Tarrant County College's newest campus takes shape in downtown Fort Worth

FORT WORTH -- Cars zip along Belknap and Weatherford streets as construction workers install stairs and ramps leading down to a sunken plaza tucked between the busy thoroughfares.

Even as work continues on a walkway linking the plaza to the Trinity River, Tahita Fulkerson and Nina Petty can envision students gathered at an outdoor classroom overlooking the river.

The Tarrant County College officials imagine students crossing a bridge over a water feature that stretches from Weatherford Street toward the Trinity. Looking up, they see students enjoying views of downtown and the river as they walk between classes.

"We're trying to promote and embrace the whole Trinity River and its streams and valleys," said Petty, TCC's vice chancellor for real estate and facilities.

The controversial Trinity River East Campus -- belabored by cost overruns, design changes and downtown critics -- is coming closer to completion. Construction of the buildings, built into the river bluff just east of the Tarrant County Courthouse, is expected to finish by May, and classes are set to begin in fall 2011.

"I really think when the building is complete, it's going to be a beautiful edifice," Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley said. "The plaza is going to be very nice. We expect it's going to be a main part of the downtown landscape."

The project was proposed in 2004 by then-Chancellor Leonardo de la Garza as a more grandiose undertaking that would span the Trinity. Construction was delayed as the cost of building on river levees soared after Hurricane Katrina, which brought increased scrutiny from the Army Corps of Engineers.

As recently as 2008, completion of the campus was in doubt after TCC scrapped its plan to build on both sides of the Trinity and bought the RadioShack riverfront complex, now the Trinity River Campus. Trustees considered selling the buildings being built on the bluff but eventually decided to complete and occupy them.

When classes start at Trinity River East, students studying nursing, radiology, sonography and respiratory care will learn their trades in a multimillion-dollar health profession complex. State-of-the-art classrooms -- complete with lifelike mannequins --will resemble a hospital, allowing students to gain clinical skills.

The site sits on both sides of Belknap, with the walkway beneath the street to provide access to the river. A building under construction south of Belknap, in the sunken plaza, will house a coffee shop. Travelers heading south on Main Street into downtown can see two larger buildings emerging from the river bluffs. The project has about 148,000 square feet of enclosed building space, and the plaza covers about 3 acres.

College leaders said the complex will add to downtown's features while creating a training facility that will help meet the growing need for health professionals.

The nursing program, now at TCC's South Campus, and Allied Health programs such as radiology and respiratory care will be moved to Trinity River East. The Allied Health programs are now at the Northeast Campus.

A simulated hospital will allow health professionals to train in a realistic setting, said Tahita Fulkerson, president of the Trinity River campuses. She said the training is in demand as more nursing students make clinical rotations in hospitals. Students can get about 50 percent of their clinical experience in the simulated hospital.

Certification in long-term-care administration and health information technology will also be offered at the campus, Fulkerson said.

Hadley said TCC is moving the high-demand health profession programs downtown so they will be in the middle of the county and accessible by public transportation.

Demand for these health programs continues, TCC officials said.

"We are not producing as many registered nurses as our population growth demands," Hadley said.

The sunken plaza, built despite strong objections raised by developer Ed Bass, will be a public space with benches, shade trees and bike ramps allowing access to river trails from downtown. Students can use a trail to walk west along the river to the Trinity River Campus, about 10 minutes away. There will be about 250 parking spaces for students and faculty along with bicycle parking, said Michael Bennett, CEO of the architectural firm Gideon Toal. Students who bicycle to the campus will have an added amenity: specialized rails allowing them to roll their bikes up and down stairs.

The project is budgeted at about $203 million, Petty said, and about $138 million has been spent. Without cuts in the final stages of the project, the expenditures would have already reached about $150 million.

Cuts were made in utilities, contracting, construction, design, value engineering and project management while still keeping the feel of openness, Petty said.

"My desire is that we are going to come in under budget," she said.

Even so, critics say the college spent far too much for a relatively small amount of space -- at one point the cost was estimated at about $1,500 per square foot. O.K. Carter, a TCC board trustee, said some critics wanted to stop the project.

"It's too late to stop it," he said. "You have millions and millions of dollars invested."

Carter calls the second downtown campus redundant, saying TCC has plenty of room to grow at the Trinity River Campus, which TCC bought for $238 million.

"It has tons and tons of capacity," Carter said.

Carter said he hopes TCC can eventually recoup some of the controversial investment. He said some options include selling the May Owen Center, at 1500 Houston St., near another downtown redevelopment area. He said TCC administration offices could be moved to Trinity River East, along with offices now in rented space nearby. Additionally, Carter said TCC still owns about 34 acres across from Trinity River East that could be sold.

"It's not on the market now, but we will definitely have to look at its market value once the economy turns around," Carter said.

TCC leaders stressed that the new campus is here to stay.

"We are going to be here hundreds of years," Petty said. "We do not have the same mindset of corporate America. This is going to be a college forever and a day."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675