Feature: Wednesday, June 06, 2002
Got Those Blue-Collar Suburb Blues Part 1

Arlington ain’t what it used to be -- and the pols are finally catching on.

By Jeff Prince

If you’re seeking fantasy in Arlington, look no further than the city’s enticing web site “brochure”: Arlington is “For the good times!” and “one of the nation’s most progressive cities.” Neighborhoods, streets, and parks are safe. It’s the “Best city in America.”

If you’re searching for that city on the ground, well, don’t bother. For decades, Arlington city leaders have tried to will their hometown to urban metropolis status — simultaneously an upper-class enclave, a major employment and entertainment center, and a city transcending the “bedroom suburb” tag. But, lately, every time city leaders look in the mirror for an upper-crust blueblood, they find a middle-class blue-collar type looking back.

Arlington, despite certain charms, falls short of its sales pitch. The housing stock is sliding, and the infrastructure is suffering. Some businesses along high-profile Division Street are faded and downright ugly, as are some houses and apartments near the city’s crown jewel — The Ballpark in Arlington. Downtown, if one can find it, has about as much zest as Petula Clark on Prozac.

“The city is already at its pinnacle and doesn’t even know it,” said Gary Giromini, who has lived since 1978 in an East Arlington neighborhood plagued by shifting soils that create stability problems with disastrous effects on streets, sidewalks, and house foundations. “This city will be a vast middle-class neighborhood. This city is never going to be a Mecca for businesses like the city envisions.”

Voters are apparently happy to be middle-class if they could just get their roads fixed; that’s the vibe they’ve been sending for some time now. City leaders appear to be finally getting the message.

Democracy and diversity are alive and kicking in Arlington, much to the chagrin of political honchos and business developers, whose wish lists in recent years keep getting crumpled up and thrown in their faces by voters. With political setbacks piling on top of one another, political legacies are at stake. In election after election, common voices have shouted down the establishment, something rarely done in Arlington’s late-20th-century heyday. For 50 years, Arlington has tried to will itself to significance, ignoring the mirror that increasingly reflects a large but rather ordinary suburb with typical strengths and weaknesses.

From the ’50s through the ’80s, Arlington was among the country’s fastest-growing cities. Growth was the buzzword for city leaders, who sought land, people, big companies, amusement parks, professional sports, industry, tourists, and money, money, money flowing through the local economy. Residents seeking more moderate growth were hushed. What city leaders wanted, they got, and Arlington became Can-Do City. The mostly white, middle-class residents went along for the ride, supporting the political and business elite. Taxes were reasonable. Quality of life was high.

It wasn’t enough, however, for some city leaders with big dreams — or egos. Arlington never received the national recognition enjoyed by neighboring Fort Worth and Dallas. The city’s flat and bland skyline lacked personality. There was no downtown, no central gathering place. The city was a splash of housing developments and business districts linked by a limited street system that was becoming exhausted. The identity crisis fueled more growth and splashy projects. A foray into public ownership and operation of Seven Seas water theme park was disastrous. The expensive park folded in 1976 after only a few years, hurting the city’s bond rating and taking money away from other city needs.

Arlington, as a whole, lacked unity, but neighbors were often close. Residents felt comfortable and safe. The city was on a roll from 1951 to the mid-1990s, an era punctuated by the administrations of former mayors Tom Vandergriff and Richard “We’re Nobody’s Damn Suburb” Greene. The population increased from 7,600 to 300,000, and the city limits expanded from four to more than 95 square miles.

Vandergriff and his allies lured General Motors and Oil States Industries and served up the Lake Arlington reservoir and the Great Southwest Industrial Park in the 1950s, Six Flags Over Texas in the 1960s, and the Texas Rangers and other tourist attractions in the 1970s. The only dud was Seven Seas. Greene, mayor from 1987 to 1997, is lauded for keeping GM from leaving the city, convincing residents to help pay for The Ballpark in Arlington, bolstering police and fire departments, and maintaining moderate tax rates despite a troubled economy early in his tenure.

A city that’s home to the Texas Rangers must prepare for slumps, and Arlington is mired in one. Can-Do City is being perceived as Can’t-Do Capital or, perhaps more accurately, Don’t-Want-To-Do City. Since Greene left in 1997, city voters have turned down proposals to build a Smithsonian Institute affiliate and increase arts funding. Twice they snubbed plans to beautify and develop Johnson Creek. In May, voters soundly rejected a public transit proposal, which many city leaders deemed crucial to future growth and to signify Arlington as a full-fledged city. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones came courting in 2001, scouting a deal to move his team and build a new stadium and vast sports complex. Residents yawned or became angered by yet another scheme that would rely on financing from Joe Taxpayer.

