The Best of New Urbanism in Arkansas
HOW CITIES CAN THRIVE AMID AND AFTER THE PANDEMIC
> A TRANSFORMATIVE PARK FOR SPRINGDALE > DOWNTOWN REVITALIZATION IN PINE BLUFF > EMBRACING ‘SLOW STREETS’
Volume 6 | 2020
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BLOCK STREET&BUILDING The Best of New Urbanism in Arkansas
6 Letter from the Arkansas Municipal League 8 Letter from the Editor Features
10 Change the City. Change the Game.
30 Recovery by Design
12 Become a Pro Community and Economic Developer
32 Build Cute, Be Kind
The principles of New Urbanism.
At the UCA Community Development Institute.
14 Setting the Bar Low for Hospitality
A firsthand look at the struggle of independent restaurants amid COVID-19.
16 Arkansas Needs to Attract
How The Natural State can become the Land of Opportunity for new residents.
18 Embracing Experience Design In community master planning.
20 How One Grant can Help Many Families Willow Bend: A case study of shared equity homeownership.
We have to stop prioritizing engineering and code standards over quality of life. Basic principles are often overlooked by developers.
34 Improving Local Food systems Amid the pandemic.
36 Argenta Grows, Endures
Strong foundation helps downtown North Little Rock weather the pandemic.
42 Change the Rules
Remove the automobile from planning prominence.
44 Progress Fuels Optimism for Pine Bluff Comeback
With $40 million in investment downtown.
46 Springdale Focuses on Expanding Central Greenspace
24 The Need for Cities to Address Root
A new vision for Luther George Park.
In this historic moment.
How to move a small town forward.
48 Thinking Strategically in Lonoke
26 Embrace Slow Streets
50 Aiding Development in Little Rock
Give roads back to the people.
28 An Introduction to the ACU
Comprehensive changes to zoning laws will make a difference.
A viable option post-COVID.
ON THE COVER: Outdoor dining in North Little Rockâ€™s Argenta. 4 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
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From the Executive Director of the Arkansas Municipal League
andemic. For years that word meant very little to most of us. We heard periodic references to epidemics, those fast-moving illnesses that spread to individuals in a community or a region. Pandemic, however, was a word used by research scientists and historians. It wasn’t real to us because it hadn’t happened to us. Well, not like COVID-19 has. There was a pandemic in 2009 known as H1N1. Eventually it morphed into the (H1N1)pdm09 virus. It lasted about a year and over 12,000 Americans lost their lives to it. The most famous, or perhaps better said, infamous pandemic occurred in 1918. It was by far the most severe pandemic in recent history. It is often referred to as the Spanish flu. One third of the world’s population became infected and approximately 50 million people died, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the United States. Two more pandemics have occurred in the past 70 years, one in the late 1950s and the other in the late 1960s, both lasting about a year. Respectively they are known as the H2N2 and the H3N2 viruses and they killed a little over 2 million people worldwide and a little over 200,000 in the United States. In comparison, almost 4.7 million of our fellow Americans have contracted COVID-19, and more than 156,000 lives have been lost. Moreover, COVID has struck more than 18.4 million people worldwide and over 696,000 have died. Those statistics are even more frightening considering two factors. One, COVID has only been with us for approximately five months. Two, medical science is at an alltime high for advances and the ability to care for those who are sick. I realize that’s not a very cheery way to open this letter. However, it is important to put into perspective municipal services and products in this very dire time. Cities and towns in Arkansas are on the frontlines of this COVID fight and in most instances those officials had a full-time job before the virus struck. First responders are, well, the first line of defense. Municipal police, firefighters and ambulance personnel see the virus up close and personal every shift. City and town water departments are helping those who lost jobs by allowing partial payments or
deferring payments. Can you imagine our health care system without proper water and sewer systems? City halls must be open for business, so officials have adapted to make their locations sanitary and safe. After all, Arkansans still need building and business permits, they need to put in zoning and planning requests. In other words, the business of being in city business cannot and does not shut down. The same holds true for the League. We’ve implemented mask mandates at League headquarters, allowed telework for most of the staff, gone to four-day work weeks for certain departments and we’re all professionals at virtual meetings. In short, we’ve adapted because the work must still be done. Moreover the League continues to provide top-notch services and products for its membership. Our publications are still some of the best in the country, if not the best. We dedicated a page on our website to COVID-19 information and it includes amongst many other things: the governor’s executive orders and directives, the health department’s directives, updates on federal laws like CARES, HEALS and leave time, and over 20 informational documents created by League staff to address numerous COVID/ municipal issues. What does this mean for Block, Street & Building? It means everything. Cities and towns have adapted to the “new normal” because they had to. More importantly, however, municipal leaders rose to the challenges brought on by COVID and turned them into opportunities. Rather than saying they couldn’t, they said, “We can, and we will.” As a result, economic development can continue, albeit in unique ways, infrastructure continues to be addressed and urban planning is occurring daily. COVID-19 is here to stay until there’s a vaccine. Municipal government is here to stay regardless of what the next new normal brings our way. Cities and towns are the backbone of the basic services needed every day by every Arkansan who lives in a municipality. From parks to planning, from police to water and from zoning to youth programs, municipalities do it all. Great cities do indeed make a great state!
MUNICIPAL LEADERS ROSE TO THE CHALLENGES BROUGHT ON BY COVID AND TURNED THEM INTO OPPORTUNITIES.
Mark R. Hayes Executive Director Arkansas Municipal League 6 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
The Arkansas Municipal League Offers Programs & Services to the Cities & Towns of Arkansas.
Weâ€™re proud to serve these everyday heroes. arml.org
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
MAKE CITIES BETTER FOR EVERYONE
elcome to the sixth annual edition of Block, Street & Building. It has been an honor to return to the magazine after helping to edit the inaugural issue in 2015. For the past five years this magazine has presented the opportunities and challenges — and celebrated the successes of — New Urbanist efforts in this state. But now it’s 2020 and “uncertain times” has already become cliche. I wrestled with what to suggest for this 2020 edition. The primary questions I wanted to explore are about the role of cities. What can cities do to recover? And what does it mean to make a city better? It’s a fact that many of the people in our communities are struggling to thrive. It seems like some of our neighborhoods and districts have always been the way they are now. I get frustrated because it’s not true. We can do things that make places better for the people who live there — quite a lot of things actually. Those solutions and our approach to finding them are the focus of this edition. Cities and the manner in which they are planned and constructed play a role in every aspect of our lives, from our home lives to our work lives and all the spaces in between. For most of us almost all of our memories are made within urban environments. I get frustrated when it seems like we have forgotten that our decisions about design and development can actually make communities better. This isn’t just about the bottom line (but it’s about that, too). This is about keeping life worth living. This edition explores the foundations of the New Urban approach in the context of current events. New Urbanism is concerned with making cities better for everyone. Incorporate this approach in your city’s recovery, and dream bigger. It would be a tragic error to merely respond to current events. If our cities emerge merely stronger, we will have failed. It simply isn’t enough to just be better at what we were doing before 2020. We must study the science of city-making alongside the art. When we compare what we learn to our strengths and weaknesses we will know that we need to emerge changed, even transformed. The year is now more than half over. And just like before, every day still counts.
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CHANGE THE CITY. CHANGE THE GAME. The principles of New Urbanism. BY MATTHEW PETTY
DOWNTOWN SILOAM SPRINGS: It’s embraced New Urbanism.
