Fort Worth leaders have an idea for what they want to see in Panther Island, their views shaped by decades of debates and public discourse. But in Dennis Chiessa’s architecture studio classes at UT-Arlington, visions for the 800 acres of former industrial land between downtown and the Northside have looked very different.
Architect Michael Bennett, who moderated a June 15 discussion about the future of economic development in and around Panther Island, said he knows firsthand the “bizarre and sometimes good ideas” architecture students can produce.
“I don’t know if I would say they’re wild or bizarre. I mean, not wilder than rerouting the river,” Chiessa said, earning laughs from the audience.
The decades-old plan to re-route the Trinity River was at the center of the Fort Worth Report’s June 15 Candid Conversation event at Texas Wesleyan University. The $1.16 billion Central City flood control project, which received $403 million in federal funding last year, will pave the way for riverfront development along the Trinity and create the appearance of a natural island known as Panther Island.
Chiessa, who grew up in the Northside neighborhood, was among the panelists who shared their vision of success for the project. The event also featured Tarrant County College Chief Operating Officer Susan Alanis, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. President Andy Taft and Aaron Abelson of HR&A Advisors, the firm charged with mapping the future of real estate development in and around Panther Island.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is on track to dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel near downtown by 2032, the plan to develop the surrounding acreage is still undetermined. Earlier this year, the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District teamed up with Tarrant County College, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the Greater Real Estate Council of Fort Worth and nonprofit Streams & Valleys to update a 2-decade-old economic development strategy.
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Bennett, principal and chief executive of Bennett Partners, is part of the team that helped select HR&A Advisors for the job. He asked Abelson how the firm is balancing the need to follow what the market wants without abdicating the government’s role in shaping a development plan that works for the city as a whole.
HR&A is encouraged by the fact that seven public and nonprofit organizations already recognize the need to work together and get behind a shared strategy for Panther Island, Abelson said. The report will help government agencies and other project partners to learn when to say yes to development, but also when to say no, he said.
Key to long-term success is developing major portions of the project in stages, creating anchor amenities and getting the right partners to stick around throughout the length of the project, Abelson said.
“I think a lot of it really does tie back to being grounded in a vision that has consensus, that has buy-in and that people understand,” Abelson said.
Beyond Fort Worth’s downtown and cultural district, which stand to benefit economically from the project, other neighborhoods will be impacted, Chiessa said. The project will likely increase the cost of housing in the majority-Hispanic Northside and Riverside neighborhoods, in addition to taking customers away from small businesses and potentially detracting from the area’s rich Mexican-American culture, Chiessa said.
“I think the city will have some challenges and maybe some responsibility in providing mechanisms to allow some of these residents to be able to stay in their neighborhood,” Chiessa said. “That means not just development, but policies that encourage and incentivize people to stay in their neighborhood.”
Chiessa’s students proposed the idea of using the western edge of Panther Island exclusively for public space, such as parks, flea markets and smaller commercial businesses. Part of the problem with the original strategy for Panther Island, developed in 2003, was that it focused too much on attracting developers rather than developing a network of public spaces, Chiessa said.
“That would benefit everybody. It would benefit the businesses that will own this land, because ultimately this will generate money no matter what,” he said.
How Fort Worth leaders are approaching Panther Island strategy
South of Panther Island, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the planning and advocacy group for downtown businesses, has managed several economic development efforts in the area. Bennett asked Taft if he or his organization will have a role in managing Panther Island once things start getting built.
Downtown Fort Worth Inc. could offer its expertise to landowners looking to create a public improvement district in the future, Taft said.
“We’re adding a lot of inventory of developable land that used to be commercial and industrial … and I think it will be extraordinarily attractive,” Taft said. “And the people and the new uses that are going to be coming into Panther Island are going to generate the need for enhanced maintenance and security – the sort of things that we do in downtown.”
Bennett pointed to a warning from the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, who said having a great plan but no one to implement it could put the project in jeopardy. He asked Abelson how project leaders can ensure that a good plan doesn’t go to waste.
J.D. Granger’s 2022 exit from his position as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, the organization charged with governing Panther Island, left the project without a clear leader. City leaders have expressed desire to explore a new governance structure for the project, and HR&A is expected to offer recommendations in its report.
Responsibility and accountability are key in the project, Abelson said, a goal which is tied back to effective governance and stewardship. The project’s leader, whoever that may be, also needs a vision to drive toward, Abelson said.
“What they’re driving toward needs to be this visionary thing, this thing that people can understand and that is still grounded in the practicalities, and people believe it can be implemented,” Abelson said.
Tarrant County College has several assets in and around the Trinity River, including the historic TXU generator plant. Alanis pointed out that San Antonio is No. 1 for historic assets in Texas, but Fort Worth is No. 2, and TCC hopes to sell the building to a developer committed to preserving as much of it as possible.
As a taxing entity, the college is interested in the best use of all property in the community, including the ones TCC owns, Alanis said. “Money today” is not the key driver of its decisions, she said.
“Our furtherance of that objective is not to take the first developer who comes along or worry that the value might grow later,” Alanis said.
Over the past two decades, Fort Worth’s downtown has lost many of its corporate tenants, including RadioShack and Pier 1 Imports, Bennett said. Meanwhile, residential development has increased as residents seek to live in the central city.
The original 2003 strategy for Panther Island included residential development. The idea was radical at the time, when the success of downtown housing was unproven, Taft said. Now that apartment development has found success in other parts of Fort Worth’s central city, the new plan should reconsider the importance of residential development to Panther Island, Taft said.
“This idea of Panther island being a successful residential area, the idea of it is no longer a wild stretch. It can happen,” Taft said. “The question now is, should it be (the) predominant use?”
What does success look like on Panther Island?
Bennett closed out the discussion asking panelists what their vision of success for Panther Island looks like, especially after the flood control elements are completed and the the levees come down allowing further development on the riverfront.
Complex questions over the project’s governance and financing are not going to be solved over the next six months, as HR&A develops its strategy report, Abelson said. His goal is to map out the practicalities of managing a project this size so that the city and other partners can carry out a larger vision informed by public input.
“Success looks like a place that everyone in Fort Worth feels welcome and feels there is a reason to go there,” Abelson said.
Success will not come from looking at the cost of the project and asking if the investment is worth it, Alanis said. Many big investments, including Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the Alliance corridor, seemed impossible before they were built, Alanis said.
“Now we look back and are like, ‘of course!’” she said. “And I think that this will be one of those projects that serves Fort Worth that way.”
By the end of the project, Fort Worth will be better protected from devastating flooding, Taft said. The river will become a much bigger part of life in Fort Worth, he said, and create a new era of development above land.
Members of the community, including Northside residents, will need to feel like they have a seat at the table for the project to be considered successful, Chiessa said. If the public spaces are programmed in a way people feel like they can take part in, that is one level of success. But if people can have a role in shaping the future of the project, Chiessa believes project leaders will meet much less resistance from the community.
Downtown Fort Worth isn’t the only thing that was different when the first Panther Island plan was developed in 2003. The city as a whole has different priorities today, Chiessa said.
“Especially the last four or five years, we have become a lot more aware about social injustice and social issues and so we have to look at this through a different lens, maybe through a lens of equity,” Chiessa said to applause from the crowd. “What do we need to do to really benefit most of the people, especially in the adjacent communities?”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to explain how the levees will impact development near the Trinity River.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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