Little Rock’s downtown renaissance

It’s finally happening.

The pace of redevelopment in downtown Little Rock has reached critical mass.

It’s now safe to say that downtown is back.

The announcement came earlier this week that the Chi family of Little Rock — which already owns five restaurants and two motels in the capital city — has purchased the Boyle Building at the intersection of Capitol and Main and will transform it into a hotel.

In the nearby River Market District, construction will begin soon on a Hilton Garden Inn and a Hilton Homewood Suites. Add to the mix the millions of dollars in renovations being done at the Marriott Little Rock and upgrades made in recent years at the Doubletree Hotel. Also add in the addition of the Courtyard by Marriott in 2004, the Hampton Inn and Suites in 2008 and the Residence Inn by Marriott last year. A few blocks away, the Capital Hotel remains, quite simply, one of the finest hotels in the country.

The restaurant scene downtown is as busy as the hotel scene. In the River Market District, high-dollar Cache and down-home Gus’s are packing them in during their first months of business. On one end of Main Street, the reincarnation of Bruno’s Little Italy is doing a brisk business. On the other end of Main Street, South on Main is receiving rave reviews from foodies across the country.

Developer Scott Reed and his partners continue work on the Main Street Lofts and the K Lofts, which will bring hundreds of new residents to the street. The Mann on Main, the building that houses Bruno’s, has already brought more office workers during the day and residents at night.

Over on Capitol Avenue, Reed and his partners are about to transform the Hall-Davidson Building into more loft apartments. The ground floor of that complex reportedly will house a fancy restaurant known as The Still with Chef Donnie Ferneau at the helm. The new owners of the Lafayette Building, meanwhile, are promising to bring a restaurant to that historic facility and increase its role as a place for meetings, wedding receptions and the like.

Back on Main Street, expansions and relocations for organizations such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theater are making the idea of a creative corridor a reality. That corridor also will be the home of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese. An underground space will include rooms for manufacturing and aging along with a tasting room that will serve cheese, wine and beer.

“It’s basically the opposite of a wine bar, where you have all of these awesome wines and five cheeses that they just grab,” Walker told Sync earlier this year. “Here you’ll have a whole bunch of awesome cheese, not just our own stuff. We’ll rotate out a few wines and beers, both local and from elsewhere. It’s a unique space and should provide a pretty neat look into the science of cheese aging.”

As the downtown lofts fill up with residents, expect even more upscale businesses — art galleries, wine bars, gourmet food stores and the like — to join Walker. As I said at the outset, critical mass is being reached. Success will begat success.

A bit further north on Main Street, the advertising and public relations firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods will move into the Fulk Building, where Bennett’s Military Supply long was located. Across the street, the building that housed Mr. Cool’s Clothing will be the home of Jones Film Video, a CJRW subsidiary. In other words, even more creative folks are coming to Main Street. Just down the street, the well-known bicycle manufacturer Orbea has opened a facility. There’s already a fancy cigar bar on Main Street.

Artisanal cheese, expensive bicycles, boutique hotels, ballet studios, hip restaurants, cigar bars.

Is this downtown Little Rock or is this Portland?

“Our agency has always been located in the heart of downtown, and we’ve been looking at several options for the better part of a year now,” says Wayne Woods of CJRW. “When we considered what we’ll need moving forward, the Third and Main location made all the sense in the world. To the extent that our move will advance all that is going on in the Main Street corridor, we’re very pleased.”

There’s something else you can factor into all of this development downtown. At some point soon, more than $20 million of city sales tax revenues will be invested downtown for a technology park. Yet more creative people. Yet more customers to eat cheese, smoke cigars and sip wine.

Doug Meyer of Terraforma, the development company renovating the two Main Street buildings for CJRW, told KATV-TV, Channel 7, this week: “It’s like $60 million under contract right now on Main Street. … With all the momentum on Main Street, this thing is snowballing. It’s wonderful.”

I’ll say.

Private investors and government aren’t the only ones getting in on the act, either. The nonprofit sector is also active.

Last month, the Junior League of Little Rock announced a $1.1 million capital campaign for the old Woman’s City Club, its headquarters at Fourth and Scott. The Junior League plans to transform the building’s third floor into a center for small and startup nonprofits. The center will have the capacity for six organizations and 17 employees. Also planned are landscape improvements, parking lot enhancements, iron fencing, new lights and structural upgrades to the 1910 building.

“This is a transformational project for our community,” says Mary-Margaret Marks, the Junior League president. “The nonprofit center will enhance job creation and economic development.”

Compare this revolution to where we were just a few years ago in downtown Little Rock.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program described the downfall of downtown: “Starting in the late 1960s, downtown Little Rock experienced a marked decline that it has yet to recover from. This decline was caused by a number of factors. Starting with the post-World War II economic boom, the availability and affordability of automobiles allowed for a dramatic increase in ownership. With more cars on the road, downtown began to develop a traffic problem. These new cars allowed for the continued growth of suburban areas. Interstates 30 and 40 were constructed around Little Rock, making it even easier to live outside the city and still access the amenities of city life. This triggered westward growth and the development of suburbs like Maumelle in the 1970s.

“In addition to normal suburban growth, the 1980s was an era of white flight. This was due to the many desegregation issues that the area schools faced. The area desegregation program assigned students to neighborhood schools and allowed majority students to transfer into minority schools. However, this program led to de facto segregation as the racial makeup of most of the neighborhoods was homogenous.

“In 1982, the mostly African-American Little Rock School District sued the mostly white North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts to create a singe district with a countywide busing program to end segregation. During the next three years, the districts were ordered to consolidate, and then that order was overturned. The instability of the districts and desegregation issues caused many parents to move their children to suburban districts.

“Between 1960 and 1980, Little Rock’s population grew by about 10 percent while the combined population of the suburban cities of Benton, Bryant, Cabot, Conway, Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Sherwood grew by almost 120 percent. Because of the suburbanization, strip malls and other types of retail centers developed, such as the 1959 construction of Park Plaza off University Avenue and the 1973 construction of McCain Mall in North Little Rock.

“The modern malls drew crowds of shoppers who wanted less complicated traffic, more convenient locations and more parking. These new shopping centers undermined the Capitol Avenue and Main Street commercial district, especially because many of the businesses in the district opened profitable branches in the new shopping centers, removing the customers’ need to travel to Main Street.”

As it turned out, the salvation of downtown Little Rock would not be the return of large retailers.

Instead, the comeback is based on small entrepreneurs, restaurants, bars, apartments, condominiums, hotels and the arts.

Downtown’s demise took decades.

Even the sunniest optimist could not have predicted that the renaissance would occur with such force.


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