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Architect Robert H.H. Hugman’s romantic designs for an “American Venice” in the 1920s were first ridiculed and then tossed aside before they were eventually embraced as the blueprint for San Antonio’s famous River Walk.
Today, from the floor-to-ceiling windows of architect Michael Bennett’s office in Fort Worth’s Frost Tower, a similarly precarious vision for the future unfolds below.
North of downtown, 800 acres once occupied by refineries and metal reclamation facilities are now home to crumbling structures leading to sprawling grassland, punctuated by three bridges extending optimistically over dry land.
As imagined by some in Fort Worth, including Bennett, the space will be a vibrant, mixed-use island oasis tucked into the Trinity River’s sharp bend. Cyclists will pass by as parents push strollers and patio diners sip cocktails, while employees mill in and out of a new corporate campus.
Before that vision can become a reality, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must first dig a 1.5-mile flood control channel, putting water beneath the bridges and allowing flood rains to shoot past the riverbend. Doing so — a mirror image of the flood control efforts that allowed shops and restaurants to open directly on San Antonio’s River Walk — will create new waterfront property ripe for development on what will become Panther Island, named after Fort Worth’s “Panther City” moniker.
After years of fits and starts, Fort Worth’s $1.16 billion flood control effort, known to government agencies as the Central City Flood Project, is receiving $403 million from the Biden administration’s once-in-a generation infrastructure investment.
Even with the federal money, skepticism continues to dog a decades-old project where progress appeared glacial over years of piecemeal funding. Past hopes were tarnished after its champion, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, struggled to deliver in Washington, while back home, her son faced accusations of nepotism and mismanagement over his leadership of an agency tasked with moving Panther Island forward.
Roughly 270 miles south, the vision once promoted by the Grangers already exists.
San Antonio’s River Walk, which now extends roughly 15 miles, attracts more than 14 million visitors per year and generates roughly $3.5 billion annually in economic activity.
To inform their plan for Panther Island, the project’s proponents toured riverside developments in Vancouver, Pittsburgh and San Antonio. They hope the ensuing economic development in Fort Worth will be similar to the $72 million 2009 northern extension of San Antonio’s River Walk, known as the Museum Reach, which created a new walkable commercial and residential district surrounding the redeveloped Pearl Brewery.
But the politics of development have changed dramatically since either river project was first envisioned.
Today, San Antonio is scrambling to create affordable housing amid once-unthinkable rises in property value. Meanwhile, political and business power brokers in Fort Worth are at an inflection point. Construction on the flood control channel is finally moving forward amid new questions about how the downtown property should be developed — and for whom.
Extensive interviews with leaders in both cities say Fort Worth can learn many lessons from San Antonio’s River Walk: tying economic development to flood control, finding the right champions for the project and securing the kind of neighborhood-level buy-in San Antonio officials credit with its success.
Like San Antonio, which once considered turning its horseshoe bend into an underground storm sewer, Fort Worth could have pursued simpler flood control.
Instead, leaders saw the chance to ingrain the Trinity River into Fort Worth’s community the way San Antonio has done since the city’s inception — a harder path.
“There have always been people who said, ‘We could have just added 4 feet at the top of the levee, saved a whole bunch of money and not done all this,’” said Bennett, the architect advising several local groups on Panther Island development.
“And there’s another group that has been really much more focused on saying, ‘But it could be more than that.”
A tale of two rivers
The San Antonio River is not a great river; unlike the Trinity, it is both narrow and shallow, windy and slow. But its modest size has never diminished its magnetism, nor its deadly force after a heavy rain.
Indigenous people were drawn to the fertile grounds along the San Antonio River; then came colonizing Spaniards, whose veinlike acequias provided water to newly established missions in the 1700s.
For Phil Hardberger, a young lawyer from parched West Texas, enchantment with the river’s dense greenery solidified San Antonio as his home in 1970. He would later run for mayor on plans to further intertwine green space and economic development.
Hardberger’s ideas built on the city’s long commitment to the river.