ew Urbanism is a set of principles that can be used to make cities better for their people. New Urbanism produces higher tax revenues and increases equity when implemented diligently. Many Arkansas cities are doing it: Fayetteville, Pine Bluff, North Little Rock, Siloam Springs and Fort Smith. They are better off for it. When we realize what New Urbanism does and is for, we can find it all across the state, including in some unlikely places. By way of example, there is my childhood home of Harrison. I remember when my mother took me to the holiday parades and craft fairs they were always on the square, and I wasn’t sure why. The parking lot at the high school or the mall was bigger. Then as I started to grow up, I wondered why the stores were closing. It was almost 20 years after I noticed the storefronts closing in the ’90s before Harrison got a mayor who figured out how to fix that problem. The mayor used New Urbanism to do it. What Harrison city leadership did was take back control of the square from the state, which had designated a state highway route through the town square. The Arkansas Department of Transportation isn’t chartered to keep downtown stores in business. Its job is to change the dynamics of existing infrastructure so that 10 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
traffic can flow better (faster) when there is more of it. And so it did. Decisions have consequences and the downtown dynamics were deliberately changed to privilege through traffic. Of course, businesses suffered. Every new change and restriping made the street more into a highway and less of a local street. Those decisions made crossing the street feel dangerous and exposed. When city leadership took back jurisdiction they redesigned the street to favor storefronts more or less like it had been when it was built the first time. And it worked. Businesses that were failing are instead still there today, years later. City leadership rebuilt the street in a certain way that restored the town square to the way it was supposed to have been working the whole time. People in the square could relax again, so they came back. This brief history lesson is about what New Urbanism actually is: solutions for urban challenges as they are encountered. Did you know that New Urbanists authored the framework for Hope VI, the massive federal affordable housing program? And New Urbanists worked with the Institute of Transportation Engineers to write the book on pedestrianizing state highways. They also created an organization with dozens of city officials to write the first technical book for urban street design. It goes on: New Urbanists invented
THE CENTRAL THEORY OF NEW URBANISTS IS THAT CITIES CAN BE — AND SHOULD BE — BETTER FOR THEIR CITIZENS. a whole new way of doing zoning codes, called form-based codes, which have already been implemented in Fort Smith, North Little Rock, Pine Bluff and several Northwest Arkansas cities. New Urbanists work across so many different projects because that is what it takes — there are a lot of contemporary challenges. Some of those challenges seem astronomical, like the way every city in this state (and this country) is still segregated by race and income. Perhaps changing the systems that plan and govern our physical environment can help to reduce some of the negative outcomes associated with racial and economic segregation. There are some challenges that just can’t be solved without also changing the way our cities are arranged and constructed. Waterways are polluted by urban runoff. Tax revenues don’t pay infrastructure maintenance and that makes our cities indebted. Climate change and the heat island effect have teamed up to work against us. The list goes on and on. But there is a way out. First, it is clear all of these challenges are related to one another. We can see when one thing happens, such as a global pandemic, other things are affected and can even get much worse. It all exists together in a dynamic system, and some things are more closely linked and some are more loosely linked. With respect to New Urbanism, the point is that this system operates on a physical platform: the city itself. New Urbanists believe that if we can make the right changes to the physical environment, those challenges can be partially mitigated and some can even be solved. The central theory of new urbanists is that cities can be — and should be — better for their citizens. This notion is described in detail in the Congress for the New Urbanism’s “Charter for the New Urbanism,” a collection of principles guiding the practice. Principle 13 is one of my favorites. It says that if a neighborhood has housing types and price levels mixed together on the blocks and streets, neighborhood residents end up having both more acquaintances and more true friends. Consider the impact of this in its entirety. It’s not just about emotional well-being; what’s the impact on your bottom line for having more people in your network that you can rely on? Speaking of the bottom line, Principle 11 suggests there is a kind of commercial activity that should happen within neighborhoods. Not just nearby or at the edge, this suggestion is that neighborhoods are legitimately better for residents if a certain small scale of
commercial activity is available right there. From the real estate industry’s obsession with location to the relative convenience of a last-minute grocery run, humans are obsessed with convenience. Yet in the supermajority of Arkansas neighborhoods, commercial activity of any kind is illegal. Principle 12 is about freedom. Bear with me through an example: We don’t let our youth drive. Have you ever heard a teenager complain about not being able to see his or her friends? And many elderly can’t drive, too. Have you ever listened to a grandmother make the same complaint? Neither one of these lamentable situations happens as frequently in neighborhoods built in accordance with Principle 12. The principle simply says interconnected transportation networks, when they are designed for safe and comfortable walking and biking, help more people do more things. These three principles seem simple and obvious when said out loud. On its face the very first principle of the charter seems just as clear, but the implications are profound. Principle 1 is that cities and towns are the basic building blocks of the contemporary world. We are the centers for commerce, and we are so much more. Practically everyone spends time in our cities, not just earning a living, but also making memories, building lives and struggling to overcome personal and systemic obstacles. The implication of Principle 1 is that local leaders have an authority and obligation to be zealous advocates for their citizenry, and the state and federal governments have an obligation to support our work. When we change the city, we change the game for everybody. It’s critical that we make the right changes and that we don’t pass by opportunities that will make a difference for decades or longer. Cities and their leaders can learn how to do that using New Urbanism. Don’t trust anyone who says New Urbanism is just about new subdivisions or new zoning codes. It’s a broad movement, and Arkansas cities are a part of it. Even though we already love our cities and towns, we can always do better. We can and should do more using the principles in the Charter. Our people deserve it. Matthew is a three-term Fayetteville councilmember. In his business, he practices city planning and mixed-use development and teaches neighborhood development nationwide for the Incremental Development Alliance. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 11
BECOME A PRO COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPER At the UCA Community Development Institute. BY SHELBY FIEGEL
DEBRIEFING: Amy Hoppper of Innovate Arkansas shares what she learned at CDI 2019 on a sticky-note message board.
12 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
ince 1987, hundreds of community leaders from across the Mid-South have attended the Community Development Institute (CDI) at the University of Central Arkansas to get practical tools and training to make a positive impact in their communities. CDI uses peer-to-peer learning, networking opportunities, experts in community and economic development and hands-on, engaging sessions to provide participants with a solid foundation in community and economic development. The flagship Community Development Institute was established at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. In addition to the flagship program in Arkansas, CDIs have been established nationally in Alabama, Illinois, Idaho and Texas. The CDI experience is a three-year training program, with five days of training each year. Participants progress through the program with a diverse cohort of their peers. At the end of the three-year program, participants have the opportunity to become a certified Professional Community and Economic Developer. CDI is structured to engage any community leader who is passionate about making their community or region stronger. Participants at CDI include community developers, economic developers, elected officials, chamber of commerce officials, city planners, bankers, nonprofit and faith-based leaders and other community leaders. Leaders who graduate from CDI understand that their cities or towns can reach their full potential through developing a shared vision, creating an environment of trust and cooperation, establishing a strong quality of life, and telling their stories effectively. They also create a network of connections that follow them throughout their careers. The Community Development Institute offers a variety of sessions covering trending topics in community and economic development. CDI speakers are a diverse group of seasoned professionals from across the country. Each year also provides participants with scenario-planning opportunities and interactive simulations. Some of the topics you can expect to experience at CDI include principles of community and economic development, diversity and communication, ethics, strategic planning and strategic doing, leadership, community finance, entrepreneurship, arts-based community development, tourism, measuring impact, workforce development and many more.
RESILIENT. INNOVATIVE. RESPECTFUL. CONSCIENTIOUS. SUPPORTIVE. GENUINE. A TEACHER.
WE TEND TO ASK, “WHY DON’T THEY DO SOMETHING?” IN REFERENCE TO OUR STREETS, SIDEWALKS, EDUCATION SYSTEMS, ART OR CULTURAL AMENITIES, OR A VARIETY OF OTHER COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ISSUES. CDI EMPOWERS LEADERS TO TURN “THEY” INTO “WE.” CDI is founded on the concept that community development facilitates economic development. Every community, whether big or small, has important assets to be uncovered and utilized. While most programs focus on the buzzwords of economic development, CDI focuses on a comprehensive picture of what constitutes developing a community and the stakeholders in that development process. In many communities we tend to ask, “Why don’t THEY do something?” in reference to our streets, sidewalks, education systems, art or cultural amenities, or a variety of other community and economic development issues. CDI empowers leaders to turn “they” into “we” because we all need to take ownership of the communities we live in and we must all be a part of the community development process to create positive change and growth. We invite you to join us at CDI Aug. 2-6, 2021! CDI will help you build your network, grow as a professional and equip you with the tools you need to develop a clear vision for your community. Learn more and register at uca.edu/cdi and follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/CDI.UCA. Shelby Fiegel is director of the Community Development Institute.
A tribute to the late Paul C. Parks. By L. Michele Love
oday we honor the legacy of our Founder & Chairman, Paul C. Parks, P.E, who died in April 2020. Dedicated to his team and clients, Paul was a humble man with a great sense of humor and a love of trains. As an electrical engineer, Paul founded Paul C. Parks Engineering in 1978 as a sole proprietorship operating out of his garage, providing electrical design services for commercial projects. He gained his first national client in 1979. Innovation was a key driver to his success. He was one of the earliest consultants to use personal computers and then CAD for building design, making radio and television headlines across Arkansas. This forward thinking laid the foundation for ongoing innovations within our design platforms. Paul’s vision of growth was to have the services and licensing to meet the needs of his clients. That vision was realized when he added mechanical engineering and architectural services in the ’80s. As the need for specialized engineering solutions grew, teams for fire protection, refrigeration and energy were added. Team members were encouraged to obtain their licenses and redundancy was a must so we could be there for our clients, no matter where the project was. Quality was his passion. Paul studied W. Edward Deming, which instilled his commitment to quality principles. In 1987, the company name was changed to Benchmark Group to reflect the standard of excellence Paul and the company operated under. In 2008 the company moved into a newly constructed building on a beautiful campus in Rogers. It was a proud day for everyone who had worked alongside Paul to build an organization committed to customer service and community involvement. Benchmark was presented the LEED Silver Award by the U.S. Green Building Council. In 2011, Benchmark was awarded the Pro Patria, the highest Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve (ESGR). Other awards have included the Arkansas Quality Commitment Award, Governor’s Work/Life Balance Silver Award and the “Greenest Company with More Than 50 Employees.” Paul supported his community and our teams continue to enjoy the nonprofit and local engagement opportunities provided by the company. However, the company also encourages team members to participate in other local events of their choosing, such as S.N.A.P., AIM for Advocacy and Hoops4Health. Under Paul’s leadership, the company has grown to be a respected national engineering and architectural firm with more than 170 employees. Paul instilled a tradition of family first, quality practices and customer service. He believed in always doing the right thing and lived by it. These values remain at the core foundation of our company and team. Paul is missed by all those who knew and worked with him. Alongside our current president David P. Kimball, P.E., we will continue to put our clients first with quality and affordable design services. For more information visit teamofchoice.com. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 13
SETTING THE BAR LOW FOR HOSPITALITY A firsthand look at the struggle of independent restaurants amid COVID-19. BY HANNAH WITHERS
MAXINE’S: The pandemic forced owners and married couple Hannah Withers and Ben Gitchel to close the doors of the beloved Fayetteville watering hole six days before its 70th anniversary.
