GONE AND SOON FORGOTTEN: These historic structures have already been razed, but planning commissioners are holding up bilionaire Warren Stephens’ plan to turn the cleared land into a surface parking lot.

Noel Oman reports rare good news in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning — members of the Little Rock Planning Commission are objecting to the creation of still more surface parking in downtown Little Rock.

Significantly, the objections are delaying the creation of more surface parking at Second and Louisiana to accommodate workers in billionaire Warren Stephens‘ skyscraper across the street. Pushback against the Stephens? It doesn’t happen often.

Opponents include Planning Commissioner Craig Berry:

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“We have right now, if you look right now at the empty parking spots — surface and parking decks — in the 100 and 200 blocks of Scott and Main and now Louisiana,” he said at a commission meeting Thursday. “And to me, I would think you’re cannibalizing the principle of what we’re supposed to be doing downtown. That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing downtown.”

 

While parking lots provide convenience, they offer little in the way of developing downtown as a vibrant part of the city, he said.

 

“It’s not a mystery that when you have parking lots and parking decks in downtown you have dead space,” Berry said. “There’s no street activity. There’s no level of interest. No one hangs out and chats around a dark parking lot at night.

 

“I know there’s a convenience and expedience to that, but I’m very concerned that not much care and aforethought has been brought into this.”

San Francisco and Manhattan don’t have acres of surface parking. They do have great mass transit. They do have concentrated populations of people who live, shop and work in downtown areas. The streets are lively day and night. People REALLY want to live there.

In Little Rock, we prefer to create acres of concrete and asphalt as close as possible to the doors of workplaces so that workers may dash into cars and commute home to their suburban homes. If there’s a few minutes of delay in the afternoon rush hour to get home to Bryant or Cabot, not to worry. The Arkansas Department of Transportation will spend $1 billion to widen the freeway so people may flee the concrete wasteland faster. We give Little Rock taxpayer subsidies to pay the salaries of suits at the chamber of commerce who tout “regional” development that builds communities 50 miles from Little Rock. The residents may work here, but they leave precious few dollars here in either taxes or retail spending.

Sadly, the city’s so-called planning staff thinks you can’t have enough asphalt. Catch this:

The city planning staff had endorsed the proposed parking lot. A staff analysis that concluded it was an “appropriate use for the property” noted that it was in an area of the city that contained several surface parking lots and thus “should be compatible with surrounding uses.”

This is a self-fulfilling vision of a wasteland downtown. If a billionaire can spend millions to raze a cluster of historic buildings that create density that harkens back to downtown’s heyday as a living, breathing neighborhood, great. That then justifies still more razing next door. Go to the library sometime and pull out some city directories from the 1940s and 1950s and read about the many storefronts that once occupied the concrete parking lots of downtown Little Rock. What few historic structures that remain can be gone as fast as this particular parcel was razed and the city staff will surely say of more parking lot conversions: “Compatible!”

Leslie Newell Peacock described what was lost in the latest demolition for Stephens building parking.

What’s the final chapter of the story? Should the Planning Commission actually block the parking lot, the billionaire owner may appeal to the Little Rock City Board, where electoral realities generally favor the wealthy. Would a majority say no to Warren Stephens, who’s already spent almost $5 million to demolish the buildings for 100 parking spaces ($50,000 per space, BTW)? I predict it won’t be a cliffhanger.

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