College Park is still the right vision for UTA

03/31/2014 5:09 PM

04/01/2014 9:07 AM

It’s easy to see now that initial financial projections for the 20-acre, $160 million College Park District mixed-use development on the eastern edge of the University of Texas at Arlington were overly optimistic.

It’s just as important to note that the same once could have been said for hundreds of other similar and now-booming developments across Dallas-Fort Worth.

Immediate success is always the goal, but as in any new business it’s the ability to catch on for the long haul that is the real measure of the project’s value.

Long-term, the ingredients for College Park’s success are there. But finding the right mix of businesses at the right rents, with the right marketing steps to attract customers, will take work.

From all appearances, UTA and Arlington are taking the right steps. Star-Telegram writer Monica S. Nagy described College Park’s progress during its first two years in a Page One report in Thursday’s newspaper.

College Park opened to loud accolades in 2012. It has two student apartment complexes, 27,000 square feet of retail space, parking for 1,850 vehicles (partly funded by the city) and the 7,000-seat College Park Center arena for sports and entertainment events.

It was part of former UTA President James Spaniolo’s vision for the now 34,249-student campus, aimed at helping create a vibrant on-campus atmosphere and overcome the sleepy image of a commuter school.

To a great degree, Spaniolo achieved that goal before he retired last year.

But College Park is also a business, and businesses need a critical mass of customer traffic to survive. What’s become clear in the past two years is that the critical mass is not yet there, as some restaurants have not survived.

Until it is, there likely will be more churn in College Park’s tenant mix. Again, it would be nearly impossible to point to a successful similar development that didn’t see similar churn in its early years.

UTA is taking crucial steps:

• Renegotiating rents. Restaurants that leased space at $26 per square foot have said that proved to be too high. Some were allowed to pay as little as $4.80 a square foot during slow summer months and pay back rent later.
• Marketing College Park Center. The venue was projected to draw 400,000 people in its first year but instead has pulled in 508,945 in two years.

UTA has hired a professional with sports marketing experience to work on boosting ticket sales for athletics and entertainment.

The university’s sports department also is reworking its marketing plans. It is considering changing game times to accommodate alumni and busy parents.

• Changing student meal plans. Students living in university residence halls buy meal plans that cost upward of $1,300 a semester. They get “Dining Dollars” that can be used only with on-campus vendors.

In the fall, the university will include $50 a semester in “College Park Dollars” that students with meal plans can use at College Park restaurants.

• Fostering growth. UTA’s steady increase in enrollment in recent years has spurred demand for housing on and near the campus.

Additional nearby student-oriented apartments, expected to be completed by 2016, would add a combined 1,378 residents to boost foot traffic and sales at College Park.

College Park’s potential synergy with downtown Arlington was part of the planning by city and university leaders long before it actually got off the ground.

It’s still the right vision.

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