Nowadays, Arlington residents want potholes fixed. They don’t want to be bothered with downtown renewal, riverwalk fantasies, or keeping up with the Joneses and the Friscos. Fix the streets and shaddup seems to be the new credo. “People are fed up with grandiose projects and proposed grandiose bureaucracy to solve the problems,” said longtime Arlington attorney James Runzheimer. “A very substantial number of citizens observed that the city is not delivering basic city services, streets that are well maintained. They are demanding that the city maintain its streets and improve the network before we do any other glamour projects.”

Some critics point blaming fingers at city leaders, such as Mayor Elzie Odom, who can quietly inspire on an individual level but has trouble spurring the masses. He also has trouble listening to them. “He has wasted this city’s time and money while real issues have gone by the wayside,” community activist Warren Norred said. “As a mayor, he’s been an abject failure. He could have been the guy who fixed our streets. Instead, he’s the guy who kept our streets from being fixed.”

Arlington’s political establishment has long viewed Norred, Runzheimer, and their ilk as naysayers. During Odom’s tenure, however, naysayers have corralled like-minded voters and harnessed impressive political clout.

Meanwhile, the city is having money problems. Tarrant Appraisal District records show the city’s taxable property values are up 9.5 percent from 2001, but the increase is smaller than last year’s 13.2 percent. City Hall recently laid off 57 employees — the first layoff in more than a decade. Falling sales tax revenues and lethargic property values indicate more budget cuts and possible layoffs lie ahead. The city’s ranking in quality-of-life indicators is on a downhill slide. Grand Prairie, which Arlington once viewed as a derelict cousin, is becoming a twin sister as it blossoms with its own entertainment venues, such as Lone Star Park and NextStage.

Even the city’s harshest critics don’t suggest that Arlington — still a pleasant place to live and work — is in danger of imploding. With stunted growth, flattened sales tax revenues, and sliding housing stock, however, the city’s straight-line vision has obviously hit some curves. What lies ahead might depend on whether city leaders, grown used to Wonder Bread dreams, can learn to be more inclusive and open to compromise — and once again stir a populace grown tired of being over-promised and under-delivered.

In about six months, Arlington residents will get another chance to describe their expectations. The city planning department is preparing a “visioning survey” to better understand the wishes and wants of the electorate. There is no guarantee the survey will reflect the city’s true nature. A similar survey in 1986 appeared to show that residents wanted Arlington to be a major employment center with high-quality housing and businesses — in other words, a white-collar city of prominence. Sixteen years later, the vision doesn’t match reality. “Where we are going is not where we said we wanted to go,” said John Taylor, the city’s chief planner. “Just because you have a vision doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. You have to take steps to make the vision happen, and we didn’t do that.”

In 1986, land for major corporations was still plentiful along Interstate 20, Texas 360, and 287. However, the state’s economy was listing under plummeting oil prices. City leaders followed the mindset of their predecessors in deciding that more high-profile, public-funded projects, such as a new ballpark, would prime the pump for private investors and spark more development. Greene, elected mayor in 1987 after three years on the city council, worked with relentless passion to hustle support for the ballpark, portraying the vote in simplistic terms — approve the tax, Rangers relax. Say no, Rangers go.

Voters in 1991 approved a half-cent sales tax increase to pay $135 million toward the project, being further lured by breathless descriptions of how the land surrounding the ballpark would flourish with commercial development and boost the city’s tax base. Tax abatements to attract and expand prestigious developments, such as the Parks at Arlington mall, were expected to bolster sales tax revenue and help the city avoid future budget woes.

Big companies were slow to come calling, and a budget crunch came sooner than expected. Major employers began choosing cities farther north and east, such as Irving, Farmers Branch, Grapevine, and Plano, and bypassing Arlington’s prime spots, most of them in the southern and western portions of the city. Arlington has 22 major employers, (defined as having more than 400 employees), compared to 23 in Farmers Branch, a city dwarfed by Arlington in both size and population. Irving has 48 major employers, Fort Worth has 69, and Dallas has 126.

Arlington’s main bait — vacant commercial property on the I-20 corridor — failed to land big fish. City leaders reluctantly lowered their expectations. Car dealerships, restaurants, and call centers now line the highway. Since employees’ housing needs match their salaries, the quality of housing shrank. Most homes built in the rapidly growing southeast sector during the past 20 years have appraised values below $100,000. Citywide, average home prices are lagging behind those in comparable cities in Tarrant County. More than 83 percent of homes sold in Arlington in 1999 were under $160,000, while only 3.8 percent were over $250,000, according to a housing-needs assessment prepared in 2000 by BBC Research & Consulting at the behest of Arlington Housing Authority. The percentage of high-end homes sold in Northeast Tarrant County was more than three times higher than the percentage sold in Arlington in 1999, the report said.

