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With the announcement Wednesday of more than $400 million in federal funding approved for Panther Island, Fort Worth’s long-awaited redevelopment project along the Trinity River is taking a significant leap toward becoming a reality.
For decades, Panther Island has been a pie in the sky — a river-walk dream that never quite seemed destined to secure enough funding to break ground. But now, with federal money en route, that could change.
So what is Panther Island? Here’s everything you need to know about the project that has intrigued, and irritated, Fort Worthians for years.
What is Panther Island?
Panther Island is a planned development and flood control project on the Trinity River in Fort Worth, just north of downtown and south of the Stockyards. There are several access points to the planned project area; from downtown, North Main Street takes you over the Trinity River and onto the future Panther Island.
It’s overseen by the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is an appointed board that includes members from the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District.
As envisioned, the project would involve the digging of a new, 1.5-mile river channel to connect a U-shaped section of the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth. The new channel would create two man-made islands that are collectively referred to as “Panther Island.” Construction crews would also dig a network of smaller channels within Panther Island to create more waterfront property.
Although the designs for the project often focus on the economic development, officials have billed Panther Island as a flood-control project that would protect a couple thousand acres of property from potential disaster. Officially, the project is referred to as the Panther Island/Central City project, to encompass both the development and flood-control aspects.
What's on the land now?
The entire project is about 800 acres; about half of that is on what will be two new islands. Many of the properties there are unused or vacant, previously used as manufacturing or industrial facilities.
The area is also home to a structure that was originally built as a Ku Klux Klan meeting hall, which is the only purpose-built Klan hall still standing in the country. That building, which was later purchased by a pecan company and then sat vacant for many years, was recently sold to a local arts coalition that hopes to reclaim the building.
Other notable properties on Panther Island include:
And, marking the area’s first new major development, new apartment complex Encore Panther Island opened in December.
What Will Panther Island look like?
When explaining the intended look and feel of Panther Island, officials often refer to the San Antonio River Walk, which is a pedestrian-friendly development lining the San Antonio River with restaurants and stores.
Officials envision Panther Island as a highly dense development of restaurants and shopping, as well as housing for about 10,000 residents. The new bypass channel would create an urban lake designed for recreation.
The visioning for what is now called Panther Island began about 20 years ago, as a plan to construct a bustling urban area north of downtown Fort Worth. At the time, the project was referred to as Trinity Uptown.
Panther Island Project
A 1.5-mile channel will connect sections of the Clear and West Forks of the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth to create Panther Island, which will actually have two islands. As it was conceived more than 20 years ago, Panther Island is intended to be a highly dense, walkable district that supports 10,000 residents as well as retail and office space.
Who's Paying for it?
Officials including U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, who has championed Panther Island, have aimed for the project to cost little for local taxpayers in the long run. But the project has used a significant amount of local money, which is slated to be repaid in the future, to get it off the ground.
Local officials have pushed the federal government to pay for the new bypass channel, because that is the flood-control portion of the project. Until recently, the project had received only $62 million in federal funds, far short of the more than $1 billion price tag for the project.
But on Wednesday, Granger’s office announced that the federal government has granted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $403 million in additional funding for the flood-control portion of the project.
Other entities have chipped in money as well. The Texas Department of Transportation constructed the three new bridges that will lead to the eventual Panther Island (more on that below). Other costs, such as for land acquisition and cleanup, have been fronted by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which initially loaned $200 million to the project.
What work has already been done?
So far, construction has not begun on the hallmark of the project — the digging of the 1.5-mile river channel.
But there has been some progress on other aspects.
Most notably, the Texas Department of Transportation has finished construction on three new bridges that will carry traffic over the new channel, once it’s dug. The three bridges are on White Settlement Road, North Main Street and Henderson Street. The final bridge opened to traffic in September, six years after construction for the three bridges began.
The water district has spent a considerable amount of money acquiring the properties along the planned route of the new channel. The water district also has overseen the environmental cleanup of a number of properties, which were contaminated from their past uses in manufacturing and industry. In the meantime, the city of Fort Worth has been tasked with moving and setting up utilities to accommodate the new channel.
What work needs to be done?
Right now, the Panther Island bridges span dry land. The biggest portion of the project, which has not yet begun, is the digging of the new bypass channel.
Before the actual digging can begin, officials must first finish the design and contracting for the channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the channel construction, is about halfway done with the design of the channel, the Star-Telegram reported on Wednesday.
The Tarrant Regional Water District’s now-general manger, Dan Buhman, told the Star-Telegram over the summer that it would take eight to 10 years to complete the channel, after federal funding came through. Based on that estimate, Panther Island would not become a full island until 2030 at the earliest.
So is it a development project or a flood control project?
Local officials say that Panther Island/Central City does double-duty as a flood-control and development project. When pitching to the public and potential developers, officials highlight the vision of a bustling urban neighborhood.
When pitching the project for funding from the feds, officials highlight the need to protect the surrounding low-lying areas from floods.
At least as far back as 2005, the Star-Telegram reported that the surrounding areas could be protected with a less-costly flood control option: raising the levees that already line the river. That would’ve cost about $10 million at the time. The then-general manager of the water district, Jim Oliver, told the Star-Telegram in 2005 that the cheaper option of pure flood control would be “no frills, ugly.” The Trinity River Vision Authority opted instead for a grander plan.
Why has it taken so long?
Every step of the project’s timeline has stretched well beyond its original estimates. It’s common for public projects, particularly construction projects, to take longer than planned — but Panther Island has taken that norm to an extreme.
The vision for the current version of the Panther Island project began in the 2000s. A big reason for the delay can be attributed to the lack of federal funding, which local officials continually looked for in each federal budget cycle. During the administration of former President Donald Trump, local officials including Granger indicated that the request for federal funding was indefinitely stalled — Trump’s budget office, according to Granger, had given a hard “no” to funding for the project. But it’s not just the federal funds that have delayed Panther Island.
Even the bridge construction, which was done by the Texas Department of Transportation, was significantly delayed. When the construction of the three bridges began in 2014, the department estimated it would be completed by 2018. Construction did not wrap up until September 2021.
Why is it called panthers Island?
The Panther Island project was originally called the Trinity Uptown project, reminiscent of Dallas’ trendy Uptown neighborhood.
But the development portion was renamed Panther Island as a reference to Fort Worth’s nickname “Panther City.”
The city earned that nickname in the late 1800s, after a lawyer published a column in a Dallas newspaper claiming that Fort Worth was such a quiet city that a panther fell asleep downtown and no one noticed. Fort Worthians embraced the insult and began incorporating the panther into business names and logos. The Fort Worth Police badge featured a panther beginning in 1912, and eateries, breweries and stores across the city also sport the name.
When will we know more about the project's future?
Granger and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, along with officials from the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District, plan to hold a press conference on the project’s federal funding on Thursday morning. That briefing is expected to yield additional information about the project and its funding, as well as give an opportunity for more questions to be answered.