At the end of May, Max Brantley wrote a column for the Arkansas Times with the headline “Little Rock needs to think big.”
Max and I have known each other for too many years to count. For about five years in the early 1990s, we were among the “regulars” who showed up every Friday to appear on the “Arkansas Week” program on AETN.
Most people would consider us to be on opposite sides of the political fence, and often we are. We do have several things in common.
Neither of us grew up in Little Rock.
Both of us have lived here for years.
We both love the city and want to see it be all it can be.
When it comes to the need for Little Rock to think big, Max is right. What he wrote in late May dovetails nicely with the column I’ve written for Wednesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
My column topic is this summer’s demolition of Ray Winder Field. Thousands of people each day have passed the site on Interstate 630 and watched what I consider the greatest tragedy from a development standpoint in recent Little Rock history — the selling of valuable green space in the center of the city so UAMS can build yet another parking lot.
I had a discussion with a prominent Little Rock real estate developer recently. I tend to be an optimist by nature and noted how pleased I was with some of the developments planned for downtown Little Rock.
“Yeah,” he replied. “But we still have far too many surface parking lots and unimaginative storefronts.”
This is indeed the land of the surface parking lot. Because it’s in one of the state’s most visible locations, the Ray Winder demolition site is a powerful symbol. In a sense, the symbolism erases much of the good done along the riverfront and in other areas of town.
You know what they say: Perception is reality.
Here’s what the new UAMS parking lot screams out about Little Rock: “We’re stuck in the old urban renewal mode of the 1960s and 1970s at a time when other cities are going the opposite direction. We love the smell of bulldozer smoke in the morning.”
The story will be told far into the future. It’s a sad story about how Arkansas’ largest city took one of the most cherished ballparks in the country and sold it for a pittance so it could be paved over for surface parking.
It’s too late for Ray Winder, but out of this historic preservation catastrophe perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. The lesson is that residents of the city must speak up in the future when things like this are being debated.
“Remember Ray Winder” can become the battle cry in a town that far too often in the past has torn down rather than renovated its historic treasures.
When we drive along Interstate 630 and look at that parking lot, this is what we can think for years to come: “We’re better than this. We must do better as a city. We owe it to our children, our grandchildren and all who live here.”
If that happens — if this travesty leads to additional public involvement in the decades ahead — Ray Winder will have taught us an important lesson.
Max wrote his column after a long walk around War Memorial Park.
“Across the freeway, I marveled at the children’s branch library under construction and the fact that the Central Arkansas Library System had saved a Craftsman-style house, as well as a stone storage building. The library builds monuments.
“On the north side of the freeway, I had a nice walk around the park perimeter. Careful on Monroe Street. It lacks sidewalks. More walking paths are also needed in the northwest sector of the park. The perimeter of the Little Rock Zoo could use some improvement, particularly the raggedy picnic area.”
The economic development game has changed dramatically in recent decades. So much of economic development these days is about attracting talented, creative people who have their choice of cities.
It’s about far more than building industrial, business and, yes, technology parks.
It’s about creating a place where people want to live. It’s about walking trails, biking trails, parks, baseball fields, restaurants and concert venues.
That’s all part of economic development.
Plugging that hole in the River Trail is probably the most significant economic development step this city could take right now.
In the newspaper column I wrote this week, I referenced a column that was produced last month by Frank Bruni for The New York Times. It focused on New York City’s parks improvements and how those mirror a trend in dozens of American cities.
“Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York,” Bruni wrote. “This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.
“The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.”
Bruni noted that what’s going on in New York is “emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland.”
Van Valkenburgh, a noted landscape architect whose firm designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, said: “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”
Bruni pointed to other examples across the country, some of them in this region:
— The Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City
— Discovery Green in downtown Houston
— Trinity River developments in Dallas
Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance, said the country is in an era of “re-urbanization” and that the increased population density brings with it the need for more green space.
“Amazingly, we’re getting it because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated,” Bruni wrote. “New York is the bright flower of all that.”
Sadly, the most high-profile public project in Arkansas this summer has been the demolition of one of the state’s historic treasures so it can be replaced by surface parking.
Each time you drive down Interstate 630, tell yourself that we can do better and vow to speak out in the future.
Remember Ray Winder.