Fort Worth leaders reveal new roadmap for developing Panther Island. Where does it lead?

dfwnewsa | March 5, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth leaders reveal new roadmap for developing Panther Island. Where does it lead?

The West Fork of the Trinity River will be re-routed and create riverfront development on Panther Island near downtown Fort Worth. (Rodger Mallison | Fort Worth Report)
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More than 20 years after Fort Worth leaders envisioned a waterfront development that would transform hundreds of acres between downtown and the Northside community, government agencies have a new roadmap for developing what will become Panther Island. 

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During a duet of presentations March 5, Dallas-based consultant HR&A Advisors delivered its final strategic vision for 300-plus acres of land along the new bypass channels constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the next decade. 

“I lived in San Antonio for four years, I can’t wait to stick it to them and their riverwalk,” council member Gyna Bivens, who represents east Fort Worth, said. 

Since its introduction in 2003, the project has been trailed by controversies surrounding rising construction costs and yearslong delays to obtaining federal funding. The federal government, which is charged with rerouting part of the Trinity River as part of the Central City flood control project, says it has no role in the economic development that will be generated on the man-made islands. 

With an infusion of $423 million in federal funding over the past two years, Fort Worth’s power brokers have again championed the project as a transformative development opportunity and flood control solution. 

In more than 270 pages of analysis and recommendations, HR&A emphasized the possibilities to establish a network of publicly accessible green spaces, public transit investments and pedestrian walkways that will create a distinct identity for Panther Island. 

That’s a departure from the island’s current landscape on North Main Street, where visitors can see the busted windows of a former Ku Klux Klan meeting hall and a deteriorating minor league baseball field along with a brewery, apartment complex and drive-in theater. 

“Right now, it’s a place people drive through, and there’s few reasons to stop and engage in the place,” Cary Hirschstein, managing partner at HR&A, said. “But it is surrounded by this incredible wealth of community and culture, and this offers the opportunity really to knit all of that together.” 

In HR&A’s vision, which received input from 240 community members, Panther Island will feature 14 public spaces, with a public waterfront trail and “green connector” streets providing pedestrian connections to different parts of the island. Open space will generate higher property values and higher-quality investment on Panther Island even as it requires upfront investment to build parks, HR&A consultant Aaron Abelson said. 

“Whether they’re going to work there, live there, or paddle on the water or play in one of the parks that are proposed, there are special spaces where everyone can find whatever they’re looking for,” Stacey Pierce, executive director of the river-focused nonprofit Streams & Valleys, said. 

The parks would build on Mayor Mattie Parker’s Good Natured initiative, which aims to preserve at least 10,000 acres of green space through partnerships with groups like the Tarrant Regional Water District. Parker said she is proud of the partnership the city and the water district have built over the past few years. 

The vision set forth by HR&A Advisors would reserve 51 acres for open space, or about 15% of developable land, on Panther Island. (Courtesy image | HR&A Advisors)

“Public transparency has been at the center of this,” Parker said. “The only way this project is accomplished is if the governmental entities are working closely together.”

The city of Fort Worth — along with the water district, Tarrant County, 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 in early 2023. While government agencies will vote to adopt the plan, they are not required to follow its recommendations. 

Not every detail has been worked out, and regional leaders didn’t expect that from HR&A, said Tarrant Regional Water District General Manager Dan Buhman. Instead, they wanted government agencies to get on the same page about their goals for Panther Island and send a signal to the private sector that they could have confidence in developing on the island, Buhman said. 

“It does get us to a new place where not only is there consensus, but there’s clarity,” he said. “I’m very pleased with where we are now, and I’m very pleased with the momentum it generates.”

Assistant City Manager Dana Burghdoff presents the vision and strategy for Panther Island to City Council members on March 5, 2024. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

Project leaders encourage developing island in phases

During his conversations with community members, Abelson heard one question over and over again: Is this actually going to happen? 

“Some people can get very bogged down in the history of this project,” Abelson said. “This project has momentum and is in a new era from where it has been in the past. But … showing near-term progress is important for many reasons.” 

Significant parts of Panther Island are ready to be developed today, Abelson said. The new plan dedicates about 15% of acreage on the island to open space, up from 9% under the city’s previous estimates. Private landowners, including Union Pacific Railroad and Panther Acquisition Partners, own 31.5% of the 192 acres that are considered developable, or about 60 acres. 

The remaining 68% of developable land is owned by public agencies including Tarrant County College and the city of Fort Worth. The vast majority is under Tarrant Regional Water District ownership. Water district leaders have commissioned a study to determine its own strategy for selling land to developers, including the aging LaGrave Field.

The report suggests building out the first four corners of development at the intersection of Main and 4th streets. Building out these areas requires less upfront investment compared to other areas of the island, and has the potential to set the tone for development along Main Street. 

Zones 2 through 3 require some level of storm and wastewater infrastructure before they can be built. Zone 4, which encompasses the southern island, will only be available for development when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes the bypass channels and existing flood levees can come down. 

HR&A Advisors separates the developable parts of Panther Island into four zones. The first zone, at the intersection of 4th and Main streets, is available to develop today. The remaining zones will need varying degrees of new infrastructure or the existing flood levees to be removed before they can be fully built out. (Courtesy image | HR&A Advisors)

The phasing approach along with the current restrictions in the city’s form-based code will likely encourage developers to hold off until project partners can develop new city policies and a development review committee, Assistant City Manager Dana Burghdoff said. 

Because the water district and other public entities own such a significant portion of Panther Island, the report suggests developing a structured process to select developers and set aside land for public use. 

