That bomb you heard going off around noon at the Lafayette Building at Louisiana and Sixth Street was dropped by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, in the form of a proposed and its neighbors. The proposed district was greeted with such animus from property owners at a meeting called by the partnership that DOD committee head and architect Tom Adams pulled his coat up over his head at its conclusion (it was in jest, but apt).
The DOD ordinance, written by members of the Main Street Revitalization committee and the City of Little Rock, would put in place restrictions on renovated and new construction in an area bounded by Markham on the north, Interstate 630 on the south, Center Street on the west and Cumberland on the east, with the exception of a jog over to Scott Street at Ninth to avoid the MacArthur Park Historic District. It would impose rules on facade design, sidewalk and lighting schemes, streetlights, plantings and encourage preservation of historic features. The restriction that is the main concern of one major future occupant of downtown — the Little Rock Technology Park — is one that would prohibit skywalks, which the tech park believes it needs to create coherence between the buildings it wishes to buy and build.
David Knight, general counsel to Stephens Inc., which he described as one of the largest property holders downtown, told city planner Brian Minyard, who presented the DOD proposal, that the overlay district would have prevented Stephens from demolishing the historic buildings on the west side of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth in 2009 and thus Stephens would not have renovated the early 20th century Exchange Building across the street, now called 5 Main Place. Knight presented Stephens’ decision to demolish the buildings as addressing a health hazard: He said the buildings, including the 1916 Kempner Building, had six feet of water in their basements and toxic mold, lead and asbestos on the main floors.
It was, of course, the horror over the demolition of that block of buildings that prompted the design overlay discussion in the first place.
Which leads to this question: Had the DOD — which theoretically could have halted the destruction of the buildings with its requirement that “deteriorated historic features should be repaired rather than replaced” — been in place, would the city really have stood in front of a bulldozer manned by Warren Stephens, one of the world’s richest men? And if not, wasn’t today’s debate merely academic?
Knight also called the proposal as “the worst idea we’ve seen since the bike lane on Louisiana,” which drew a lot of laughs.
But not everyone is Warren Stephens. Page Wilson of Paul Page Dwellings, known for distinctive and modern residential designs, said the DOD “would scare me a lot as someone trying to build a new building.” He noted that downtown is a commercial district and that the overlay could discourage commerce. He suggested that all rules on new construction be stricken. John Flake, a real estate developer, said he totally disagreed with Minyard’s earlier observation that design-controlled historic districts saw property values rise as much as 25 percent, saying rather that “It will degrade values.” Jay Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Technology Park Authority board, expressed surprise that the board of “one of the largest” potential property owners was never contacted or asked to weigh in on the DOD. “I don’t see that this is compatible with what we’re trying to do,” which is to buy several properties — including 5 Main Place and the parking lot across Main — to attract nanotech and biotech business development, Chesshir said. “It will create a situation where I’m not sure if the tech park could comply.”
Dickson Flake, also a member of the park Authority, was indignant that the DOD seems to ignore the needs of the tech park, prerequisites spelled out at public meetings. “Sharon, you were at these meetings,” Flake said to DLRP director Sharon Priest. “No one gave us any hint [the DOD was being planned] … though this would make the site not compliant” and said it displayed bad faith.
The tech park board members have a point. Priest and Mayor Stodola lobbied the tech park board vigorously to locate downtown rather than near its university sponsors, UALR and UAMS, saying it would be a boon to the city’s economy and sweetening the pot with the suggestions that the city would provide transportation from the universities to the park — something that Stodola seemed to back off of at the last meeting of the board. The skywalks have come up in several Authority meetings, though in friendly and vague banter, with board chair Dr. Mary Good reminding Priest that it considers connectivity between buildings non-negotiable and Priest shaking her head.
The least hot head, though one with “the most skin in the game,” as he said, was Jacob Chi, who is developing the 1909 Boyle Building at the southwest corner of Fifth and Main as an Aloft Hotel. Chi asked Minyard who decided which features from which time period are considered “historic” (the Arkansas Department of Arkansas Heritage, Minyard replied) and noted that the process to claim historic tax credits with its renovation is “more than enough stuff we have to go through.” However, Chi said he would support a DOD restricted to Main Street only. After the meeting, Chi said he was a supporter of the Downtown Partnership and characterized the overlay proposal as just a “first step” that “deserved a bit of compromise.” Chi also said that while Aloft Hotels are known for their modern design, that over a dozen have been built in historic neighborhoods and meshed well.
Also speaking against the DOD was a representative of the Catholic Diocese, which owns property in the proposed district, a business owner on Capitol Avenue who did not want her hands tied when it came to streetscaping and another business owner concerned that if he renovates, he loses his right to grandfathered-in parking. Vanessa McKuin, director of the Historic Preservation Alliance, said the overlay was similar to one that guides the River Market district development and was not as restrictive as people feared. Downtown activist Kathy Wells also said the plan “has a lot in common with what Deltic Timber had in mind for Chenal,” and said she was “pretty sure” that the Promenade shopping center had several building restrictions.
Minyard urged people to write down their objections and suggestions and provide them to the committee. The board of the Downtown Partnership will weigh in before the DOD goes to the city for review.