Left Bank project hits roadblocks on access, traffic

Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net

Questions about fire access and traffic are bogging down talks on an economic incentive agreement for the planned, $300 million Left Bank development on the Trinity River at West Seventh Street, Fort Worth officials and the developer acknowledge.

The situation is unusual because the 35-acre site has adequate access today, officials say, but access from the north will be cut off in several years by the planned Panther Island river bypass channel. And vexing to the developer has been its inability to reach a deal with the Fort Worth & Western Railroad for at least one grade-level crossing to the west that city officials say would be key in solving the access and traffic issue.

Mayor Betsy Price and city staffers are pressing Left Bank developer Centergy Retail of Dallas to settle the access issues before the city can move on an agreement that would reimburse Centergy for some or all of the $20-$25 million in public infrastructure costs it’s projecting.

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“I’m not sure that we’re going to take that up until they settle the access issues,” Price said in an interview.

As proposed, Left Bank would include 1.5 million square feet of multifamily, hotel, office and retail uses and would be the first development to engage with the ongoing urban renewal project north and west of downtown known varyingly as Trinity River Vision, Trinity Uptown or, lately, Panther Island. Price said the Left Bank development “could be one of the keys that make that river vision project take off.”

But the mayor said she and other city officials are worried about the increased traffic the development would create in the West Seventh Street corridor without adequate access elsewhere.

“This is a project with incredible potential,” she said. “But personally, I’m not 100 percent comfortable with where they are right now, especially because they’re asking for taxpayer incentive on it.”

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The project is bounded by West Seventh on the south, the railroad tracks and Montgomery Plaza to the west, White Settlement Road to the north, and the Trinity River to the north and east.

West Miller, Centergy’s principal and an industry veteran who helped develop the popular Knox Street area in Dallas and has compared its appeal to the West Seventh development of recent years, has offered to put $800,000 into escrow for two future rail crossings.

Miller has said that he has development agreements with a partner for a 150-room luxury hotel overlooking the river levee and another partner for 600 units of multifamily as well as a commitment from a grocer that would anchor a 100,000-square-foot retail center fronting West Seventh.

Those make up Left Bank’s first phase, and delays in the incentive agreement could jeopardize the project, Miller said in an interview. In particular, he will have to move a major 54-inch water line, and the optimal time to do that is in the winter, meaning he has to get the project underway in September, he said.

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“We have probably 700 or 800,000 square feet of hotel, retail, and residential ready to start development today,” said Miller, who has declined to identify his partners pending the agreement with the city.

Miller is free to launch the project without an incentive agreement, because he has adequate access today. But he said he needs the incentive to fill a financing gap.

State law allows cities to use such tools to help projects facing costs that can’t be financed. Miller’s infrastructure costs include moving the water line out of the way of building construction, raising the level of the site by three feet to satisfy stormwater requirements, and rearranging the street grid.

“I can’t go forward without the incentive,” he said.

Jay Chapa, the city’s housing and economic development director, declined to say whether the staff will recommend an economic incentive agreement to the City Council that doesn’t include a solution to the access issues.

“We’re working with him on an incentive, but one of the issues that needs to be solved is additional long-term access for the overall property,” Chapa said in an interview.

Miller is asking the city to take a prominent role in negotiating with Fort Worth & Western, whose reluctance to negotiate right-of-way access with public officials has been a key factor in hanging up the planned TexRail commuter rail project for years.

“I haven’t got anything to trade them,” Miller said. He said he’s been in talks with the railroad for nine months, is not near an agreement, and is not clear on what it would take to reach a deal.

Price said it’s the developer’s responsibility to negotiate such issues. The railroad and city staff members have scheduled a meeting next week to discuss Left Bank access. Steve George, the railroad CEO, did not respond to a request for an interview.

City staff members and the developer have been discussing several options for managing access and traffic flow.

Under Fort Worth fire code, the site would require two points of access once Panther Island eliminates access to the north. The West Seventh frontage has two access points under the Centergy plan that count as one because of their proximity to each other.

Landon Stallings, the city’s fire marshal, said the development needs at least one other point of access away from West Seventh,

“We’re looking for one point of alternative access,” he said. “They have to be substantially away from each other.”

The new, elevated White Settlement Road bridge, which is about to start construction on the north side of the property, is designed to cross the railroad and the proposed bypass channel, and will eliminate some access on the north for Left Bank and several other pieces of private property. The bypass channel will cut off all access to the north.

Centergy and staff members agree the easiest access would be at least one grade-level crossing at the railroad.

David Schroeder, who manages the city’s community facilities agreement office (the office negotiates agreements on public infrastructure to be installed by developers), has been working on Left Bank for more than six months and suggests two logical routes: Fifth Street, across the railroad into Montgomery Plaza and past the Chick-fil-A restaurant; and Kansas Street, going west over the railroad onto Weisenberger Street north of Montgomery Plaza.

Kansas-Weisenberger “is probably the best solution,” Miller said. “It also puts us into the street grid.”

Another idea the staff is discussing with the property owners, Schroeder said: construction of “jug-handle”-shaped streets that would create access back to the north, but require crossing the railroad.

One idea that’s been floated in the discussions that doesn’t involve crossing the railroad: a ramp that would go up Greenleaf Street and intersect the new White Settlement bridge.

A conceptual drawing shows a perpendicular intersection. Such a ramp would likely require a stop signal on the bridge and several layers of approval, ranging from the city to the Tarrant Regional Water District and the Texas Department of Transportation. It’s not clear how much it would cost or who would pay for it.

Price said the intersection looks “very awkward.”

“It’s the idea that’s farthest out there,” Schroeder said.

Apart from the fire access, Centergy and the city are also negotiating the relocation of the water line, which cuts diagonally across the property.

“They’re very, very close” on those talks, Schroeder said.

Duration of the economic development agreement is another key piece of the negotiations. Miller has said the likely term is 20 years, meaning Centergy would front the money for the infrastructure and be reimbursed over 20 years.

Centergy’s overall plan for Left Bank includes more than 1,500 residential units and about $300 million in value added to the tax rolls in one of the hottest areas of the city. Miller said the first phase would be about $150 million.

If Centergy secures its incentive agreement within the next few weeks, Miller said, construction could begin in the first quarter next year.

It would take the multifamily construction about 18 months, the hotel about a year, and retail about six months, Miller has said. The hotel would likely be built on a two-level garage “pedestal,” bringing the first floor of hospitality space even with the top of the levee. First-floor amenities would likely include an infinity pool and restaurant, Miller has said.

The Trinity River Vision Authority has agreed to let Centergy build to the levee.

Centergy finished assembling the site last year and originally proposed a substantial retail development, but Centergy subsequently scaled that back. The Trinity River Vision Authority asked for residential to serve the fragile retail market on West Seventh. Additionally, Centergy didn’t reach agreements with Neiman Marcus and Whole Foods, two major anchor targets.