HR&A Advisors separates the developable parts of Panther Island into four zones. The first zone, at the intersection of 4th and Main streets, is available to develop today. The remaining zones will need varying degrees of new infrastructure or the existing flood levees to be removed before they can be fully built out. (Courtesy image | HR&A Advisors)

Not all of the historic buildings on Panther Island are expected to survive the next phases of development. While HR&A considers the former TXU power plant owned by Tarrant County College to be a potential centerpiece of development, it recommends the demolition and sale of LaGrave Field.

“The HR&A report certainly confirms Panther Island’s potential to transform our city and spur economic development,” Tarrant County College Chancellor Elva LeBlanc said in a statement. “We look forward to addressing next steps with our partners.” 

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Developers once sought to revitalize the field and bring a team back to Fort Worth, but those plans fell apart in 2020. The water district’s board of directors will make the final decision on what happens to LaGrave, Buhman said. 

“At this point, we don’t really have a credible proposal that says: ‘Here’s how we would bring private capital to reuse the stadium or repurpose the stadium,’” Buhman said. 

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LaGrave Field, a historic former minor league baseball stadium located on Panther Island, has gone through cycles of hope and disrepair since its closure in 2014. (Rodger Mallison | Fort Worth Report)

Missing from the report is a strategy to attract a major corporate campus or headquarters to Panther Island, something Michael Bennett, chairman of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and a member of the founders council of the Greater Real Estate Council of Fort Worth, previously championed.

Downtown currently lacks a major corporate headquarters and Panther Island presents a renewed opportunity to entice a company to relocate, Bennett said. 

“When I said it does about 90% of what I hoped, that’s part of the 10% that I hoped for,” Bennett said. “Nothing in the plan precludes (attracting a corporation), but I was hoping that there would be some things in the plan that maybe incentivized more.” 

Connectivity, anti-displacement strategies could reduce gentrification

During public input meetings, residents expressed concerns that development on Panther Island would lead to gentrification and displace residents in the historically Hispanic Northside neighborhood, which has been designated for reinvestment by the city and a national business program. 

Between 2016 and 2021, property values on Panther Island increased 60%. In Northside more broadly, property value increases hovered between 40% and 60%, according to the report. The plan addresses this concern by suggesting the city create a series of policies that would bolster the financial health of the communities surrounding Panther Island. 

Fort Worth City Council Member Carlos Flores speaks at a Panther Island community input meeting in September 2023. Flores’ district includes Panther Island and Northside, a historically Hispanic neighborhood facing gentrification concerns. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Those ideas include creating a legacy business program to financially support businesses that have been in Panther Island and surrounding neighborhoods for 30 years; establishing preferential housing policies in surrounding neighborhoods; and creating a construction interruption fund to reduce any negative impacts of construction on businesses. 

If these anti-displacement strategies were implemented, it would be a first for Fort Worth, Burghdoff said. 

“The question will be what will be the most impactful thing to bring to bear here among those that were offered as ideas,” Abelson said. 

Creating a transit hub in Panther Island would also address some of the equity issues raised by community members, according to the report. Many streets near Panther Island lack sidewalks altogether, and the limited bike lanes that do exist are narrow and unsafe, according to the report. 

The plan recommends establishing a transit hub to connect downtown, Panther Island and the Stockyards. Doing so would reduce traffic congestion, increase access to the area and improve air quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. Trinity Metro will be involved in developing ideas for multiple transit options such as high-capacity trains, bus routes connecting parts of the island and a circulator bus to take people around the district. 

HR&A Advisors envisions a road connecting the eastern and western sides of Panther Boulevard (more widely known as White Settlement Road) along with a wider street on Main Street that could accommodate high-capacity trains and other transit. (Courtesy image | HR&A Advisors)

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Since both islands will have limited road access with White Settlement Road and Main Street as the primary feeder streets, Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., welcomed the recommendations to connect the eastern and western parts of the island. 

“The improved road network that facilitates north, south, east and west access through and within the islands are important and new contributions to the vision,” Taft said. 

Plan suggests finding new funding sources, establishing new governance

Many of the questions yet to be answered by the HR&A report are related to the funding and oversight of the development. 

So far, much of the money spent on and around Panther Island has been related to the Central City flood control project. Bonds, loans and a tax increment financing (TIF) district have all been used to cover construction costs that local agencies, including the city of Fort Worth and the water district, must pay to meet federal requirements. 

The amount invested in preparing the land around Panther Island is increasing, causing potential delays to construction and increasing the overall cost of the project. While developers will pay impact fees to fund certain infrastructure improvements, the city of Fort Worth and other agencies will have to find upfront money to cover those bills. 

Aaron Abelson, a managing principal at HR&A Advisors, presents at the first of several public meetings on Panther Island development on Sept. 7, 2023. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

The plan recommends finding new funding structures to support public and private development of infrastructure, parks and betterments that will give the island a unique sense of place. Ideas include partnerships with private developers, the creation of a public improvement district and philanthropic donations. 

“It’s going to take many sources of funding, a lot of partnership between the public and private sector, to bring all of the layers of funding for infrastructure development, for the operation and management of a new district,” Abelson said.

According to the report, a new governing body should take responsibility for planning, infrastructure management, selling land and soliciting economic development on the island. The new board could also be responsible for promoting and branding the project to the public. 

The new governing body would operate in addition to the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is housed under the water district and is focused on implementing the Central City flood control project. 

Dan Buhman, Tarrant Regional Water District general manager, speaks to the board of directors in 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Amid the report’s hundreds of pages, there are still several recommendations to finalize and implement, from establishing a governing body to selling the land owned by the water district, Buhman said. 

“At least we’re on the right path and we have a framework for people to start from. Even if people were to disagree with the framework, at least it’s something to begin from,” Buhman said. “There’s a lot of details to work out, but I will tell you we’re very motivated to work those out quickly.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via X.

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.

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