An early turning point came after a catastrophic 1921 flood, when residents shut down a flood control plan that included getting rid of the horseshoe bend.
Hugman’s plan to develop the riverbend was eventually revived and, thanks to historic New Deal investment, construction of the River Walk’s original bridges and walkways was completed in 1941.
Anticipated economic development was stalled by World War II and didn’t pick up until the 1968 World’s Fair finally catalyzed the long-promised business district of riverside restaurants serving margaritas under colorful umbrellas, tourist-filled barges and hotels the River Walk is known for.
Redevelopment in Fort Worth
From Fort Worth’s earliest days as a military outpost, the Trinity River served as the lifeblood of the city’s development. With growth came increased pollution from meat-packing plants and the steel industry.
Improvements to Fort Worth’s levee system following its own devastating 1949 flood only exacerbated the river’s deteriorating natural health as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers razed hundreds of trees and left scant water trickling around trash at the bottom of the channel.
By 1969, an arts and culture renaissance in Fort Worth had brought the city a symphony orchestra and was soon to include a world-class art museum. But wealthy boosters recognized that the Trinity River’s West Fork was becoming a liability in their quest for a first-class city.
A local committee, led by civic standout Phyllis Tilley, took elected officials on a bus tour of the Trinity River and explored solutions for rehabilitating it. The group later incorporated as nonprofit Streams & Valleys Inc., leading a push for construction of low-level dams that got water moving through the city again.
By the mid-1970s, the nonprofit was fundraising for an expanded trail system, a yearly festival and the design of a downtown park.
Meanwhile, just steps beyond the River Walk’s oasis, the San Antonio River also faced the unsightly effects of early flood control efforts.
South of downtown, a concrete riverbed lay barren, a dumping site for the city’s broken sidewalks shot through with rusting rebar. North of the busy River Walk, the river remained a muddy ditch, surrounded by overgrown weeds and attracting crime and vagrants.
That neglect baffled Hardberger, who in 2005 would begin campaigning on a promise to continue building on the River Walk’s success.
“I always thought, ‘Why don’t people use this river more? Why hasn’t it developed more? It’s 100% successful,’” said Hardberger, who wove the idea into every single stump speech.
“I could tell people really liked that idea.”
A blueprint for Panther Island
From the start, plans for Panther Island sought to combine flood control and economic revitalization.
Streams & Valleys’ blueprint came into focus between 2001 and 2003, when a master plan for all 88 miles of the Trinity River in the Fort Worth area took shape. In concert with the Tarrant Regional Water District, the region’s water and flood control supplier, the group held more than 200 public meetings.
Rather than simply raising the existing flood levees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed the Central City project was the best flood control solution for Fort Worth. The project earned federal approval in 2006.
Next came the establishment of the Trinity River Vision Authority, an agency within the Tarrant Regional Water District led by J.D. Granger.As executive director between 2006 and 2022, Granger saw hosting concerts at Panther Island Pavilion and river tubing during “Sunday Fundays” as crucial to building public support for the project.
Beyond gathering government officials and the public for updates on the project, the river vision authority also coordinated efforts to purchase land, clean up polluted areas and organize recreation along the river.
“No one cares about flood control,” Granger said. “It’s almost such a big concept they can’t wrap their heads around it. What [the public] loved was San Antonio. They absolutely loved it.”
How government officials handled community input — according to experts familiar with Fort Worth and San Antonio’s modern river development plans — is where the cities’ plots diverge.
San Antonio: Model for public participation
Upon taking office, Hardberger was pleased to find a citizen-led plan for a reimagined river already existed.
Originally formed to focus on hike and bike trails connecting San Antonio’s Spanish colonial missions, the group that would become the San Antonio River Oversight Committee had finished that project and set its sights on the river as a whole.
“If we formed a committee and sounded intelligent, no one will know that we’re not official,” said architect Irby Hightower, longtime co-leader of the group.
The group decided to present its vision for the river to county leaders in 1996, complete with foam board charts and renderings.
The gamble worked. Soon enough, the committee was blessed by the city, the county and the San Antonio River Authority, which had served as the Army Corps of Engineers’ local partner on flood control projects since 1954.
