North Richland Hills, TX - Glancing out his window at North Richland Hills City Hall, Craig Hulse doesn’t just see an empty field where a popular shopping mall once beckoned droves of shoppers.
Instead, North Richland Hills’ economic development director sees a field of opportunity.
If all goes as planned, a major mixed-used development could spring from this 57-acre tract that has been awaiting rebirth since North Hills Mall was demolished in 2007 after falling victim to road construction and competition from nearby Northeast Mall.
“The property is currently deep in negotiations with a very well-known developer in North Texas,” Hulse said. “Unfortunately, I can’t disclose who it is yet.”
For this city of nearly 70,000 residents, the proposed development is poised to become the latest in a series of economic development projects that are anticipated to transform the landscape with 21st century vibrancy.
North Richland Hills has carefully cultivated a reputation for thoughtful planning and innovation along with a resolve to patiently bring it together.
And, finally it is all happening.
Among its recent achievements, North Richland Hills will become the first city in Tarrant County to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse, offering a movie-going and live entertainment experience especially popular among a sought-after demographic group: millennials.
Plans are also rolling ahead on ambitious new mixed-used developments around North Richland Hills’ TEXRail commuter line stations.
The 27-mile commuter train line between downtown Fort Worth and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport will provide connections with Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-right trains for rail travel to many parts of the DFW area.
Then there is the renaissance of the Loop 820/Airport Freeway corridor that follows the city’s long struggle with unrelenting traffic congestion and the nuisance of prolonged road construction.
“This was one of the most congested portions of highway in the state, if not the country,” Hulse said. “People avoided it because of its gridlock.
“If you’re a business or developer, you’re not going to invest in a piece of property or put your business somewhere that’s going to be under construction,” he said.
Now, after more than a decade of planning and construction, the widening project is complete, and businesses and developers are taking notice.
A Babe’s Chicken Dinner House is going up on the southeast corner of Loop 820 at Rufe Snow Drive and is expected to serve up its family-style dining this fall. Next door, its sister restaurant, Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes, will open its second location and first in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The only other location of this family-friendly steakhouse is in Decatur.
“Everything that is going on is very exciting,” said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino. “Our citizens are almost giddy about it. We’re creating new developments that will bring new population and revenue growth. Then we’re getting new restaurants and entertainment venues like Alamo Drafthouse, Babe’s and Sweetie Pie’s that our citizens want.”
That North Richland Hills is attracting so much capital investment is no surprise.
It is located a short 15-minute drive from downtown Fort Worth and about equal distance to DFW Airport and the large employers and retail offerings of the booming Alliance Airport corridor.
For families with two-income earners, North Richland Hills’ central location has long been its big draw.
“Maybe one spouse might work in Fort Worth and the other may work in Irving,” Hulse said. “Where is the logical place to live? That’s kind of what has defined North Richland Hills to go from a very small community to the third largest in Tarrant County.”
With more than 68,000 residents, North Richland Hills is a “distant third” to Arlington with Mansfield’s rapid growth encroaching on the third-place spot.
But for the last two years, North Richland Hills has been second in population and household growth to Southlake, with the city averaging about 225 new residential home starts in the past two years, Hulse said.
While other cities try to shirk the label of “bedroom communities,” North Richland Hills embraces it by investing in quality-of-life amenities such as parks, trails and recreation facilities that appeal to families.
Besides NRH2O, the successful city-owned water park that draws visitors from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has inspired copycat facilities, North Richland Hills’ public library is home to The Maker Spot, a 4,500- square-foot space filled with equipment for nearly every type of hobbyist, including quilters, wannabe filmmakers and music producers, woodworkers and robot builders.
The library also hosts a Behind the Book Author series that brings New York Times best-selling authors to speak and sign books about five times a year.
It is this type of forward thinking that has been a cornerstone of North Richland Hills’ development strategy.
The sprawling master-planned community of Hometown is finally winding down with the final phase of single-family home construction. The first homes in the 287-acre development directly were built in 2004 and since then Hometown has blossomed with stores, restaurants, the NTEX Sports Arena for hockey and other sports, Birdville High School and other schools, and the city’s recreation and conference centers and library.
The community has received national recognition for its carefully-curated development as well as being pedestrian- and bike-friendly for its residents.
“I can park my car on Friday and not have to drive it again until Monday and be able to walk and ride my bike to everything,” said Hulse, who is moving his family from another part of the city to a new home in the master-planned community.
With Hometown approaching completion, so is the city’s inventory of vacant land. Now about 85 percent built out, the city’s focus is shifting toward redevelopment with higher density objectives.
Hulse said the city will never have the density of downtown Fort Worth but it will become denser than the surrounding cities of Colleyville, Southlake and Keller.
“Density is not a bad thing as long as it is quality development,” he said.
Two examples of North Richland Hills’ development vision are planned for the two TEXRail stations, one near the Iron Horse Golf Course and the other in the historic Smithfield area.
The city joined Trinity Metro to have these station stops and take advantage of the transit-oriented economic development opportunities they could bring.
Unlike the city of Grapevine, which is planning a major commercial development with a hotel and dining and entertainment amenities at its premiere downtown rail station, North Richland Hills is focusing more on mixed-use developments with strong residential components.
Each of the two transit-oriented developments will be about 150 acres.
First up will be development near the Iron Horse station, an approximately $150 million project that will have 896 apartment units, 145 townhomes, 21 patio homes and 25,000-square feet of commercial space, including 11,000 alongside the apartment units.
The Wolff Co. is expected to begin construction of the first 324 apartment units by the end of the year. The townhomes will be developed by CB Jeni Homes and Our Country Homes with models due to be available also as soon as the end of the year. Prices will start around $270,000.
The patio homes will be developed by Our County Homes.
Development plans near the Smithfield station are less defined but will include villa-style homes from Our Country Homes starting around $270,000.
Both developments are intended to within easy walking to the rail stations and other amenities. The Iron Horse design will be more contemporary while Smithfield will embrace the area’s heritage Texana roots, Hulse said.
City officials are anticipating that the land adjacent to North Richland Hill’s new municipal complex will be a significant master-planned mixed-used development that will include retail, entertainment and office space, a hotel and urban-style housing.
The city opened the $70 million complex, which includes municipal court and public safety facilities along with City Hall and a public plaza, in 2016. The city’s decision to purchase 12 acres for the complex was the result of a citizen-led initiative to find a new home for city offices after Loop 820 expansion consumed part of the old City Hall’s parking lots.
The complex was designed to complement a development on the scale of the project currently under negotiation.
“Our citizens wanted our City Hall to be south of the loop, which has been a more difficult area to redevelop,” said Trevino, who was recently re-elected to his eighth term. “But it turns out that it was a great choice and we’re all very excited about what’s ahead.”