Following years of speculation about the future of real estate development on Panther Island, residents are getting their first peek at what’s to come for 500 acres between downtown Fort Worth and the Northside community.
Panther Island’s original development strategy, which focused heavily on downtown housing, came into focus in 2003. Twenty years later, consulting firm HR&A Advisors was tapped to create an updated, long-term blueprint — what government officials call “Vision 2.0” — for partners like the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District to follow.
Based on interviews with 20 Fort Worth organizations affected by Panther Island, HR&A’s initial findings were published Aug. 3. The firm identified four core themes for the project moving forward: vision and identity, urban design, strategic implementation and connections to community.
“We’re pleased with the quality of the report and how HR&A has integrated all of the various issues and viewpoints,” assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff said via email. “The four core themes that they identified through their initial work will provide a strong foundation for the next phases of the project.”
The report makes the distinction between the $1.16 billion Central City flood control project, which will create a 1.5-mile bypass channel and reroute part of the Trinity River, and the riverfront development that the channel will generate on Panther Island. Armed with $423 million in federal funding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct the channel and remain uninvolved with development plans.
Project partners have expressed a desire to transition away from residential-heavy development to a mix of retail, housing, restaurant and office space, according to the report. This approach will likely require the city of Fort Worth and other groups to revise policies regulating building height, density and land uses across the district, HR&A wrote.
Creating a positive pedestrian experience is also a key priority for Fort Worth leaders, according to the report. In addition to expanded trail systems and the possibility of a Trinity Metro streetcar running through the island, HR&A highlighted the opportunity to build “high-capacity transit,” or a light rail system, to connect the island with the Historic Southside and Northside neighborhoods.
Architect Michael Bennett said he was pleased to see HR&A introduce the idea of bringing more transit options to Panther Island, which would reduce the number of parking garages necessary to accommodate visitors. Bennett serves as chairman of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and is a member of the founders council of the Greater Real Estate Council of Fort Worth, both of which helped to fund the HR&A study.
“They highlighted the need for connectivity to other parts of Fort Worth from Panther Island,” Bennett said. “I think the connectivity issue was, sort of, not the point of focus of the original plan. We’re recognizing that we need to have it be more integrated into the rest of the city.”
How can Panther Island develop responsibly?
Most of the land on Panther Island is owned by public entities, with the Tarrant Regional Water District laying claim to about 125 acres of developable land on the island. Tarrant County College owns about 21 acres.
HR&A’s strategy will focus on developing the interior of the island first and then move on to the waterfront parcels that will be ready for development after the channel is built by 2032.
“The strategy will need to balance the need for near-term revenue generation with the opportunity for patience to leverage the value that will be created through the final completion of the flood control project,” the report reads.
Making development economically feasible for developers will be a challenge, since early commercial development is likely to be the most costly and risky for investors, according to the report.
Another challenge is meeting the expectation of project partners who want Panther Island to be a welcoming destination for people of all backgrounds and income levels — especially the majority Hispanic community that has called the Northside home for generations.
“We spent a good amount of time in our meeting (with HR&A) talking about how to make sure this is a place for everybody and that people who do live nearby can stay if they choose,” Bennett said.
Residents of the Northside are primarily concerned about displacement created by property tax increases and the risk of safety and noise issues from a busier Panther Island, according to HR&A’s findings. Dennis Chiessa, a Northside native and UT-Arlington architecture professor, echoed these anxieties at a Fort Worth Report event on Panther Island in June.
“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.”
HR&A found that Northside residents want Panther Island to facilitate opportunities for public art, small business incubation for local entrepreneurs and programming representative of their community. Fort Worth leaders must recognize these dynamics now and take action to prevent displacement of current residents, HR&A wrote.
“To make Panther Island a development that adds to the existing rich cultural fabric of Fort Worth, rather than erasing it, public and nonprofit partners should develop anti-displacement tools and prioritize housing affordability to prevent disruptive impacts on existing communities,” the report reads.
Questions of funding, governance still unanswered
Beyond the development possibilities on Panther Island, HR&A’s report also digs into key questions dogging the project’s future. How can the city’s infrastructure be prepared for an influx of development? Who will govern the project and find new ways to pay for upfront costs?
HR&A acknowledges the need for major infrastructure upgrades, especially to the city’s water and wastewater systems on Panther Island. While initial layouts for those improvements have been determined, funding sources have not, according to the report. Agencies also haven’t figured out how to split the bill for construction of the island’s canal system, public spaces or removal of the existing flood levees once the channel is constructed.
Cities often turn to tax increment financing districts to use property taxes within a defined area to pay for structural improvements and enhanced infrastructure. In this case, however, funds from the Panther Island taxing district are already set to pay off Central City flood control project debt.
HR&A’s team will explore alternative means to fund infrastructure improvements. The sale or lease of public land could go back into Panther Island, such as the water district paying for construction of a canal system, according to the report.
Determining a structure for how the project will be governed remains an open question as well. HR&A presented a number of potential options that groups involved with Panther Island’s development will consider, ranging from a fully private organization running daily operations to an entirely new public agency dedicated to the island.
“We agree on the need to address long-term governance and funding necessary to support implementation of the renewed Panther Island Vision, particularly for infrastructure,” Burghdoff said. “This project has a history of multi-agency collaboration and we expect to build on that, but haven’t discussed options yet.”
Over the next several months, HR&A plans to bring its initial findings to the public through a series of meetings and an online survey. All information will be shared on the project website, which was redesigned in coordination with HR&A’s phase one report, Burghdoff said.
“We want to engage the districts and neighborhoods surrounding Panther Island in addition to the property owners, businesses, and residents on the island,” Burghdoff said. “We will host a series of meetings catered to those communities and the broader public to learn about stakeholders’ priorities to inform the updated vision.”
The firm has also committed to looking at case studies in other cities and finding the best path forward for implementing a real estate development strategy in Fort Worth, Bennett said. The third and final phase of HR&A’s study should be completed this fall with a public announcement of the project’s vision.
“I find it totally fair to say after this first phase, where you’re doing the investigation and findings piece, to say: We understand this is something we still have to figure out,” Bennett said.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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