Why Fort Worth’s new City Council chambers won’t open until 2024
Developers now expect Fort Worth’s new City Council chambers to be finished in early 2024 after a delay in the permitting process pushed back construction.
Along with renovating the former Pier 1 building at 100 Energy Way to house multiple city departments, the city is building new council chambers and a new parking structure adjacent to the tower.
The city originally expected to open the new building for business late this year. But a federal floodway dating back to the 1940s was discovered on the site after planning was already underway, said Tanyan Farley, vice president of client solutions with Athenian Group, which is managing the project.
A federal floodway refers to land adjacent to a river that must be reserved to discharge flood waters in the case that water levels become too high during a rain event.
Project managers had to seek a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with construction. Simultaneously, Farley and his team have to plan for the future floodway created by the Central City Flood Project – better known as Panther Island – rerouting the Trinity River.
“We’re designing against the worst case scenario here, and we have to do that with both scenarios,” Farley said.
A Section 408 permit allows the applicant to alter a Corps of Engineers Civil Works project, like a floodway easement, when the change will not harm the public or reduce the efficacy of the project, said Clay Church, public affairs specialist with the corps’ Fort Worth district.
Altering a project means any action that builds upon, alters, improves, moves, obstructs, occupies, or affects the usefulness, structural or ecological integrity of an existing Civil Works project.
Those building in the future floodway of the Central City Flood Project, which includes the new City Hall, will have to file their own Section 408 application as the project gets underway. Funding for the Central City Flood Project was secured through the US Army Corps Civil Works project budget in January 2022.
“Not only do we have to be compliant now, we have to be compliant with the future model (the re-trench of the river),” Farley said.
Fort Worth purchased the former headquarters of Pier 1 Imports in January 2021. The city conducted a survey intended to find any easements or utility lines that might hinder the construction process. The survey did not reveal any federal floodways, Farley said.
In December 2021, after Farley provided an update on construction to Fort Worth City Council, officials from Tarrant Regional Water District reached out to Farley and Assistant City Manager Dana Burghdoff, saying a federal floodway runs through the site plan for the council chambers.
“I read through all of the documents that were part of what the title company provided… sent it back to them and said, ‘I believe you, but there’s nothing in documentation here that says this is what that is,” Farley said.
Eventually, the US Army Corps of Engineers produced a hand-drawn easement from the 1940s.
“’I’ve become an expert in Fort Worth river history,” Farley said. “That was not my intention when I took on this project.”
One of the first questions Farley asked the water district was: Given the age of easement coupled with the fact that the river was retrenched in the 1960s, is this federal floodway still valid?
“As long as the floodway is active and providing flood protection for our community, easements remain effective and stay in place,” Chad Lorrance, a spokesman for the water district, said in a statement. “Any encroachments in the boundary have to be approved by the US Army Corps and TRWD in order to ensure the effectiveness of the floodway and the flood prediction it provides.”
The process was further delayed for three months, after the U.S. Army Corps ran out of funding for its permit review process. In fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Army Corps allocated $9 million to the Section 408 permit review process. That money dried up before the end of the year.
In the meantime, construction on the tower continues.
“The tower is full-speed ahead,” Farley said.
Permitting process to be changed by Central City Flood Project
Farley and his team submitted a 420-page document to the U.S. Army Corps applying for the Section 408 permit. The document addresses three key points, Farley said.
Project managers have to ensure the project doesn’t negatively affect the amount of water the area can store in the event of a flood. To accomplish this, the council chambers design was altered to raise the council chambers four feet higher than initially planned.
“There’s a lot of cascading impacts,” Farley said. “Because of that, there’s been some serious redesign that the teams have to navigate through.”
The application also has to incorporate plans for sustainability, such as green stormwater initiatives. Finally, the application has to describe how the site will react in the event of the flood, including floodproofing the building and establishing plans to get people out of the site.
Farley went through the same process using models for the new federal floodway easements after the retrenchment of the Trinity River as it relates to the Central City Flood Project.
A potential developer planning to develop a particular property will research previous deeds and easements related to the property, Lorrance said. If any easements are found, the developer should contact the water district to find out any restrictions and work on a path forward, he added.
When the Central City Flood Project is completed in 2032, it will impact federal floodway easements again by decommissioning the levees adjacent to the Panther Island area — opening them up to development.
Farley submitted the application for the 408 permit Dec. 9, 2022. The US Army Corps of Engineers will set a 30-day review window for the permit. Farley expects to provide an update on the permit to City Council members this month.
“We anticipate it to be approved without any issues moving forward,” Farley said. “We’ll start moving as fast as we can. So the target would be early… next year, as soon as possible.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.