A design competition for a prime piece of Little Rock real estate received 21 submissions promoting visions from climbing walls to water canals for what may become one of downtown's newest parks.
The contest challenged students, design professionals and the general public to submit ideas for the redevelopment of a roughly 20-acre space freed by the 30 Crossing project, an ongoing Arkansas Department of Transportation project to expand and overhaul the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.
"This is a really once [in] a lifetime opportunity to make our downtown pedestrian friendly and give it back to the people," said Chris East, chairman of studioMAIN, the local nonprofit that hosted the competition.
While studioMAIN granted awards to contestants earlier this month, East stressed that the competition was only intended to solicit ideas for the space. As of yet, there are no firm plans for redeveloping the site, which includes a corridor along Second Street and rectangular lots on either side and beneath I-30.
Funding and land use constraints may limit what the Little Rock is able to do with the site.
Many of the designs submitted for the competition could cost millions of dollars to realize and, while the city is expected to submit redevelopment plans, the Arkansas Department of Transportation will likely retain ownership of the land, according to Leland Couch, director of the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.
But Couch, who helped judge submissions for the studioMAIN contest, smiled when he spoke of the designs the nonprofit received.
"With my background being in design, I loved seeing different ideas that are big and bold," he said.
Since at least 2014, organizers with studioMAIN have advocated for removing the on- and off-ramps that occupied the site.
"And lo and behold, ARDOT decided that they were going to remove [the ramps] and design I-30 going downtown to be more dense, to be more urban," East said.
In March, studioMAIN announced the design competition and challenged contestants to "consider connections to all the cultural, business and residential areas adjacent to the site," according to a release from the nonprofit. The property is within walking distance of the Clinton Presidential Center, the River Market, the Arkansas River Trail and other downtown Little Rock landmarks.
The nonprofit saw 88 groups and individuals register for the competition with 21 submitting final designs. For East, one of the most exciting parts of the contest was receiving entries from locals.
"That may be more exciting than anything else because then we know it's not just those people that live and breathe design and think about these issues every day, but people who are citizens of our community that care about creating a great, beautiful, well-designed downtown," East said.
Kwadi Higgins, a Little Rock native who grew up playing in the city's parks and green spaces, submitted an award-winning design she felt would offer something to all users.
"When I was in my teenage years, it was harder to play in the areas I used to go to because most of those areas were focused on a younger age range or they didn't provide anything other than a field of grass," said Higgins, who currently lives in California as a software tester.
For inspiration, Higgins drew on parks and green spaces she had visited in other cities. An outdoor space near Conway that features exercise equipment prompted her to include workout machines and pull-up bars in her design. A park in California that allows users to create spray paint art inspired her to add a mural display.
When assembling her vision, Higgins also drew on her personal interests.
"In my free time I explore trails, I skate, I meditate, do yoga, I create art and eat well, attend community events and I wanted to incorporate that into the idea," she said. "My vision included all of these things that have helped me stay healthy mentally and physically."
One portion of her design is paved for skaters and cyclists. Another section features a raised stage for hosting events. Canopies and trees scattered around the site would provide shade for people looking to do yoga or escape the heat. She added hammocks and resting spaces to the site to allow people to relax or take naps.
Higgins made sure her design would be accessible to people with disabilities. Her vision includes inclusive playground equipment, like a merry-go-round that would allow children to sit on or roll onto with a wheelchair.
To realize her plans, Higgins had to learn to use architecture software.
"There was a huge learning curve, but I was able to watch a bunch of YouTube videos and get it done," she said.
Her hard work paid off. Earlier this month, her design won one of the competition's three jury-deliberated awards.
A panel of judges selected winners among designs submitted by professionals, students and members of the public. Higgins won the public award and $750. Taggart Architects, a firm from North Little Rock, won the professional award. The student award went to Ella Reynolds. The student and professional awards each came with $1,500 prizes.
The competition received 18 designs from professionals, one from a student and two from other members of the public, according to East.
The panel of judges included representatives from the city Parks and Recreation Department, the Central Arkansas Library System, Simmons Bank, the Little Rock Downtown Partnership and the University of Arkansas Little Rock.
Organizers had hoped but weren't able to include an elected official from the City of Little Rock and a representative from the Arkansas Department of Transportation on the panel.
"With the judges the intent was to have all major stakeholders involved," East said. "I understand that they didn't want to endorse anything necessarily ... but it sure would have been nice."
For Couch, selecting winners was a difficult process.
"A lot of [the entries] were just really cool, it's hard to say which one is better versus the other," he said.
Organizers with studioMAIN also offered three public choice awards each with a different theme.
For the "Little Rock Placemaking" award, voters selected a design submitted by Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects. The "Establishing Connections" award went to Cromwell Architects Engineers. AMR Architects, a Little Rock-based design firm, won "The Wildcard" award.
An online poll drew 2,050 responses for the selection of these awards, according to East.
While studioMAIN asked contestants to take into account traffic, parking, homelessness and other urban design challenges, East said the nonprofit kept constraints to a minimum to avoid discouraging participants.
"Our intent is to get something moving, something happening there," he said. "By coming up with these ideas we were getting people excited to see something happen with that space. We didn't want to limit our creativity necessarily by adding a multitude of real-world constraints."
For their unconventional award-winning design, AMR Architects took this intent to heart, envisioning a canal running through the site. Along the banks of the waterway, the team pictured multi-use buildings and pedestrian walkways.
James Sullivan, a partner with the firm, recognized that constructing permanent buildings on the site likely won't be feasible while the Arkansas Department of Transportation retains ownership of the land. But his team wanted to use the contest to promote a vision of a dense downtown area and provide an idea of what the space could become if ownership of the land were to change.
"Just roughly from our design that we put together, that's about 2 million square feet of real estate," Sullivan said. "Just imagine if you had that many residents, that many business owners ... just how much more life that would bring to downtown."
By using the space to add businesses and housing to the downtown area, Sullivan noted the project could generate more tax revenue.
For the time being, Little Rock has not settled on plans for the site. Earlier this month, voters renewed a capital-improvement property tax that will furnish the city's Parks and Recreation Department with $24 million. But these funds are slated for existing projects, according to Couch.
"We don't have a book that says the next steps for this area," he said. "For me though, it's working with our board of directors and our management and our other departments... to figure out what's best for this area."
Along the way, Couch said the city would solicit input from residents. He expected the process could take a few years.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation has worked with the city to determine how the site should be graded, said Keli Wylie, alternative project delivery administrator for the department, during a news conference earlier this month.
"It's going seed with grass. We will be planting some trees," she said. "The final product we don't know at this time. We will wait for the City of Little Rock to approach us with a plan."
Details on design competition and submissions received by studioMAIN can be found on the nonprofit's website: http://www.studio-main.org/.