Skip to Main Content
Celebrate the reopening of 8th Street and join us for an UN-Blocked Party on July 25! Read More

Does Kayaking Ever Cross Your Mind? Fort Worth Gets Candid About $1B Panther Island Project

June 16,2023

See full Candy's Dirt article by April Towery here.

Fort Worth could soon have its very own Riverwalk, and the residents who live near the Trinity River might want to invest in a boat, canoe, or kayak.

Community leaders gathered Thursday for a candid conversation on the challenges of navigating $403 million in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control projects while implementing a housing and economic development vision for downtown absent political agendas.

Twenty years in the making, Panther Island is complicated — but it also has the potential to change the face of North Texas.

Mention it in a crowded room, and you’re likely to hear it described as [U.S. Rep.] Kay Granger’s pet project.

“I think it would have been an incredibly lost opportunity here in Fort Worth to know we have to replace our levees and not think wildly about what other opportunities could coexist with that.”

Former Fort Worth Mayor and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger has championed developing the area around the federally-mandated flood control measures. Her son J.D. Granger oversaw Panther Island development for more than a decade but resigned his position as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which operates under the Tarrant Regional Water District, about a year ago.

Nonprofit news organization Fort Worth Report hosted a panel discussion on Panther Island Thursday at Texas Wesleyan University, moderated by Bennett Partners CEO Michael Bennett.

How We Got to Panther Island
Fort Worth Report CEO Chris Cobler, who graciously invited to the sold-out panel discussion this week, and his staff have covered Panther Island in depth for several years.

At Thursday’s breakfast meeting, an all-star panel broke down the challenges of the $1 billion project and what it would take to make it a success.

Panelists included Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.; Dennis Chiessa, an architect and professor at The University of Texas at Arlington; Susan Alanis, chief operating officer of Tarrant County College; and Aaron Abelson, a consultant with HR&A Advisors.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has funneled millions toward flood mitigation projects to replace levees and prevent disaster.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood mitigation projects
“Success will mean that Fort Worth has protected itself from devastating flooding,” Taft said. “The lion’s share of the $1 billion is a flood control project, and we are in jeopardy.”

Additionally, success looks like creating an international destination around the river, panelists agreed.

“The people who live above the water will be able to use the water,” Taft said. “They might not have a boat today, but they might have a boat tomorrow in downtown Fort Worth — or they might have a canoe or a kayak or an inner tube. If you look at great cities in America, their rivers play a prominent role. It’s an amazing asset we need to leverage.”

Housing And Economic Development
Tarrant County College bought about 34 acres on both sides of the Trinity River, but for now, they’re focusing campus expansion plans on the south side, Alanis said.

“It really does pose an interesting possibility for us,” Alanis said. “We’re workforce development, that’s what we do, so having a robust Fort Worth is an interest of ours. The opportunity to be able to leverage the publicly owned land to be a catalyst project potentially for all of this work that’s happening with the plan is really exciting. We don’t have a need to dispose of the property immediately, so it puts us in a good position to be a good public partner.”

“There are tools that can be used, that have been used, to help define what Panther Island can be. There’s planning. There’s zoning.

There’s the opportunity associated with the ownership held by public entities. A lot of it really does tie back to being grounded in a vision that has consensus, that has buy-in, that people understand, and that has principles and foundations that help decision-makers know the direction this project needs to go, what to say yes to, but also what to say no to.”

HR&A Advisors was tapped to oversee a plan for real estate development around Panther Island.

Abelson said his team is looking into how to leverage the major investment already occurring as a foundation for economic development.

“Part of the problem with the plan is it was about attracting development dollars and managing growth. We’re in a different time.

We’ve become a lot more aware of social injustice. We have to look at this through a different lens, maybe a lens of equity. What do we need to do that benefits most of the people, especially in the adjacent communities?”

Chiessa’s remarks focused on the history of the north side of the project, which has deep roots in Mexican-American and African-American history, he said.

“One of the goals was to have something that really connected the major attractions of the city — downtown, the stockyards, the cultural district,” Chiessa said. “It’s really ironic that an island would be the thing to do that. It’s exclusive by definition, to separate a chunk of land from the rest of the city.”

If 20,000 people come to work on the island, it will impact the adjacent communities.

“The pressure on housing is going to be the No. 1 impact,” he said. “What’s going to happen with the people who want to be near Panther Island and all the amenities that are there but don’t want to live in an apartment? That means they’re probably going to look to the north side.”

What Success at Panther Island Looks Like
Taft said, if done right, the Panther Island project will change what Fort Worth means to the world.

“We’re adding a lot of inventory of developable land that used to be commercial and industrial, and now it’s going to be waterfront,” he said. “I think it will be extraordinarily attractive.”

“The original Panther Island plan … Most of the structures are envisioned to be multi-family. Twenty years ago, that was a wild idea.

People were laughing [at 10,000] residential units. Central City Fort Worth has finally reached a tipping point where the market finds that not only acceptable but highly desirable. This idea of Panther Island being a successful residential area is no longer a wild stretch. It can happen. The question now is, should that be the dominant land use?”

Panther Island and the Central City Flood Project have faced numerous challenges over two decades but the community has stuck with it, Taft explained.

“The community has stuck with it largely because the leaders of this community believe in the big idea,” he said. “That leadership has been championing the project all along because of the value of the big idea … You’re not going to buy into a landfill being put on this 800 acres. What the entire community needs to continue to have is a vision of the future that we’re all going to be extraordinarily proud to show off.”

That doesn’t happen easily when economic and political agendas are at play, Taft said.

“Great things happen when vision prevails,” he said. “The money will follow a great vision, and people have to make it happen.”

Location Mentioned: Panther Island Pavilion