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Big Bad Downtown

I'm having lunch at Big Bad Breakfast on Main Street in Little Rock and thinking about all that downtown has going for it these days.

This block of Main Street, pretty much desolate 20 years ago, is a prime example of the progress that has occurred. Seven restaurants now operate on the block, which is filled with people day and night.

On my walk back to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette offices at the corner of Capitol and Scott, I pass two large renovation projects at the intersection of Capitol and Main. On one corner, there's the long-awaited rebirth of the Boyle Building. On another corner, there's the expansion of the Little Rock Technology Park.

A few blocks away, there's the $30 million being invested in the Central Arkansas Library System's main branch in the River Market District.

Most downtown advocates across America would give anything to see this kind of work taking place in their neighborhoods.

The good news continues.

There was the 2023 opening of the magnificent Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in MacArthur Park, which is now drawing people from across the country.

East of Interstate 30, there are planned developments that will make what's now called East Village one of the most exciting neighborhoods in the South -- a new headquarters for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; Lyon's College's new veterinary school; Lyon's new dental school; an expansion of the Clinton Presidential Center; construction of the Windgate Artspace, which will house dozens of artists; the restaurants, breweries and retailers that the presence of those artists will attract.

And yet there's still so much to be done for downtown Little Rock to achieve its potential.

During yesterday's meeting of the Little Rock Rotary Club, a panel of three people -- Gabe Holmstrom of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership; Hank Kelley of Kelley Commercial Partners; and Daniel Church of the planning and design firm Sasaki -- discussed downtown.

Sasaki is the firm hired to develop a downtown master plan. One of the things that plan will stress is the need to double downtown's population by 2035. It has been determined that Little Rock is far behind so-called benchmark cities such as Greenville, S.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Chattanooga, Tenn.; when it comes to the number of residents.

"A lot of the issues people bring up as a reason not to go downtown are fixed simply with adding more people," Holmstrom told those at the Rotary Club meeting. "More people solve so many of these problems."

In the 2.5-square-mile area covered by the master plan, there are almost 41,000 workers. However, there are only 4,400 residents.

Organizations with an interest in downtown -- the Downtown Partnership, Little Rock Regional Chamber, Fifty for the Future, etc. -- must now join forces to ensure the following things happen:

-- Make sure that the dental and veterinary schools move forward. Nothing is more important right now. Once fully operational, the two schools will add 1,000 people to the downtown mix -- students, faculty and staff. I expect that many of those people will want to live downtown.

-- Work closely with federal and state government entities to make sure that the proposed deck park over Interstate 30 becomes a reality. Combine this with a beautiful park on the almost 19 acres opened up by the Interstate 30 construction project. These two urban parks will help take downtown to the next level.

-- Attract capital for conversion of downtown buildings into apartments and condominiums. Start with the Donaghey Building. You simply can't have the tallest building on Main Street sitting empty. And it's adjacent to an underutilized parking deck that could serve residents.

-- Convince the leadership of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to have a major presence in the neighborhood. Downtown visionary Jimmy Moses has been pushing for the UALR business school to move downtown. UALR could purchase the old bank building on Main Street that recently was abandoned by KATV. It could then construct an addition on the vacant adjoining lot, connecting the school with the Little Rock Technology Park.

-- Revive Capitol Avenue. Work closely with new owners of the Regions Building and the former Bank of America tower to reimagine the properties. For example, there should be fine-dining venues in both former bank lobbies and in the former Little Rock Club space atop the Regions Building. This would bring energy after dark. That stretch of Capitol Avenue is already blessed to have an AC Hotel by Marriott, the same upscale brand chosen by Walmart for its new corporate campus at Bentonville.

-- Work with state government to revive the part of Capitol Avenue west of Broadway. It's in the state's best interest to have the main entrance to the state Capitol look far better than it looks these days.

-- Start a move back toward the Arkansas River by attracting a restaurant for John Burkhalter's marina and apartment development south of the Clinton Center; convince the owners of the Little Rock Marriott to add an additional restaurant that faces the river; and find a developer for the former Cajun's Wharf property.

-- Get the Little Rock Police Department to add foot patrols downtown to enhance the work being done by the downtown ambassadors program. Also, convince city government to add graffiti removal teams that will quickly get rid of graffiti on public property while offering free removal for private property owners.

-- Ensure that the renovation of Ottenheimer Market Hall in the River Market District takes place. New energy is desperately needed here.

All of these things can happen in the next five years. It's just going to take focus, energy and capital.

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