The 22-person committee, led by Hightower and former Mayor Lila Cockrell, was charged with overseeing every aspect of the project: planning, design, project management and funding.
Community engagement took the form of assigning committee seats not to people but to local organizations. Their ideas, made only by consensus, created a unified vision for community leaders to draw from even when project funds lagged or political leadership shifted.
Landscapers and city staff scrambled to finish the northern River Walk extension — the Museum Reach — so that Hardberger could claim success, which he did with great fanfare, on the last day of his mayoral administration in June 2009.
To the south, sidewalks follow a more natural stretch of the river, aimed at recreation around the historic Spanish missions — known as the Mission Reach. The $201.6 million addition helped earn the missions a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2015.
The entire process was a far cry from the typical development playbook — and from what Hightower sees as the business-as-usual approach in Fort Worth.
“Around Texas, things get done because a bunch of millionaires get in a room and decide that they want to do something,” Hightower said. “… In San Antonio, development is more grassroots.”
San Antonio officials concede that inviting feedback from a broader audience requires more effort.
“A lot of public meetings and public input is not genuine, because it’s not the fastest way to get from A to B,” said Stephen Graham, assistant general manager of the San Antonio River Authority.
Some Fort Worth leaders, facing criticism that some community voices have been cut out of the planning process for Panther Island, are willing to try.
“We have to have a really honest, transparent conversation. We’ve got to own the history, because we’ve learned from that,” said Stacey Pierce, executive director of Streams & Valleys. “Phoenixes rise out of ashes, y’all.”
Finding the right champion
San Antonio community champions like Hightower and Cockrell, along with elected officials like Hardberger and then-County Judge Nelson Wolff, were critical to earning public buy-in and keeping the project moving.
It’s unclear who will fill those roles in Fort Worth now that two of the Panther Island project’s key champions have stepped off the stage.
To understand Panther Island, you have to understand the Grangers.
Kay Granger was Fort Worth’s first female mayor before being recruited by both parties to run for Congress in 1996. A pragmatist whose Fort Worth district housed Lockheed Martin, Granger was given a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has carved a niche overseeing defense spending over her 27 years in office.
After the Tea Party wave of 2010 swept Washington, the new leadership’s first moves included putting the kibosh on earmarks, ending a long-held practice that allowed lawmakers to direct money for pet projects like Panther Island.
J.D. Granger was a proponent of the Trinity Uptown vision while volunteering for Streams & Valleys. When the Army Corps of Engineers approved the Central City project, the younger Granger was tapped by city and county leaders to lead a group tasked with coordinating the project that had now become his mother’s legacy.
As the younger Granger was making his way upstream, the federal tap was running dry.
As approved in 2006, the federal government would pay for 65% of costs related to the Central City project, with Fort Worth’s water district and other local agencies being responsible for the rest. But without earmarks, the Army Corps started receiving smaller allocations from the federal government. The water district was embroiled in a contentious lawsuit over a pipeline project, and revenue from the fracking boom — meant to fund part of Panther Island — was declining.
“About the time I was elected is when it became apparent that that project was really struggling,” said former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who took office in 2011.
“It was very frustrating for everybody because the community was expecting this project,” Price said. “The city was expecting it. The water district was hoping for it. And the private developers who bought that land … certainly wanted to see some return on their money.”
Panther Island supporters had great hope that the funding floodgates would open with Republican Donald Trump in the White House, but his administration only intensified frustrations.
Granger and her allies, including her son, blame rivalries with certain members of the Trump administration. Administration officials say they were prioritizing greater flood risks. If Fort Worth wanted economic development, one official said at the time, the city should pay for it itself.
A spokesperson for Granger did not respond to interview requests for this story.
“Power of personality”
Political headwinds, competing plans and communication breakdowns between government agencies would all sound familiar in San Antonio.
Take, for example, Hugman, whose vision for the River Walk was eventually made possible by the New Deal-funded Works Progress Administration. He got to spend three months as the project’s lead architect before he was fired for a perceived overuse of masonry.
