The City Board of Directors will vote tonight on whether to allow a 24-hour convenience store and 20-pump gas station at the northwest corner of University and 12th Street, on lots formerly occupied by Brandon House furniture. If it approves the , it will be against the advice of the city’s Planning Commission staff and the wishes of the residents in neighborhoods surrounding the intersection. The Planning Commission overrode the staff’s recommendation that Murphy USA’s planned commercial district zoning be denied in a vote July 26.
The University District Neighborhood Association passed a resolution last week expressing opposition to the store and gas station, which will be located across the intersection from an established gas station, as well as a residential hotel proposed just west of the gas station. The hotel zoning will come before the board at a later meeting. Residents of University Park, Broadmoor, Fair Park and other nearby neighborhoods say the increased traffic a 24-hour business would bring to the already busy intersection would be detrimental.
Those who’ve polled the members of the board are predicting a tie vote. That means it may be up to Mayor Stodola to make the decision.
The planning staff’s position:
Staff feels the placement of a twenty-four (24)-hour convenience store at this location will cause a significant impact on the area. Recently there has been and continues to be a great deal of effort and financing going into the revitalization of the 12th Street corridor. The City just recently placed a substantial investment into the reconstruction of the Centre at University Park located two (2) blocks to the west. In addition, this location is in direct proximity to the entrances of the Broadmoor and University Park Neighborhoods. Also located within this general area are properties owned by Elizabeth Mitchell Child Center which provides assistance to the Center for Youth and Families. Located one block to the west on the corner of Cleveland and 12th Streets is a propertu owned by the YMCA and provides activities for youth and families. There is a daycare center located on the
corner of Cleveland Street and Northmoore Drive. Staff feels the placement of this intense use in an area that provides services to youth and at the primary entrance to two (2) single-family neighborhoods is inappropriate.
Representatives of the neighborhoods had complained that Planning Commissioner Obray Nunnley Jr. was particularly dismissive of their concerns. Asked about his vote, Nunnley said, “I just felt staff’s position was not grounded.”
The board meeting starts at 6 p.m. in City Hall.
I predict fallout politically from this vote in weeks and months to come.
The “optics” weren’t pretty. White upper crust men and one woman — Gene Fortson, Lance Hines, Dean Kumpuris, Brad Cazort and Stacy Hurst favored the project. All the black members — Ken Richardson, Doris Wright (in whose ward the project would be built) and Erma Hendrix opposed it, along with B.J. Wyrick and Joan Adcock.
Only the developer spoke meaningfully for the project, relying heavily on the Murphy name, to which neighbor Estelle Mathis retorted that it didn’t matter if Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates developed it, it was still a gas station.
Director Wright said University Park, the most affected neighborhood, with homes 300 feet away, was a rare stable middle class black neighborhood with historic roots. She said another convenience store on the corner could only bring property values down. Shawn Camp of the nearby Point O’Woods subdivision made a strong plea against the project, too, for its detrimental effect to the stretch of University south of I-630. He and others contrasted it with the city’s careful attention to a pet project of Hurst’s the development north of I-630.
Noted: Director Hurst numbers Murphy family connections in her Republican campaign contributions for state representative, not to mention $500 from Dickson Flake, whose real estate firm was pushing the deal tonight. It’s a campaign in which she has proclaimed she puts “people ahead of politics.”
People lost tonight, if by people you mean neighbors and not a behemoth corporation from El Dorado. Apart from an employee of the nearby Centers for Youth and Family, who was instructed by her boss to say the center didn’t see a negative impact from the project, only Murphy Oil, its hired engineer and a hired agent from Dickson Flake’s real estate firm, which is brokering the deal, spoke for the project in front of the board.
Tony Bozynski, the city planning director, was invited by Adcock to explain why his department continues to oppose the project. It’s a poor entry to a neighborhood and a higher use could be possible, he said. He pointed to the Midtown development as the sort of thing that could spread toward UALR.
Several of the opponents mentioned the high-handed treatment they’d received at the Planning Commission, which rejected city planning staff advice and recommended the rezoning. To Hines and Kumpuris, the corner looks like a commercial node and that was that.
The Murphy spokesman had his hand called on one highly disingenuous bit of salesmanship. He said the area was underserved and he pitched a new 20-pump gas station as a boon to economic development at the same time he said it would create no new traffic because it would serve existing traffic flow. It was left to opponents to point out that Murphy would only be taking business from other stations — six within a mile, it was noted — not creating new business. Some of the others undoubtedly will go out of business with additional competition. His prediction of enhanced tax revenues is likely baloney.
The strong mayor threw in with the business crowd as he often does. And there you had it. A biracial group of middle class Little Rock citizens with higher aspirations for their neighborhoods and thoughtful, eloquent arguments were pretty much told: “Go to hell. Murphy must be served.”
It’s happened before. It happened when city fathers parceled off Murphy-owned Chenal Valley to a different school district and it happened when the Murphy-owned development company was given annexation after annexation without adequate assessment of the cost of additional city services, some still lacking in the western part of town.
Adcock noted that a big police unit has a regular presence at a grand Kum & Go convenience store at University and Col. Glenn. Will a similar detachment be needed at 12th and University? Murphy’s man said they’d just call the police for assistance. Director Wright said maybe convenience stores should be required to hire additional security, as the city has required of late-night clubs.
Oh, by the way: The proposal was amended so that the store won’t stay open all night. It will close at midnight and reopen at 5 a.m.
Why even have a city planning staff? Hell, why have a city board. Just send stuff over to Fortson’s pals at the chamber for a rubber stamp.