Fort Worth

Why aren’t developers flocking to Panther Island? Fort Worth, water district disagree.

Engineer explains Panther Island flood prevention project

Tarrant Regional Water District engineer, Woody Frossard explains how the Panther Island flood prevention project works.
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Tarrant Regional Water District engineer, Woody Frossard explains how the Panther Island flood prevention project works.

A Panther Island official says the city has stalled utility work needed to develop the former industrial zone north of downtown, jeopardizing economic development and risking another delay in the construction of a bypass channel.

Fort Worth officials, however, argue that the city is committed to investing in infrastructure and the obstacle to a building boom is federal funding.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a channel on the Trinity River, creating an 800-acre island north of downtown. The city is responsible for relocating and upgrading utilities, mainly stormwater and sewer lines. Voters passed a $250 million Tarrant Regional Water District bond in 2018 to cover much of that work, with the idea that a special tax district, bolstered by development, would help pay it off.

Since the project’s inception, developers and speculators have floated ideas for the future Panther Island.

One developer approached the district with a concept for $250 million worth of investment on district-owned land near LaGrave Field, manager Jim Oliver said. He said the builder was unable to get the project off the ground because the property lacked access to city utilities.

Oliver would not provide specifics about the developer or the concept, but said the multistory commercial and residential project would have paid property taxes, benefiting the special tax district designed to help fund some of the costs for the project.

“Even if the bypass channel was never built, this property could be developed,” Oliver said.

Similar development is possible, he said, but requires city infrastructure. The island could hold 10,000 residential units, but sewer and stormwater lines are not designed for that level of density and need to be upgraded.

Randle Harwood, the city’s planning and development director, said he was familiar with the development in question, but said it was in its infancy. Harwood sits on a committee tasked with vetting designs for future development on Panther Island.

“To say there’s a development that is ready to go, and it’s not going forward because infrastructure has not been built is not correct,” he said. “We’re sure not holding anything up.”

What is holding up development in the area is a lack of certainty over federal funding to complete the bypass channel, he said.

Though Congress authorized more than $520 million for the bypass channel, money has not been allocated for at least the last two federal budgets. Mayor Betsy Price and the City Council have been reluctant to extend the special tax district until confidence in federal funding is restored.

Last week a consultant’s draft report on the $1.17 billion project suggested changes to the management structure and other adjustments to improve clarity and transparency. City leaders had said they would not consider extending the district without the results of an independent review of Panther Island. Price on Monday said she had “serious concerns” after reading the report, which was delivered last week.

Work is progressing on separate utility relocation necessary for the Corps to dig the bypass channel, the city said. The city owns nine sewer and stormwater pipes and several culverts in the channel’s path. That work is on track, Harwood said.

Some development has already come to the future island.

Dallas-based Encore Enterprises has already started work on a 300-unit apartment complex on North Main Street called Encore Panther Island. Work had been progressing until foundation issues forced the contractor to tear down the garage earlier this summer.

“There’s been a ton of development kicking the tires on Panther Island since the beginning,” Harwood said. “Some like, Encore, is real. Some is less real.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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