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Rerouting the Trinity River

Posted on October 6, 2016

By Kevin Brass, Urban Land

In an industrial area north of downtown Fort Worth, three bridges are under construction that, at least for now, serve little purpose. The bridges are going up over dry land in anticipation that they will someday span a 1.8-mile (3 km) channel off the Trinity River, part of an ambitious 13-year-old plan to transform the heart of the Texas city. The channel, which has not yet been dredged and still awaits federal funding, is the centerpiece of the $900 million development that combines flood control with the city’s dreams of creating a new urban district.

The new channel will create an 800-acre (324 ha) island that essentially will double the size of downtown Fort Worth. Specific plans for the island—dubbed Panther Island—call for high-density neighborhoods for more than 20,000 people, crisscrossed by canals and waterfront walkways. The project will create more than 12 miles (19 km) of developable waterfront and provide a city infamous for urban sprawl the chance to reshape its future.

“There’s not another city in North America that has this type of phase two opportunity in one swipe,” says J.D. Granger, the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), which is overseeing the project. “It’s a blank slate.”

Yet some people believe it will not happen. The bulk of the project relies on $370 million of federal funding, which has not been authorized yet. For now, the TRVA is spending money on cleaning up sites, acquiring land, and moving utilities. Construction of the bridges, at a cost of $65.5 million, represents a major step for the project, providing evidence that the plan is moving forward, if nothing else.

“It is an ambitious effort that many people see as unrealistic,” says Fernando Costa, assistant city manager of Fort Worth. “But it’s already taking shape.” The project may be the largest redevelopment effort in the country and, he adds, it all began with “a brainstorming idea in a workshop.”

Out of Sight

The Trinity River was widely seen as an eyesore for Fort Worth, a murky waterway separating downtown from an industrial area. “Like [parts of] many cities, it was a place to dump stuff,” says Michael Bennett, chief executive officer of Bennett Benner Partners, a Fort Worth–based architecture firm. The riverbanks are blocked by tall levees, legacies of past floods, making it difficult to build anything at the water’s edge. While San Antonio and Austin developed new life around their rivers, for Fort Worth, the Trinity was nothing more than a blemish on the edge of downtown.

At a Mayors’ Institute on City Design conference in 2000, the discussion turned to Fort Worth and its neglected waterway. When the city’s representatives returned to the city from that conference, a broader planning effort was launched focused on a single question: what can we do about the river? Nothing was off the table, Costa says. The emphasis was on thinking outside the box, looking for big ideas and new approaches. “We wanted to think creatively about how the river relates to the city,” he says.

The a-ha moment came with the radical proposal to dig the channel to address the city’s flooding problems, introduced by Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom. The channel would allow removal of the tall levees lining the river and create an opportunity for the city to reconnect with the river. Instead of fighting the course of the river, the system will let the water go where it wants to go, Thom says. “What nature wants to do is take the straightest line,” he says.

The ability to redevelop the area was simply a bonus. A neglected industrial area suddenly became a potential urban center. “Using flood control as a catalyst for economic development became the driving idea,” Costa says.

Thom was hired to create the master plan, which was approved in 2003 by the Fort Worth City Council and various local authorities and agencies, including Tarrant County and Streams and Valleys, a nonprofit group focused on preserving the river. The flood control plan made an ally of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was in charge of the levee system. But making the plan a reality required the backing of a dizzying array of local, state, and federal agencies, including local environmentalists. More than 200 public meetings were held, focusing on everything from hiking trails to transportation systems.

“Bringing people together took an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and communication,” says U.S. Representative Kay Granger, a former mayor of Fort Worth (and J.D. Granger’s mother.) “We always felt that to do the things we wanted to do, everyone had to buy in.”

To implement the master plan, a unique structure was developed, perhaps the first of its kind for a major urban regeneration project. With flood control as the focus, funding of the more than $900 million project was split between local and federal sources. About $320 million of the $420 million in local financing is budgeted to come from a newly established tax increment financing (TIF) district, which generates funds from the increase in property taxes in the area. State resources will fund about $66 million, and federal sources are expected to fund another $422 million. The city’s financial contribution from the general fund is capped at $26.6 million, Costa says. “There is no expectation of any further city financial participation at this time.”

Private partnerships and alternative sources of financing were considered, but it would be difficult to convince financiers of the long-term benefits, Costa says. The project “requires a great deal of confidence in a big idea,” he says. “If we waited for all the financing to be assembled in one place, it would never happen.”

In another twist, the local water board, the Tarrant Regional Water District, was designated as the lead agency. Not only was the district responsible for water issues, it owned parcels of land along the waterfront. The district is also a taxing authority with substantial resources, Costa says. To oversee the project, the water district created the Trinity River Vision Authority, a separate entity with its own board of directors.

“This was a way to do it and keep control at a local level,” Rep. Granger says.

Dual Goals

From the start, the plan was criticized as economic development disguised as flood control. Opponents say the funding lacks transparency and that the plan is more expensive than conventional flood control measures. “It’s $904 million for a project to control an area of Fort Worth that doesn’t flood,” says Mary Kelleher, a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District board. “Economic development is wonderful, but I think we should be transparent.”

Though officials acknowledge the project is not the least-expensive approach, the Corps of Engineers says the plan meets flood control goals. “The integrity of the system will be maintained,” says Clay Church, public affairs specialist for the Fort Worth District of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Not only is the system improved, it increases protection.” And backers do not deny the dual goals of the project. “We never shied away from that,” Rep. Granger says. “It is economic development and flood control.”

