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OPINION | REX NELSON: Needed infill development

by Rex Nelson | July 13, 2022 at 3:48 a.m.

I've been writing about Lyon College's ambitious plans to open the state's first dental and veterinary schools in downtown Little Rock. That initiative is a perfect example of infill development--the expenditure of private and public capital in the middle of a city rather than on its fringes.

The state's largest city has long been beset by a lack of investment in existing properties as opposed to a steady march west along Arkansas 10 and Chenal Parkway. In recent months, however, there have been announcements that bode well for even more infill investment.

Two of the state's three tallest buildings have languished in a series of lawsuits and bankruptcy filings. Suddenly, the ownership picture for the Regions Center and Bank of America Plaza has cleared up, an unexpected development that has downtown advocates giddy. They see investments in the two buildings leading to additional development along Capitol Avenue.

First, a deep-pocketed hedge fund from New York known as Taconic Capital Advisors announced that it has purchased the Regions Center. My real estate sources say Taconic will invest at least $20 million in the building, perhaps even turning the former bank lobby into a fine-dining venue. Taconic has almost $8 billion in assets under management and a solid track record with its real estate division.

Regions Center has been tied up in bankruptcy proceedings since 2016 and was listed for sale by the trustee for the case last fall. Taconic hired the highly respected CBRE firm to lease and manage the building. A Taconic news release described the purchase as "a vote of confidence in the future" of downtown Little Rock.

Taconic's Alex Fleming called it "an extremely rare opportunity to own what can easily be the best building in the market with the right attention and strategic investment into the building. Our goal is to do just that--be the premium space offering with the most attentive level of customer service to our tenants. We're ready to hit the ground running."

Just down the street, First Security Bank took control of Bank of America Plaza and then sold it to apartment developer Keith Richardson. The developer says he plans to keep commercial clients in the building for now, but promises millions of dollars in immediate upgrades. One industry insider described Richardson as "capable and well-capitalized."

Meanwhile, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has appointed a committee to focus on the revival of Capitol Avenue. A report from property management firm Colliers of Arkansas sounded an optimistic note about downtown. It said the neighborhood could soon benefit from "planned mixed-use redevelopments as well as downtown beautification projects that could help promote walkability, community and ultimately more destination areas. Building improvements are still expensive, but there's growing momentum to revitalize the area."

In 1967, Worthen Bank announced it would build an 18-story headquarters. Worthen had spent decades at 401 Main St. in a two-story structure designed by prominent architect George Mann and constructed in 1928. That building was acquired in 1969 by KATV, Channel 7. After Union National Bank announced plans for a 22-story building, Worthen officials decided to make their new building the tallest in the state.

Worthen officials waited until the last piece of structural steel was added to the Union facility and then announced they would build a 24-story structure. That building, designed by architect Noland Blass, is now Bank of America Plaza. It was the tallest building in the state from its completion in 1969 until what's now Regions Center opened in 1975 as the First National Bank Building.

First National's 30-story tower was the tallest building in Arkansas from July 1975 until what's now the 40-story Simmons Bank Tower opened across the street in 1986. First National cost $23 million and was built by Pickens-Bond Construction Co.

Infill announcements downtown have been matched by news of shopping center rehabs. I wrote recently about plans to rehabilitate Breckenridge Village. The ownership group includes the Keet family of Little Rock (among the state's top restaurant developers) and the Kelley Group, a commercial real estate firm.

Jim Keet says the partners "intend to bring back the glory days of Breckenridge and revitalize it with a diverse combination of restaurants and retail spaces. At least four restaurants with various cuisines will be part of the plan."

Within weeks of that news, it was announced that Riverdale Shopping Center in Little Rock has been sold for $16 million to a group led by T.J. Lefler of Lefler Capital in Fayetteville. Business partner Travis Hester will put one of his Eat My Catfish restaurants in the center. Developers also plan to transform the 66,000-square-foot former Walmart Neighborhood Market, which is now the temporary home of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

The complex, which replaced a drive-in movie theater, was built as Razorback Square Shopping Center in 1983. Anchor clients such as the Riverdale 10 movie theaters, Whole Hog Cafe and Ace Hardware are expected to remain open while millions of dollars in improvements are made to the 17.6-acre property.

A dental school, a veterinary school, rehabilitation of the Regions Center and Bank of America Plaza, revitalization of Breckenridge Village and Riverdale Shopping Center--the list of infill development projects is adding up. It's a trend that bodes well for the future of the capital city.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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