Here’s how a single line cost Fort Worth $7.6 million in cost overruns on its new City Hall
With the stroke of a pen across a survey map, Fort Worth city staff illustrated how Fort Worth’s new City Hall project went over budget by millions.
After discovering part of the project site — where new council chambers and parking lots are planned — falls into a federal floodway easement established in 1954, the city announced it will be forced to spend an additional $7.6 million because of delays and permitting costs. The added costs bring total project overruns to $50 million.
The city purchased the former Pier 1 headquarters and surrounding land on the east side of the Clear Fork Trinity River in 2021 for a new City Hall, and enlisted Rattikin Title Company to evaluate its suitability for the project. Survey plats produced by Blue Sky Surveying and Mapping showed a small area of land free of floodway restrictions, which city contractors later targeted for the council chambers.
Blue Sky’s survey matches the one available in Tarrant County’s property records — with a catch.
Public records reviewed by the Fort Worth Report show the existing survey plats approximated floodway easement boundaries, rather than drawing out the exact boundary. Contractors relied on the flawed survey while they planned the project’s future.
Now, the city is going through a time-intensive and costly process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to secure a Section 408 permit. A 408 permit allows the applicant to alter a 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.
In hindsight, more work should have been done to validate the results of the initial land survey conducted by Blue Sky, Tanyan Farley, the project manager with Athenian Group, said. Discussions about developing the land so close to the Trinity River should have involved other agencies such as Tarrant Regional Water District and the US Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
“Not trusting your survey map is a weird thing to say,” Farley said. “My recommendation to anyone that is looking at doing development anywhere near a body of water, would be to start with an initial meeting with all of the groups that could be involved and lay out your potential plans and get feedback there.”
‘I wouldn’t consider it inaccurate’
Farley and Athenian Group, the company charged with overseeing the project, said the millions of dollars being spent to meet federal floodway requirements is now unavoidable.
“I wouldn’t consider it inaccurate because it’s accurate as far as what’s filed as a record,” Rick Salazar, the city’s assistant director of property management, said of the survey. “I bet nine out of 10 surveyors would draw it this way.”
Blue Sky Surveying and Mapping, and Rattikin Title, did not reply to a request for comment. Michelle Gutt, a city spokesperson, told the Report that the city is still reviewing its options when asked about potential legal action.
The title company, Rattikin Title Company, was already selected by the seller when the city went to purchase the building. The city relied on surveying done by Blue Sky Surveying and Mapping, and given to Rattikin during the closing process, Farley said. The city only had about 90 days to close on the purchase, a shortened timeline compared to a norm of about 120 days.
“We don’t feel like the timeline contributed to the current situation,” Gutt said.
Building in a federal floodway can do more than increase the overall cost of a project. Blocking the floodway – a channel in a floodplain designed to divert floodwaters – with buildings and other structures can result in increased flooding and damage downstream.
For years, the city has struggled with flooding in several hotspots around Fort Worth. In some cases, development has exacerbated flooding issues. Making any changes to a floodway can cause unintended consequences for other areas of the floodplain, Sam Brody, a professor in Texas A&M Galveston’s Department of Marine and Coastal Environmental Science, said.
That’s why building in a floodplain requires a complicated series of permit applications that Brody said can lead developers down a risky path.
“If you have a choice, what I tell developers, your last option should be building in a floodplain, and you should never consider altering a floodway for your own sake,” Brody said.
‘It goes through the middle of our building’
Steve Cooke, Fort Worth’s director of property management, said when the city closed on the new City Hall building in 2021, Rattikin Title Company conducted a title search of the property that should have revealed any floodway easements or utility lines.
“This is what the surveyor pulled when they pulled the documents,” Salazar said, pointing to a plat filled with blue lines that represent easements. In that document, there is a blank space where the council chambers were supposed to be.
“This is what we thought we had,” Salazar said.
Then, with a stroke of his pen, Salazar drew another line cutting off about half of the available land adjacent to the council chambers. “This easement, actually, is more in tune to this.”
The survey marks the floodway easement drawn on it as “approximate,” according to a review of the closing documents. The approximate easement marking only indicates that an easement exists over some or all the property, said Woody Frossard, environmental division director with Tarrant Regional Water District. The water district owns the floodway easement marked as approximate in survey documents.
“I am not sure what the purpose of a plat that describes the ‘approximate location’ of an easement would be,” Frossard said. “This would just indicate that a correct survey needs to be located or developed by a surveyor.”
