UT Arlington and the city join forces to revive downtown

Posted Monday, Feb. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- When Lana Wolff was growing up in Arlington during the 1950s and 1960s, the city felt like a small college town.

Residents drove down streets that cut through the heart of the campus, then known as Arlington State College, stopped by the library to check out a book or flocked to the campus for football games and bonfires, Wolff said.

As the college expanded in size and stature in the 1970s and 1980s after joining the University of Texas System, it began isolating itself from the city growing around it. The disconnect did not always serve the city -- or the university -- well, Wolff said.

"We did not have that sense of being a college town" anymore, said Wolff, now an Arlington councilwoman. "The university operated in a silo. The city operated in a silo."

City, business and university leaders say the new College Park District -- a $78 million, 7,000-seat arena and an $80 million retail and residential development just a few blocks from City Hall -- symbolizes a 30-year effort to create community-oriented night life downtown.

For many, it is a sign that after decades of growing apart, Arlington and UTA are finally reconnecting.

Even before the 218,000-square-foot arena's doors opened Wednesday, the project was being credited with helping attract millions of dollars in investment, including three privately funded multimillion-dollar apartment complexes along the university's northwestern and eastern edge.

Restaurants such as Mellow Mushroom, Grease Monkey Burger Shop & Social Club, and Fuzzy's Taco Shop, along with an eclectic collection of new shops, have joined familiar downtown haunts, such as J. Gilligan's Bar & Grill.

"We've had that center in every plan we've ever worked on," said Tom Cravens, a businessman and community leader who has been involved in downtown redevelopment plans since the 1980s.

Mayor Robert Cluck said the city realized that any effort to reinvigorate downtown had to include its largest neighbor and its students, nearly 33,000 as of last fall.

"As they grew and became more prominent, we realized we were sitting on a gold mine with UTA," Cluck said, citing the school's booming enrollment.

"Downtown was not developed very well. We couldn't do anything without them."

UTA President James Spaniolo said residents and students will ultimately take part in shows, recitals, athletic events and movies within walking distance of downtown and the campus.

"The pieces have fallen into place here and people are connecting the dots, and the picture is that downtown Arlington is a destination -- that UT Arlington is a tremendous asset to this community," Spaniolo said.

Businesses move in

George Kramerov is ready to cash in on the growth at UTA.

Kramerov, the owner of Hooligan's Pub on the university's southern edge for the past 10 years, is moving from his Cooper Street site to a trendier location -- downtown Arlington.

Kramerov said he didn't realize how much activity was happening downtown until he relocated his party-rental business, Kool Kegs, near J. Gilligan's a year and a half ago.

"We quickly realized all the foot traffic is downtown. People were walking from local businesses to go have lunch. We saw students riding bikes, something we never saw five, 10 years ago," Kramerov said. "I see huge growth in that area -- the anchor being College Park District."

The new, larger Hooligan's Pub, which will feature hardwood floors and ceilings and a patio with natural stone benches, is expected to open next month as the latest addition to developer Ryan Dodson's Block 300 on East Abram Street.

The development, once a strip center with a vacant furniture store and a church, is now home to Flying Fish, Twisted Root Burger and J. McIntyre HOME.

"The integration with the university is a huge factor in the redevelopment of downtown. It's a really big driver," said Dodson, who is considering investing in other downtown properties. "As the two start coming together, there is a ton of benefit."

Future high-density residential development with ground-level shops will make downtown an even more walkable, viable commercial area, Dodson said.

That kind of development is already on its way.

Last month, the City Council approved zoning for a $35 million, 335-unit apartment complex and parking garage on the east side of the university.

The developer, Lev Investments, plans to tear down three aging complexes and a single-family home to make way for the project, which will feature a 5,200-square-foot clubhouse, a rooftop patio, an outdoor fireplace and bicycle rentals.

Unlike the two apartment complexes approved by the council along Abram Street the past couple of years, the Lev Investments complex is aimed at university employees and professionals, not students.

"It's not going to be West 7th anytime soon," referring to a hot spot in Fort Worth. "But it's real charming the way it's developing."

