On a recent weekday afternoon at Urban Alchemy, UT-Arlington students were spread out on couches and tables, chatting with friends or studying on their laptops.
As the workday started to wind down, professionals started filtering into the 2-month-old business looking for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.
"I came because it's really cool and has a really urban, artsy feel to me," said Grace Hann, 21, a junior nursing major at UTA. "They had a jazz band the other night. They have a really unique twist on coffee and wine."
The hip scene is just what the boosters of downtown Arlington like to see — a locally-owned business becoming a hub of activity in what has historically been a sleepy downtown.
Or, as Tony Rutigliano, Urban Alchemy's owner says: "It's community building, and we're just using coffee and wine to do that."
Downtown Arlington is undergoing a major reinvention, an attempt by city leaders to give the city of 400,000 a gathering spot worthy of its size. Downtown is just west of the city's better-known entertainment district, anchored by AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Park and Six Flags Over Texas — with Texas Live! coming soon.
"Think about the size of our downtown. We are the 50th largest city in America, bigger than St. Louis, and Pittsburgh and our downtown is the size of a downtown that would be a fourth of our size," Mayor Jeff Williams said. "I think it's really critical that we build up our downtown. But isn't that an exciting opportunity to build a downtown?"
There are now 26 restaurants in downtown Arlington, from old standbys like J. Gilligan's and J.R. Bentley's to newcomers like Urban Alchemy or the still-under-construction Tipsy Oak, which should open this summer.
'Will look dramatically different'
Despite the progress, for many, downtown Arlington is still hard to locate.
There's no mountain range of skyscrapers like in Dallas or Fort Worth. And it isn't historically quaint like downtown Grapevine or built from scratch like Southlake's Town Square.
Downtown Arlington is relatively small, bounded roughly by Collins Street to the east, Cooper Street to the west, Division Street to the north and UTA to the south.
Two decades ago when he moved downtown, property owner Bob Johnson didn't really realize the area's potential.
"It was cheap," Johnson said.
But he does now.
Now he not only has his company, the Pinnacle Corporation, downtown, Johnson also owns a good chunk of property east of his business that can be developed. And Johnson has a track record of being involved in entertainment venues. He ran the popular Live Oak live-music venue in Fort Worth before closing it a year ago and now operates Fort Worth Live in downtown Fort Worth.
"If you were to come back in four to five years, I think it will look dramatically different." Johnson said.
Some of that work is underway.
The intent is to create a more pedestrian-friendly stretch through downtown.
It will also create a plaza in front of City Hall to connect with the Levitt Pavilion across the street.
'Quality urban housing'
City Councilwoman Lana Wolff, who represents downtown Arlington, can remember when her district was the center of government and "there was a bank and savings and loan on every corner."
There's a role for government to play in the redevelopment of downtown Arlington, Wolff said, but what it ultimately becomes will be decided by others.
There has been debate about the right mix of development and to make sure it is distinct from student housing sprouting around the edges of the UTA campus. Wolff noted that downtown is about 250 acres, while UTA is now 450 acres and has roughly 42,000 students. The proximity of the campus to downtown, she said, is helping to attract investors.
The new apartment complex across the street from City Hall, 101 Center, is hailed as a success by some but a missed opportunity by others. Its critics note that parts of 101 Center are leased by the bedroom rather than the unit as a sign it isn't truly market-rate housing.
But its Dallas-based developer, Paris Rutherford, principal at Catalyst Urban Development, insists that 101 Center has not turned into student housing though he rents some units by the bedroom.
"There absolutely is a market for traditional ... quality urban housing in downtown Arlington and 101 provides this," Rutherford said. "We have a mix of people from upper-level students to young professionals, to mid-career professionals to empty nesters.
"In essence, we rent to anyone that qualifies in the lease process. We rent by unit in the majority but offer leases by the bed as an option too for flexibility. It reminds me of the early days of Uptown where also a blend of renters that included students."
New life north of the tracks
What most credit with jump-starting the revitalization is the Levitt Pavilion, which hosts more than 50 nights of free live music in downtown and is celebrating its 10th birthday this year. This season will kick off May 18 with Ray Wylie Hubbard.
If the Levitt helped get things going, Urban Union and its highest profile tenant, Legal Draft Beer Company, have helped bring new life north of the railroad tracks that divide downtown Arlington.
Urban Union has converted the old Luke Pontiac automobile dealership into a mixed-use development that includes offices, Legal Draft, Sugar Bee Sweets Bakery and will soon add a new restaurant, Tipsy Oak, and a new bar, 4 Kahunas Tiki Lounge.
"It took some time to figure out how it was going to work," said Urban Union's developer, Ryan Dodson, president of development for the Dodson Companies. "It's around four acres with six buildings on seven pieces of land. We felt like being on the northeast side of downtown positioned us between downtown proper and the entertainment district."
Legal Draft sits in the former auto dealership's service area.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, it's tap room quickly filled up with customers after its 4 p.m. opening.
Curt Taylor, one of the co-founders of Legal Draft, said they searched for months trying to find the right location until they looked at the old dealership that had been vacant since 2002.
Since it opened nearly two years ago, Legal Draft has steadily grown, producing 4,000 barrels of beer in its first full year of operation with a goal to reach 10,000 barrels by the end of the year.
"When we're done with this build-out, we'll be doing 75,000-80,000 barrels out of this building," Taylor said.
As for downtown Arlington, Taylor said it has to continue to develop the right way.
Comparisons have been to Dallas' Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff and West Seventh Street in Fort Worth. Taylor's preference is for following what happened on Fort Worth's Near Southside, which includes the trendy Magnolia Avenue.
"What they've done with Magnolia with the restaurants and entertainment — that's what has got to happen with Abram Street," Taylor said.
'A really authentic feel'
Taylor and business owners also want to see a pedestrian crossing across the railroad tracks that divide downtown.
At a June 27 City Council work session last year, the City Council discussed a potential pedestrian crossing but no decisions were made about the way to create one.
Arlington is also working on an update to its downtown master plan, which was completed in 2004, and Wolff suggested that the crosswalk should be included in that revision. Citizens have been asked to take a survey about what amenities downtown Arlington needs in an updated master plan that is expected to be completed this fall. The questions range from queries about housing and hotels to parks and public art.
Besides working on long-term planning for downtown, Aldo Fritz, president and CEO of Downtown Arlington Management Corp., said his organization's job is to showcase events happening in the area, from a recent pop-up dog park to the May 5 East Main Arts Festival.
Among the long-term wish lists for downtown are a farmers market and eventually a grocery store. He would also like to attract both a Vietnamese and Mexican restaurant downtown to reflect some of the diverse local cuisine that is part of Arlington.
"We're working on the mom-and-pop type business," Fritz said. "Our goal is you could come down to downtown Arlington and find locations you can't find anywhere else."
Ric Delzell, a former advertising executive, would be one of those types of business owners. He opened Truth Vinyl six months ago. His sleek record store has a stage for live music shows that host everything from open mic nights to touring bands.
He's a little more blunt about what he needs to happen in downtown Arlington.
"To me, this part of Arlington should be the opposite of everything else in this town made up of strip centers and shopping malls," Delzell said. "This place should have a really authentic feel to it."