14 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
used to be a restaurant and bar owner. I might still be. The next few years will tell. At the moment I’m some kind of version of a mutual aid community organizer, social worker and one of the thousands of Arkansans on unemployment. Because of COVID-19, we closed the doors of Maxine’s Tap Room in Fayetteville on March 12, six days before the 70th anniversary of when Maxine Miller opened the place. We know why bars, music venues and restaurants are the first to close and last to reopen. We create these places to be intimate on purpose, but intimacy does not work in a pandemic. My husband, Ben Gitchel, and I also closed our restaurant, Leverett Lounge, the same night with concerns about the safety of our staff and guests. This is grindingly against the grain of what every small business owner learns to become: the person who has the solution to anything that can potentially come up. We have trained ourselves to be ready for anything. But not this. A report by the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that 85 percent of independent restaurants won’t survive the pandemic. EIGHTY. FIVE. PERCENT. It does not even sound real to me to say out loud. This industry shines with all things that represent each of our little bubbles of culture in our cities and towns. More than three quarters of them will just go up in a poof of unpaid bills and bankruptcy and broken leases. We already have a ticking list of the 20 places that are loved by friends that have permanently closed in my neighborhood. They have packed up and shut off utilities and are waiting for someone to have an answer about what we do next. My husband and I both started in restaurants in our teens. I wanted to save for a car and got a two-night-per-week job as a hostess at a local neighborhood restaurant a few blocks from my high school. I’ve worked in mostly independent coffee shops, fine dining restaurants and college town and neighborhood joints for over 30 years now, and somehow it’s woven into some kind of a couples career that my husband and I do together as partners, as friends and as co-workers. The places where I’ve always loved to eat and drink are more than just places to visit. They’re community cornerstones. They’re places that remember my name and regular order. They’re special. You can tell the difference between “just a restaurant” and these eateries and watering holes by the details in the space, or the local art on the walls, or the way the staff talks to you. When you’re in a local business that someone has poured their life into, and their life is deeply relevant in their community, there’s a tangible sense of them being part of what creates that town. It’s glaringly obvious that you are now some small part of what they’re doing: You are engaged not only in their space, but have also been invited into their community. One can tell that the owners are woven into the fabric of the neighborhood where they built this space. You can somehow sense the ads they buy in their local high school theater programs, or the fundraisers for local politicians they host, and
the farmers and wineries and breweries they support. We know parents of kids who worked for us a decade and a half ago who have brought us champagne and thanked us for teaching their kids how to work in our bakery. Ben and I have establishments that work as a community gear in our once well-oiled Fayetteville machine, and my radar is turned up high for places in other cities and regions that do the same. Building spaces that deeply resound with the public is a crafted art that I didn’t know existed when I started in this industry. But now that part of creating spaces has become a deep part of who I am. We spend the majority of our time training our teams of humans to be hospitable and execute the visions of inclusion and duplicate our quality standard of service and experience. We teach them by example that this isn’t just a job. But if they really care and are truly proud of their work, they will do well and make a good living. We decided to close our doors five days before our state asked us to. We stood at the door of Maxine’s Taproom on that Saturday night, while we monitored the required 50 percent occupancy restriction. We watched as folks got a few extra drinks in them and all the social guards of our happy hour crowd (who were cautiously mentioning that night out as their last hurrah until they were heading into quarantine) started to melt away. People were kissing each other goodbye, hugging strangers they had just met, and we watched what has always been a space designed for intimacy become a Petri dish that was obviously a health hazard by contagion standards. We immediately flipped our restaurant space in March into a food community center for unemployed restaurant people. We have fed,
our PPP loan, and all the other odds and ends to keep two places standing so we can, we hope, come back to them. I have zero idea how we scraped that together. It is considerably more than our household makes in a year when we are operating at full tilt. This improper and lackluster response is another nail in the coffin of the hospitality funeral procession. While friends who have owned restaurants for 30 years are now doing dishes 60 hours a week to cut labor costs, and talented chefs are hunched over tinfoil containers for family pack meals, most of the places I’m in the know of are running 15-35 percent of their sales. The clock was ticking on all of us this summer as we waited for the unemployment timeline to run out July 31. We will have to reopen in August, whether or not our tiny places are safe to operate. We risk losing 22 employees who are our family. We risk losing our home. We risk losing everything. We’ve broken bones, worked years in a row without a day off, and put as much time into our businesses per week as we did raising our own child. We will be choosing our economic health over our physical health, and operating on a slimmer staff and with no profits to be made. Just to keep our spaces here in case it ever goes back to normal. We try and put our fingers in our ears when someone mentions “the next wave of COVID.” We don’t have an option for shutdown that next round. We will have to work through it. The classism that has been exposed by this virus shocked me. I’ve never realized how much more financial cushion other people have. My friends who are working from home on their computers indefinitely are in a position that I can’t relate to. Their jobs are intact, their income never faltered, and they can do grocery pickup
WHEN YOU’RE IN A LOCAL BUSINESS THAT SOMEONE HAS POURED THEIR LIFE INTO, AND THEIR LIFE IS DEEPLY RELEVANT IN THEIR COMMUNITY, THERE’S A TANGIBLE SENSE OF THEM BEING PART OF WHAT CREATES THAT TOWN. to this date, almost 5,000 people who have lost their jobs and had their lives upended somewhere in the shuffle of COVID. We asked our amazingly giving community members, who love our places, to foot the bill. We partnered with our newly formed independent restaurant alliance and supplied grocery boxes for food-insecure folks in our industry. A couple we love, who are regulars at our restaurant and own a farm outside town, started bringing all their fresh farm eggs and slaughtered a steer for us. More friends who own bakeries and cheese shops and gardens started donating products. Social worker friends dropped off boxes of tampons and toothpaste. We became what our government was not prepared to supply: a one-stop shop for our people who were in immediate and unexpected need. We supplied unemployment applications while the Workforce Services website was down an unbearingly long amount of time. I’ve heard Tom Colicchio (Top Chef, owner of Craft, Witchcraft) speak numerous times recently as a hospitality activist about shifting our industry into the epicenter of feeding the unemployed, at the tab of the federal and state government. It is a brilliant idea that would keep our people employed and off unemployment and give us an opportunity to float our businesses and do what we do best: feed. But we don’t have state or federal leadership thinking out of the box these days, let alone for an industry that has long been considered the red-headed stepchild of the economy. We employ 15 million people in restaurants in our country, two times more than the airline industry (which has received multiple government bailouts) employs GLOBALLY. I cringe when I think about the over $80,000 we’ve spent to keep current our permits, insurance policies, taxes, and payroll taxes on
all day long, and not eat out and mourn the days that they used to go boutique shopping. I acknowledge my own privilege in our luck on a PPP loan, and a little savings, and over 400 community members that pitched in to help us feed 5,000 people. I know we are better off than a lot of small businesses I know. We have a network we created through texting for mental health checks with over 40 small restaurant owners. They are tired. And reconfiguring a business model under massive financial strain in a consumer market that is almost nonexistent. They are not OK. I sit here in our empty dark bar and pour myself a cocktail, and we have just finished assembling 100 cocktail kits that our friends from a liquor store are selling for us, because standalone bars were left off the list of emergency executive orders to expand outdoor service areas, or to-go/curbside sales. We cooked a four-course, healthy meal for 125 unemployed people for 12 hours today with a combination of donated ingredients and a little cash flow from donors who live in our town. We are doing circus tricks with our monthly budget while we balance the mental health of our staffs and ourselves and many in our industry. I’m thinking of countries that enacted rent and mortgage moratoriums, and countries who put the public health of their communities before their economies. Ours is not one of them. In our country many states are handling safety requirements successfully. Arkansas is not one of them. Many industries will come out of this with new safe, innovative ways they’ve evolved. The world of small shops and downtown business culture is not one of those. Hannah Withers is the co-owner of Maxine’s Tap Room and Leverett Lounge in Fayetteville. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 15
ARKANSAS NEEDS TO ATTRACT REMOTE WORKERS How The Natural State can become the Land of Opportunity for new residents. BY GREG NABHOLZ
n my discussions with various community and state leaders across Arkansas regarding attracting talent to our state or retaining it, I have made the comment that skilled workers with the ability to work remotely have the opportunity to have their cake and eat it, too, by being based in Arkansas where they keep their same job and salary but increase their buying power by parlaying a lower cost of living without sacrificing the lifestyle amenities they expect. Although most of these discussions on attracting talent were pre-pandemic, now more than ever is the great opportunity to attract workers to relocate to Arkansas. However, the competition is growing from other states and communities across the country who are looking at strategies to do the same thing. It is imperative that Arkansas seize on this prime window to attract skilled workers to communities around the state, both large and small. Three examples of real people who have discovered that they can increase their buying power and enhance their lifestyle by moving to Arkansas: I know an Apple Computer support person who told me that he and his wife were moving to Northwest Arkansas because Austin was getting too expensive and crowded. I know another couple from Austin who work in the tech sector and who visited Hot Springs and ended up buying a house near downtown. Thereâ€™s an engineer who made the move to live in 16 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