The First Baptist Church and the city also partnered with the university to help make the College Park District happen.

The church donated land and the City Council approved a plan in 2010 to contribute up to $18 million over 30 years for a garage that would provide 1,800 parking spaces not only for the university but also for downtown visitors. The parking garage deal is the largest between the city and the university, which have shared costs for street and sewer improvements and pedestrian and green space amenities.

The College Park District is projected to generate $27 million in taxable spending and $879,677 in sales tax revenue during construction.

During the 30-year deal, the development is expected to create 339 jobs and $41 million in taxable property value, according to a city report. Most of the $153 million development is tax-exempt since it is university property.

Terry Bertrand, associate pastor at First Baptist Church, said the cooperation has been "an awesome experience for us." The church was included in the university's planning and design for College Park.

"We've had a wonderful relationship with the university," Bertrand said. "We only see it getting better."

New relationship

At one time, however, the relationship between city and university was clearly dysfunctional.

In the 1970s, the push for progress diminished downtown's identity as the community gathering place.

Arlington razed old stores and offices to make way for a new City Hall and Central Library, and new malls and shopping centers began to open elsewhere. After that, people had no reason to stay downtown after dark, Wolff said. Businesses struggled and failed without the traffic. New investment stayed away.

"In the 1980s, you and I could sit in the middle of Abram Street and play cards all night long," Wolff said.

But by the 1990s, the growing pains the university was experiencing were reflected in the need to build the first of two pedestrian bridges over Cooper Street, which cuts through the heart of the campus.

The bridges were part of a $5.7 million project to widen and depress Cooper Street between Campus Drive and Border Street. The street had become increasingly dangerous through the years.

In the mid-1970s, students called that section of Cooper Street "Saigon Strip," and in the 1980s, students organized protests against the roadway.

In the late 1980s, a student in a wheelchair was hit by a car while crossing Cooper.

In 1995, the City Council and chamber of commerce launched Downtown Arlington Inc. to redevelop the central business district.

Part of that meant persuading the university to completely reorient its expansion plans, which called for development along south Cooper Street.

In 2006, the city hired the Downtown Arlington Management Corp. to spur development and implement the latest downtown master plan.

A new Center Street extension to Interstate 30 made downtown access easier, and the nonprofit development lured new restaurants and Levitt Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue that has drawn more than 255,800 visitors since it opened in 2008.

The university, already working to create a college town atmosphere to help recruit and retain students and raise community awareness about programs and classes, also joined the revitalization.

UTA administrators agreed to resuscitate the special-events center, initially planned for the corner of Cooper and Mitchell streets, and move it closer to downtown.

"We began to realize as the university developed over the years, with a lot of construction that occurred in the '70s, really to some extent the university turned its back on the community," UTA Vice President John Hall said. "That is not what we want to do. We want to have a very open and inviting campus to the entire community."

Wendell Nedderman, who came to the university in 1959, was president for 20 years and retired in 1992, said UTA is dramatically different today. Nedderman wasn't that impressed with the campus when he saw it in 1959. But he felt there was great potential.

He remembers thinking: "Someday there really is going to be a someday."

'Thriving community'

Eleonor Hernandez, an employee at the campus Maverick Bike Program and a senior, spent one year at the University of Texas at El Paso before deciding that UTA was a better fit.

The 25-year-old found the academic programs she wanted, but she also liked the feel of Arlington.

"It's like a big neighborhood," she said, adding that it has a subculture of cyclists and pedestrians who like being close to the campus. The university is also promoting sustainability projects that leave an imprint on the city -- from a bike-sharing program to a much-touted community garden.

When UTA opened that north College Park garage in August, it included a free public charging station for electric cars and solar panels that will eventually be part of a system that will generate energy to offset about 30 percent of the energy used at the new College Park development.

Hernandez said students who are involved in their community are part of Arlington's redevelopment equation. Already, she has visited the City Council to promote a hike-and-bike plan. She and other students want to be a progressive voice in Arlington's future.

"We do have a strong voice," she said. "We want to keep furthering our voice. We are very much a part of this thriving community."

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

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