At one point prospects for funding the River Walk’s southern extension, which also suffered from piecemeal federal allocations, grew so dim that Bexar County commissioners voted to front the money in anticipation without any promise of being reimbursed.
The lesson? A project is only as good as its champions.
“There’s some pain involved in making something beautiful,” Hardberger said. “We all have our failings, but you have to have somebody that has the power of personality to get things done.”
Fort Worth has experienced its fair share of pain in making Panther Island a reality. But a sense of cohesive leadership, like the one Hardberger brought to the River Walk extensions, has proven elusive.
Today, the Trinity River Vision Authority — for so long the public face of Panther Island — no longer has a dedicated staff and is going through a “maturing process,” said G.K. Maenius, the longtime Tarrant County administrator who has chaired the authority’s board since its inception in 2006. It no longer votes on land acquisition contracts or budgets, and the board also decided last year to reduce its number of meetings.
“The evolution we went through is something that needed to happen,” said Maenius, who is another of the many longtime supporters who will no longer be in his role by the end of the year. He is retiring after 35 years of leading the county.
A 2019 review of the authority’s performance — ordered by Fort Worth’s political leadership — found that focusing on recreation in addition to flood control resulted in “confusion” and “project fatigue” among government officials and the general public.
The review also discovered unclear financial management, insufficient oversight, and an “opaque” management structure. While the water district brought in a former Corps official to make the project more attractive to the federal government, J.D. Granger continued in a leadership role until his voluntary exit in 2022.
“There will be a generation of people that will never trust the water district,” said Lon Burnam, who represented Fort Worth in the state Legislature between 1996 and 2014 and helped create the Water District Accountability Project to draw attention to ethical issues within the agency.
Granger contends he and his group were acting with public support. He also defends the focus on economic development that caused the project to fall out of favor with the Trump administration.
“When did development become a dirty word?” Granger said. “I’ve talked to many people about this. I can’t figure out where that got lost. You can’t separate them unless you want to pay for it all yourself.”
Changing winds in Washington
The project received an unexpected lifeline when the Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan was approved in November 2021, and Fort Worth’s flood control measures received the second-highest allocation of funding in the first round of projects selected.
“They want to fund things where there’s already some work that’s been done,” said Democrat Marc Veasey, whose 33rd Congressional District gained Panther Island as a result of redistricting after the 2020 census.
Unlike previous funding approvals, this time the Army Corps has the money available to spend as quickly as the agency can use it. The flood control aspects of the project are slated for completion by 2032.
Veasey credits Rep. Granger, now the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, for her vision and continued work on the project. But for the remainder of this administration, it’s Veasey’s political capital carrying the project in Washington.
“No one forgets about any favors that you ask them for,” Veasey said.
As Veasey backs Panther Island in Washington, proponents are left wondering who will take on the role of championing the project locally.
The city of Fort Worth is poised to take on a larger role under Mayor Mattie Parker, who sees an opportunity for city leaders to shape long-term economic growth. The water district, under the leadership of general manager Dan Buhman, views its role as advocating for the timely construction of flood control aspects of the project.
Whoever the new champion is will have to take on the decades of baggage and delays associated with the project. It’s a small price to pay, Parker said, for the chance to play a role in reshaping Fort Worth’s downtown.
“More and more people are gravitating to our waterway, and this project will only continue that,” Parker said. “I’m very excited about it.”
“We don’t want to be erased”
The delays could be a blessing in disguise.
There’s no question that riverfront flood control can spur tremendous economic development. But both cities are facing new concerns over how to ensure a resurgence benefits the entire community without resulting in massive cultural and residential displacement.
The catalyst for the resurgence of the area north of San Antonio’s downtown came courtesy of billionaire salsa tycoon Kit Goldsbury’s private investment in redeveloping the Pearl, plus millions in city and county development and tax incentives. It has since been credited with sparking $2 billion in development, far eclipsing the $1 billion in new construction projected in a 2007 report. As housing prices increased across the country, land values near the Museum Reach extension have increased over 270% since 2009.
