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Downtown Little Rock: Some thoughts

Downtown Little Rock is close to becoming a really nice place for entrepreneurs to live and work; so very, very close.

I guess that’s why I find the things holding the neighborhood back frustrating.

If Little Rock is to grow in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it must have a downtown that’s viewed by young, talented people as one of the best neighborhoods in the South. These are folks who like to walk or take their bikes to work and to the places they hang out after work.

Downtown Little Rock is much closer to achieving that “wow factor” — with the kinds of amenities that draw entrepreneurs to places such as Austin and Nashville — than most of us realize.

Let’s start with the positives:

The Clinton Presidential Center and Park and Heifer International gave new life to neighborhoods on the other side of Interstate 30. The Lost Forty and Rebel Kettle brew pubs have now come along. It didn’t happen as quickly as people had hoped. The Clinton Center was dedicated on a rainy day in November 2004. Heifer International dedicated its headquarters in March 2006. In June 2009, Heifer added the Murphy Keller Education Center, a facility with interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about self-sufficiency initiatives in countries around the world. For a time, Little Rock’s leaders envisioned a nonprofit corridor, but nothing along those lines developed. Heifer International never built what had been described as “a Third World version of Epcot Center,” and Lion World Services for the Blind never moved to the neighborhood. But now Cromwell Architects Engineers is putting its headquarters in what once was a paint factory. Loft apartments are part of the mix. Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks are set to open a restaurant later this year known as Cathead’s Diner, and it’s already receiving a tremendous amount of buzz. And eStem Public Charter Schools is transforming a 112,000-square-foot warehouse into a second campus for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade. The school eventually will serve 1,300 students. So instead of a nonprofit corridor, we’re about to have a 24-hour neighborhood with a public charter school, offices, restaurants, loft apartments and craft breweries. It’s exciting to watch the transformation.

The River Market District has grown up. It has the variety of restaurants, bars and live music venues needed to be a true entertainment district. Thanks to Bobby Roberts, the visionary who headed the Central Arkansas Library System for 27 years before retiring in 2016, there’s also a cultural aspect to the district. Roberts believed that a new main library in what had been a hardware warehouse would ensure that the River Market District would be about more than after-dark activities. It also would be the place to go during the day. Roberts not only moved the main library into the old Fones Brothers warehouse, he created an entire campus that includes the Cox Creative Center and what once was the Arkansas Studies Institute. Fittingly, the CALS board recently renamed the ASI after Roberts. It’s now the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art. It’s the home of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History & Culture, the Arkansas Humanities Council, part of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service and 4 Square Gifts. The complex combined new construction with the renovation of the 1882 Porbeck & Bowman Building and the 1914 Geyer & Adams Building. CALS then built the beautiful Ron Robinson Theater as part of the new Arcade Building. Add to this mix the fact that the Museum of Discovery and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center are in the River Market District.

Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker are still hard at work. Those of us who love downtown Little Rock will be quick to tell you that neither of these two men are allowed to retire. They had a vision for what downtown could be when no one else did. They continue to build the new residential complexes that are necessary to make downtown a 24-hour neighborhood. They’re responsible for several new hotels in the River Market District along with a hip bowling alley and a soon-to-open beer hall. Unlike many of the so-called developers who have set their sights on downtown Little Rock through the years, Moses and Tucker actually finish the projects they announce.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris is also still hard at work. The longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors has treated Riverfront Park as if it were his front yard. In fact, you can find Kumpuris every Saturday working in the park. He has seen to it that the park now includes everything from sculpture gardens to splash pads. A number of people have had a hand in the revitalization of the riverfront, which for decades was little more than an industrial wasteland. But no one has been quite as dedicated as Kumpuris.

Warren Stephens is still ensuring that the Capital Hotel is one of the finest hotels in America. The hotel itself, the restaurant One Eleven and the Capital Bar & Grill have the feel of something you would find in a city much larger than Little Rock. As long as we have the Capital, people will have a reason to come downtown.

