Parker said. “It’s really easy for me or anybody else that wasn’t here at the beginning to play armchair quarterback, but I can see the vision that people like Congresswoman Granger had when this project started. I really can.”
Parker and Buhman are drawing a distinct line between the project’s economic development and flood control aspects. From now on, the city will be wholly responsible for planning and promoting development on the island while the water district will focus on helping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with flood control elements.
The new phase will include an updated plan for real estate development, a public engagement process and possibly a new governance structure to manage a multitude of priorities. To create that plan, the city tapped a national consultant in January to plot the future of Panther Island.
Fort Worth — along with the county, Tarrant Regional Water District, Streams & Valleys, Downtown Fort Worth Inc, Tarrant County College. and the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth — pooled together $560,000 to hire HR&A Advisors. The 2003 master plan will serve as a starting point, but the new strategy will grapple with some of the ways the city has changed over two decades, Burghdoff said.
HR&A’s plan will address attracting a new corporate headquarters to Panther Island, connecting downtown to the growing Stockyards tourism district and addressing growing concerns about gentrification in the majority Hispanic Northside. Those concerns existed in 2003, but have taken on new significance as Fort Worth’s population rapidly expanded, Burghdoff said.
“This is now post-COVID. We don’t know what the market is for some of these uses,” Burghdoff said. “With a new mayor and new council members, we need to come together and figure out what we are going to do.”
Most of Panther Island’s acreage is in public hands, owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District, Tarrant County College and Tarrant County. That fact gives regional leaders more control over the fate of Panther Island, said Andy Taft, chief executive of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Unlike other cities with hundreds of landowners, Fort Worth has an opportunity to carry out a shared vision, he said.
When the water district does sell off developable land in the future, Buhman said the process will be as transparent as possible.
“Like every decision every government makes, not everybody agrees with the decision. But I want everybody to know why it was made and how it was made,” Buhman said. “This will not be done in backrooms. It will not be done in a way that’s not clear – just the opposite.”
While the plan sorts out future land use for the island, portions of funding remain tenuous. Bonds, loans and a tax increment financing district have all been used to cover the local share of the project’s costs. With little development on the island so far, the taxing district has not yet generated enough revenue to cover rising costs.
The city is now searching for upfront funds to cover immediate relocations of water and sewer utilities in the Northside, which must be completed by fall 2024 to ensure the Corps of Engineers can stay on schedule. Fort Worth will be reimbursed by the water district on an annual basis.
Central City still needs $98 million from the federal government to completely build the channel. The Corps of Engineers received an additional $20 million in March to continue design and construction.
While much of Panther Island’s implementation remains to be seen, J.D. Granger views the project’s past as a victory.
Granger left his official role three months after Panther Island earned major federal funding, and his time as a consultant for the water district ended last October. His wife, Shanna Granger, is currently suing the water district over an event permit at Panther Island Pavilion.
Armed with lower blood pressure and the benefit of hindsight, Granger said he ultimately accomplished his goals of changing Fort Worth’s relationship to the Trinity. He recalled a conversation with Toal and Canadian architect Bing Thom, who helped envision the original design for Panther Island.
They told him that success has a million fathers. When things go well, everyone will want to claim a piece of it. When things turn sour, someone has to take the brunt of it, J.D. Granger said.
“And you know what? That’s OK,” he said. “I wanted to bring live music, I wanted to make people appreciate the river, I wanted to create something that makes people want to live here. We got the funding. I mean, that was my goal. My kids actually want to live here.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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