Of all the North Texas cities that could be picked as the poster child for the region’s reckless expansion over the past 60 years, the winner has to be Arlington. It calls itself the “American Dream City” and backs it up with a recent history of economic ambition, job growth, single-family homes, strip malls, and big-ticket entertainment draws like Six Flags, the Cowboys, and the Rangers. And for critics of the kind of monotonous, car-driven, waste-ridden suburban sprawl that has dominated North Texas’ growth since World War II, Arlington has also provided a punchline. It is the largest city in America without access to mass transit.
Arlington ranks second to last among Texas cities with a population over 250,000 in terms of walkability. When the city poached the Cowboys from Irving and later announced it would massively subsidize a new baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers, sports fans knew their future would forever require sitting in impossible traffic and paying top dollar for parking.
Which is why I was surprised when, earlier this year, I received an email from a certain Arlingtonian who wanted to talk about the city’s efforts to “embrace urbanism.” At first, I assumed this was a marketing pitch related to the Texas Live! development going in around the new Rangers ballpark, an overbranded “hospitality and entertainment district” that is a caricature of what you would expect from Arlington. But the email wasn’t talking about Arlington’s Disneyland district. My Arlingtonian wanted to talk about downtown.
I probably know Arlington better than the average North Texas resident. I’ve attended my share of Cowboys and Rangers games, spent some time on the campus of UTA, hiked along the West Fork of the Trinity River at River Legacy Park, and even purchased a used Toyota from a tiny dealership along Division Street. And yet I never knew Arlington had a downtown.
Street life has never been something Arlington leaders seemed concerned about. As it turns out, they have been thinking about it more over the last 10 years.
The guide for my Arlington expedition is Aldo Fritz, president and CEO of the Downtown Arlington Management Corporation and the man who’d sent the email. I find Fritz at his organization’s headquarters on East Front Street, located in a light industrial building that stands next to the railroad tracks and has been recently converted into office suites. Fritz landed in the American Dream City like so many Arlingtonians before him. He moved to Dallas from Miami to take a job in the planning department at Dallas City Hall. He lived in a bungalow in Vickery Meadow. Went out in Uptown. Says he was a “big Dallas guy” who never pictured himself living in the burbs. Then he met his future wife. They started looking for a house and thinking about a family, and Fritz realized Dallas real estate was getting expensive. “I didn’t want to be house poor,” he says.
Before I see downtown Arlington, Fritz takes me into a conference room, and I catch a glimpse of the vision for its future. On the wall hangs a rendering of nearby Abrams Street, which runs in front of Arlington City Hall. The design depicts a typical example of what urban planners refer to as a pedestrian orientation. Earlier this year, the city broke ground on a street renovation project that will see Abrams Street narrowed from four lanes to three, its sidewalks widened, trees planted, and medians added to help slow traffic. The aim of this strategy is to generate the kind of pedestrian traffic that drives street life. Street life has never been something Arlington leaders seemed concerned about. As it turns out, they have been thinking about it more over the last 10 years, as pockets of North Texas congeal into urbanlike districts that advertise increased quality of life and demand premium rents.
Arlington’s downtown rebirth began in 2007 with a grant from the Levitt Foundation that helped fund the Levitt Pavilion. Since opening in October 2008, the outdoor plaza and event space plays host to around 50 free concerts a year. That public-private investment set the stage for developer interest. The 101 Center, a $50 million mixed-use development, opened last year catty-corner to the Levitt Pavilion and is the largest new development. On the streets around the Levitt, more signs of change are visible: a 1920s two-story auto dealership converted into lofts, multiple mixed-use developments coming out of the ground, and a new library adjacent to City Hall. Fritz is eager to show me a side of this new development that possesses a “Bishop Arts feel,” as he calls it.
We leave his office, cross the old Texas and Pacific tracks, and walk down the middle of a narrow street lined with bungalows and tiny old commercial buildings. Fritz points out all the new businesses that have opened in older buildings: two breweries, two coffee shops, a Free Play arcade, and a vinyl record shop. There’s a Twisted Root and a Fuzzy’s Taco Shop on Abrams, but also mixed in are some older Arlington standbys: Flying Fish, Shipley Do-Nuts, and J. Gilligan’s Bar & Grill.
We decide on J. Gilligan’s for lunch. Randy Ford, who opened the joint 39 years ago and now does a brisk side business shuttling customers to and from events at AT&T Stadium, drops by the table, and I ask him about the rendering of the new apartment building that hangs on a wall alongside some beer signs. He says that so many people come into the restaurant asking about all the development, now all he has to do is point to the picture and say, “That’s what they’re building.”
The college-age servers floating around the room with pitchers of sweet tea are a reminder of another aspect of Arlington’s growth that may have everything to do with the Uptown-style apartments and Bishop Arts-style coffee shops that are sprouting up all around us. Looming on the western edge of Arlington’s little downtown district, UTA is growing like crazy. With 41,715 students, it became North Texas’ largest university last September (beating out UNT). About 10,000 students now live on or adjacent to the campus; there’s a new 500-bed dorm under construction.
Big roads, big cars, and single-family homes surrounded by privacy fences were once the very definition of what it meant to be an “American Dream City.”
Some have questioned whether downtown Arlington is really emerging as a market-rate urban community or if UTA is tipping the scales. The 101 Center, for example, will rent single apartments to multiple people by the bedroom at upwards of $800 a head. But regardless of whether downtown Arlington is “urbanizing” or turning into a college town, what I find most interesting is the way the ideas around the new development are indicative of shifting political and social attitudes about North Texas growth. Big roads, big cars, and single-family homes surrounded by privacy fences were once the very definition of what it meant to be an “American Dream City.” Back in the 1990s, a college student from Arlington told me he was proud that his hometown never adopted mass transit because it “keeps the poor people out.” Today, urban attributes drive value in the new American neighborhood, and Arlington is trying to catch up.
After lunch, Fritz wants to show me Via ride-share, a shuttle service Arlington launched last year. Via uses an Uber-style app and a fleet of Mercedes-Benz minivans to drive residents around the city for just $10 a week with a ViaPass or $3 per trip. We call the service and wait on the corner of South and East streets. A few students mill about in an alley between Hooligan’s Pub and Twisted Root on the warm day. I notice the vinyl shop and wish I had a few extra minutes to browse. Maybe I’ll come back to sample the oysters up the block at Flying Fish. Soon enough the van arrives. It is like spotting a Kirtland’s warbler in the wild. You see it, but you don’t believe it is real. Arlington has transit. Sort of.
We get in the shuttle and ride it a few blocks back to our cars.