Two developments this month signal that the renaissance of downtown Little Rock is rippling out from its originating point in the River Market, making its future more promising and secure.
The most notable event, of course, was the passage last Tuesday of a two-year, 1 percent sales tax in North Little Rock to build a new baseball stadium for the Arkansas Travelers. The ballpark will be located on the Arkansas River, a short walk across the Broadway Bridge from Robinson Auditorium.
It will spur all kinds of development in its immediate vicinity, because experiences in other cities demonstrate that people want to live, shop, eat and drink around new sports venues. The stadium will bring more people downtown and provide additional entertainment for those who already are there. And it anchors the west side of the ongoing Argenta revitalization that was catalyzed with the construction of Alltel Arena and which got another boost this month with the news that the old Jackson cookie factory will be converted to a high-end apartment complex.
Less dramatic, but no less important, is the ribbon-cutting later this month at the new location for Our House, a homeless shelter. It is moving from a building near the corner of Capitol and Main streets in downtown Little Rock, where it was an impediment to the re-development of property there.
With Our House out of the picture, expect Warren Stephens to finally proceed with his restoration of the Center movie theater. Stephens also owns a handful of Main Street buildings (detailed in an Arkansas Times cover story last year) that are ripe for residential, retail and entertainment uses.
Accompanying the likely action on Main Street is the conversion to residential space of several floors in the Lafayette Building, located only a block away on the corner of 6th and Louisiana. The company doing that work also plans to restore the YMCA building on Broadway and another property on Main Street.
A trendy gourmet restaurant, Lulav, has opened in that area, and this month the developers of 300 Third, a 17-story condominium tower at Third and Cumberland streets, pre-sold enough units to start construction.
All of these mutually reinforcing projects indicate that the ball is rolling downhill with regard to downtown development. Now attention should be directed toward initiating the same kind of momentum in midtown.
The Travelers will move from their midtown home to downtown, but that is more a symbolic loss than a destabilizing one. Ray Winder Field contributes very little to the midtown economy, because baseball fans neither lived nor patronized businesses in the neighborhood because of the stadium.
But midtown’s loss provides an opportunity to think creatively about War Memorial Park. There is no shortage of ideas about what could be done there.
The Little Rock Zoo is engaged in a major fundraising campaign, and it has dreams of expanding into other areas of the park. I have seen the zoo’s long-term vision, and it is impressive. If the officials there succeed, Little Rock could have a world-class zoo to add to a growing number of excellent cultural attractions.
Another key element of a park overhaul is eliminating the golf course and re-landscaping the land to allow more people to enjoy it. Little Rock already has enough public golf courses to serve the demand, and it is not fair to cater to the sentimental feelings of a few citizens and deny the larger population the opportunity to take advantage of urban greenspace.
Finally, the reconfiguration of War Memorial Park should include private development along its periphery. The sale and subsequent taxing of formerly public land along the park’s southern and western borders could pay for the overall re-design. There are developers very interested in this possibility, and the addition of residences and businesses to the area would help the midtown economy and increase use of the park.
If War Memorial Park could be rehabilitated in this way, the positive effects would likely spread through midtown, just as the River Market restoration spurred development in downtown.
In fact, the success of the River Market has taught us an important lesson: public investment in urban re-development can be the catalyst that gets things moving in the right direction. It should never be a full substitute for free-market economic forces, but it urges those forces along.
Having learned that, it makes sense to apply that logic in other parts of Little Rock, starting with midtown.