Development has expanded to areas other than Markham Street/Clinton Avenue and is headed south on Main Street. One block on Main Street soon will have six restaurants — Samantha’s Taproom & Wood Grill, Bruno’s Little Italy and Soul Fish Cafe do good business on one side of the 300 block. On the other side of Main Street on the 300 block, Brewski’s opened last fall and apartments above that sports bar now are being marketed as Mulberry Flats. The adjacent Rose Building, a 1900 design by noted Arkansas architect George Mann, soon will be the home of a restaurant known as Ira’s and a downtown location of Asian restaurant A.W. Lin’s, which already does business at the Promenade in west Little Rock. On the other side of Capital Avenue, Main Street is the new home of Three Fold, a popular Asian restaurant that serves noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. It has added life during the day to a block that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre keeps busy at night. Meanwhile, the Virginia-based limited partnership that bought the 92-year-old Donaghey Building on Main Street for $5.7 million in November has announced that it will convert the 170,000-square-foot structure into 152 apartments. Work is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year and conclude in November 2019.

Anita Davis, the godmother of the South Main District, is still hard at work with her Esse Purse Museum and other projects. Jack and Corri Sundell, who opened The Root restaurant in June 2011 after three years of planning, continue to knock it out of the park. So do Matt and Amy Bell at South On Main. Midtown Billiards has reopened following a devastating fire, Raduno may be the most upscale pizza restaurant in the state and Phil Brandon has moved his Rock Town Distillery to what’s known as SOMA. It all adds up to one of the funkiest, most eclectic stretches of street in the state.

The $70.5 million renovation of downtown’s old Robinson Auditorium was an unqualified success. Unlike a lot of government projects, this one came in on time and on budget. What’s now known as the Robinson Performance Hall opened on Nov. 10, 2016, after having been closed since July 1, 2014. The facility was built in 1939 as a WPA project and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. An adjoining conference facility overlooking the river can accommodate 530 people. The performance hall is now at least equal to what can be found in other cities this size and superior to most.

The Arkansas Arts Center is about to embark on a $70 million renovation. Studio Gang, which has offices in Chicago and New York, is the project’s lead architectural firm. Todd Herman, the Arts Center’s executive director, calls the design “transformational” and “inspirational.” Arts Center officials hope to expand the facility by one-third its current size, upgrade existing elements and better tie together the various parts of the complex. In February 2016, Little Rock voters approved the sale of $37.5 million in general obligation bonds for this project. Funds come from a 2 percent tax on hotel and motel stays in the city. More than $1 million in work is also being performed on the adjacent MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. The Arts Center renovation should make the MacArthur Park neighborhood more of a draw for potential residents.

The early success of the Little Rock Technology Park bodes well for the future. A consortium of banks came forward with a $17.1 million loan, and work on Phase 1 of the tech park began in April 2016. The grand opening was a year later. The 38,000-square-foot incubator on Main Street connects three existing properties. Discussions about a technology park had begun a decade ago, and the city of Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences signed on as sponsors. Little Rock taxpayers are contributing $22.5 million as part of a 2011 sales tax initiative. The cost of the first phase was $12.6 million for property acquisition and $6.8 million for renovations. The park’s board is planning Phase 2, which will consist of construction on what’s now a parking lot between the current complex and the KATV, Channel 7, studios. The new facility will include not only office space but also labs for research. Brent Birch, the tech park director, says: “The research stage is when you’ll see UAMS and UALR enter the picture in a big way. They’ll be seeking grants to pay for the research they do here. We’re discussing strategies to raise capital for Phase 2. We plan to pay off the debt on the first phase during the next five years. We don’t intend to keep piling debt on top of debt.”

