By SHELLEY KOFLER / KERA News
Fort Worth's riverfront plan promises to create development on the Trinity that will double the size of downtown. Just looking at access to water - many experts' all-important requirement for riverfront projects - you'd probably say Fort Worth's elaborate design hits a home run. It creates a lot of new opportunities for recreation, and for living, working or dining by the water. But at what cost? And can Fort Worth pull it off? Find out in part four of the KERA News series Banking on the River.
While the wild and sometimes dirty Trinity in Dallas is nearly deserted, it's easy to find boaters gliding through waters near Fort Worth
Just west of downtown, instructor Dave Holl assigns kayaks to group members who haul their boats down a steep 30-foot ramp. Then they drop into the West Fork of the Trinity and head towards the Fort Worth skyline.
"Here it's scenic," Holl said. "It's a beautiful area. This river has pretty much been completely, well almost redone by the Corps of Engineers with the levees here. And where we are right now you can see that everything is manicured. We will go through a few areas where they've left the trees in a natural area."
This stretch of the Trinity looks like a canal as the river flows between grassy levees built to protect the area from floods. In addition to boats on the water, runners and cyclists speed along trails on top and around the levees.
The Fort Worth's Trinity River Vision Plan promises more trails, boat docks, ball parks and white water rapids. That excites kayakers like Holl.
"They'll put in a dam; it creates a manmade rapid that has a lot of recreational value for kayaking (and) tubers," he said. "What I would hope is we have a lot more things like that."
A lot of that new recreation is planned for Gateway Park, east of downtown.
The Trinity River Vision's centerpiece - with the biggest price tag - would be located just north of the business district where Dave and the kayakers are headed. That's where the West Fork of the Trinity intersects with the Clear Fork. The combined waters take a sharp turn to the south, then another to the north, forming a tight U-shaped curve. What's planned for the property near that curve would create an area for development as big as downtown.
J.D. Granger is executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority.
"We are going to go ahead and build a mile-and-a-half bypass channel 300 feet wide," Granger said.
And here's what that bypass channel would do: Remember the "U" created where the river curves? Plans call for digging a channel across the open end of that U. The mostly industrial property now surrounded by water would become an island with its own lakes and twelve new miles of valuable waterfront property.
Congresswoman Kay Granger envisioned development along the Trinity when she was Fort Worth mayor in the 1990s. As executive director of Trinity Vision, her son J.D. Granger said planners studied projects across the country and patterned this one after Vancouver and the Riverwalk in San Antonio.
"It will be a waterfront that you can dine on the edge," he said. "You can live on the edge. You can have your children running next to the water's edge."
Granger said the bypass channel will replace the 30-foot levees that now protect from flooding. A complex system of gates and dams will redirect any high waters away from the new waterfront. With the levees down there will be easy access to a canal system with boats and water taxis traveling between the Fort Worth Stockyards and downtown.
Trinity Vision supporters also like the idea of replacing aging industrial properties with waterfront condos and shops - but that's where it starts to get a little messy.
Ray Knoderla is part owner of Rick and Ray's Auto Repair. He claims Trinity Vision managers are condemning neighborhood property they don't need for flood control, and preventing current owners from making big money once the bypass is built.
"If half my property is used for the street and I still have another half an acre that could be used for what I see fit, then fine, buy half my property and use it for the street and allow me to use the rest of the property to develop myself," he said.
Ray doesn't think his property's targeted, but we talked to four other owners who claim they're being fleeced by project managers condemning property. Trinity Vision said it's only taking properties for necessary infrastructure - and it is paying fair-market value.
Then there's the issue of cost. In five years, the project cost has jumped from $360 million to more than $900 million.
Former Fort Worth Council member Clyde Picht believes the budget will grow bigger.
"It is close to a billion dollars, and will probably be $2 or $3 billion if it is done the way it's been advertised," Picht said. "I just don't think the public can afford to put that kind of investment into a private development. The flood control is there to make it developable - not because we need flood control on the Trinity River."
Former Republican County Chair Steve Holleran, an accountant, points to high-end condos near downtown that sit vacant - and questions whether there's a market for more on the water.
"The high-end condos have been overbuilt," Holleran said. "You're talking about putting properties in there that the average citizen is not going to be able to afford. A lot of developers that have high-end projects - I'm talking about a half million to million dollar condos- in the city right now are having trouble moving them."
J.D. Granger explains the soaring price tag by saying the project was expanded to add recreation at Gateway Park. And for naysayers who believe there's not enough money to build the project, Granger asks them to be patient. He believes in a decade or so when Dave Holl kayaks downtown, he'll be able to park his boat at the edge of a new riverfront community.
Financing is still iffy, however. About half the financing for the project is expected to come from the federal government; Granger acknowledges some of that funding may be delayed. Another third of the money is expected to come through a tax-increment financing district. As developers improve the value of the riverfront property, the increasing property taxes collected will go back into the project to pay for it. But the recession is expected to slow development as well as that revenue. So, Granger has extended the number of years for collecting the TIF money from 25 to 40 years. He said the economy may slow down the project, but it will still be built.
To learn more about water in our region visit our new website, trinityrivertexas.org.
(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on November 20, 2009.)