Blue Sky’s survey was conducted in July 2018. The Tarrant Regional Water District later approached Athenian with a correct map in December 2021, which drew attention to the error. By then, Athenian had already drawn plans for a new City Council chamber, which would be directly in the easement.
“Our planned location for the council chambers avoided all of those. It was tucked in this nice little triangle that we had found on the site,” Farley said. “As soon as it was revealed that… it (the floodway easement) goes all the way through the site, it goes through the middle of our building.”
The true location of the floodway easement can be traced back to the mid-1950s when the Tarrant Regional Water District purchased the land. The accurate easement description is available through Tarrant County property records.
“A surveyor could generate a survey map from the legal description in the easement document,” Frossard said.
FEMA’s online national flood hazard mapping system also shows the site is in a floodplain, which harbors a federal floodway.
“A floodway is the heart of a floodplain,” Brody said. “And that’s where messing with the floodway can cause a lot of unintended impacts downstream.”
‘Are there unintended consequences?’
When the Fort Worth City Council approved the purchase of the Pier 1 building for the new City Hall project, it did so under the impression that remodeling an existing building would be cheaper than building from scratch, according to city meeting documents. And the Pier 1 building offered amenities not commonly seen in city buildings.
“It’s really a beautiful site,” Cooke said. “And it’s hard to have a downtown site that has these views of nature. So it’s an incredible site, you have to overcome some things unexpectedly, and it’s gonna cost seven or eight million bucks. I hate that. I hate it more than anybody, because I’m the one being scrutinized. But I can live with that.”
Initial estimates for both options have changed over time; city staff initially said it would cost about $100 million to buy and retrofit the Pier 1 building, compared to $200 million for an earlier plan to construct a new building.
In the most recent presentation to City Council, Farley said the Pier 1 construction would now cost $230 million, but it was still cheaper than the updated cost to construct a new building, which he now estimates at $391 million.
“You don’t want to sacrifice a 50-year facility for a short-term build issue,” Farley said.
Short-term capital savings don’t mean building in a floodway is the best economic choice, Brody said. He pointed toward the extensive costs the city could incur if the area were to flood and damage the building. The city is also already incurring unexpected costs because of the floodway, prior to any construction being done.
When the Pier 1 building was built, it was in compliance with floodplain and floodway restrictions, Clair Davis, floodplain manager for the city, said.
In order to make the new City Hall construction meet federal standards, city contractors agreed to a series of changes designed to prevent and mitigate flooding. These include partial waterproofing, heavy timber roofs, changing the grade of the land, and constructing a three-story building rather than two-story to minimize encroachment into the floodway.
“You would certainly long-term need to think about the indirect impacts of putting that building there,” Brody said. “Is it going to cause more flooding downstream? Are there unintended consequences? In my experience, building in a floodway is usually more expensive because you have to do so much to mitigate downstream ancillary impacts.”
After initially submitting a request for a 408 permit on Dec. 9, 2022, Falrey and the building’s design team were asked to make adjustments to their application and include the archeological history of the site. Farley resubmitted the application in mid-February.
“Pending comments back from this, we will either have an approval, which would be great to kind of move forward, or it will have some further work on the archaeological side,” Farley said.
In total, the 408 permitting process has set construction back by about a year and a half.
‘A really, really difficult process — intentionally’
Farley and Athenian Group are also working to secure a higher level of permitting from the North Central Texas Council of Governments to ensure that building in the floodway doesn’t create negative impacts downstream.
“This is a really, really difficult process — intentionally. That’s to keep people safe,” Farley said.
The layers of permitting ensure development doesn’t affect flooding in other parts of the city, Davis, engineering manager and floodplain administrator, said.
“If you’re anywhere in the floodplain, in Fort Worth, you have to have a floodplain development permit,” Davis said. “The floodway triggers a higher level of review and analysis that is required to show that you’re not having any impact on adjacent properties.“
Despite the challenges posed by permitting delays and other cost overruns, the city and project managers are moving forward under the site’s initial plans. Both Cooke and Farley feel purchasing the Pier 1 Building and moving forward with the project is the right decision.
“This is one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of. It’s a new City Hall and we’re all excited and stoked, and then — all this,” Cooke said gesturing to the line drawn on the survey map.
“I think we’re going to get there,” Cooke said.
The No. 1 adjustment that should have been made is the project’s timeline, Farley said. With the inclusion of the federal floodway, the project timeline should have been moved back by about a year and a half.
“That would be the only difference,” Farley said. “I still think this is the best fit for the city of Fort Worth.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com 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.