Perhaps Texas and Pacific Railroad potentates lacked imagination or maybe they were in a hurry to keep moving tracks west in 1876, deciding to name a short section of street fronting the railroad stop in a brand-new frontier Arlington simply as what is was functionally: Front Street.
For developer Ryan Dodson, what happened to the adjoining land in the next century – which was nothing at all – turned out to be fortuitous. The railroad owned the land between the track and the south side of Front Street, which meant it remained undeveloped even as Arlington’s population exploded. Eventually the city acquired the linear stretch of property, some of which will remain as downtown parking but some of which has been purchased by Dodson – most recently a long, skinny 1.5-acre section of East Front Street immediately west of Mesquite Street only two blocks from City Hall.
Dodson, 43, has already transformed a big chunk of Front/Division streets with Urban Union. The development project morphed a former empty Honda and Pontiac dealership and surrounding properties into an array of new entities of eclectic nature ranging from the Texas Throwing Axe Bar, Tiki Bar and mural artist Tex Moton’s studio, to Legal Draft Brewing, the Tipsy Oak icehouse-style restaurant and coworking company Union Worx, plus a dozen more.
Dodson’s newest acquisition will create, in effect, an Urban Union Phase II, a 55,000-square-feet, four-building expansion that will feature mixed use of restaurants, bars, yoga studios and offices on the lower level, and 25 loft-style apartments on the second level. All of it will be just a few feet north of what is now a very busy Union Pacific rail line, along which an estimated 90-plus rail shipments pass through daily.
“It’s definitely a unique downtown urban environment but with built-in green spaces,” Dodson said recently from his own office at Urban Union, the heavily insulated building itself adjoining the track. “The design and insulation qualities built into the new development will be such that the railroad noise and vibration won’t be a problem, though we’ll build in windows with a rear view because the trains themselves are interesting to watch.”
He plans to begin construction no later than July, with full occupancy somewhere by the end of 2019. Eventually, two more buildings will be added to the complex.
His vision is for a Front Street far different from the historical Arlington downtown experience.
“It’s a game changing development for downtown,” says Dodson, who grew up in Arlington and is himself a former chair of the nonprofit Downtown Arlington Management redevelopment group. “With street parking, paver sidewalks and new lighting we’ll have six short blocks of easy-walking amenities all the way from Arlington Music Hall and Mellow Mushroom to Urban Union – lots to see and do, mixing restaurants, cozy offices, funky bars and live music, plus living spaces. It’s also energizing that practically all of the new businesses are being created by local entrepreneurs.”
One of the most early awaited new restaurants will be across the street from Urban Union II, a conversion of what once was Joe’s Radiator Shop to a new 3,200-square foot Cane Rosso – an upscale brick oven pizza and Neapolitan-style pasta restaurant that will feature an expansive patio and full-service bar, the restaurant also opening this year. Cane Rosso (the translation from Italian is “Red Dog”) also has a restaurant on Magnolia – visit canerosso.com for a look-see – that has enjoyed surging popularity.
Though Dodson likes all-new projects like Urban Union II (which may not be the eventual name of the project), he also relishes development that make something new of something old, preferably old and historical, whether it’s a former auto dealership building or a one-time radiator shop. Indeed, he’s also working on conversions of three such historic building in Fort Worth right now, two adjoining buildings on Main and another on Magnolia. More details on those projects – both of which will significantly impact that area – will be forthcoming soon.
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.