“Since the ’50s, we’ve been trying to figure out how to get people to move back downtown,” Hightower said of many cities. “… In the last 10 years it’s been like, ‘Oops, we were successful.’”
The Pearl’s past is similar to Panther Island today — largely uninhabited. Today, Panther Island is a place where rusty remnants of the past are on full display, including the busted windows of a former Ku Klux Klan meeting hall and a deteriorating minor league baseball field. To the northwest is the city’s Northside neighborhood, home to multigenerational single-family housing, long-standing Hispanic-owned businesses and some of the city’s poorest ZIP codes.
The finished project would connect development from downtown to Fort Worth’s top tourist destination, the historic Stockyards entertainment district.
Northside residents are already bracing for the change after years of neglect. The recent opening of a Starbucks and a Chick-fil-A in the neighborhood have raised alarms about losing its cultural identity, a problem the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber and others are already working to gird against.
Meanwhile, Hispanic political representation lags behind the city’s demographics. Fort Worth City Council just swore in its first Latina councilwoman, meaning the roughly 34% Hispanic city now has two Hispanic council members.
“We are excited about the new projects that are coming in,” said Rosalinda Martinez, co-founder of an initiative to preserve Fort Worth’s Hispanic history. “We just don’t want to be erased.”
Those concerns come as Fort Worth has become a boom town. Nearly 350,000 people have moved to the city since 2003, when the original Panther Island vision came into focus. Clearfork, a luxury retail development along the southwestern bend of the Trinity, has transformed from a swath of ranchland into a walkable hub reminiscent of the Museum Reach extension.
Most stakeholders in Fort Worth agree the city’s needs have changed since the original Trinity Uptown vision.
Architect Bennett, for example, is among the proponents who believe Panther Island could now offer a unique draw to a company seeking to move its corporate headquarters — something he says the city needs after losing RadioShack and Pier One Imports to bankruptcy.
Parker says she wants the space to be somewhere parents can bring their children. University of Texas at Arlington architecture professor Dennis Chiessa is calling for the city to reserve parts of Panther Island for public plazas, parks and plaques acknowledging Hispanic and Black communities who called the area home.
Thus far, Panther Island development has been limited to a brewery, a drive-in theater and a new apartment complex widely panned as uninspired by locals — an indication of the difficult conversations to come in the project’s reimagination.
Doing its own thing
Fort Worth leaders have hired consultant HR&A Advisors to update the original 2003 development plan for Panther Island and build a vision for landowners to get behind. It’s a $560,000 effort funded by the city, county, water district, Streams & Valleys and business groups interested in the area’s development.
Among the recommendations San Antonio leaders offer Fort Worth is buying land around Panther Island before prices go up.
“If I were to do it all over again … I probably would have recommended that [the city] buy a parcel [near the river extensions] so we could land bank it for affordable housing,” said San Antonio Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, who oversaw both river extensions.
The completion of the Mission Reach in 2015 brought a surge in the area’s property values. Many longtime residents, mostly Hispanic, moved because they could no longer afford the property taxes. The 2014 purchase of a trailer park near the Mission Reach by developers intending to erect luxury apartments was emblematic of the changes the river project imposed on people who had lived in surrounding neighborhoods for generations.
Most of the property on Panther Island is currently owned by Tarrant County College, the county and the water district, which had to buy land for environmental remediation. The water district plans to sell off developable land once the 1.5-mile bypass channel is built.
Fort Worth’s city management said gentrification has become an increasing concern coupled with every new development, including Panther Island. HR&A’s plan will include strategies to mitigate the effects of redevelopment.
Fort Worth’s goal is not to replicate the success of the San Antonio River Walk, said Carlos Flores, who represents the Northside and Panther Island on Fort Worth City Council.
Instead, the city will look to define its version of downtown waterfront development.
“Fort Worth is going to do something unique here,” Flores said. “It’s good to know what San Antonio did … but Fort Worth is going to have its own vision.”
Disclosure: San Antonio River Authority and University of Texas - Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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