Tarrant Appraisal District information shows a similar picture: Arlington, with an $85,062 average appraised home value, lags behind cities such as Hurst, Euless, Bedford, Mansfield, Grapevine, and the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie. The shortage of high-end housing means residents who can afford those houses often move to other cities. Twelve percent of households in Arlington can afford to live in $250,000 homes, but only 3 percent of the city’s homes are in this range, the report showed. Meanwhile, Arlington’s entry-level housing market is booming.

Arlington is about 75 percent developed, and most remaining land is zoned for residential use. Higher-valued houses and property generate greater tax revenue. An increase in high-end housing means the city can maintain or lower the property tax rate while maintaining its current rate of spending. But the reverse is also true. Arlington currently needs an average home value of about $135,000 to pay for the city services that residential developments require. However, the city’s average home value now is only about $106,000. High-end housing requires higher-paying jobs, which require large companies, and they’re settling elsewhere.

Typical residential neighborhoods do not produce enough tax dollars to pay for their services. Commercial developments, therefore, are vital to a city’s financial stability. For every $1 a household pays in taxes, it uses an estimated $1.50 in city services, such as police, libraries, and streets. For every $1 a commercial business pays in taxes, it uses about 35 cents worth of services. Currently, Arlington’s tax revenues are about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. “What’s going to be important to Arlington is we close the gap between the commercial and residential tax base,” said Odom, who advocates a 50-50 split.

Arlington has granted tax abatements to attract businesses, but the perceived giveaway of tax money to favored businesses disgruntles small business operators and some residents, who prefer a level playing field. It’s a debate that confounds Odom. Competition for large businesses is fierce, and some cities offer free land and large tax abatements for long periods of time. In an attempt to balance free trade and competition for new businesses, Arlington has tried to offer smaller abatements and shorter time periods than some cities, yet city officials still get criticized, Odom said. “That will keep commercial out,” he said. “There ain’t but two ways to finance government — bring somebody to come and help you, or do it yourself.”

The visioning survey planned for later this year is expected to include community workshops and internet polling, and to attract more participants than contributed to the 1986 survey. Perhaps, then, the survey will reflect the true vision of Arlington, instead of the Pollyanna view of a small circle of people who formerly dominated political discussions. City leaders might have white-collar memories, but Arlington is a blue-collar suburb and becoming more of one with each passing year. The city was built on the back of blue-collar GM. “As a city, we need to re-evaluate our vision, or re-evaluate how we’re going to reach the vision we identified in 1986,” Taylor said.

The die may already have been cast. Arlington is landlocked, approaching buildout, short on commercial land, limited by a frustrating street system, and becoming home to more middle-income people who favor basic city services, such as street repair, code enforcement, and park maintenance, over big-ticket items heralded by the city’s diminishing elite.

A changing of the guard is imminent. The mayor and four city council members are up for re-election in 2003. Odom said he will step out of the spotlight after 13 years of elected public service, six of them as mayor. Pat Remington, who took the leadership role in the mass transit project, is up for re-election, as are Julia Burgen, Robert Cluck, and Wayne Ogle.

The transit failure falls in large part to Odom and Remington, who spearheaded the push and didn’t develop coalitions of support and convince enough voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase. (Transit proposals also were voted down in 1980 and 1985, but surveys had predicted predicted voters would be supportive in 2002.) Odom told Fort Worth Weekly he didn’t take the project’s defeat personally. “They didn’t vote against Elzie Odom,” he said. He also accepts without offense, he said, voters’ decisions on Johnson Creek and other failed projects under his watch. Still, he reveals his frustration that “dissenters” have been active during his mayoral reign, and he shows a tendency, like mayors before him, to dismiss opponents to city projects as naysayers who don’t understand the facts.

Odom, always a staunch civil rights proponent, was most offended by those who claimed mass transit would bring an undesirable element (read: low-income or minority people) to the city. “It was an intent to inflame and mislead, and it worked,” Odom said. “The lack of transit has set Arlington back 15 years. We’re going to be the hole in the donut. A person here can’t accept a job in Dallas or Fort Worth because he doesn’t have a way to get there. We’ve got 10,000 households with no car, and those are the people that need to work the worst.”

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