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Symphony Main Street-bound

By Claudia Lauer , Jack Weatherly

This article was published January 29, 2013 at 12:59 a.m.

— The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has signed a lease to move its headquarters and practice space to Main Street in Little Rock, symphony officials confirmed Monday.

The lease, which includes about 12,500 square feet in the MM Cohn and Annex buildings in the 500 block of Main Street, marks the first new investment by an arts organization since the city unveiled its plan for an arts corridor along Main Street in September. The corridor is already anchored by the Arkansas Repertory Theater, which has operated from its location at Sixth and Main streets for decades.

“We’ve been working on that for a long time, and I’m glad to see it come to pass,” said Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. “Having the ability to get synergy of the arts community down there is very exciting, and the key to that was getting the symphony to commit to moving its headquarters.”

Christina Littlejohn, the symphony’s executive director, said the organization signed the lease late last week with Scott Reed, one of three partners in Main Street Lofts LLC, for part of the first floor of the MM Cohn Building and part of the first floor of the adjacent Annex building, both in the middle of the west side of the block.

The move will double the symphony’s current 6,000-square-foot space at its rented facility at the Saint John Catholic Center at 2417 North Tyler St.

“We were working off a year-to-year lease in our current space and we were looking for alternatives in case we needed it,” Littlejohn said. “We’re excited to be so close to The Rep, and part of the corridor plan. We definitely wanted to make sure we were a part of that. It’s a way that we can become more connected to the community and more relevant to residents.”

The move will also bring the symphony’s complete operation back downtown for the first time in more than 20 years. The group formerly occupied a building on East Sixth Street in the Quapaw Quarter before moving to North Tyler Street.

The full orchestra now practices at the Robinson Center Music Hall at Markham Street and Broadway, but city officials have plans to close portions of the music hall for major renovations scheduled to start in the summer of 2014 and lasting through late 2016.

“Currently, we know we’re using the space for our youth orchestra, but we’re not sure where we’re going to be performing with what’s planned for Robinson,” Littlejohn said. “If we find a space where there’s only enough time to do a few rehearsals before the performance, then yes, it’s a possibility we could utilize the space on Main Street.Right now, I know our plan is to try to have brown bag lunch performances with the string quartet and the youth orchestra practices and individual lessons, which some of our musicians offer.”

Littlejohn said the real estate developers offered the symphony a deal on rent where the group will pay about the same price it pays now at Saint John for double the space for the first three years of the lease. She could not confirm the exact amount of the rental agreement because she was traveling Monday and the paperwork was in her Little Rock office.

Little Rock officials and developers invested in the corridor are hoping to parlay the investment from arts organizations into a larger revitalization effort that will bring a renewed population of urban dwellers interested in leasing downtown apartments and lofts and putting their businesses in buildings downtown.

The corridor concept plan, the result of a year-long process between the city and well-known architects from the University of Arkansas’ School of Architecture, was funded by a $150,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The plan includes portions of the 300, 400, 500 and 600 blocks of Main Street.

Several major redevelopment announcements in the past few months will tie into the development of the arts corridor, including the announcement in August that Main Street Lofts LLC had purchased four prominent downtown buildings on the 500 block of Main Street - the Boyle Building, the MM Cohn Building, the Arkansas Building and the Annex Building.

“The symphony is a very important part of our development plan,” said Reed, the Main Street Lofts partner.

The partnership’s plans for the rest of the block are coming together, Reed said.

The symphony will have a “very important” commercial neighbor that will be announced in the next few months, Reed said, but he would not confirm that the neighbor will be a hotel in the 12-story Boyle Building on the north end of the 500 block of Main Street.

Reed said only that an agreement that is “a lot more solid than an option” has been reached for the Boyle property, which is the largest of the four buildings on the block.

However, Reed, whose business is Portland, Ore.-based Reed Realty Advisors, did discuss specifics Monday about the symphony’s plan for the space, including the main entrance being built into the MM Cohn building.

Passers-by will be able to catch a glimpse of the orchestra at work in the rehearsal hall, which will be in the Annex Building. The 3,350-square-foot rehearsal space, with its 17-foot ceiling, also will have a library and small breakout rooms for individual and small-group rehearsal.

A 50-by-33-foot lobby dominates the first floor of the MM Cohn building, Reed said.

“It’s almost like West Coast technology space in that it’s big and it’s open and it has high ceilings and it has a lot of collaborative area. You can have informal meetings.”

It allows for what Reed called “elbow collaboration, where you’re working and bumping into these folks and having these conversations.”

He said he sees it as a microcosm of the Main Street arts corridor envisioned by the city.

The partnership is in the final stages of a construction loan that will carry the project through the renovation of the symphony’s space and the first 34 loft apartments, Reed said.

Meanwhile, the city has applied for a second grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help refine some of the details of the original plan, from choosing street lighting to engineering the streetscape, although the developer for the specific blocks will have to be involved in the planning.

“Once they have one good tenant in there, it makes it easier to get other tenants signed up,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.

Robert Hupp, producing artistic director of The Arkansas Repertory Theater, said he hopes other arts organizations will follow the symphony’s lead.

“Both artistically and economically, this is a great new development for downtown Little Rock and for Little Rock as a whole,” he said.

“We’re hopeful that the symphony’s arrival on Main Street is the tipping point we need in order to see change on Main Street. For the first time in my 14 years of being on Main Street there’s activity, development and construction going on, and I feel optimistic that this is all going to happen.”

Representatives from the developers, the city and the various economic development organizations have mentioned the possibility of recruiting portions of the operations at the Museum School at the Arkansas Arts Center and Ballet Arkansas to also make their homes on Main Street.

Lauren Strother, executive director of Ballet Arkansas, confirmed Monday that she’s been part of several conversations about the corridor.

“It’s not a move that’s going to happen right now for us, but it is a conversation that’s been happening over the past year,” she said.

“It would be great for us to be down there with The Rep and the symphony, but in terms of our budget and the space allotment they can provide at this time... it’s not something we can do right now.”

If the ballet were to move, Strother said, the space would have to include room to consolidate all of its operations, including the costume shop, storage space, the office area and expanded studio space with “very high ceilings.”

Front Section, Pages 1 on 01/29/2013

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