Argenta who works for a company with operations in Arkansas and California making the same salary he was making in San Francisco. In order to maximize this potential for bringing thousands of new residents to our state, a true statewide partnership that includes the private, public and nonprofit sectors should be brought together to create and implement recruitment strategies with plans specifically developed on a state, regional and local level. The key ingredients for this to work are that cities and towns must make the commitment to develop a healthy ecosystem to attract new residents to their community and retain those who might otherwise move away. To do so, the state has to commit to enhancing existing economic tools that will enable communities and regions to create the places that will grow and thrive, and both the state and the local community must work together on providing incentives to this skilled labor force to move to Arkansas. Developing this ecosystem includes infrastructure improvements such as high-speed broadband, downtown revitalization with â€œinnovation hubsâ€? as a centerpiece, enhancements to existing outdoor and natural attractions, and a system of transportation connectors. A system of connectors such as trails, rail, marinas and transient docks that connect communities and natural attractions regionally and statewide amplifies the potential to attract residents. Examples of these regional connectors include the Razorback Greenway, the Delta Heritage Trail, Arkansas River Trail, the planned Southwest Trail, the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad from Fort Smith to Bentonville, and the system of existing and conceptually planned marinas and transient docks along the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers. Other important elements to developing the ecosystem include ensuring the community is welcoming to all types of people; that there is ongoing programming that includes education, networking events and other activities that will grow, retain and attract talent and foster entrepreneurial growth; and removing barriers to the development of restaurants and entertainment options by making changes to local liquor laws. The state can do its part by improving existing economic incentives such as the state historic rehabilitation, central business improvement district, and arts district tax credit programs that are all key to revitalizing downtowns; enhancing other incentives to foster the development of the film and music industry in the state;
LOCAL COMMUNITIES CAN UP THE ANTE BY WORKING ON PUBLIC-PRIVATE EFFORTS TO PAY RELOCATION EXPENSES TO ATTRACT REMOTE AND OTHER SKILLED WORKERS. and tweaking the job creation rebate program in a way to allow remote and other skilled workers who move to Arkansas to get the rebate on state income taxes individually. Local communities can up the ante by working on public-private efforts to pay relocation expenses to attract remote and other skilled workers. Many cities, towns and, in some cases, counties have economic development funds that could be potentially used for this purpose. I have had the opportunity to work on exciting development and/or planning projects in Fort Smith, Rogers, North Little Rock (Argenta) and Conway, which have positioned those communities for major growth in attracting remote and other skilled workers. Two other projects in Clarksville and Mena have the potential to do the same. Clarksville Connected, the city-owned utility, has invested in high-speed internet that is considered one of the fastest systems in the nation. The entire utility also runs entirely on power it generates from solar energy. There is a commitment to the revitalization of Clarksville downtown along with the potential renovation of First Presbyterian Church as an innovation hub as its centerpiece. Conceptual planning has also been in the works to turn the old Mena High School building in downtown Mena into a mixed-use live/work development with apartments on the second floor and an innovation hub and other uses on the ground floor. There are a lot of other communities and regions in the state that are in various stages of creating the ecosystem necessary to grow their population by attracting these remote workers and entrepreneurs. Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas have worked for years on revitalizing their downtowns, creating innovation hubs, developing high-speed broadband and enhancing their natural and outdoor landscape, but every town in Arkansas regardless of size, location or economic vitality has the ability to develop the place and ecosystem that will attract new residents, especially now. Imagine 2036, the year of the stateâ€™s bicentennial, Arkansas with a population over 4.5 million with all 75 counties seeing population growth since 2020, the state with five U.S. congressional districts, and a per capita income higher than all surrounding states. This could and should be Arkansasâ€™s future! Greg Nabholz is CEO and principal broker of Nabholz Properties Inc.
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VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 17
EMBRACING EXPERIENCE DESIGN In community master planning. BY DANIEL HINTZ
EXPERIENCE DESIGN IN ACTION: Discussing a master plan for El Paso Avenue in Russellville (above) and at the Arkansas Times Hog Roast in North Little Rock’s Argenta (below).
mid COVID-19, diminishing municipal revenue, high unemployment and an awakening to the negative impact unjust systems have had on our Black and brown neighbors, citizens across the country are demanding a change in the status quo. While the debate rages on how that change should happen, crafting and implementing mechanisms to deepen community value — physical, economic, social, political, legal, technological, environmental and cultural — remains a primary and invaluable role for a municipal government. Calibrating governance toward innovation means intentionally looking at how various city departments interrelate, work together and function within the larger community ecosystem. Consistently reviewing the codes and ordinances that dictate that work should be a high priority for those communities that want to remain competitive in a global economy, and focusing on advancing the overall experience desired within a community should drive those reviews. Crafting a community master plan provides a dynamic long-term document that should connect the various systems at play within a community; however, most of these plans spend the bulk of their pages dedicated to just the physical realm — development, land use, infrastructure — and provide 18 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
AN EXPERIENCE DESIGN APPROACH OFFERS AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PRACTICE THAT COORDINATES THE “HARDWARE” (DEVELOPMENT, LAND USE, INFRASTRUCTURE) AND THE “SOFTWARE” (ECONOMY, BRAND, GOVERNANCE, ACTIVATION) , TURNING A STANDARD PLANNING EXERCISE INTO A PLACEMAKING INITIATIVE. little guidance in strengthening the more comprehensive realm of experience design. An Experience Design approach offers an interdisciplinary practice that coordinates the “hardware” (development, land use, infrastructure) and the “software” (economy, brand, governance, activation), turning a standard planning exercise into a placemaking initiative. The municipal and organizational systems of community development, however, are often at odds with an Experience Design approach. Most Arkansas cities utilize what is called Euclidean zoning, which is characterized by the segregation of land uses into specified geographic districts and defined limitation on development activity within each type of district based on that use. While advantages to Euclidean zoning include relative effectiveness, ease of implementation, long-established legal precedent and familiarity, this zoning approach has also been shown to exacerbate unsustainable suburban sprawl, urban core decay, racial and socioeconomic segregation, and an overall reduced quality of life. In addition, traditional Euclidean zoning ordinance doesn’t address building placement, mass and scale of buildings, especially in relationship to surrounding buildings. A form-based code, which has been adopted in several communities across Arkansas, was created as a means of tackling the issues of mass and scale by regulating land development using physical form, placement, size and bulk of buildings as a legal design regulation. By outlining the desirable physical outcome, these codes go a long way in addressing the size of blocks and the physical relationships within the built environment. While intentional design with contextual relevance is more nuanced than traditional Euclidean zoning, the limitations of form-based code within an Experience Design approach is it focuses almost entirely on the physical realm. Experience Design strategically merges use and form with the goal of producing an overall desired experience, thus creating metrics of growth based on performance and not just a resulting development product or based on isolated uses. It is important to note that this approach interrupts the one-size-fits-all zoning categories prevalent in Euclidean zoning and is more akin to form-based code for its block, street and building application. GETTING STARTED It is first necessary to establish a geographic boundary in which the Experience Design effort will be focused and for which a set of goal-oriented criteria called guiding principles will act
as a decision filter for the characteristics of design, form and function. These principles are developed in partnership with the community and should align current neighborhood context and future development ambitions, advance a diverse cultural and arts environment, forward a robust economic ecosystem, create strong civic organizational support, deepen community affinity and celebrate the community’s unique personality. Recognizing that Experience Design needs a nuanced and detailed plan, it is vital to take a deep dive into the geographical area to tease out and map unique centers of desired activity no larger than six blocks. Each of these areas should build on distinct assets that lend to an inclusive neighborhood identity. It then becomes easier to do a quick audit to identify issues that detract from the desired experience within each district and to identify the needed codes, ordinances, municipal investments, economic development strategies and activation plans that forward both the overall area and the unique neighborhood plan. Elements to consider in the audit include streetscapes and sidewalks, street design, building typologies and desired development patterns, trails and connectivity, infrastructure and utilities — as well as locations of public spaces and catalytic projects that drive immediate investment. Elements to consider for strategic placement are wayfinding and signage, new restaurants and retail concepts, food trucks, public art, stages and performance areas and branded street furniture. CRAFTING THE PROPS FOR THE EXPERIENCE Curating the details of place by breathing life into the public realm and aligning adjacent private market elements help fuel the experience-based economy necessary to realize the full value of the experience design approach. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the ability to gather, now is the time to address the institutional elements that foster an integrated and positive community experience. Alignment between new development and a clear community vision, efficient collaboration between municipal departments and innovative frameworks in which they function, focused public investment strategies that forward both an economy and broaden opportunity and constant citizen feedback loops are the pillars of a robust community Experience Design initiative. This work will pay dividends in a post-COVID world. Daniel Hintz is CEO of Velocity Group, an national urban design firm, and Blockline, LLC, a property development company focused on urban infill projects. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 19
HOW ONE GRANT CAN HELP MANY FAMILIES
Willow Bend: A case study of shared equity homeownership. BY TIFFANY HUDSON AND KEATON SMITH
WILLOW BEND: The Fayetteville development is using a shared-equity model. 20 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
artners for Better Housing, a nonprofit real estate developer, is piloting an innovative approach to mixed-income homeownership in a new construction neighborhood located in south Fayetteville. The Willow Bend neighborhood is a public-private partnership of the city of Fayetteville and many other community partners and will eventually include 80 high-quality, single-family homes. Using what is called a shared equity model, Partners for Better Housing provides a discount to income-qualified homebuyers that decreases their mortgage amount to an affordable level. In exchange for the subsidy, the buyer agrees to a resale formula, which becomes the basis for multigenerational homeownership opportunities for working families. Partners for Better Housing has named this the “Pay It Forward” program. Willow Bend is the first development for the “Pay It Forward” program. One-third of the homes in Willow Bend will be reserved for households making less than 80 percent of the median family income for the area. One-third of the homes will be reserved for moderate-income households and the final one-third will be sold at market rate to any interested buyers. All of the homes are required to be owner-occupied. Families making less than 80 percent of the median family income will be eligible for the “Pay It Forward” program, which will help them qualify for a lower mortgage with a resulting lower monthly payment. Interested buyers will go through an income verification process to qualify for the program. Eligible buyers will talk to a lender to see if they qualify for a mortgage; if not, they may need to spend time working on their credit or saving for a down payment. Once a buyer is approved for a mortgage loan, Partners for Better Housing will commit $35,000 of assistance to make the mortgage more affordable. Affordable housing is defined as a mortgage payment being no more than 30 percent of household income.
