Fort Worth

Panther Island: Developers should go through Fort Worth, not Trinity River Vision

Development on the planned Panther Island near downtown Fort Worth will start and stop with the city.

That’s the way development works across Fort Worth, but that has not exactly been the case with builders interested in the 800 acre island that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood mitigation project would create, if it ever gets needed federal dollars.

Instead, developers pitched ideas to a review board that operated under the Trinity River Vision Authority, the coordinating body headed by J.D. Granger. That review board, like the TRVA board, was made up of representatives from the city and water district that vetted projects before builders ultimately went to the city for permits.

The Fort Worth City Council Tuesday approved stripping references to the Trinity River Vision Authority from the city’s development code to make it clear that from now on prospective developers need to go to the city, not the TRVA, with ideas. It follows recommendations from Dallas-based project management consultant Riveron, which suggested confusion about what Panther Island has had hurt the project’s image.

“It’s letting the people who have the economic development expertise put that stuff through,” said Randle Harwood, the city’s director of planning.

Granger, the executive director of TRVA and the son of U.S. Rep Kay Granger, has long argued the authority never did economic development because it didn’t build anything. Instead, the authority helped form design and zoning standards for the area that will be Panther Island, planned infrastructure and vetted potential projects. Earlier this month he said the power to provide incentives or tax abatement to spur development has always been the city’s responsibility.

“That’s always been in the city’s wheelhouse, and it’ll stay there,” he said Oct. 2. “They’re actually going to step up into a larger role, and it’s time for that.”

The area is ready for development, Granger said, saying developers are “knocking on doors all the time.”

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.

Besides that project, little activity can be seen on the 800-acre island, and the city and water district have been at odds over why. In July water district officials said the the city’s unwillingness build utilities in the area had stifled growth.

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

The city has been slow to invest in utility work, citing concern over federal funding. Congress in 2016 authorized up to $526 million for Panther Island, but the Trump administration has been unwilling to provide new money. The Corps, in coordination with the water district, has asked for $30 million to $40 million each year but has received just $68 million since 2006.

Harwood has said the city is not holding up development, and agrees there has been significant speculation.

“I think there’s people that are ready to go when parts of the island are ready to go,” he said.

Design standards for the area include a pedestrian friendly layout of buildings that can support 10,000 residents as well as commercial office space.

Robert Sturns, the city’s director of economic development, said those standards could morph. The area could become more dense or may be marketed as a possible corporate headquarters. He said he’s optimistic the area will develop over the coming years.

“You look at what’s already been developed in West Seventh and Near Southside, for example, there’s obviously a significant market here,” he said.

Since in September, the TRVA has approved all of Riveron’s suggestions, including tweaking Granger’s role. A project coordinator, also referred to as a risk manager, will be hired on a contract basis while Granger will focus on working with the Army Corps on channel work.

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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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