As you can see, there are a lot of positives downtown. Here are the steps that must occur to tie it all together and make sure that downtown Little Rock truly flourishes:

An expanded police presence. The problem with aggressive panhandlers in downtown Little Rock has become worse, and the shootings in the summer of 2017 at the Power Ultra Lounge gave downtown a black eye that will take time to heal. We’re about to have a heated race for mayor of Little Rock, and that’s a good thing. It will focus attention on issues such as this that must be discussed. The No. 1 issue for each candidate (there’s not even a close second in my mind) is to come up with a plan to fill the many vacancies in the Little Rock Police Department and then keep all of those positions filled going forward. This should allow the LRPD to increase the number of foot patrols downtown. Such a presence will make it a more appealing place for both visitors and residents. If Little Rock is to grow in the next decade, downtown will have to be the goose that lays the golden egg. Want to kill the goose? Refuse to put those foot patrols on the streets, let the panhandling continue to increase and watch momentum cease.

An expansion of what’s known as the ambassadors program of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. In February 2017, the private group announced the start of this program. Two employees walk the streets, help visitors and report various maintenance issues. The initiative needs to be expanded, and every business with a presence downtown should be willing to put money into it. Gabe Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, says: “It’s going to take money, but I would love to see the program expand. Kansas City has 75 ambassadors downtown. They do everything from picking up trash to removing graffiti to walking people to their cars.”

The renovation of the Boyle Building at the crucial intersection of Capitol and Main. We’re coming up on four years now since the Chi family of Little Rock announced that it would transform the building into an Aloft Hotel. The signs went up, and then they came down. Almost eight months ago, it was announced that owner Jacob Chi was considering 96 apartments for the building, whose condition continues to worsen. Everyone I speak to about downtown Little Rock says the Boyle Building is the key to future investors taking an interest in other projects on Main and Capitol. The perception of downtown as a place that hasn’t fully taken off won’t change until something has happened with this building. In a statement on my Facebook page recently, Jacob Chi said: “Plans for the Boyle Building’s redevelopment have been procured, redone and further refined nine times just in the time since my family purchased the building. There are structural modifications that need to be made to the building. Essentially the Boyle Building has to be rebuilt from the inside out. That takes time and money. But it also takes care, dedication and commitment to the structure instead of taking the easy way out and cheapening the end product of the development. … I will not under any circumstance allow the reconstruction of the Boyle Building to be cheapened or for corners to be cut. There are active plans for the Boyle Building, and they are being continuously developed.”

Additional projects on Main Street that must move forward. The condition of the aforementioned KATV building has become an embarrassment. KATV’s corporate parent — Sinclair — must make a decision whether to go ahead and sell the building or renovate it if the station is going to stay put. The status quo is unacceptable. Further south on Main, the renovation of the Donaghey Building also needs to happen.

The downtown revival moving west down Capitol Avenue. Good news came last week when it was announced that the renovation of the Hall-Davidson buildings on Capitol by VCC Construction of Little Rock will result in an AC Hotel by Marriott. There will be 112 rooms, a bar and an upscale restaurant that should bring new life to the intersection of Capitol and Louisiana. The five-story Hall building was built in 1923, and the three-story Davidson annex was constructed in 1947. Both structures are on the National Register of Historic Places. This hopefully will be the impetus for the development of what’s being called the Financial Quarter. Architects and planners have been meeting since 2015 and talking about about transforming this part of town, especially what Tucker calls the “mausoleum lobbies” of large bank towers. Glen Woodruff of Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson Architects told the Arkansas Times last year: “We’ve watched the street die in the sense that there’s no activity. We can be guilty of this. We drive up in the parking deck and come into our tower, and we might go downstairs for lunch or we might not. Then we’ll get back in our cars in the parking deck and drive home and literally never step on the street in downtown Little Rock. And we’re not alone in that.”

Holmstrom says: “There’s an unmet demand for places to live downtown. The city will soon complete the streetscape work on both sides of Main Street. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to walk from the River Market District all the way to South Main Street with plenty to do along the way. The gaps are slowly but surely being filled in. By January 2020, I think we’ll be close to having a true 24-hour downtown. Everybody loves to talk about what the millennials want, and the top thing they want is a walkable city. But they aren’t alone in that. We find that everyone from law school and medical school students to empty nesters want to live downtown and be able to walk to work, restaurants, concerts, museums and other attractions.”

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