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HOW ONE GRANT HELPS MULTIPLE FAMILIES SMITH FAMILY $55,000 Income (75% MFI, 2020) With $35,000 from Partners for Better Housing, the Smith Family buys a $200,000 home. Their mortgage is $165,000 which makes their monthly payment affordable at their income level.
10 YEARS LATER, SMITH FAMILY WANTS TO SELL THEIR HOME Partners buys back their home. The potential gain is capped at 2% appreciation instead of the area average increase of 4-5%. Partners purchase price is $244,000.
THE SMITHS PAY BACK THE ORIGINAL $35,000 FROM PARTNERS Plus a small fee in lieu of a sales commission After paying the remaining mortgage off, the Smiths have approximately $73,000 to help buy their next home.
ACTUAL MARKET RATE IS NOW $310,000 10 years of 4.5% appreciation Partners can recycle the original $35,000 plus the delta between the $244k they paid and the $310k current market rate value.
JOHNSON FAMILY $70,000 Income (75% MFI, 2030) With $35,000 from Partners, the Johnsons buy the Smith house for $244,000 -- a $66k savings off market rate. Their new mortgage is $209,000 making their monthly payment affordable at their income level.
7 YEARS LATER (OR 10-15 YEARS LATER) When the Johnson Family is ready to sell Partners can recycle the original grant and reduced appreciation funds again.
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The “Pay It Forward” subsidy from Partners for Better Housing is repaid when the buyer sells the home or after 30 years of occupancy, whichever comes first. A deed restriction, a legal document filed at closing, will ensure repayment of the subsidy. The buyer will further agree to limit the amount of profit they make upon sale of the home (capped at 2 percent annual appreciation) to ensure a similar level of affordability for the next buyer. The “Pay It Forward” funding was made possible by a $1 million infrastructure cost-share from the city of Fayetteville, stipulated as a direct pass-through to eligible low-income homebuyers. Partners for Better Housing’s “Pay It Forward” is the first shared equity homeownership program in Arkansas. If successful, the Willow Bend model will create the foundation for a new regional affordability fund that could be used for a second ground-up development, in partnership with private residential development, and/or on a scattered site basis. Studies show that stable, safe and affordable housing benefits homebuyers in many ways, leading to greater economic security and educational achievement. Providing opportunities for homeownership to lower-income families allows them to build wealth in a way that is often not attainable by other means. The Willow Bend model of reserving a percentage of new construction for low- and moderate-income homebuyers, as well as using high design standards and quality construction to minimize long-term maintenance and utility consumption costs, creates an attainable opportunity for these buyers to reach their homeownership goals and ensures they have access to amenity-rich communities. The benefits to the community include stabilized, stronger, safer neighborhoods, socioeconomic diversity, better school performance and job creation through new construction. Because the subsidy grows over time, this model ensures public investments go further and do more, it addresses racial and economic segregation in communities that are experiencing gentrification, and provides for sustainable, scalable affordable housing. Increasingly, shared equity homeownership programs face challenges in obtaining subsidy dollars, partly because of shrinking federal funding, but also because of a shift in how municipalities are choosing to use their federal dollars. After the Great Recession in 2008, many municipalities began prioritizing affordable rentals over supporting owner-occupied housing. Exacerbating these challenges is the increasing gulf between escalating housing costs and stagnant income growth. Local policy makers are often concerned about limiting the use of public dollars for wealth building, opting instead for a more immediate “bang for the buck” course of action. This policy approach helps the most people in the most immediate way but does not recognize the long-term generational benefits of homeownership and the broad societal benefits of mixedincome neighborhoods. Local policy makers also frequently succumb to the vocal minority (NIMBYism). Fast-growing cities and regions, in particular, must act quickly to acknowledge that housing is critical infrastructure for sustained economic growth. If your policy goals include racial equality, talent retention, workforce development, economic mobility, self-sufficiency or improved educational attainment, consider adding shared equity homeownership programs to your policy toolkit. Keaton Smith is vice president of Iberia Bank in Fayetteville. Tiffany Hudson is executive director of Partners for Better Housing.
CITIES MUST ADDRESS AFFORDABLE HOUSING Before it’s too late. BY MERVIN JEBARAJ
raditionally Arkansas has been a state with a low cost of living, especially compared to coastal states. In large part, the low cost of living was driven by lower housing costs. However, with the fast pace of growth in some of the state’s regional economies, the associated employment and population growth has started to increase housing costs and dent the low cost-of-living advantage that the state once held. Nowhere is this more evident than in Northwest Arkansas, where ever-increasing housing costs are fueled by the population growth that came with a 32 percent increase in employment and economic growth, which led the state during the last economic expansion (2009-19). Just in the last five years median home prices have risen 38 percent in Benton County and 31 percent in Washington County. Why did this happen? As the population of Northwest Arkansas grew, attracted by employment and the regional investments in amenities such as trails, restaurants, museums, etc., housing production did not keep pace with the demand for housing for
greater proportion of the increase in home construction costs in both Northwest Arkansas and nationally. Who is affected by the lack of affordable housing? Housing is considered affordable when a household spends less than 45 percent of income on combined housing and transportation costs such as mortgage and rent payments and fuel. This means that rising home prices squeeze the middle-income professions out of the housing market and fewer firefighters, teachers and nurses are able to live in the communities they serve. Low-income households are completely shutout from purchasing homes and compete for a small pool of subsidized housing. What can cities and regions do to avoid the housing affordability issues cropping up in places like Northwest Arkansas (yes, a lot of places would love to trade challenges with Northwest Arkansas)? Arkansas has regional economic development and transportation groups, but not any regional groups dedicated to housing issues. The challenges faced by our cities are diverse, but a regional
REGIONAL ACTIONS CAN INCLUDE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT COMPACTS SO THAT LARGE AND SMALL CITIES WORK TOWARD A UNIFIED REGIONAL HOUSING. all the new residents of the region. Net migration to Northwest Arkansas was more than 61,000 people from 2010-19, but home production added just one home for every 1.5 new households. Initial home production quickly absorbed all the prime land that was slated for construction before the housing market crash and then spread out to smaller cities away from the amenities and commercial centers (consequently increasing workers’ commuting costs and regional infrastructure costs). Over time, the home production in smaller cities slowed down as most smaller cities were limited in their ability to add water and sewer capacity. The limited lots for development with available infrastructure (i.e. water and sewer) in large cities are now very expensive, leading to more expensive homes being built in the region. Construction materials and labor costs have also increased during this time, but the price of lots accounts for much
approach can identify current and future housing challenges and develop plans to address them. Regional actions can include housing development compacts so that large and small cities work toward a unified regional housing goal, regional housing trusts funds that seed needed housing developments, regional approaches to development incentives (like density bonuses) or the use of public land for affordable housing production. Regions can also analyze current and future land use patterns and work on revitalizing dilapidated commercial zones (think underutilized malls and strip malls) by adding affordable housing to the mix. The best time for Arkansas to enact these regional solutions to develop subsidized low-income housing and market rate middle-income housing was yesterday, but the second-best time is today. Mervin Jebaraj is the director of Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.
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It’s the right time to re-evaluate public policy. BY BRUNO SHOWERS
AL FRESCO DINING IN SOMA: The city of Little Rock has relaxed restrictions on outdoor dining.
n February 2020, the Arkansas unemployment rate stood at a record low 3.5 percent. By April, the unemployment rate was worse than the worst month of the Great Recession of 200709. With this sharp uptick in unemployment comes historic demands on public services. Families need help affording rent, food, health care and utilities. Just when revenue is most needed, state and local governments are seeing declining sales and income tax revenue as people and businesses try to responsibly maintain social distance. Cities must be and have been proactive, but there is an inherent tension between business as usual and the current public health crisis that requires us to re-evaluate public policy in a more fundamental way. Even before the coronavirus came, nearly half of Arkansas’s households had no savings for a rainy day. Even with historically low unemployment rates a quarter of children in Arkansas lived in poverty. Childhood poverty actually increased in Arkansas in the most recent Census data, driven by an increase in Black childhood poverty in particular. When the great patchwork of American safety net policies fail — as they too often do for Black, Brown and marginalized communities — local government steps in to fill in the gaps, both when the economy is doing well and when it isn’t. This is no easy task. City budgets are tight in good times, especially in Arkansas. This is doubly true in bad economic times. According to the National League of Cities, city revenues did not recover to pre-recession levels until a decade after the Great Recession began. The scope of the economic fallout we’re facing now will certainly require more action by state and national governments to fully address. Fortunately, cities have other tools available to them in addition to tax and budget policies, like land use policies. These sometimes impenetrable rules determine where we can find sidewalks, parks, schools, commerce and housing — as 24 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
well as who can use them. Cities have already started rethinking the types of uses we allow in different spaces to respond to the coronavirus. Rules around delivery and pickup at restaurants and other establishments have been relaxed. Little Rock, for example, has taken steps to ease restrictions on outdoor dining to allow businesses to comply with public health guidelines and still operate at a higher capacity. An entertainment district has been established to further support local business. Relaxing these rules and regulations would normally be more controversial, but health and economic conditions necessitate action. That’s true for more than just one sector of the economy. Rules governing physical space and how we use it help shape the lives of entire communities. Neighborhood conditions have big impacts on educational and economic outcomes for kids. Discrimination in housing is illegal now, but remains an issue due to underfunding of enforcement. But city rules governing land use can also make it difficult for low-income households and people of color to access quality schools, good-paying jobs and healthy environments. This hurts cities in the longrun as more equitable outcomes would ultimately foster more economic development and tax revenue. The coronavirus pandemic requires a public response of monumental scope. City leaders are uniquely positioned to use this historic moment to make fundamental changes that go beyond a return to the status quo. We must ensure that the recovery addresses the needs of low-income and marginalized communities in our cities. It isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the pragmatic thing to do. Bruno Showers is a senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
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VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 25
EMBRACE SLOW STREETS Give roads back to the people.
