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OPINION | EDITORIAL: So go downtown!

Listen to the music of the traffic in the city . . . . June 22, 2022 at 3:39 a.m.

We can't keep Petula Clark out of our heads on this one.

Little Rock's elected leaders should take Carol Worley's advice and prioritize the "re-revitalization" of the city's central business district.

The paper tells us that Carol Worley, the local attorney who serves as board president for the nonprofit Downtown Little Rock Partnership (DLRP), sent a letter June 6 to the city's board of directors warning that much of downtown had fallen into a "state of disrepair."

Efforts to maintain positive pre-covid momentum were stifled by the pandemic, she wrote. So why not use that American Rescue Plan money the way it was meant to be used--on just this kind of infrastructure?

With news in recent days that two of the city's iconic office buildings have new owners with new plans for investment, and that the state's first planned dental and veterinary schools will be located in downtown Little Rock, perhaps momentum is swinging back to the positive. And back into downtown Little Rock.

As city board members consider how to use what remains of the $37 million in federal funds awarded to the city as part of last year's covid-relief stimulus package, Carol Worley is asking for a cool million for downtown. And why not?

Two plans have been submitted for allocation of the federal money. One would set aside $500,000 for a new master plan and downtown capital needs and require DLRP to raise private money for any remaining master-plan costs. Another from City Director Doris Wright would allocate $1.5 million from the stimulus package to downtown needs.

Carol Worley believes any new master plan should start at "eye level"--broken streetlights and signs, more trash receptacles, potholes . . . the basics.

"The struggle to regain our pre-2020 status is real," she wrote. "This funding was given to the city to help make a difference in areas of need. Let's take this opportunity to use this money as intended and give the urban core of our capital city the attention it deserves."

A properly funded new master plan would be a good place to start.

From where we sit in downtown Little Rock, the view due west up Capitol Avenue is a sight to behold. The Arkansas State Capitol frames a majestic shot, a tree-lined path cut through the heart of the capital city's traditional Central Business District and deposited at the front steps of the state's symbolic beating heart.

As Rex Nelson wrote in April, Capitol Avenue should be the state's grandest urban boulevard. And at one time, it was. Little Rockers of a certain age will remember Capitol Avenue teeming with businesses and foot traffic, shops and restaurants lining its corridor. It was a fitting tribute to the grand edifice overlooking "downtown Arkansas."

That designation, of course, began to shift westward in the latter half of the 20th century. When new-fangled things called malls opened in what is now considered Little Rock's Midtown, the shift was on.

And until the River Market opened for the better in the 1990s--followed by the Main Street corridors and East Village in the ensuing two decades--Little Rock's downtown looked more ghost town after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

Once covid-shuttered businesses sent workers home, it felt like parts of it were reverting to those post-suburban, pre-River Market days. Being so dependent on out-of-town visitors, conventioneers and office workers is an inherent disadvantage for all downtowns.

Notwithstanding the River Market and other areas adjacent to the core CBD, downtown Little Rock languishes behind other areas of the city when it comes to covid recovery. It won't be able to fully recover until the city makes a real commitment to enable it.

So, here comes a new path forward in a new master plan, as Worley suggests. The most recent update to the city master plan regarding downtown was made in the early '90s when Ottenheimer Hall launched the River Market.

Starting with the basics is never a bad idea. Better and more street lighting for increased safety, more trash cans to help control litter, fewer potholes, and perhaps more security to keep aggressive panhandlers from chasing us to our cars... . Although we did sight two police officers on bikes the other day, tooling around Capitol and Scott. May their tribe increase.

Believe it or not, few things register in visitors more harshly than potholes. Ask anyone who's visited Uptown New Orleans recently. And of course, finishing the I-30 project as quickly as possible will go a long way towards attracting locals back downtown (not to mention lowering the blood pressure of drivers passing through).

Worley's vision of this new path forward includes rethinking land use downtown, and in the spirit of post-covid trends, creating hybrid spaces to live and work: "Something that will show us creative re-purposing of existing buildings so that they will be functional and accommodating for all types of workers and employers."

Developers say they're planning more mixed-use space for the recently purchased Regions Bank and Bank of America buildings on Capitol--and promise things that will bring folks back downtown. Lyon College's purchase of the Heifer building will infuse an educational element that's been missing from downtown, and maybe even lead to a growing segment of downtown residents.

There's never a better time than the present to get started. City board members also should consider the advice of director Dean Kumpuris and remember downtown as they determine how to allocate this year's round of covid-relief funds.

Print Headline: So go downtown!


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