By: Malcolm Mayhew
For years, Fort Worth residents, new and old, have heard tales of the Panther Island Project and the potential of having a San Antonio-type riverwalk in our own backyard. Unfortunately, it seemed the Trinity River Vision (TRV), a master plan for 88 miles of Trinity River shoreline in Fort Worth, took a backseat to other Tarrant County developments popping up in all directions. But, after years of being stalled by unforeseen circumstances, the project is finally taking off.
“I came up with the concept of TRV while I was mayor,” U.S. Representative Kay Granger says. Surveying the landscape, she recognized Fort Worth had a hidden asset.
“Fort Worth has a river that connects the historic Stockyards, the revitalized downtown and the nationally renowned museum district,” she says. “Unfortunately, because of how the flood control had been constructed in the past, the levees hid the river and broke up access to the three key areas of Fort Worth.”
You see, everything changed after the great flood of 1949, which completely swamped the West Seventh corridor and forced residents to maneuver the streets in fishing boats.
Miles of levees were constructed in the ’60s to guard against the next catastrophic storm. The levees solved one problem: holding the Trinity safely within higher banks. But it also isolated residents from one of the city’s best features − the river itself.
Representative Granger was one of ten mayors invited to attend the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. “The premise of this institute was that the future of cities was contingent on planning and design,” she says.
“A very successful example of this type of planning is the San Antonio River Walk. The River Walk was born out of flood control issues,” Kay says. “While addressing these flood control issues, the city was able to transform the whole area.”
“When the Army Corps of Engineers said that our levees no longer provided the flood protection Fort Worth required, I remembered what I learned at that institute. Fort Worth needed to address this issue head on,” she says. “TRV gave us the opportunity to increase flood protection while also developing the river and improving the local economy.”
The Trinity River Vision was born in 2003. It will ultimately move Fort Worth from our current levees to livable neighborhoods with greater access to the water.
The creation of a bypass channel will allow for flood-level water to be diverted and will help restore a more natural view of the Trinity River, resulting in a man-made island – Panther Island.
The design for flood control and drainage, as well as for the eventual flooding of the bypass channel and creation of the long-awaited Panther Island, is nearing completion by the Corps of Engineers.
Much of the current land resting just below the Tarrant County Courthouse is aging and industrial, withering in the shadow of Fort Worth’s vibrant downtown. The design will restore more than 800 acres of currently underutilized land, which has long been a dead zone stretching between downtown and the Stockyards.
The bypass channel will not only create an island, it will also add miles of new riverfront development opportunities. “Panther Island will be a new waterfront district with parks, places to live, canals to stroll, as well as a 33-acre town lake.
Based on a study completed by the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, Panther Island will contribute over $3.7 billion in annual economic activity to our region and will employ over 29,600 full-time workers,” Matt Oliver, director of communications at the Trinity River Vision Authority, said.
Three bridges will divert traffic to and from Panther Island. Bridge construction is well underway, and the Texas Department of Transportation is now working on the public road deck structure on the White Settlement Bridge. The Henderson Street and Main Street bridges are also under construction.
After the passage of a $250 million bond package last year, many residents are now wondering what the first parts of the Trinity River Vision they can expect.
“The bond election passed by a 2-to-1 margin, which shows the enthusiasm behind the project,” J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Project, said. “That money will be spent on the public infrastructure part of Trinity River Vision. It allows us to keep up with the progress of the Corps of Engineers and to make way for the creation of the bypass channel.”
Laying the groundwork is not the sexy part of the project, and so far, that has been the bulk of work. “To date, we have completed 52 environmental cleanups and moved 200,000 cubic feet of hazardous material,” J.D. says.
For those growing impatient, J.D. says they are finally getting to the part that people will see. He expects the excitement will continue to build.
Riverside Park is expected to open before the end of the year. To give some perspective as to what a massive project the park has been, “the Corps of Engineers moved one-half of the volume of Cowboy Stadium to make way for it,” J.D. says. Following its completion, the Corps will begin construction on Gateway Park.
J.D. anticipates the north half of the bypass channel design to be complete in 2019; after that, the Corps will begin its design of the south section.
Once design is complete on the north half, the federal government will get to work on excavation in 2020. The entire bypass channel is a huge undertaking and will require 1.8 miles of earth to be moved altogether.
“Our population was around 350,000 in the ’60s,” J.D. says. “We have now exceeded 900,000 people, and we have simply outgrown the current levee system. If we had another flood like 1949, our levees would be topped with flood water.”
“In the 1960s, we had to raise taxes to pay for the installation of our levee system,” J.D. says. The best part about the bond package is that the Panther Island District is designed to pay for itself over time, meaning that Fort Worth will have the benefit of a vastly improved levee system without the tax burden of paying for it.
The bypass channel will relieve that strain and create an efficient removal of flood water from the city. It will not only provide an attractive riverfront to enjoy; the bypass channel is necessary for flood control.
“We also broke ground this year on a 300-unit, multifamily residential development,” he says. “It should open in February 2020 along with the first section of riverwalk.” J.D. anticipates the announcement of at least two more developments in 2019.
The Trinity Regional Water District (TRWD) exists to maintain our water supply, ensure flood protection and enhance recreation in Tarrant County.