The creation of an 800-acre (324 km) island presented a rare urban planning opportunity for Fort Worth, which is primarily known for big highways and big single-family developments built along those highways. Traditionally, the development process has been led by the private sector. “In the past there was no planning; this is Texas,” says Donald Gatzke, former dean of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The lingering frontier mentality is, ‘It’s my property and I get to do what I want to do.’”

Even in the Fort Worth business community, the idea of creating a new urban district raised concerns, including fears that the new development might compete with the existing downtown, which was undergoing a renaissance. “There was a worry that density would suck energy from downtown,” Thom says. To ease those fears, planners focused on residential space, leading to far-ranging discussions about how to create modern, high-density, walkable urban neighborhoods.

“One of our higher goals is to influence how we develop in Fort Worth,” J.D. Granger says.

The planning group took several trips to Vancouver, Thom’s base, to get a sense of the Canadian city’s approach to urban growth. Among other examples, he wanted to show them how to handle the connection to the waterfront—the idea “that the water’s edge should always be public,” he says. “There is a very subtle dimension between the public realm and private realm.”

Detailed design criteria were established for the island, including a 12-mile (19 km) network of canals and a 33-acre (13 ha) lake to help address potential flooding. Buildings are set at a minimum height of five stories and a maximum of 288 feet (88 m). More than 3 million square feet (279,000 sq m) of commercial space is included in the plan, as are goals of accommodating 10,000 mixed-income households and building a fixed-rail system around the island. Public pathways would line the waterfront, and restaurants and other public spaces also would be oriented toward the water.

These criteria, stipulated in the “Panther Island Development Standards and Guidelines” and developed by a citizens’ advisory committee, are focused on form-based zoning standards. “The development standards and a flexible review process are intended to promote creative design,” the document says. “Non-conforming exceptional projects are also encouraged.” The guidelines are based on a series of specific principles, including the creation of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, diverse housing options, and maximum connectivity and access.

Panther Island “redevelops part of downtown that has never been part of downtown,” Bennett says. “This is going to be a chance for our city to have an urban, walkable city.”

Development Plans

The TRVA’s role in developing the island is limited to dealing with environmental issues and infrastructure improvements, and overseeing the land acquisition process and flood protection. Since the master plan was approved, more than $280 million has been spent, primarily coming from local sources, on a variety of projects, including cleanup of contaminated land, ecosystem renewal, park enhancements, and relocation of utilities. The ­Tarrant Regional Water District has acquired more than 60 parcels for the channel, in many cases through the use of eminent domain; only three remain to be acquired, the agency says.

The TRVA is ready to move into the development stage and is close to signing a deal for the first developer to build a 300-unit apartment complex, J.D. Granger says. But attracting private developers to the island will be difficult until the channel work moves forward, officials acknowledge.

The federal funding has always been the wild card for the project. A crackdown on earmarks in Congress has complicated the process. Authorization for the necessary federal funds is included in a current bill, but everyone acknowledges that there is no guarantee it will be passed or that money will be allocated soon, especially in an uncertain political environment. However, Rep. Granger says, “I feel very good about it.”

Congress has already authorized more than $110 million for the project, and about half of that has been spent, says Gail Hicks, the Corps of Engineers project manager. From the Corps’ perspective, the project could only move forward in specific steps, so the funding questions have not caused delays, she says.

While the different elements progress, a large part of the TRVA’s effort has focused on activating the river—getting it on the radar of a community that saw it as an industrial wasteland. That included resurrecting the image of the river. Parks and new projects have gone in around sections of the river in recent years, but many people remain wary of the brownish, clay-bottom waterway.

“It’s a problem for us,” J.D. Granger says. “We need to educate people about the desirability of living on the river.”

To make that happen, TRVA has staged a variety of events, including Rockin’ the River, free waterside concerts that encourage people to watch the performances while floating on inner tubes. A paddle sports rental shop has also opened. The goal is increasing direct experience with the water. “You can’t just tell people the water is fine,” J.D. Granger says.

To help bring people to the area, TRVA has opened a drive-in theater, an ice skating rink, and a waterfront music pavilion where more than 40 events a year are held. In 2014, a brewery opened on what will be Panther Island. And the project is already having a larger impact on the river. Upgrades are moving forward on Gateway Park, a 1,000-acre (405 ha) greenbelt on the water’s edge, which is also a component of the TRVA’s project scope, and in 2009 the Tarrant County Community College opened a campus overlooking the river.

The efforts will play a key role in the project’s long-term success, Thom says. “The idea is getting people used to something there,” he says. “Most planners don’t understand the curation of these places.”

People familiar with the Trinity River project typically offer the same response when asked to name the biggest accomplishment of the development team—the ability to bring together so many groups and agendas to create a cohesive effort. Over 13 years, the project has continued to progress despite a constantly shifting political landscape.

“Fort Worth has amazing staying power,” says Thom, who calls the project one of the highlights of his career. “There is a continuity.”

Rival Dallas has been struggling for years to implement far-ranging improvements to its stretch of the Trinity, with little success, supporters of the Fort Worth project note. Fort Worth’s approach was unorthodox, but it will eventually produce results, they say.

“Frankly, looking back, I don’t think it could have been done any other way,” J.D. Granger says. “We could have done it faster and cheaper, but the project would not be as good as it is today.” The majority of the infrastructure work should be completed by 2023, if all goes according to plan. “We couldn’t speed up the process, even if we wanted,” he says.

Costa has come away with his own lesson from the project. “Big ideas,” he says, “even if they are relatively simple in formulation, can be very powerful as a means to transform the entire city and change the way the residents of the city relate to their own natural resources.”

Source: Urban Land

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