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On the cover of today's Perspective section you'll find a story about the transformation of North Little Rock, especially its downtown and areas along the Arkansas River. The place Little Rock residents once derisively dismissed as Dogtown is-- shall we dare say it?--becoming hip. Meanwhile, some view the big brother on the other side of the river as stagnant. Indeed, job growth has been slow for the past decade, but a number of important pieces have come together in downtown Little Rock.

If Little Rock is to grow in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it must have a downtown that's viewed by talented young people as one of the best neighborhoods to live and work in the South. We're talking about folks who like to ride their bikes or walk to work and the places they hang out after work. Here's the thing: Downtown Little Rock is closer to achieving that wow factor--we're talking the kinds of amenities that draw entrepreneurs to cities such as Austin and Nashville--than most Arkansans realize. I guess that's why I find the things that are keeping downtown from really taking off so frustrating.

Let's start with the positives:

• The Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International gave new life to the other side of Interstate 30. In recent years, the Lost Forty and Rebel Kettle brew pubs have come along. Now Cromwell Architects Engineers is putting its headquarters in what once was a paint factory. Loft apartments and restaurants are part of the mix. And eStem Public Charter Schools is transforming a 112,000-square-foot warehouse into a second campus for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade. The school eventually will serve 1,300 students.

• The River Market District has grown up. It has the variety of restaurants, bars and live music venues needed to be a true entertainment district. Thanks to visionaries such as Bobby Roberts, who headed the Central Arkansas Library System before retiring in 2016, there's also a cultural aspect to the district. CALS developed a campus consisting of the main library in the old Fones Brothers hardware warehouse, the Cox Creative Center, what's now the Bobby Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art and the Ron Robinson Theater. Add to that mix the Museum of Discovery and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center.

• Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker are still hard at work. They had a vision of what downtown could be when no one else did. They continue to build the residential projects that are necessary to make downtown a 24-hour neighborhood.

• Dr. Dean Kumpuris is also still hard at work. This longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors has treated Riverfront Park as if it were his front yard. He has seen to it that the park now includes everything from sculpture gardens to splash pads. You can find Kumpuris working in the park every Saturday.

• Warren Stephens is still ensuring that the Capital Hotel is ranked among the finest hotels in America. The hotel, its restaurant One Eleven, and its Capital Bar & Grill have the feel of something you would find in a city much larger than Little Rock.

• Development has now expanded to areas other than Markham Street/Clinton Avenue and is headed south on Main Street. There will soon be six restaurants operating on the 300 block alone. Further south, Anita Davis, the godmother of the South Main District, remains dedicated to her Esse Purse Museum and additional projects. What's known as SOMA is becoming one of the funkiest, most ecletic stretches of street in the state.

• The $70.5 million renovation of downtown's Robinson Auditorium was an unqualified success. What's now known as the Robinson Performance Hall is at least equal to what can be found in other cities the size of Little Rock and superior to most. An adjoining conference facility overlooking the Arkansas River can accommodate 530 people.

• The Arkansas Arts Center is about to embark on a $70 million renovation. More than $1 million in work is also being performed on the adjacent MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. Those projects should make the MacArthur Park neighborhood more of a draw for new residents.

• The early success of the Little Rock Technology Park bodes well for the future. The 38,000-square-foot incubator on Main Street connects three existing properties. The park's board is planning Phase 2, which will consist of construction on what's now a parking lot between the current complex and the KATV, Channel 7, studios. The new facility will include labs for research.

The puzzle is coming together in downtown Little Rock. Here are the pieces needed to complete that puzzle:

• An expanded police presence. The shootings last summer at the Power Ultra Lounge gave downtown a black eye that will take time to heal. Aggressive panhandling is a problem. If Little Rock is to grow in the next decade, downtown will have to be the goose that lays the golden egg. Want to kill the goose? Refuse to put those foot patrols on the streets, let the problems continue to fester, and watch momentum cease.

• The renovation of the Boyle Building at the crucial intersection of Capitol and Main. We're coming up on four years since the Chi family of Little Rock announced plans to renovate the building. Nothing has happened, and the condition of the structure continues to deteriorate. Everyone I speak to about downtown Little Rock says that the perception of downtown as a place that hasn't fully taken off won't change until something happens with this building. In a comment on my Facebook page, Jacob Chi said: "There are active plans for the Boyle Building, and they are being continuously developed."

• Other projects on Main Street moving forward sooner rather than later. These include the planned transformation of the Donaghey Building into apartments and a renovation of the aforementioned KATV building, which has become an eyesore. KATV's corporate parent, Sinclair, must decide whether to sell the building or renovate it. The status quo is unacceptable.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 03/11/2018

Print Headline: Completing the puzzle

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  • RBear
    March 11, 2018 at 7:33 a.m.

    Agree with your points, Rex. After watching the transformation of downtown San Antonio and Austin from nominal urban districts inhabited by office workers during the day and tourists at night, it's great to see both become true urban centers that are attracting residents to live/work/play in the area.
    Little Rock is laying foundations that will reap great benefits in the urban core. A few other things I've noticed are the transit hub at Rock Street allowing downtown to be connected via transit to other areas of the city, the completion of the River Trail in the area of Dillard's offices, and connectivity to NLR (it doesn't need to be a competition and should be more cooperative).
    The challenge has been leadership in helping drive innovation. Kumpuris has been almost the lone advocate on the BoD with the mayor all but absent in the discussion. I've already made my views known about the need for new leadership, but no need to continue that here. The reason I bring this up is that both Austin and San Antonio grew under the leadership of strong mayors. Austin with the trio of Will Wynn, Lee Leffingwell, and now Steve Adler. San Antonio with Julian Castro (Decade of Downtown) and now Ron Nirenberg. All of these men saw the need to rebuild the urban core for a variety of reasons. A strong city has a strong downtown.
    But here is my list of challenges. Transit needs drastic improvement downtown. The hub is not enough. The street car is more a novelty than a true urban connector. A design review commission that understands urban growth rather than stifling any growth because of personal agendas. Too many projects were rejected for what I would see as small aesthetic differences of opinion rather than a true strategy.
    Finally, an urban plan is completely missing. The ReLocal plan is good for helping with infill development, but it's more a framework than a plan. The Creative Corridor plan is focused on one small area and not the urban core. It's time for an urban plan that addresses a lot of what you describe and other issues. It needs to be designed to help knit downtown together while there is opportunity. This should be a priority of the new mayor, along with other things.

  • ArkieStrong
    March 12, 2018 at 4:18 a.m.

    I think these observations are right on target. Having witnessed the transformation of downtown Little Rock from a daytime-only neighborhood, to a day-night destination, I am truly amazed at how far it has come. A mix of housing, employers, entertainment, and transit (emphasis) are key to continuing that growth.

  • adibabdullah80gmailcom
    March 12, 2018 at 7:17 a.m.

    I travel alot around America and i noticed the same things as well. Im glad NLR has finally decided to start move Argenta towards more of an Urban center . Its also time for LR to slowly start building its downtown, upwards. The Skyline as been the same for a while now and definitely needs a refresher. Nashville is the perfect example for LR to study and grab idea's from.