I was gratified to hear from at least a few people who can’t figure — apart from the obvious — why the Little Rock City Board has on its agenda tonight a proposal to buy land appraised at $2.3 million from the billionaire Warren Stephens for $4.37-plus million. (The full price isn’t yet known.)

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There were some complaints about the continued parking-lot-ization of downtown Little Rock and the destruction of high-density development that makes some other city cores vibrant places.

Others simply can’t understand why the city of Little Rock is helping Stephens out of a bad investment. He purchased a half-block of historic, occupied buildings then razed them, over some objections from city planners, to expand parking for tenants in his high-rise across the street. The city says it wants to help the Marriott Hotel, locked out of a parking deck designed and connected to it by skywalk years ago after the Stephens empire bought the skyscraper next door that was built by the hotel’s developer. (I remain to be convinced that significant time will be saved schlepping cars back and forth to a new 600-slot deck a block from the hotel entrance, versus the easy-to-use half-block of surface parking now used by the hotel about two blocks away.)

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Sample comment from a real estate industry professional:

I am still amazed how the City is justifying the price for the Stephenses’ parking deck land.  As you pointed out the taxpayers are paying Mr. Stephens the value as if the buildings were still on the property – they are not – we should be paying the assessor’s value.  We are bailing out Mr. Stephens from a bad investment. Would he pay a client for his loss if they bought stock from his firm and the price went down? NO. For a self-proclaimed free-market capitalist this is anything but a free market deal, more of a socialist transaction — a system that the seller greatly dislikes.  It is all about ego.  Mr. Stephens can’t sell the property to the City for $2.3M when he paid $4.37 million, he would look like a foolish investor especially in his hometown so unload it to an unsophisticated buyer – the city.  Stephens witnesses first-hand the declining LR economics in the operation of his Capital Hotel.

The Stephens empire typically gets what it wants and tonight is unlikely to be an exception. I hope somebody tonight will at least get the final cost to the city, which the city manager has said includes Stephens’ price plus cost of razing the buildings, plus bond counsel fees, plus the interest on the bonds that will be sold to pay for the deck. I’d like to see an analysis of income on the deck (the city’s experience with decks hasn’t been so hot over the years). I’d like to know if the public will be allowed to park there or only the hotel and Stephens Inc. and what the rates for the favored parking space renters will be. Stephens’ tenants alone are allowed in the former hotel parking deck. Also, how did the city arrive at the selling price? Was the property appraised? Or is it merely paying what Stephens demands? The current city administration touts its transparency. Let’s have some.

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And here’s a suggestion if this deal does go down: How about asking Mr. Stephens, who effectively controls the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, to chip in a little of his parking lot windfall to the deferred maintenance of the Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion? That historic home fell into ruin under the arts museum’s management and the private museum foundation he also effectively controls has washed its hands of it, leaving the city holding a very leaky bag.

 

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RAZED: Google Street View captured the buildings that once lined 2nd Street when a Stephens subsidiary purchased a half block for $4.37 million and then cleared it for a parking lot. The  assessor now values the property at $2.3 million. The city is prepared to pay almost double that to build a parking deck for Stephens and the Marriott Hotel.

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And speaking of Little Rock’s worship of the car over people-friendly downtown development, I got an email from downtown resident Tony Curtis, still burning over the city’s approval of demolition of buildings along Seventh Street to allow development of a Chick-fil-A that will dump untold numbers of cars onto Broadway, already a fast food-fueled nightmare. He provided photos of how downtown Little Rock looked in 1960 and in 2018. Behold all the places buildings once stood, now replaced by asphalt and parking decks, many used by people who flee to suburbs every evening. (And it’s worse in 2022 than it was in 2018.) Curtis also provided an article from Santa Barbara where city officials are talking about declaring Chick-fil-A a public nuisance because of the traffic backups it causes. Curtis fears similar problems when the new chicken drive-through opens.

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