BY SAM SLATON AND PAXTON ROBERTS
he laundry room has been retrofitted into a Zoom-ready office. Playgrounds and libraries have been closed. Restaurants are setting up shop in parking spots to accommodate desperate diners. The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered our sense of private and public space. Having been confined to the former, we yearn for the latter. So where do we go and what do we do? The Slow Streets movement might be the answer: Give people the keys to the streets. For the past several months, we’ve walked around with a kind of backseat driver in our brains: Am I far enough away from that person? Is my mask doing what it’s supposed to do? Was that cough a sign of something else? When we have occasion to tell this backseat driver to back off — in the comfort of our own homes, for example — the relief is palpable. We yearn for the day when we can tell it to get lost for good. For the past 100 years, we’ve walked — and biked — around with another kind of backseat driver in our brains, one whose authority is so entrenched that its appeals no longer take the form of anxious 26 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
questions, but of commands: Look both ways. Don’t jaywalk. If you do, you better run. You are trespassing; streets are for cars. Policies, design standards and statistics bear out the fact that streets are not for people. We have passively accepted this fact, along with the concomitant and unconscionable costs of car culture: In the United States from 1918-2018, 3.7 million people were killed by cars. That’s nearly three times the number of people killed in all American wars combined. Our streets are the front in the war between cars and human beings. The cars are winning. That’s why we need Slow Streets. These happenings are relatively straightforward. All a neighborhood or city has to do is put up a few signs and temporary obstacles (aka “soft closures” — make them pretty!) in the middle of residential roads and intersections to indicate to motorists that they are about to enter a corridor where human beings — on foot, bike, wheelchair, skateboard, unicorn, whatever — reign supreme. In other words, all it takes is a couple of A-frames and flower pots to say to motorists, “You are trespassing; these streets are for people. It’s your turn to look both ways. And slow down — I’m walking here.”
SLOW STREET PILOT PROJECTS: Bike NWA has seen success in Fayetteville and Bentonville (right).
Efforts should also be made to draw people into the streets. But that doesn’t mean there needs to be a master of ceremonies and a run of show. The former is the people, the latter is life. If the space is safe, it will happen organically. Slow Streets, therefore, means not only a reclamation of public space, but of mental space as well. During and within the confines of Slow Streets, we can breathe a sigh of relief — for a precious few hours along a stretch of peaceful blocks, the backseat driver has been silenced and the natural hierarchy has been restored: people first, cars second. In this arrangement, a reclamation of space is literally a reclamation of life. Such a reclamation is especially necessary during this pandemic, which has transformed our concept of public space. Playgrounds across the country have been closed to reduce the risk of contact transfer. The open spaces of parks and mountain biking trails can quickly become crowded and, therefore, dangerous. (Trail counts in Bentonville have been skyrocketing since the pandemic hit.) And yet people need to be outside for all the obvious reasons. (Plus the fact that studies show that the risk of COVID-19 infection
is far greater in enclosed environments.) So why not transfer the game of pick-up baseball from the diamond to the blacktop? The image of kids playing stickball in the streets while parents gossip on the sidewalks is consummately American, and yet that image has been all but lost, a memory of an America that was. The good news is that we can bring it back. All it takes is signage and collective resolve. The regional bike advocacy nonprofit BikeNWA piloted the first Slow Streets in Bentonville in response to the crowded mountain biking trails. People simply needed more room to be active outdoors while adhering to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. The one-mile route meandered from The Momentary to the downtown square and up to Compton Gardens, where it connected to the Razorback Greenway, which loops back to The Momentary. A 4-hour block on two consecutive Sunday afternoons paved the way for weekly 8-hour Slow Streets that will run at least until Labor Day. The success in Bentonville encouraged BikeNWA to pilot Slow Streets in Fayetteville, where residents were able to reclaim a 3-mile route that also connected to the Razorback Greenway and linked residential areas, businesses, a park and — most importantly — people, unfettered by the fear of being hit by a car. When folks step outside the Slow Streets zone, this makes the return of the backseat driver all the more galling because now we know that it doesn’t have to be this way. This is the beginning of totally reimagining our streets — as extended dining rooms, porches, classrooms and more. This is the beginning of the end of the unspoken rule that a private automobile is one’s only ticket to the single largest agglomeration of public space in the nation. (A recent article in The New York Times reported that “a third or more of the space in any city is devoted to streets.”) A truly public space requires no tickets, no backseat drivers and no risk to life and limb. That’s why Slow Streets should be the rule, not the exception. The trade-off is simple: In exchange for slightly longer vehicular travel times, we’ll have fewer traffic deaths and plenty of room to safely think, breathe and be — together. Not a bad deal for the cost of a few A-frames and flower pots. When we free people from the fear of imminent injury and the sense that they are trespassing on public property, a miraculous transformation occurs: The backseat driver is able to sit shotgun and become not a nuisance, but a co-conspirator in adventure. Questions and commands become exclamations: Let’s get our bikes! Let’s see what’s around that corner! Let’s do this in our neighborhood! To learn more about how you can bring Slow Streets to your community, check out The Street Plans Collaborative’s “Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials & Design” and bikenwa.org/ slowstreetsnwa. Paxton Roberts is executive director of Bike NWA. Sam Slaton is a teacher at the Thaden School in Bentonville, Arkansas, and a candidate for Justice of the Peace in District 8 in Benton County. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 27
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE ACU A viable option post-COVID. BY NEIL HELLER
hat is an ACU? Some consider the neighborhood grocery store to be the smallest increment of brickand-mortar retail, but I am excited to explore an even smaller increment. The accessory commercial unit, or ACU, ranges between a home-based business in an extra bedroom to a small shop or office. You have likely heard of an ADU, an accessory dwelling unit, or “granny flat.” An ACU is similar in that it’s an accessory to a main house while offering more affordable space with neighborhood-friendly gentle density, but in a way that caters to local business owners. An ACU is more or less the next incremental step up from a home-based business that had its start in a spare bedroom or garage. The future for commercial real estate is changing as downtowns and commercial nodes experience disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty percent of respondents from Arkansas for the recent Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey indicate that this pandemic has had a “large negative effect” on their business, with another 50 percent indicating a “moderate negative effect,” 5 percent higher than the national average. More broadly, the office sector is adapting to changes and recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some firms are deciding it is easier to allow employees to remain at home. The retail sector in particular has seen significant upheavals even before this current challenge. Arkansas has a history of town squares and Main streets that tend to host smaller and local scale businesses. Rightfully, there is concern about how our local businesses will fare through all this and thought is being put into how we can support our downtowns. Overall, the message is that commercial real estate is becoming more dispersed and that many of the outcomes of these changes are likely to remain into the foreseeable future. This sort of disruption will cause many of these small business owners to look for different, and less expensive, commercial space located closer to workers’ homes. A few positive attributes of ACUs come to mind: *Opportunity to participate. ACUs provides an opportunity for small, local property owners to participate in providing options for local businesses as they adapt. *Less expensive construction. In any new construction of these types of spaces the building code requirements will be less expensive and cumbersome. So, while the building code will require any commercial space to install sprinklers, the property owner will be able to avoid having to sprinkle the residential units behind. It’s when a design stacks residential and commercial uses that the building code requires the residential to be sprinkled, even if just a couple of units. *Save older buildings from demolition. In many communities, as land values increase, demolitions of older structures are a 28 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
concern. Redevelopment/reinvestment starts to be considered when a building value begins to equal the value of the land it sits on. If repairs and maintenance exceed the economic value of the building, the options are to let it fall into disrepair or redevelop. Allowing an ACU increases a building’s financial productivity and therefore its economic value and pushes the property’s potential redevelopment timing further out. Typically, businesses prefer to be located on commercial corridors and higher-volume streets for increased visibility, yet the real beauty is that ACUs are an option that can also be neighborhood street-friendly for businesses that may not require as much visibility. Neighborhood-friendly local businesses include bicycle shops, tailors, barbershop/salon, tech/software related, insurance offices or even ultra-light manufacturing like screen printing or T-shirts. Finally, these building types could be particularly useful on trafficked corridors with an existing residential built pattern. This has the potential to save existing, often less expensive rental housing while creating attractive and active street frontage and providing visibility to the businesses in front. The examples being shared here are historic and in areas already zoned for commercial uses, so some challenges clearly remain. Following are some primary concerns and takeaways for city officials looking to explore an ACU option: *In locations deeper in the neighborhood, small, neighborhoodfriendly businesses will first simply need to be allowed. *Updated zoning will need to allow ACUs to also have reduced front setback and increased lot coverage in order to maximize limited available space. *Also, for commercial spaces of such small square footage, parking should not be required, as many will have readily on-street parking options or will be accessed via foot and bicycle. *The first local property owners will likely need to build with cash or equity because appraisers will not have recent transactions to compare to. As more get built and sold, ACUs will become normalized like any other real estate product. Some incentive may be considered to help offset this financial burden, particularly as these building types contribute to economic recovery. In many ways the ultimate neighborhood-friendly gentle density option would have the main house, a backyard ADU as much needed less expensive housing and a front yard ACU that responds to the changed needs of local small business owners. Do you have ACUs in your city? I would love to see more examples and how they are being used. Neil Heller is an urban planner at Neighborhood Workshop in Portland, Ore., and faculty member of the Incremental Development Alliance. He’s an alumnus of the University of Arkansas and previously worked in urban planning in Fayetteville.