“Twenty years ago, the river wasn’t really in people’s minds,” Jim Oliver, general manager of TRWD, said. “Now every new development wants to identify with it and is named after the river – like Clearfork, Waterside and Left Bank. The river, which was once considered Fort Worth’s backdoor, has really become our front door again.”
Oliver says one of their main missions is to enhance recreation, so TRWD has been actively involved in the trail system and trailheads for decades. “Fort Worth is fortunate by geography,” he says. “Most people don’t realize that the water they see flowing down the Trinity was in either Eagle Mountain Lake or Benbrook Lake just a few hours ago.” That also means that the section of the Trinity running through town is naturally one of its cleanest sections.
A recently approved land swap between the Water District and Panther Acquisitions Ltd. (approved by the board last June) makes way for more development opportunities and gives LaGrave Field another chance to shine.
The Save LaGrave Foundation now has a 40-year lease on the historic field and has been raising funds to do just that — save the stadium from a wrecking ball. The current stadium was rebuilt in 2002 but had since fallen into disrepair.
The former home of the Fort Worth Panthers, nicknamed the Cats, had its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s when the team served as a minor league farm team for the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers. Now in the hands of the Save LaGrave Foundation — hopes are high for a comeback.
“When it was active, the field drew between 4,000 to 5,000 people to the area regularly,” Oliver says. “It will be a real draw to get people to visit Panther Island.”
Performance requirements in the deal make a baseball team the ongoing centerpiece of LaGrave. Plans are to restore the stadium and make it a venue that adds to the district. It might host concerts and community events as well, but LaGrave will remain primarily a baseball field.
In case you are not familiar with the efforts of Streams & Valleys, it works to increase the accessibility and enjoyment of our greatest natural resource — the Trinity River.
The organization will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019. Streams & Valleys manages Fort Worth’s trail system with river access for fishing and kayaking and has installed routes for horseback riding, pedestrians, cyclists and jogging. So, from trailheads to protected habitats, Streams & Valleys is steering the rudder of development.
The original master plan of the Trinity River Vision came out in 2003. “While Panther Island was the centerpiece of that plan, our new masterplan will look forward to the next 10 years,” Stacey Pierce, executive director of Streams & Valleys, said.
Called “Confluence,” the plan will be unveiled on Nov. 15, 2018, at its annual meeting. “The Trinity connects all of us,” Pierce says. “Over the coming decade, we plan to knit the community together using the river as the fabric.”
The new vision will ultimately use our trail system to join Fort Worth to Dallas. North Texas is home to two of the most populated cities in the country (Dallas currently sits at No. 9 and Fort Worth at No. 17). Pierce envisions the Trinity connecting the two and adding a 219-mile trail system, which will be an amenity that no other region in the country will be able to match.
Of course, all this will take time and money and will involve both public and private partnerships, as well as local, regional and federal resources and the leadership of more than one city. “That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” she says. “Our main focus will be keeping everyone on the same track and moving in the same direction.” It will also require neighborhoods to take ownership of their section.
“We currently boast 72 miles of trails, and our vision is to connect them — for a total of 219 miles of trails. We will be using the river as a springboard to connections within and between communities along the same river,” Pierce says.
Confluence wants to design approaches that suit the unique personalities which make the river an asset for the diverse residents and communities living alongside it for decades to come.
“It’s a vision for the whole river. We’ve looked at every fork in the river and every tributary, and we’ve taken into account the unique character of each of the neighborhoods along the way,” says Pierce. She is frankly a little giddy with excitement about the impact Confluence could have and the 70-plus projects that make it up.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has watched the Trinity River Vision unfold and is ready to embrace its future. “Every city with a river knows that it has a huge impact. It’s really an economic driver tool,” she says.
“Active tourism is also a growing sector,” Price says. People want to visit cities that provide them the opportunity to explore on foot or by bicycle. Our growing trail system is a real selling feature in that regard. “It’s sometimes the deciding factor in bringing tourists to our city,” she says.
“I was chairman of Streams & Valleys about 14 years ago. We really wanted every neighborhood to show its unique characteristics. I think I’m most excited to see this new vision begin connecting those neighborhoods,” Mayor Price says.
Confluence will not be a top-down, cookie-cutter approach. It will allow community leaders along the river to decide how to best design the green spaces, habitats and access that makes sense for them. At the same time, it will encourage them to take ownership of their stretch of the Trinity.
“Our new vision will raise the profile of the river. The goal is to ultimately connect us to Arlington, and eventually to Dallas, and to bring all of our residents better access,” Mayor Price says.
Note: At press time, news broke that federal funding was not included in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget for Panther Island construction. So, we wanted to update this article, which had been turned in prior.
According to Matt Oliver with the Trinity River Vision, the Corps of Engineers submits its proposed fiscal year budget expenses to Congress, and after review, the Corps allocates money based, in part, on those recommendations. “Between the time the Corps submitted their proposed budget for 2018 and the time Congress decided on how to allocate federal monies for the year — Hurricane Harvey happened,” he said. “The bulk of that money had to be reprioritized and went to disaster relief.” This is not an indication that Fort Worth’s flood control needs are not going to receive federal money in the future, just that the budget needed to focus on Houston’s devastation this year. “We still have federal funds to work with, from a previous budget, and nothing has shifted on our schedule,” Oliver says.
By: Malcolm Mayhew