James Toal, who helped conceive the Trinity River Vision, died Sunday

12/23/2013 6:22 PM

12/24/2013 9:25 AM

Urban planner James Toal had his hands in most of the city’s largest development projects during the past several decades. But the one most associated with his name — and the one closest to his heart — would be redevelopment of the Trinity River through Tarrant County.

The Trinity River Vision, the ongoing $910 million flood-control and economic development project on Fort Worth’s near north side, was also the last project he would consult on.

Mr. Toal died Sunday at his Fort Worth home. Friends say he had been in poor health recently and last month canceled a trip to Miami to see a new grandson. He was 66.

Protecting, enhancing and beautifying the waterfronts of Fort Worth, especially the Trinity River, was his passion, his family and friends said.

Mr. Toal coordinated the Trinity River Vision from its beginning around 2000 and spearheaded a two-year master-planning process that followed. Just about a month ago, J.D. Granger, the Trinity River Vision Authority’s executive director, talked to him about the last phases of the project, which will involve the design of a 1 1/2-mile-long channel near downtown that will create an 800-acre island that in turn will create waterfront residential and commercial development.

“He saw potential and cared about our community,” said Granger, who has known Mr. Toal for decades. “He loved to create great places for people to enjoy.”

Friends describe Mr. Toal as a visionary, a mentor to young professionals, and someone who loved and respected people. His resume stretches from public and private real estate to urban design and economic development projects. He was adept at providing strategic planning.

Mr. Toal served as director of planning and growth management for the city of Fort Worth from 1979 to 1985, leading the city’s planning support efforts for the major redevelopment of downtown by Fort Worth’s Bass family. He left the city in 1986 to start his own firm, James Toal Co., which he ran until 1993. In 1993, he joined Gideon Toal as a principal and co-chairman, retiring in 2010.

Randy Gideon was Mr. Toal’s business partner for nearly 20 years, but a close friend for much longer. The Trinity River Vision master plan and the redevelopment of downtown Fort Worth will be Mr. Toal’s legacy, projects that have the greatest impact on the city in terms of development, Gideon said.

“You hear the word visionary thrown about, but he really was a visionary,” Gideon said. “It was a gift. He was really bright.”

Mr. Toal was not a selfish man, Gideon said, and his work was always about doing the right thing for the city. It’s a philosophy their firm lived by, he said.

“He was very, very good at getting people to collaborate,” Gideon said. “It was a wonderful partnership,” he said of their firm. “We never had a bad word. James was so gracious.”

Mr. Toal was the author of two, 10-year master plans for Downtown Fort Worth Inc., helped in the site selection for the RadioShack corporate campus downtown and was involved in the initial Tarrant County College downtown campus selection along the Trinity River. A year ago, he developed a master plan for the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

He was the first to see the development potential of West Seventh Street, on the city’s near west side, helping Acme Brick sell and move its corporate headquarters from there. The property was a part of the first assemblage of land for the West Seventh project. He also worked on the Montgomery Plaza development and numerous projects throughout Tarrant County and Texas.

Gideon Toal was founded in 1956 as Don W. Kirk, consulting engineer. By 1986, the firm had been renamed Kirk Voich Gist. Gideon joined in 1989 and Toal in 1993, which is when they bought the firm. It became KVG Gideon Toal and was renamed Gideon Toal in 1997. Gideon Toal grew to as many as 60 professionals.

In 2010, the firm was renamed Bennett Benner Pettit to reflect new ownership after Gideon and Mr. Toal both retired. Earlier this year, it became Bennett Benner Partners.

Michael Bennett, the firm’s principal and chief executive officer, said Mr. Toal loved Fort Worth. He often met with him over coffee to discuss city issues and projects.

“He had a 50,000-foot view of things,” Bennett said. “He had that kind of view where he could look at the whole situation. He was one of the best at that. He was involved in a whole lot of things and at a whole lot of levels.”

For example, in the early 1990s, Mr. Toal served on a team in the realignment and redevelopment of Carswell Air Force Base in west Fort Worth to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, showing the Defense Department how it could share resources among the military branches, Bennett said.

Mr. Toal maintained those Defense Department contacts and was often consulted on other projects, Bennett said.

“He was the go-between in so many things,” Bennett said. “He negotiated many deals. He was gentle soul. At times he was the absent-minded professor who couldn’t find his car key, but he could negotiate with diplomacy.”

Mr. Toal was born June 16, 1947, in Fort Worth to Kenneth and Ellen Toal. He is survived by a daughter, Tina Toal Maness of Burleson, and a son, Justin Toal of Miami.

Mr. Toal earned a degree in landscape architecture from Texas A&M in 1969, a master’s degree in liberal arts from Southern Methodist University in 1978 and a master’s in public administration from TCU in 1982.

Tentative plans are for a family memorial service Saturday morning followed by a celebration of life service at the Tarrant County College Trinity River campus commons area along the riverfront on Saturday afternoon. A reception is also being planned that evening at the pavilion in Sundance Square Plaza.

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