ACCESSORY COMMERCIAL UNITS: (Clockwise starting below) In Kansas City, Mo.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Portland, Ore.
THE MESSAGE IS THAT COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE IS BECOMING MORE DISPERSED AND THAT MANY OF THE OUTCOMES OF THESE CHANGES ARE LIKELY TO REMAIN INTO THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE. THIS SORT OF DISRUPTION WILL CAUSE MANY OF THESE SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS TO LOOK FOR DIFFERENT, AND LESS EXPENSIVE, COMMERCIAL SPACE LOCATED CLOSER TO WORKERSâ€™ HOMES.
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RECOVERY BY DESIGN We have to stop prioritizing engineering and code standards over quality of life. BY MATT HOFFMAN
eighborhoods and cities will see many challenges in the coming years. We need to build more homes to address affordability and the housing crisis, we need to address inequality both broadly speaking and in terms of the built environment, and we need to accomplish these things while rebuilding our local economies. Our current solutions aren’t good enough. A development process that prioritizes labyrinthine engineering and code standards over basic quality of life will only exacerbate these problems. As we look for ways to expand housing supply and build more resilient cities, human-focused design has to become more central to our thinking. Most cities all but require that new neighborhoods are designed by civil engineers. They’re responsible for making sure stormwater systems and utilities operate correctly, that the streets meet often arbitrary standards for vehicular operation, and that minimum development and zoning codes are met. But civil engineers, for all of their important expertise, aren’t required to spend much time working to set the stage for better affordable housing, meaningful civic art, stronger experience economies, more equitable land use, crime prevention through environmental design or many of the other acute issues that will define success for cities in the coming years. While it’s doubtless that there are engineers out there who truly care about these issues on a personal level, these are simply not the core values of their profession. That’s why we have to stop outsourcing our most critical planning decisions, such as the design and layout of city streets, to siloed professionals who are poorly positioned to fully leverage them for the benefit of our broader society. It shouldn’t be surprising that a process that only solves for physical infrastructure is producing places that are bereft of social and economic capital. We know that places are more successful when they incorporate human-scaled design. That’s why the rare walkable neighborhoods within our country’s top metropolitan areas are experiencing rising affordability and displacement problems even as a global recession deepens. It’s a simple supplyand-demand equation. We stopped building walkable places at scale about 75 years ago, and now they’re relatively scarce. This scarcity is great if you’re trying to make sure a few privileged neighborhoods continue to see insane growth in property value year over year, but what if you’re trying to make sure people in every segment of society can benefit from generational growth in equity, better health outcomes and stronger social fabric? We can no longer afford to just draw major arterials once every 30 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
half-mile on our master street plans and hope that our meager connectivity standards will deliver walkable street fabrics; they haven’t yet and they never will. At a time when owning a vehicle costs almost $12,000 a year, we have to stop locating all of our “affordable” housing in drive-only suburbs. Likewise, we have to stop zoning property in walkable locations with exclusionary “single family” restrictions that perversely reserve our precious few car-optional neighborhoods only for those who need them least. We won’t solve these problems with better engineering or restrictive standards; we’ll solve them with better design. How do you get an affordable multiunit apartment house into an established single-family neighborhood without inciting a riot among NIMBY neighbors? You design a beautiful multiunit apartment house that actually complements the character of the neighborhood, and you get it pre-approved for construction so that the process is replicable. How do you make sure housing plus transportation costs don’t stifle low-income families who live in the suburbs? You design a walkable fabric of connected streets, and allow construction of a new town center along with it. And how do you make sure new affordable neighborhoods remain desirable and don’t suffer from generational devaluation? You place residents and designers at the head of the table during the development process. Our ability to create higher forms of civilization doesn’t hinge on byzantine metrics like an intersection’s level of service or a parcel’s floor area ratio; it hinges on our ability to understand and replicate robust human ecologies. This is the sort of challenge that can’t be codified in a traditional sense; not a single one of the world’s great cities was built by simply giving builders a detailed list of all the things they weren’t allowed to do. When towns like Fayetteville overlaid a walkable grid of city streets upon the area’s steep hillsides over a century ago, they did so trusting that local engineers could figure out the challenges of running city utilities within those conditions. Putting human-focused design first doesn’t mean we forsake engineering: It means we start with the most important aspects of creating spaces for people and trust engineers to do their jobs well in return. It is time to empower artists, architects, activists and urban designers to engage not just with our standards, but with our spirit to build the kinds of communities we desperately need. Matt Hoffman is director of urban design at MBL Planning + Architecture in Fayetteville.
DOS AND DONâ€™TS: Whilerecent both of developments these recent developments meet minimum engineering standards, standards, in the neighborhood above, streets frequent deadWhile both of these meet minimum engineering frequent dead-end end streets and pure single-family land use ensure that residents must own a car. A focus on connectivity, diverse housing types and close access and pure single-family land use ensure below that everyone living in the above neighborhood has to own a car. Early to recreation and services make the neighborhood more walkable and economically resilient. design focus on connectivity, diverse housing types, and close access to recreation and services make the below neighborhood much more walkable and economically resilient.
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BUILD CUTE, BE KIND
Basic principles are often overlooked by developers. BY ALLISON THURMOND QUINLAN
SOUTH STREET COTTAGES: A project in Fayetteville from the author’s firm.
he demographics of developers (and bankers and appraisers and general contractors and city planners and engineers and all the other ecosystem partners that make buildings happen) are fairly consistent. As an architect, landscape architect, land planner and small developer in Northwest Arkansas, I am regularly the only woman in a room of white males. My economic, cultural and social expectations tend to match most of the industry, but even my slight deviation from the standard practitioner provides for a sometimes radically different viewpoint on the business of development. Primarily, I try to build and design places that people love. This starts with caring about people. I will admit, that isn’t always an easy job. Feedback from the public is often very charged and challenging for developers. But in the general public’s defense, there’s been a lot of bad development in the last 60 years in America. And people hate ugly things. This observation has led my work to be centered around two fairly basic ideas that some male developers would be embarrassed to even suggest out loud: Build cute things that people like and be kind to people with your projects. People are so used to ugly, boring projects that they will forgive
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a multitude of sins (like no covered parking, coat closets or powder rooms) when the project is really cute. We have made an entire business of building cute houses that people love, in a walkable location where they want to be, in exchange for space and storage people often do not even need. These houses are not for everyone, but two-thirds of households are made up of 1-2 people. That share of households is rising year by year as the number and presence of children in households continues to drop. And, if someone wants a four-bedroom house on a large lot, they already have plenty to choose from on the market. Small, attractive houses in walkable locations close to businesses, however, are severely underbuilt and highly in demand. One of our cutest projects was four 500-squarefoot, one-bed, one-bath houses built by 3V Development on Ninth Street in Fayetteville on a typical 50-by-150-foot downtown corner lot. By virtue of being small and using very little land, the houses can be sold for a relatively affordable total purchase price (the mortgage payment on a 30-year loan is affordable by federal standards for someone making 80 percent of the area’s median income). The price per square foot is high, but the houses were the least expensive new-construction homes sold in downtown Fayetteville by a wide margin. All sold for asking price within
WE HAVE MADE AN ENTIRE BUSINESS OF BUILDING CUTE HOUSES THAT PEOPLE LOVE, IN A WALKABLE LOCATION WHERE THEY WANT TO BE, IN EXCHANGE FOR SPACE AND STORAGE PEOPLE OFTEN DO NOT EVEN NEED.
LAVENDER: Developers should consider planting medicinal or edible herbs.
three days of hitting the market. 3V is now building and selling the plan from a wait list. At our own self-developed South Street Cottages, we designed each phase with a “loss leader” design item — something located in a high visibility area that would delight residents and neighbors alike. Exposed rafter tails have a unique profile on each house, and broad front porches expand small interior footprints (800-1,900 square feet) to the street. Including garage apartments behind some houses also provided an opportunity to add density and diversity to the homes without impacting the character of the street. Being nice to people is a broad directive, but you have a wide opportunity to follow it. Build connected networks of streets so neighbors don’t have to drive around your project. Build nice porches so people have a shady, nice spot to sit outside and neighbors have something interesting to walk by. Design buildings that are practical and easy to build to be nice to your contractors. Build connected sidewalks to be nice to older folks and young parents pushing strollers. Install dog doors to fenced yards so people don’t have to put a leash on their dog at 3 a.m.. Think about ways to make people’s lives easier and execute them. When working with ERC Co. on THRIVE Argenta, we softened the sidewalks with fragrant and edible herbs instead of sterile turf grass. Rosemary, lavender and sage make a daily walk by the building more beautiful and relaxing, and residents and neighbors alike can snag a few sprigs to add to their dinner. When Ozark Natural Foods moved back downtown into a 1960s sprawl pattern building surrounded by parking, we worked with Modus Studio to provide a massive protected porch, raised above the traffic of College Avenue and enclosed with a series of planters filled with native plants that are either edible or medicinal. The enclosure allows parents to let their kids safely play while they have a coffee or local beer, while the planting provides eye-level interest to pedestrians on the adjacent sidewalk. Being kind to people with your projects does not have to be expensive. Many of the things we use to accomplish this goal don’t add much if any cost to the project. Once you start noticing how many ways you can be kind to people with a project, much of the built world will become infuriating to use. You’re welcome. Building very cute housing in walkable locations that are kind to people is excellent business sense. It’s also functionally illegal in most places. You may note that the zoning code in your municipality was first passed around 1968. This was the year the Fair Housing Act made it illegal to openly discriminate against people, and zoning came to be used in Arkansas to discriminate against people more subtly. We now, like many others, find ourselves unsurprisingly short of affordable and attainable housing. We also find ourselves with the opportunity to exercise not just kindness but also long overdue fairness by removing these systemic barriers to equal access to housing and wealth creation. Allison Thurmond Quinlan is the founder of Flintlock Architecture & Landscape in Fayetteville. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 33
IMPROVING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS Amid the pandemic.
