A long-time Quapaw Quarter Association leader is defending Historic District Commissioner Jennifer Carman’s ability to speak out against a 50-unit apartment project proposed for a half-block at Ninth and Scott unoccupied for a half-century. Carman, who’s renovated homes downtown and who owns property across the street, has continued to speak up though she’s recused from voting on approval of the project.
Quapaw Quarter Association Board member Cheri Nichols sent an e-mail to others on the Quapaw board (not the commission as I wrote originally) repeating Carman’s defense of her criticism of the project and supporting her right to speak.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter has questioned whether a member of a public board who’s recused from voting on an issue may continue to participate in the debate in or outside of the meeting. That question led to a deferral of consideration of the project this week. Regardless, the project has stout resistance among members of the Historic District Commission despite a number of changes in the project by developers Moses Tucker Real Estate. The commission is a quasi-judicial body. Its decisions are appealable to Circuit Court, but not the City Board of Directors.
Carpenter’s opinion that the commission should make a decision based on the district as a whole, not a neighbor across the street, could have some weight in a legal challenge of an arbitrary commission decision, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Also relevant: Statements on file at city hall from a number of design professionals endorsing the project. Architect Gene Levy, whose family built four houses across the street and who initially argued for a deferral, is now supportive. The Cromwell Firm and StudioMain, the local architecture consortium, have been supportive after alternations in the design.
Chris Bahn of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning on some of Carman’s comments about the project in e-mail she sent to other commissioners and city officials. She praised work by Moses Tucker downtown but said this project was a “giant, block-long monstrosity” that looked like a “glorified dormitory or hospital.” She objected to its “massing and scale.”
It is a 1st Amendment question. Do you give up a right to speak as a recused board member? Propriety suggests it’s not a bad idea even if the law doesn’t require silence. A commission member, even without a vote, could well be viewed by the public as having more influence on long-time colleagues than the public at large. Communicating with other commissioners by e-mail on a pending matter is also, to my understanding, contrary to the state Freedom of Information Act
If I lived in the MacArthur Park neighborhood and, by virtue of long commitment to historic preservation was an appointee to this commission, I might feel more like those on the commission about the matter. But it’s hard from my remove to see how a thoughtfully designed $8 million project (not dissimilar to recently completed and proposed projects along Capitol Avenue) is not a plus on a piece of long derelict ground, within sight of an undistinguished subsidized housing high-rise, a former car dealership garage and the rest of the decidedly varied downtown landscape. More people; more density; more human activity to spur ancillary development; developers whose positive track record is illustrated amply in the River Market neighborhood: These are pluses to my way of thinking.
Here’s Nichols’ e-mail to QQA board members, which includes Carman’s Facebook post defending her continued participation in the debate:
Fellow QQA Board members:
Some of you may have been following in the Democrat-Gazette the controversy that has arisen concerning a development proposal for the 900 block of Scott Street in the MacArthur Park Historic District, Little Rock’s only local-ordinance historic district (which, by the way, exists only because of the QQA’s advocacy efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Among many other aspects of the controversy, the QQA’s representative on the Historic District Commission, Jennifer Carman, has been accused of a violation of the city’s ethics code. Most of you probably don’t know Jennifer, but I do, and I personally can’t think of anyone less likely to be intentionally guilty of an ethics violation.
Understandably, Jennifer feels very strongly about this situation, and this evening she posted the message, below, on Facebook. I am sharing this with you in case sometime in the future the QQA board is asked to make a judgment about Jennifer’s service on the Historic District Commission. My own feeling is that she should be supported, not punished, for speaking up on behalf of her neighborhood.
I have debated all day on whether to say anything about this, but I just cannot resist. I hope that my 1,068 Facebook friends know me well enough to feel certain that I am not the unethical “lobbyist” or callous rule-breaker that today’s remarkably one-sided Democrat Gazette article suggests. At the end of the day, all any of us have is the honor and integrity of our names and our actions, and I wholeheartedly stand behind mine. Just to clarify my perspective: I am pleased to recuse and give up my vote as a commissioner on an issue that could create even a vague appearance of impropriety. HOWEVER, I respectfully reject the city attorney’s opinion that giving up my vote also means giving up my first amendment right as a citizen or property owner to speak up or voice my opinions through the appropriate channels. I received a piece of certified mail (along with the rest of my neighbors on Scott St.) inviting me to comment on a proposed apartment complex. After carefully reviewing the proposal, I prepared a written statement and mailed it to the city staff, the mayor, and the commission. I am willing to sacrifice a lot of time and other pursuits to serve as a volunteer on the Historic District Commission, and I consider it an honor to work within the community to ensure that the MacArthur Park Historic District lives up to its immense potential. However, there is one thing that I will not sacrifice, and that is my voice. I hope that the days and weeks to come will offer some resolution and clarification so that this sort of unfortunate misunderstanding and confusion does not plague any other citizens who wish to serve their city while also maintaining their personal rights and liberties. In voicing my opinion, I was merely attempting to enjoy the same freedoms as my other downtown neighbors. For the record, I have great respect for the work of Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker, and I sincerely hope that there will be a meeting of the minds throughout the community so that their dreams on Scott St. can become a reality that we can all look forward to.