Saving the Medical Arts Building and downtown

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas released its annual list of the 10 most endangered places in the state last week. On that list was one of my favorite structures, the Medical Arts Building at 236 Central Ave. in Hot Springs.

Constructed in the Art Deco style by G.C. Gordon Walker in 1929, the Medical Arts Building was the tallest structure in Arkansas until 1960 when Winthrop Rockefeller completed the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by John Parks Almand, who also designed Little Rock Central High School.

Here’s how the HPAA describes the situation in downtown Hot Springs: “Since the 1980s, city policy has exempted vacant upper stories of multistory buildings from meeting code requirements, and all utilities must be disconnected from vacant floors of the building. This code exemption contributes to underutilization and decay of structures like the Medical Arts Building, which has been vacant above the first floor since approximately 1987.

“The vacant building’s iconic status has attracted ‘urban explorers,’ some of whom have vandalized parts of the building. The Medical Arts Building is quite large and has multiple owners, complicating factors to the redevelopment of this landmark.

“Despite the fact that it is currently vacant, the Medical Arts Building maintains a prominent presence on Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Located across from the Arlington Hotel and Bathhouse Row, redevelopment of the Medical Arts Building is key to revitalization of Hot Springs.

“Listing on the National Register of Historic Places makes the Medical Arts Building eligible for state and federal historic investment tax credits, which are strong financial incentives for preservation. The alliance hopes to bring attention to the importance of the Medical Arts Building, the impediments for its redevelopment and the great potential for rehabilitation of this exceptional building.”

I’ve written at length on the Southern Fried blog about the situation in downtown Hot Springs. I love that stretch of Central Avenue and continue to believe there’s tremendous potential to make it one of the top attractions in the South.

There was an encouraging development last month when Dave Byerly, the president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Mayor Ruth Carney that proposed sweeping changes to the city’s building code in an attempt to spur redevelopment downtown.

“As a community, we all recognize the need for Hot Springs’ downtown core to be a vibrant and productive center of commerce, culture and entertainment,” Byerly wrote. “We also can agree that the topic of downtown is one that needs to be on all of our minds and a focus of everyone’s efforts toward building and preserving a piece of our community that is irreplaceable.

“We are grateful that the importance of downtown Hot Springs is now at the forefront of our community’s discussion. Now that it is here, let us seize the opportunity to embrace this community discussion toward a better and safer downtown.

“Downtown may never return to the role as the economic heart of the community; however, none can dispute that a downtown is a reflection of the community’s soul. And, although there is an important and productive role for downtown to play in our economy, the attention to our collective soul demands our focus and commitment.”

Byerly added: “At the heart of downtown’s condition is building code compliance. Current rules, policies and assumed practices that are out of date, out of touch and originated as temporary stopgap measures decades ago create a barrier to the city’s ability to enforce code in downtown Hot Springs in a manner that protects the public and protects private property owners’ investments.

“These barriers have led to a reputation that code is altogether absent from all or much of downtown. In the absence of code enforcement, public safety is put at risk, a property owner’s investment is not protected, a neighbor’s investment is not protected and new investment is discouraged.

“The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce believes it is time for our organization and our community’s elected officials to make some tangible and meaningful commitments to this community’s downtown.”

The chamber requested that the Hot Springs Board of Directors:

— Implement a downtown inspection code that gives the city authority to annually inspect buildings for fire safety and code compliance.

— Commission a thorough assessment of the city’s building code to ensure that requirements are relevant.

— Eliminate the vacant building code that allows certain structures to be exempt from the rules by which others must abide.

— Commission a fire and code compliance study of downtown.

— Have the city’s Historic District Commission conduct a study of properties in the district.

Byerly told The Sentinel-Record: “The chamber was certainly looking for a positive role to play in downtown. As it began studying some of the root-cause issues that were impacting downtown, code was an issue that rose to the top pretty quickly.”

He said Hot Springs has an “inventory of historical and contributing property that is unmatched anywhere in the southern United States.”

“The protection of those properties, the investment made in those properties and the public around those properties should be our key focus,” Byerly told the newspaper. “That’s where we wanted to begin our position statement in trying to bring this issue to the communtiy’s discussion table.”

I was encouraged earlier this week when The Sentinel-Record reported that the city of Hot Springs is flexing its muscles when it comes to the former Majestic Hotel, which I refer to as the bleeding sore at the end of Central Avenue.

Don Thomason wrote: “The former Majestic Hotel has major structural defects that must be corrected, city officials have told the building’s owner. In an April 11 letter to building owner Park Residences Development LLC, neighborhood services administrator Bart Jones and chief building inspector Mike Scott said the building is in violation of the city’s vacant structure ordinance.”

Jones told the newspaper: “You can actually see wood structural members that are deteriorated and collapsing in the roof section, and as that leakage comes down each floor … there is a stairwell that is leaning because of certain collapse in some part of it.”

It’s a huge scar that takes away from the rest of Hot Springs and sends a negative message to tourists.

The Majestic closed in October 2006 after 124 years of operation. The Arc Arkansas had hoped to convert the building into apartments with retail businesses on the first floor. Incorporated in 1957, The Arc Arkansas specializes in providing housing for those with disabilities and their families.

“We were hoping to hear back from them on which direction they wanted to go — can they submit their development plan or do they want to secure the building and take care of the violations, because they’re going to have to do one or the other,” Jones told the newspaper. “If it continues like it is, it will keep deteriorating, and there are going to be some major health hazards next to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts.”

Perhaps the get-tough policy on the Majestic signals a new interest on the part of the city in dealing with the other downtown buildings that have been neglected for far too long, scarring what should be among the most beautiful urban stretches in America.

The HPAA’s inclusion of the Medical Arts Building on its 10 most endangered list draws additional attention to the dire situation in downtown Hot Springs.

“Now is the time to make commitments to preserving and improving our community,” Byerly wrote in the conclusion of his letter to the mayor. “These are not the only necessary steps needed for downtown to return to greatness. This only represents our approach to begin addressing those problems in a manageable and logical manner. … Protecting that asset must be our community’s first priority.

“We recognize that this stance may present short-term discomfort for some of our community’s businesses and may prove altogether unpopular with some of our organization’s membership. We all must be prepared for the uncomfortable discussions that come with intervention.”

The time has come to seriously address a situation that has an impact on the entire state and its tourism industry.

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