A billion-dollar project has stirred hope and havoc around Fort Worth’s downtown for decades. Now, with most necessary federal funding secured, city leaders are converging to discuss the potential and perils of Panther Island’s future.
Now, as government agencies and other project partners embark on a new study of land development along Panther Island, the project is at a turning point, said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., a planning and advocacy group for downtown businesses.
“We have the advantage of taking a look at the land use plan through new eyes in a world that’s changed a lot in the last 20 years, and it will change even more in the next 20 years,” Taft said. “Before you stick a shovel in the ground, you really ought to have a clear vision of: What do you want to get?”
Taft is one of four panelists who will appear at the Fort Worth Report’s June 15 “Candid Conversations” event at Texas Wesleyan University.
Other panelists include Dennis Chiessa, an architect and professor at The University of Texas at Arlington; Susan Alanis, chief operating officer of Tarrant County College, which owns a significant portion of developable land on the island; and Aaron Abelson, a consultant from HR&A Advisors, the firm responsible for mapping out the future of real estate development in and around Panther Island.
If you go:
When: 7:30-9 a.m. June 15
Where: Nick and Lou Martin University Center, Texas Wesleyan University. 3165 E. Rosedale St., Fort Worth, Texas 76105
What: This is a free community event with free parking. Complimentary breakfast will be served starting at 7:30 a.m. and the program will begin promptly at 8 a.m. There will be a Q&A session at the end of the event.
The event is sold out, but you can watch a livestream through the Fort Worth Report’s YouTube channel.
Architect Michael Bennett, CEO of Bennett Partners, will moderate the discussion. He is working with the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth to help steer the direction of development.
“I hope what comes out of this strategy plan… is somebody that wakes up every day, and their purpose is to see the big idea implemented at a high level,” Bennett said.
The Central City flood control project is designed to reroute a portion of the Trinity River, creating a 1.5 mile-long bypass channel north of downtown. The Tarrant Regional Water District estimates that about 2,400 acres of Fort Worth property will be protected from flooding as a result of the project.
The new bypass channel will allow the water district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decommission the existing levee system. Once the levees come down, more land along the Trinity will become available for private riverfront development. The resulting 800 acres of waterfront development are known as Panther Island.
Design and construction of the channel will be handled by the corps while city, county and business leaders will focus on ensuring Panther Island becomes a boon for high-quality development and economic development.
The public perception of the project has evolved in two distinct ways since its inception in 2003: before and after the project received $403 million from the federal government in January 2022. Before receiving funding, the project was the subject of scrutiny as leaders struggled to improve public perception of the project.
The panel will also introduce the next phase of the Panther Island project, an updated strategic plan to chart the future of development. Abelson of HR&A Advisors will discuss some of the firm’s initial findings. Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth tapped the firm to help design a new development plan for the island in January.
Land on the island is primarily owned by public entities, including the Tarrant Regional Water District, Tarrant County College and Tarrant County.
HR&A will issue the first part of the report this month, focused on initial takeaways from their interviews with business and government agencies. Overall, HR&A will analyze the development potential for the island, potential timing of development projects, future community outreach and project governance, said assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff.
“The city, from our role with economic development and land use, are trying to figure out what to tell people, and what it is we want it to be? With a new mayor and council members, we need to come together and figure out what we are going to do,” Burghdoff said.
The first iteration of a development plan for the island was completed in 2003. That plan laid out the current zoning and describes key design components for the island. The city decided to seek out a new plan for the island after federal funding was secured in early 2022 and developers began reaching out to the city inquiring about Fort Worth’s standards and economic development plans.
Chiessa, of UTA, said discussions about Panther Island often leave out key community voices, especially in Fort Worth’s historic Northside. The project – and the three bridges already constructed by the Texas Department of Transportation – will connect downtown Fort Worth to the Northside and the Stockyards.
Chiessa, who is from Fort Worth’s Northside neighborhood, was still in school to become an architect when he first heard about the project. He remembers being excited about the development opportunities the project would create.
Years later, he and his students at UT-Arlington began developing alternatives to the Panther Island plan, this time focused on equity, inclusion and using Panther Island as a public space. It’s a different approach than the developer-driven vision for the island that exists today, Chiessa said.
“Looking at it in terms of history, in terms of equity… that’s sort of the way that I frame it and several ideas have come out of that,” Chiessa said.
His students’ plans center the history of the island, including the former Ku Klux Klan meeting hall off North Main Street as well as Douglass and McGar parks, where Black Fort Worth residents gathered. Today, he is most concerned with the majority Hispanic neighborhoods that surround Panther Island.
“What’s going to happen to those neighborhoods like Northside and Riverside?” Chiessa said. “Downtown will get plenty of attention, the Cultural District is not going to be affected, but those other communities are more vulnerable.”
The Central City flood control project is scheduled for completion in 2032, according to timelines released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fort Worth is in the process of moving water and sewer utilities to make room for the bypass channel. The city must complete utility relocations within the north bypass channel by summer 2024 and within the south bypass channel by fall 2024, according to a corps spokesperson.
Once the bypass channel is completed, the levees currently protecting downtown from flooding will come down and create a transformative opportunity for riverside real estate, Bennett said.
Taft understands public frustration with the long timeline of the project and several delays to federal funding. But nothing this big or complex happens overnight, especially when the federal government is involved, Taft said.
“If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago,” Taft said. “This project is so complex and so ambitious that anyone who doesn’t have the patience for it is clearly not in the business and does not understand what it takes to coordinate something this big.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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