Jack Z. Smith
Special Projects Reporter
Fort Worth’s Trinity Uptown flood control and economic development project is a decade in the making and already has consumed more than $161 million, but the “heavy lifting” is just getting started, says J.D. Granger, who oversees the epic $909.9 million undertaking as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority. “In full candor, we’re only 20 percent through this project,” said Granger, who discussed it extensively in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press and email responses to questions.
The projected completion date has been stretched substantially, from 2021 to the end of the third quarter of 2023, as outlined by a new master schedule. Granger said the TRVA also is strongly considering switching the name from Trinity Uptown to Panther Island, for the 800-acre project redevelopment area on the Near North Side. The area is to be virtually surrounded by water and poised for large-scale private development once the project is finished. The completion date has been altered because “we have added some extra time for construction” of three flood gates, a hydraulic dam and channel lock that are now only in “the very early design phase,” Granger said. The river project is designed to achieve stable water levels that will enable extensive riverfront development and public access, similar to the infrastructure serving San Antonio’s famed River Walk.
Granger said he still hopes the project can be completed in 2021, “but right now, for planning purposes, we’re giving it a longer window.” TRVA spokesman Matt Oliver said the potential name change from Trinity Uptown to Panther Island still is “open for discussion.” But Granger and Oliver said the Panther Island name has gotten a very favorable reaction in feedback to the TRVA from a variety of people, including potential private developers and urban planners. Granger said the name jibes with Fort Worth’s historic and often-used nickname of Panther City. The name also meshes with Panther Island Pavilion, the lively TRVA-backed entertainment venue at the confluence of the West and Clear forks of the Trinity. That area is to become a 33-acre urban lake, a key feature of the project. Granger also said Panther Island is a more compelling name than Trinity Uptown because numerous U.S. cities, including Dallas, “have an area called Uptown.”
The $909.9 million in public infrastructure improvements are expected to spur an explosion of private development in the bedraggled Near North Side area, which is just north of Fort Worth’s dramatically revitalized downtown and also near the booming West Seventh Street corridor. Granger, a former Tarrant County prosecutor and the son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), said he remains upbeat about the huge flood control and economic development project despite critics who label it a pricey boondoggle and complain that the full project was never submitted to a public vote. A tiny portion of the funding, about $14.7 million, was approved by voters in city bond elections in 2004 and 2008. The project also was discussed in a substantial number of public meetings.
“If voters were foolish enough to support it, that would be one thing, but they’ve never been given the chance,” said former Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Steve Hollern, a certified public accountant who lives in the Ridglea Hills area in west Fort Worth. A potential Achilles heel for the gigantic project is that its financial blueprint calls for nearly $487.9 million – or more than half the $909.9 million cost – to come from “non-local” dollars, primarily the federal government. Uncle Sam has provided only about $59 million so far. Securing hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars could prove elusive as Washington copes with gargantuan budget deficits, spending restraints and curbs on congressional “earmarks” for pet local projects. J.D. Granger said, however, that the river project is moving forward and is “about to take on some of the heavy lifting” in coming months, including moving toward starting construction of three new bridges for Henderson Street, Main Street and White Settlement Road. The estimated design-and-construction price tag for the bridges is $81.3 million, after a major redesign saved an estimated $45 million to $50 million.
“Right now, there’s no reason to think the project should slow down” based on the current funding situation, Granger said. The project is led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) as a key local partner. A critical feature of the effort, which the Corps of Engineers calls the Central City Project, will be a 1.5-mile bypass channel to help tame floodwaters and allow old levees to be removed. In addition, “valley storage areas” will temporarily hold floodwaters after heavy rains. The TRVA says the project will provide superior long-term flood-control to protect a growing population and create 12 miles of waterfront ripe for private development. Granger said property acquisition for the bypass channel and three bridges is 95 percent complete and “we are wrapping up utility and business relocations related to the bridge effort over the next six months.” A “full-capacity, four-lane” rerouting of the Henderson Street/Jacksboro Highway artery is to be completed before bridge construction cranks up in the first quarter of 2014, Granger said. The Corps of Engineers “will continue with bypass channel design during the construction of the bridges,” he said. He said the public infrastructure project and new zoning rules allowing for higher-density development in the 800-acre Near North Side area eventually could lead to construction of up to 10,000 new residential units and three million square feet of commercial space, while also buttressing the city’s tax base and creating thousands of new jobs.
The Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, in a study done in 2005, estimated that by 2045, business development fostered by the project would result in an increase of more than $1.6 billion in annual economic activity in Tarrant County (expressed in 2005 dollars) and support more than 16,000 direct and indirect jobs. Granger said he has been in discussions with two development groups that “could potentially create several hundred” new residential units in the project area, which is now pocked with old, abandoned industrial sites. “I expect the first couple of developments will be primarily residential,” Granger said. “I expect the first project to break ground in less than a year.” An unwavering critic of the huge public infrastructure project, former Fort Worth City Councilman Clyde Picht, said he believes its cost will wind up being “well over a billion dollars.” In an Aug. 2 letter to new TRWD board member Mary Kelleher, Picht urged an outside audit to help determine “why this project is proceeding when the costs will easily exceed the return on investment.” Kelleher, in a Fort Worth Business Press interview, said the Panther Island project is “over the top” and carries a “huge” cost. “I don’t think we need that to attract people to Fort Worth,” she said, adding that the city already has “everything imaginable” to lure people here. “I think if we all put our heads together we could all come up with something very constructive that would be much less expensive,” said Kelleher, a resident of east Fort Worth. She laments that the full project was never put to a public vote and that private property has been taken by the TRWD through its eminent-domain powers. The project is paying for the properties of Near North Side businesses and for their relocation expenses, but some have been reluctant to move.
As of Aug. 20, “we have successfully relocated 75 businesses,” Granger said. There are still nine businesses left to relocate, he said. Of those that moved, more than 80 percent have stayed in Fort Worth and most of the others have relocated to nearby cities such as Mansfield or River Oaks, he said. Critics of the TRWD say its assumption of a major role in the Panther Island project is a dubious departure from its core mission of supplying raw water to cities and helping maintain river levees. Picht, in his letter to Kelleher, said the water district “has an obligation to focus 100 percent on achieving water sufficiency rather than dabbling in property development and diverting gas revenues to that end.” The TRWD has received substantial Barnett Shale natural gas royalties. Hollern, the former GOP chairman, said private developers who do projects in the Trinity Uptown area will benefit from government funding of infrastructure costs that many developers normally bear. For Trinity Uptown, “they’re asking taxpayers to pay for the infrastructure,” he said.
Mark Presswood, owner and president of Panther Real Estate Solutions, a commercial development services firm, contends, however, that attractive new development simply won’t occur on the dilapidated Near North Side unless there is extensive government funding for the bypass channel and other features improving flood control. Without the government expenditures, prospective developers couldn’t get financing from lenders and the area would “be the same 60 years from now,” said Presswood, who has an office in the Livestock Exchange Building in the historic Stockyards area and calls himself “a fan of the Trinity Uptown project.” The TVRA said the planned funding breakdown for the $909.9 million public infrastructure project, in rounded numbers, is as follows: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, $411.6 million; The Trinity River Vision Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, $320 million; the Texas Department of Transportation and North Central Texas Council of Governments, $66.3 million; TRWD, $64.4 million; Fort Worth, $26.6 million; Tarrant County, $11 million; and federal money from the Economic Development Initiatives program and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $10 million. The TIF members providing funding are the TRWD, Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant County College District and Tarrant County Hospital District. The TIF is expected to provide steadily increasing funding for the public infrastructure project based on year-to-year gains in property values within the Trinity Uptown area as redevelopment progresses. Barbara Becker, dean of the University of Texas at Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs and a resident of downtown Fort Worth, is unhesitatingly enthusiastic about the Trinity Uptown project. Noting the “down-and-out” look of the Near North Side, she said it is “very important to redevelop that and make it an integral part of the city … a vibrant, special place” at the edge of Fort Worth’s thriving downtown.
The focus on waterfront development means that “we’re recapturing this wonderful resource, the Trinity … being reconnected to it,” rather than “just going over and around it,” she said. She cautioned, however, that “none of this happens overnight … it takes a lot of time.” It took about 25 years for San Antonio’s River Walk “to really come to its full potential,” she said. The Trinity Uptown development will, “at the end of the day … bring in a great deal of money,” Becker forecast. “It will make it much more attractive for businesses … It will have a major financial impact, and a major impact on the image of the city.” Unlike San Antonio’s River Walk, the Trinity Uptown area is expected, from the very start, to emphasize mixed-use residential, office and retail development that will provide an enticing “live-work-play environment” for locals, rather than focusing on luring tourists. Many younger adults “don’t particularly want to live in a single-family detached home on the edge of town,” Becker said. Michael Buckley, a clinical professor with the UT-Arlington School of Architecture and director of the Center for Metropolitan Density, a think tank associated with the school, said the Trinity Uptown development can provide an attractive new living environment for people who work in downtown Fort Worth, a major employment hub.
“I know there’s a big up-front cost,” he said. “I know the infrastructure costs are heavy. But the long-term goal … to create a very livable new district means a lot to the stability of the downtown core.” “In all parts of the country where the downtown is not strong … there’s a precipitous decline in employment and the quality of life,” Buckley said. Vic Henderson, the TRWD board president, predicts that the massive public infrastructure project, coupled with ensuing private development, will be “great for Fort Worth.” He said it will greatly enhance flood control, spur attractive urban redevelopment and create jobs, clean up polluted old industrial sites, boost the tax base, provide new bridges that improve traffic flow and give people greater up-close access to the river. “I think you’ve got a lot of good things rolled up into the entire package,” he said.
Trinity River Vision: A Look Inside is an occassional series examining the project and its impact. Contact Jack Z. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org