Perhaps downtown Little Rock is finally at a tipping point.
I say this following a recent afternoon when I parked my car at the intersection of Main and Second streets in downtown Little Rock and walked south to the newly remodeled Arkansas Repertory Theatre to hear a talk by Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
After hearing Landesman speak, I headed over to the Clinton School of Public Service to hear Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, talk about “intelligent cities” — the intersection of information technology and urban life and design.
The two talks that day had a lot in common. Landesman spoke about “creative placemaking” and the $150,000 grant that was awarded last year by the NEA to the city of Little Rock to plan the development of a “creative corridor” on Main Street.
I was reminded once again of the wealth of interesting speakers who now come to Little Rock on a regular basis. It’s pretty unusual for a city this size and, in my mind, one of the great amenities of living here.
This past Sunday, I went with my son to see the St. Louis Cardinals exhibit at the Clinton Center (we are both Cardinals fans and are ready for the major league season to start). Afterward, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to North Little Rock and then walked through the Bill Clark Wetlands (at least the small part that wasn’t flooded).
Hundreds of people were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon downtown. I was reminded of what downtown Little Rock can be. Main Street, however, remains the bleeding sore in the middle of downtown.
There are several reasons I believe downtown (Main Street in particular) may finally be at a tipping point. They include:
1. The announcement earlier this month that the Doyle Rogers Co. and Moses Tucker Real Estate are going to restore the seven-story building on Main Street that was built as the flagship of Blass Department Stores. The developers also plan to renovate an adjoining three-level annex.
The Blass building, constructed in 1906, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses have a track record of actually making things happen downtown (there are about five people in this city that I consider true visionaries, and Moses and Tucker are on my list). The fact that they’re now branching out from the River Market District and onto Main Street sends a strong message to other potential developers. I’m talking about developers who can really move projects forward, not the type of out-of-state developers we’ve seen so often in the past who make big promises for downtown Little Rock but have neither the will nor the capital to transform those promises into reality.
The Blass building project will include almost 100,000 square feet of office space, room for six to eight retail establishments and about 20 loft-style apartments.
2. Stephens Inc.’s renovation of a historic building it owns at the corner of Capitol and Main. Yes, I know there are empty lots of both sides of Main Street where the Stephens interests tore down buildings.
The reason I’m willing to cut Warren Stephens some slack is because we’ve seen at both the Capital Hotel and Alotian that when he moves ahead with a project, he does it right. With the economy turning around, hopefully the time is near when Warren will announce his plans for those lots.
3. The $6 million renovation of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which could serve as a catalyst for other creative outlets along Main Street.
“The arts is an ecosystem,” the NEA’s Landesman said. “The arts not only employs the artisans, it employs the restaurant owner down the street.”
Bob Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director, noted that the Rep has long been “an urban pioneer for the economic development of downtown Little Rock. We would love to have some company.”
Indeed, the Rep’s neighbors are mostly state offices that empty at 4:30 p.m., unused buildings and what’s basically a porno video store.
4. Grants and available capital: The city has received important planning grants the past couple of years to study what should be done along Main Street. Maybe the passage last year of the one-cent increase in the sales tax will now provide capital to help make parts of those plans a reality.
Green America’s Capitals is a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in association with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The goal is to help state capitals develop distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods.
Little Rock was one of five state capitals — Boston, Hartford, Jefferson City and Charleston, W.Va., were the others — selected in 2010 to participate in the program. Five additional cities were added in 2011.
A three-day workshop was conducted last April to pull together various ideas for Main Street. They included:
— Continuous street design for the length of Main Street, including stormwater management, crosswalks, trees, lighting and benches.
— A park along Main Street that’s large enough to host events.
— Development of the overpass at Interstate 630 to better connect south Main Street with downtown.
A 43-page plan came out of that workshop. Combine that with the previously mentioned NEA grant for a “creative corridor” plan. That blueprint calls for the renovation of buildings across the street from the Rep for use by area arts organizations and affordable units in which artists can live and work.
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center partnered with Marlon Blackwell Architects to work on the design.
Landesman noted that “communities across the country are using smart design and leveraging the arts to enhance quality of life and promote their identities.”
Mayor Mark Stodola called the NEA grant “exactly the stimulus the city needs to bring back Main Street. With the Arkansas Repertory Theatre at the core, bringing other arts organizations to Main Street will give the corridor a cultural excitement and identity that is so vital to the renaissance of our downtown.”
Stephen Luoni of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center said the project has the potential to be a “national model for consolidating cultural arts functions — artist housing, production spaces, galleries and performance spaces — as a catalyst for sustained urban development in downtown.”
Too many plans for this city, of course, have simply gathered dust. The city board must decide to use part of that new sales tax revenue to complete the infrastructure portions of the Greening America’s Capitals and NEA “creative corridor” plans.
If the city will do its part from an infrastructure perspective, I have no doubt that private investments will follow.
5. The Oxford American’s plan to transform the old Juanita’s location on south Main Street into a Southern cultural center (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Oxford American board).
The addition of a Southern bistro, perhaps a gift shop and use of the performance space several nights a week for everything from music events to lectures to poetry readings will add momentum to what’s already happening along Main Street south of Interstate 630.
“The Oxford American occupies a niche,” said Warwick Sabin, the publisher of the noted Southern literary quarterly. “We protect and perpetuate the best of Southern culture.”
If done correctly, the OA complex will complement existing downtown attractions such as the Clinton Center, the Museum of Discovery, Heifer International, the Old State House and the Historic Arkansas Museum.
There also are things happening away from Main Street that lead me to believe we might be at a tipping point for that crucial downtown corridor:
1. Little Rock and surrounding cities in the metropolitan statistical area survived the Great Recession pretty well. In fact, it was announced in December that the Little Rock MSA had jumped from 93rd to 19th in the Milken Institute’s annual rankings of America’s 200 best performing cities.
2. The passage earlier this month of a bond issue for the Central Arkansas Library System will allow momentum to continue in the River Market District. The bond issue will provide $13 million for an auditorium, a parking deck and other improvements to the already impressive downtown CALS campus — main library, Arkansas Studies Institute and Cox Creative Center — that Bobby Roberts (who also is on my list of Little Rock visionaries) has built.
The hope is that a public-private partnership will allow Moses-Tucker to move forward with a development to be known as The Arcade. Continued momentum in the River Market District is necessary if development is to spread to Main Street.
Now if only the folks at City Hall would plug that hole in the River Trail, we would really be on a roll as a city.