Dreaming Big: Arlington’s ambitious plans for economic development

Mayor Jeff Williams addresses employees at the General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas, Tuesday July 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Driving around Arlington, it is hard to miss the signs of progress. The cranes, backhoes, orange cones and workers in hardhats are transforming Arlington into a place that city leaders hope will become a destination worthy of reckoning with Dallas and Fort Worth.

The seeds of Arlington’s economic development boom were planted years earlier and have steadily gained momentum as growth begets more growth. As the rest of the country was reeling under the weight of the Great Recession, Arlington rejoiced in watching the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium rise from the ground to become the city’s crown jewel with its opening 2009.

Since then, Arlington’s economic development scores have included a planned $1.4 million expansion of the General Motors plant, construction of the 2,000-acre Viridian master-planned community and the opening of the $160 million College Park development, the most ambitious building project in the history of the University of Texas at Arlington.

But the city, which dubs itself “The Entertainment Capital of Texas,” and – under new Mayor Jeff Williams as “The American Dream City” – is poised for more economic development that will change the landscape, especially in downtown and the northern areas near AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park.

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Growth will spread across all sectors of commercial, residential, industrial, retail and entertainment. Currently, Arlington has more than 20 significant projects planned and underway.

“We’ve been very, very busy and we don’t see it slowing down,” said Arlington Economic Development Director Bruce Payne. “There’s a lot of interest in Arlington and a lot of investment being made.”

While some of the projects underway or recently completed have been in planning stages for five or more years, new projects are in the works as well, Payne said.

The growth is a big change for parts of Arlington, including downtown, which languished for many years under aging development and deteriorating roads and other infrastructure. Investors and developers overlooked the city’s assets – including the 10-minute commute to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport – losing out to places like Frisco and other area cities brimming with newcomers.

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But that is changing, helped along by the improvements to Interstate 30 that accompanied construction of AT&T Stadium, Payne said.

The value of economic development deals in Arlington was $537 million in 2014, according to city statistics. Officials expect the 2015 figure to soar even higher and growth to keep going beyond that.

Another change in Arlington occurred at the top when Mayor Jeff Williams, who ousted long-time Mayor Robert Cluck in May. Williams, a civil engineer, is president of Arlington based Graham Associates Inc., an engineering and planning firm. His backers responded to his pledge to amp up economic development, and he is determined to make good on his pledge.

“This priority is perhaps most essential in my mind because a strong economy supports the financial activity and revenues which made everything possible,” Williams recently said in his State of the City address.

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Among major projects on the horizon in Arlington are these.

 DR Horton is investing more than $20 million in a 150,000-square-foot corporate campus on six acres along the I-30 frontage road east of North Collins Street. The Fortune 500 company’s relocation from Fort Worth will bring 500 jobs and is “a tangible example of our great business environment and commitment to quality job opportunities for Arlington residents,” Williams said.

 Trammel Crow Co. is under contract to develop an 18-acre site in the same vicinity on land the city bought from the Texas Department of Transportation. The site could potentially accommodate up to 1 million square feet of office space which could help Arlington lure more corporate headquarters.

 The $30 million Champions Park development nearby will transform 14 acres into a shopping and restaurant destination.

 GM announced plans for a $1.4 billion investment in the Arlington Assembly Plant, its largest investment in North America. The upgrades will include a new body shop, paint shop and improvements to the general assembly area.

 Three dilapidated North Arlington apartment complexes were razed to make way for The Nehemiah Co.’s $200 million Arlington Commons apartment development, which will bring more than 1,300 upscale units to the area.

City officials are targeting developments such as Champions Park, which will give Arlington a competitive edge against Dallas and Fort Worth for visitors’ dollars. Visitors to a Super Bowl, Final Four, college football playoff or concert often sleep, eat and shop outside the city.

City leaders have publically acknowledged negotiations to lure a MGM Grand resort to the Entertainment District to keep visitors in town. Arlington already gets about 8 million visitors per year who spend about $600 million.

New development in downtown Arlington is bringing vibrancy to Arlington that it long lacked. By design, Arlington’s earlier leaders made it a priority to strengthen neighborhoods through local business development rather than a central downtown, according to Tony Rutigliano, president and CEO of the private, nonprofit Downtown Arlington Management Corp.

Things changed dramatically when the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts opened in 2009 and began offering 50 free concerts a year. The focus began to shift to downtown Arlington as tens of thousands of people were drawn there for the performances ranging from homegrown national talent such as Pentatonix to Tab Benoit.

“We’re creating a community core where people can gather, work, eat and play,” Rutigliano said. “We see downtown in an urban context that is very vibrant and pedestrian-friendly.”

Downtown has recently benefited from developments such as the 20-acre College Park Center with a 7,000-seat indoor arena as its centerpiece. Starting next year, the center will be home to the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.

Rutigliano said downtown Arlington has also been helped by UT Arlington’s recent shift from a commuter college to a more traditional campus with student living. The shift is creating demand for more restaurants and housing. Three new apartment complexes will add 500 units to the area in 2016.

But it’s not just more students on campus that will fuel UT Arlington’s growth. The school will begin construction in 2016 on a new 200,000 square foot, $125 million Science, Engineering Innovation and Research building aimed at health science research.

“UT Arlington really is seizing the opportunity to be a catalyst for growth and improvement in Arlington and across the North Texas region,” Williams said. “Businesses thrive in communities with premier urban research universities like UT Arlington.”

The city and Catalyst Urban Development are partnering on the 101 Center on the site of Arlington’s old public library. This mixed-used development, which Payne called a “game changer” for Arlington. The $49 million redevelopment will include high-end residential units over a ground level of retail, restaurants and loft office space. The project will also include a structured parking garage with ground level public parking spaces. The city’s contribution will pay for a parking garage. The development is expected to be complete in 2017, about the same time as the city’s new public library, council chambers and public plaza debut as the Arlington City Center.

Other stores, restaurants and microbreweries also are on tap for 2016 in downtown Arlington.