Can Panther Island work without federal funds? Maybe, if Fort Worth plays the long game

Panther Island is a waiting game, but there is no shortage of patient investors and developers.

Real estate developers say they still believe in the Panther Island project, despite reports this week that flood control money for the project has been left off the federal budget for 2018 and possibly 2019.

But they also said the area just north of downtown Fort Worth is likely to remain mostly vacant until the federal money becomes available.

The reason? Much of the roughly 300 acres adjacent to downtown — the area where a river walk, luxurious apartments and restaurants are planned — lack suitable storm water drainage under current conditions.

“It’s all about the infrastructure. It’s all about capturing that storm water, cleaning it and discharging it out of the area,” said Mark Presswood, president of Panther Real Estate Solutions, who is working on multiple projects on 22 acres in the area where Panther Island is to be built.

Jim Lane, a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District board that is overseeing the Panther Island project, said earlier this year that if voters approved $247 million in local bond funding for Panther Island the re-channeling of the Trinity River could be completed by 2028. Voters overwhelmingly approved that funding in May.

Presswood, while not commenting specifically on his or other developers’ Panther Island plans, said generally that if developers had to pay for those storm water improvements themselves they wouldn’t be able to rent residential, restaurant or office space at a high enough rate to recover those costs. This is why using a combination of federal funds and local water district dollars to pay for the improvements makes sense.

But he is confident that Panther Island will reach its potential in the next decade, as the federal money begins to flow in.

“The key is, Congress has already recognized it as a project,” he said, “so it’s a matter of time.”

While we wait

But in the meantime, while residents wait for the $1.16 billion re-channeling of the Trinity River to be completed, what if anything can be built on the Panther Island property?

Here are some examples of developments that are already happening:

Luxury apartments — Dallas-based Encore Enterprises has already started preliminary work on a planned 300-unit apartment complex on North Main Street called Encore Panther Island. In recent weeks, workers have leveled the 3.45 acres just north of downtown. The property is adjacent to the old brick electrical building by the Main Street bridge (aka Paddock Viaduct), just north of the Tarrant County courthouse.

Encore officials didn’t respond to requests for comment, although it appeared that work was continuing on the project this week, behind a fenced-in area.

Bridges — Three bridges are being built to connect Panther Island to the rest of the city, and those structures on schedule for completion by 2020, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Val Lopez says. The bridges are being built on dry land at North Main Street, Henderson Street and White Settlement Road, with the expectation that later on the Trinity River will be channeled under them.

“All eight of the V-pier supports for the White Settlement Road bridge have been completed, and the contractor has been working on the bridge superstructure over the last several months,” Lopez said. “The North Main Street bridge is also active with one V-pier complete, and a second pour is being planned.”

Baseball — A plan is in place to bring baseball back to LaGrave Field, a historical ballpark at 301 NE Sixth St. that was home to the Fort Worth Cats before the club folded in 2014 and the structure fell into disrepair and was beset by vandalism. The Tarrant Regional Water District approved a land swap with the ballpark’s owners, Houston-based Panther Acquisition Partners, which gets 15.3 acres of Panther Island property in exchange for giving up the ballpark and surrounding land.

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Artist rendering of Panther Island aerial view. Trinity River Vision Authority

Officials say they will know later this month whether repairs can be made in time to play baseball next summer — or whether 2020 will be a more likely target date.

Drive-in movies — The Coyote Drive-in opened in 2013, with three screens at 223 NE Fourth St., just south of LaGrave Field. The facility also offers outdoor ice skating during the holidays — and this year that will be Nov. 16 through Jan. 14.

Perimeter developments — A 300-unit upscale apartment development known as The View of Fort Worth is scheduled to open by the end of the year at the southwest corner of Interstate 35W and Northside Drive. It’s on the other side of the Trinity River shore from Panther Island (on the planned island’s northeast end), with a picture-perfect view of downtown.

Also, the Broadstone apartments are under construction adjacent to the 20-story glass building that houses Pier 1 Imports at Fifth Street and Summit Avenue, and the Left Bank development between downtown and Montgomery Plaza is adding several hundred high-end apartment units. Both of those projects will be just outside the southwestern border of Panther Island, once the Trinity River is diverted.

Playing the long game

The concept of Panther Island evolved in 2001, as Fort Worth planners looked for ways to preserve and enhance the Trinity River as it flows through the city. The project was initially dubbed Trinity River Vision, and later Trinity Uptown, before planners settled on Panther Island.

While development of Panther Island has moved at a snail’s pace, other nearby parts of Fort Worth have evolved in ways that would make them unrecognizable to someone who left the city in 2001 and returned today. Some examples:

Magnolia Avenue, once considered a skid row in the medical district, recently was dubbed one of the “Great Streets in America.”

The Shops at Clearfork, a place where today wealthy shoppers eat souffles and browse at Tiffany & Co., was once an inaccessible prairie west of Hulen Street and south of West Vickery Boulevard. Chisholm Trail Parkway opened in 2014, providing easy access.

West 7th and the adjacent Linwood neighborhood, which were devastated by a 2000 tornado that crumpled dozens of buildings, today is arguably the city’s most popular attraction, with property values rivaling downtown’s Sundance Square.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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