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Downtown Projects On The Rise As North Texas' Population Booms

Across North Texas, cities are sinking millions into their downtowns. These communities differ in size, maturity and proximity to Dallas’ urban core, but the one thing they share is a desire to accommodate growth.

Arlington has seen a flurry of development activity in its downtown area following the approval of its Downtown Master Plan in 2018 and city-led infrastructure investments.

The 13-county region that makes up North Texas is home to 7.5 million people. According to the North Texas Commission, one person moves to the region every 3.3 minutes. By 2050, the number of people living in North Texas is expected to more than double to 16.8 million.

Cities are paying attention to these numbers, said Jorge Quirino, vice president of Texas Downtown Association, a statewide group dedicated to creating vibrant downtowns. With 150 options for places to live in North Texas, decision-makers understand that to compete with their neighbors, they have to offer something unique. This is where reinvesting in historic downtowns can help one city stand out among the rest.

“Downtown for a community is the heartbeat,” Quirino said. “The stronger the heartbeat, the stronger the community. Having a strong downtown gives life to everything else. It’s amazing how a vibrant downtown can really change someone’s experience.”

The effort to revitalize downtown Allen is in its infancy, but already the community is weighing in. A committee of residents tasked with forming recommendations for the city council began their work in June. Mary Vail-Grube, who leads the group’s communication and marketing efforts, said she and her neighbors often leave Allen to shop or eat in downtown Plano or McKinney.

“We would like to be able to stay in Allen and have something that is appealing and meets the needs of our community first but also attracts others from the region as well,” she said. 

Many downtown projects begin with city-led infrastructure improvements that spur investment by the private sector. Arlington, which adopted a Downtown Master Plan in 2018, has spent millions to improve streets and make downtown more walkable, said Maggie Campbell, president and CEO of the Downtown Arlington Management Corp. 

“We want to make a downtown that’s for people, not just for cars,” Campbell said. “So we’ve made some public infrastructure investments along the way that have been designed to attract new kinds of development — mixed-use, housing, infill — because we don’t have the traditional stock of buildings like the big downtowns around us.”

Campbell said the city’s partnership with developers has been key to the success of its downtown revitalization initiatives. Perhaps the strongest example of that partnership was the opening of the Levitt Pavilion, an outdoor music venue that hosts 50 free concerts a year.

“The private sector had to raise the money … but the city had to build the building, build the [adjacent] park and commit to taking care of it,” she said. “The Levitt Pavilion became a centerpiece that we could point to and say this is where the community gathers that feels like the heart of Arlington.”

The Levitt Pavilion is seen as the heart of downtown Arlington.

Around 4,000 people attend concerts at the Levitt Pavilion, Campbell said, which is a major driver of activity at nearby restaurants and nightclubs but also a statistic her organization uses to attract more development. One of the latest projects is happening in downtown’s Urban Union District, where Dodson Commercial Real Estate is expanding Front Street to include 50K SF of restaurants, retail and apartments.

“That’s another thing we can sort of point to when we are recruiting an investor, a housing developer or a business,” she said. “The city built this, the private sector built it and everybody’s working together to make sure it’s driving business year-round.” 

Another example of a major catalyst project was the $21M investment made by the city of Richardson to improve infrastructure in its historic downtown. The effort, which kicked off in 2019, preceded the groundbreaking of the 14.5-acre Belt + Main development in April. The mixed-use project, led by Catalyst Urban Development, will include restaurants, retail, residential and office space.

How municipalities pay for these improvements varies by location, but Quirino said the investment is well worth the return. Many cities see increases in sales and property tax revenue as more people and businesses come downtown.

“All of that [tax revenue] fuels even more growth,” he said. “We all want to keep as much as we can in our own communities.”

Campbell said this is the overarching goal for her corporation. When developers build new properties in downtown Arlington, this contributes to the area’s overall tax assessment, which boosts the city’s bottom line.

“Our job is to create tax value downtown for the city,” she said. “Today, that assessment is well over $500K, so we are definitely increasing value over time.”

Despite these gains, many developers face obstacles that make starting a new downtown project difficult. Barriers created by outdated development codes are one major hurdle, said Shea Byers, director of real estate for J Street Cos., which is overseeing downtown revival projects in Celina and Lewisville.

“Most of these municipalities have not updated their zoning,” Byers said. “They want development, but it’s not until a developer really starts to bring it to their attention that they [realize] they can’t develop because of prescriptive zoning across an entire city.”

Quirino said updating zoning codes is often essential to the success of a downtown project. Cities that recognize evolving trends and are willing to make changes to accomplish a vision are more likely to attract developers, he said.

“We’re not dealing with the same consumer, the same worker, the same anything that we were 50 years ago,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is handcuff developers, big and small, that want to invest their money downtown, yet the hurdles are so high to do anything, it just snuffs out any momentum you might have.”

The city of Richardson recently invested millions in infrastructure improvements downtown.

Housing residents downtown is essential to the live-work-play environment many cities set out to achieve in their core districts, so projects typically include some level of dense residential. Vail-Grube said this could pose an obstacle in Allen, where some residents are opposed to apartments.

“There is a significant number of people in the community who have voiced concern with the amount of multifamily residential that has been built probably over the last seven to eight years,” she said. “People recognize that there is a need for housing, but they are expressing interest in housing at a scale that is appropriate to the area and what already exists.”

Downtowns are often the ideal locations for dense housing because they tend to be removed from single-family neighborhoods, Byers said. 

“What really needs to happen is cities … need to start drilling down on these walkable locations and identify [areas] where there should be density, and keep the density in those locations and let suburbia be suburbia,” he said. 

Attracting more residents is one area of focus, but another vital piece is recruiting more businesses, specifically mom-and-pops, Quirino said. Allen spent many years developing massive retail centers anchored by big-box stores, but as the city approaches full build-out, the time has come to focus on bringing hometown charm to the city’s urban core.

“People want small, local places downtown, they don’t want a replication of Watters Creek or The Village at Allen,” Vail-Grube said. 

These projects could be especially timely as cities face cultural changes heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. Suburban downtowns could benefit from the departure of workers from office buildings in Dallas, Byers said.

“I think some of these suburban downtowns and these little walkable nodes now become much more important because they offer some sense of urbanity that is still close to their house,” he said. “It’s all the more reason for suburban municipalities to start focusing on offering some sense of urban living so [people] don’t have to go to Downtown Dallas.”