In the last two decades, there’s been an undercurrent of tension that hums along the western expanse of the Cantrell Road/state Highway 10 area from Interstate 430 to Chenal Parkway. It’s a delicate balance between the desires of two very different forces: one that seeks the preservation of the area’s natural beauty and an ideal of residential living, while the other heeds the siren’s call of commercial development dollars. It’s the clashing realities of country and town, with periodic eruptions that are fought in city hall and sometimes in the courtroom.
Thirty years ago, Highway 10 was a ribbon of a road that wound its way west on a scenic course parallel to the Arkansas River, past Pinnacle Mountain, the shores of Lake Maumelle and into Perry County. The two-lane passed the small black community of Pankey, a couple of liquor stores, some trailers and lots of pine trees.
Today, Highway 10 is a principal arterial (the largest road designation below an interstate) for the city to points west. A drive along the corridor offers a variety of views. Great cliffs of stone rise up at sharp angles from the road, covered thickly with trees, which give way to gently rolling hills. Split rail fences along the highway frontage add a country air, as this piece of Arkansas River valley land gives way to the early foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.
On the residential front, there’s a mixture of housing types, from upscale apartments and million-dollar mansions to the occasional ramshackle house with rusted cars parked in the yard.
The first major development in this part of West Little Rock, Pleasant Valley was once part of a horse farm owned by Charles Taylor, who bought the first 90-acre tract near the intersection of Highway 10 and Rodney Parham Road (then called Perryville Loop Road) in 1929. During the next 30 years, Taylor would purchase 52 adjoining parcels, for a total of about 1,200 acres. He sold 1,100 acres to R.A. Lile, Ernest Phillips and Sam Rowland in 1959, and Pleasant Valley Inc. was formed. Future Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller was reportedly an early investor.
The first homes were built in the mid-1960s and the neighborhood was completely developed by the ’70s, for a total of about 1,000 homes. Today, Pleasant Valley boasts large lots with mature hardwood trees, rolling hills populated with pine trees and about 50 acres of dedicated green space. There are two swimming pools, one on Hidden Valley and one on Arkansas Valley; both have been renovated within the last decade. There are also tennis courts and two playgrounds. A small creek that runs along the backyards of homes on Happy Valley Drive provides unstructured play for kids on the block. The Pleasant Valley Property Owners Association is responsible for maintaining the green space and amenities.
Adjacent to the neighborhood is the Pleasant Valley Country Club, a private club with a 27-hole championship golf course.
The original 90-acre parcel that served as the Taylor homestead was later developed into office space that at one time housed Systematics and Alltel, and is now the home of Fidelity Information Systems and the headquarters of Windstream Communications.
Farther west on Highway 10 are the Pleasant Forest and Walton Heights neighborhoods.
These rooftops, especially the ones that cover the well-heeled residents of neighborhoods Chenal Valley and Valley Falls Estates, attracted a variety of commercial developers with plans for office buildings and shopping centers in the early part of the 21st century.
But it’s not just the residential developments that fuel commercial growth. Among the 100,000 square-foot office giants on Highway 10 are a call center for AT&T Wireless; FamilyLife, a part of Campus for Crusade for Christ; and Leisure Arts, the giant publisher of how-to instructional books on needlecrafts and home decor. The three combined employ upwards of 1,000 people, and restaurants, gas stations, banks and retail stores have flocked to the area.
The for sale signs and bulldozers began to change the bucolic nature of the area, to the dismay of some residents and activists who were — and still are — concerned about traffic and destruction of old-growth trees in favor of sterile concrete and glass structures.
Residents overflowed the city board meeting room in 2004 when a Walmart Supercenter was approved at the corner of Highway 10 and Chenal. Despite the city’s requirements for landscaping and a more “upscale” look than the retailer’s usual buildings, neighbors complained the extra traffic (estimated at 3,000-4,000 more cars a day at the time) and the big box nature of the store wasn’t a good fit for the community, which would drive down property values.
It was at about the same time as the Supercenter opening that retail development in the corridor hit full speed, with more than 320,000 square feet of retail and office space built on Highway 10 between 2005 and 2006, not including Lou Schickel’s Pleasant Ridge Town Center, which was another city hall showdown.
The city had approved a planned retail development on a parcel of land Schickel owned at Highway 10 and Pleasant Ridge Road, but in 2003, Schickel began acquiring residential property on the hillside behind the parcel with the intent of building a full-blown lifestyle center, modeled after outdoor centers in Atlanta, instead of just a typical strip center. His goal was to land a major, upscale department store as the main anchor with a major bookstore and a Whole Foods as the secondary anchors. Smaller, upscale national tenants would round out the plan.
The opposition to the rezoning was virulent, with concerns about traffic as the No. 1 objection. After a series of heated planning commission and city board meetings, the revised plan was finally approved. The center opened in 2006 with Parisian and Fresh Market as the anchors. Several national chain restaurants new to Little Rock landed there, while the majority of the smaller tenants relocated from shopping centers in other parts of the city.
Between Pleasant Ridge and Walmart, there are several other nodes of commercial development, most of them roughly 2 miles apart. Between these lie standalone office or residential buildings or undeveloped land. It’s what planners point to in the face of criticism over the area’s development: The master zoning plan is working.
A master zoning plan for the area was adopted by the city in 1986. The master plan created commercial nodes at certain intersections with residential areas and transition zones (land zoned for office or multifamily use) in between the nodes. In 1995, the city approved a design overlay district for the corridor, which outlines landscaping requirements and limits access points on the highway.
The plan was the city’s attempt to stop the “domino effect” seen on Rodney Parham, University and Asher Avenues, where commercial development on these roads forced residents out.
No one can talk about the master plan without mentioning National Home Centers and the time a zoning battle went from city hall to the courtroom.
In 1993, the Little Rock Board of Directors voted 4-2 to rezone 17.7 acres of residential land on Highway 10 for commercial use, a vote that went against the recommendations of city staff and the planning commission. The rezoning effort, spearheaded by David Jones, was to pave the way for a National Home Centers big box store. Three years before, Jones led a successful bid to rezone a parcel of land at Highway 10 and Taylor Loop Road for the Harvest Foods store that later failed. (The Harvest Foods building would be home to an upscale furniture store in the early 2000s, but in early 2012 sat empty as the city considers a proposal by Easter Seals to move its adult training facilities there, a move area residents support.)
Gene Pfeifer, president of OneSource Building and Home centers, along with other opponents of the 1993 rezoning, filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Judge Vann Smith reversed the board’s decision, describing the vote as “spot zoning incompatible with the city’s land-use plan.” The state Supreme Court upheld Smith’s ruling on appeal.
Pfeifer said at the time that had the city succeeded in approving the National Home Center project, “it would have torpedoed the Highway 10 plan.”
Despite assurances from city planners that the master plan works, residents are ever vigilant to any new development proposal in the area. Even as late as September 2011, neighbors were voicing objections to proposed commercial rezoning applications.