BY MELISSA TERRY
URBAN FARMING: It strengthens local food systems.
s state and local government leaders struggle to effectively deal with the continued public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, communities large and small across Arkansas are struggling with food system issues. Too much in one place, not enough in another. USDA school lunches and Seamless Summer meal programs have had to switch from daily cafeteria-based food service protocols to distributing food packages available for pickup once or a couple of times a week. Recent experiences with COVID-19 demonstrated that our local food supply chains are short and fragile. When restaurants, farmers markets, farm-to-school programs and other gate-to-plate customers like universities and corporate cafeterias went offline in a blink of an eye, it sent an economic shock throughout our state’s community networks of local and regional farmers. “The lack of food system resiliency was experienced in many explicit ways,” Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas’s Community Design Center, said. “Small farmers who supply local restaurants, schools, hospitals and the entire food away from home market — constituting 53 percent of food consumed — saw their markets evaporate overnight.” 34 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
Demand collapsed in an instant, but you can’t tell a head of lettuce to stop growing and in the case of our regional farmers, Ozark All Season found itself sitting on over a thousand heads of lettuce on hand and no market demand. Through heroic efforts by many of our local food champions, many farmers found a way to at least donate the bulk of their produce through charitable food networks, like the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and/or area food banks. And, while it’s good that those fresh products were not wasted, donations don’t pay the mortgage. Arkansas’s agriculture economy makes up 8.1 percent of our state GDP and, of that, organic production in Arkansas grew significantly from 2012 to 2017. By 2017, the number of farms selling organically produced commodities had increased from 32 farms to 69. During this time, sales of organic products increased by almost 3,000 percent, from $789,000 in 2012 to over $24 million in 2017. In 2012, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture established a program called the Arkansas Grown initiative to support and promote local/regional food production networks. Arkansas Grown has over 900 members and local/regional direct-to-consumer food sales accounted for approximately $9.2 million in 2019.
“Procuring products from within the state spurs local economic development by engaging Arkansas farms and producers,” said Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward. So what can local governments do to strengthen community food systems? As it turns out, quite a lot. In its “Cities and Circular Economy for Food” report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said, “Cities can trigger a shift to a better food because cities have a unique opportunity to spark a transformation towards a circular economy for food, given that 80 percent of all food is expected to be consumed in cities by 2050.” Investments in the infrastructure of a circular economy are based on an urban planning model that understands and invests a diverse ecosystem of local/regional farmers: Products can be sold at such places as farmers markets, food hubs and direct farm sales. “The middle agricultural supply chain infrastructure of food hubs with processing, distribution and value-added production functions are missing in Arkansas,” Luoni said. “This missing middle supply chain correlates with both resiliency deficits (fragility) and nutritional shortfalls in our food system.” In an effort to strengthen these missing middle food-system gaps, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently launched the “Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production” program. USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said, “Such projects have the potential to address important issues such as food access and education and to support innovative ways to increase local food production in urban environments.” Reginald Jackson, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Arkansas, advocates for a watershed approach to growing healthy regional and local food systems. “The NRCS approach is to provide technical assistance to landowners, farmers, local governments, and historically underserved minority farmers in ways that benefit the whole community and strengthens a regenerative agricultural economy for Arkansas communities.” That sounds good, but how? Some examples of how cities, counties, and state agencies across Arkansas are cultivating stronger local food systems include: *The city of North Little Rock runs a Community Gardens minigrant program, which it funds out of its Community Development Block Grant budget; *The Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service recently launched a commercial kitchen pilot program called Share Grounds in three counties; *The Arkansas-based Wallace Food Center is hosting a variety of value chain food system coordination initiatives called the Food Systems Leadership Network; *The Arkansas Department of Agriculture hosts a full-time Farm to School/Institution coordinator along with the Arkansas Grown specialty crops network. “The coronavirus pandemic revealed weaknesses throughout so many of our systems, but in regard to our food system, it showed us how valuable our local food systems are,” Heather Friedrich, program manager for the University of Arkansas’s Center for Farms and Food, said. “Being able to connect with local farmers and get your food that was grown an hour or couple of hours away, compared to food that spends a couple of days in a truck with multiple points of contact between the farm and your table, is a food security issue. Our local farms play a critical role in a safe and secure food system.”
So what does all that mean for our cities and counties? As mayors and county judges are grappling with major public health concerns, they’re also facing pressures compounding from the multiplier effects of knowing that schoolchildren are still going to need food, restaurants are going to need help or go under, and the local government hotel, motel and restaurant tax base is collapsing. It’s a lot. Deep breaths. What is the remedy? Our instinct is to look for one shiny thing to glom onto and focus on that because we only have so much bandwidth, and COVID-19 numbers are spiking, and we’re having approximately eleventy billion Zoom meetings a day, and what are we going to do about the upcoming school year, and, holy hell, this whole situation is just a mess. But maybe, MAYBE, the silver lining here is that when systems like these break down, you see them a little differently and things you didn’t notice before become more apparent, as is the case with our local food systems. What are the barriers for local governments? For municipalities, friction with zoning issues. For counties, friction with annexation issues. How is land valued and how do we prioritize valuation of soil conservation investments for both landowners and our local governments? The Cornell University Small Farms Guide to Urban Farming says, “Until recently, city codes, zoning laws, and other regulations have largely ignored urban agriculture. However, these codes and regulations can intentionally and unintentionally regulate urban farming activities in a myriad of ways, such as by regulating the construction of structures, including chicken coops or greenhouses, the ability to keep livestock, gain access to public lands and municipal facilities, transport and distribute urban grown food and so on.” According to the American Planning Association, “Public interest in locally grown food, coupled with an awareness of the positive environmental, social, and economic impacts of agricultural uses on urban areas, has inspired many city residents to pursue smallscale agricultural activities on both private and public lands. As the community gardening and urban agriculture movements gain popularity and the benefits become more apparent, many local governments have adopted policies and regulations that sanction or support community gardens and urban farming.” Agriculture Secretary Ward added, “In Arkansas, we see schools, institutions, agencies, and child care facilities spending around 15 percent of their food budget on local food. The benefits can extend beyond economics to create a stable market for local products, increase participation in meal programs, and increase community awareness of local farming and food systems.” The American Planning Association has a searchable resources page that provides “background, policy guidance, and examples of comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances that address urban agriculture from across the country.” So then, we find ourselves at a moment in time where we can clearly see gaps in our food system that may not have been very clear before, and perhaps the silver lining in this public health emergency is that we have an opportunity to think, talk and plan for ways in which our cities, counties, communities and neighborhoods can build stronger local food systems that are strong enough to withstand system shocks and resilient enough to not just hold up in an emergency, but actively cultivate stronger local and regional food economies in Arkansas. Melissa Terry is a food policy researcher in the University of Arkansas’s Agricultural Education Master’s Program. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 35
ARGENTA GROWS, ENDURES Strong foundation helps downtown North Little Rock weather the pandemic. BY CHRIS KENT
ARGENTA PLAZA: New for 2020 in downtown North Little Rock. 36 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
was an overnight success all right, but 30 years is a long, long night,” Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, once said. Argenta, North Little Rock’s downtown, has a similar take on its success. Over the years, Argenta has lifted its head up and showed flashes of brilliance. When it happens, the reporters line up for quotes about our “overnight success.” Funny thing, some of these reporters were not even born when we started this project. The year 2020 started with such promise and so many plans. There were ribbon cuttings scheduled for the new 600 Main Building that would house the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association and Taggart Architects. The five-story First Orion building would bring over 200 new tech jobs to the district and the completion of the Argenta Plaza. There were plans for the new fourstory Power & Ice Building that would border the Argenta Plaza to the north and include a ground-floor food hall, and new locations for the Bentonvillebased restaurants Tusk & Trotter and Trash Creamery. Simmons Bank rebranded and remodeled the downtown arena in preparation for the likes of Elton John, Justin Bieber and Bob Dylan. Dickey-Stephens Park added to the game day experience by building a new splash pad for the kids. The Argenta Community Theater was coming off a phenomenally successful 2019 and producing its best lineup of plays for 2020 that included “Billy Elliot” and the musical “Memphis.” Nonprofits were set to host numerous fundraising events like the Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival, CareLink’s Cupcake Festival and the Central Arkansas Pride Fest. The Argenta Downtown Council created a culinary production schedule that would showcase talented food and beverage personalities in intimate dinner settings. Then COVID-19 hit, and “poof,” everything was canceled. Over 1 million visitors would not be visiting the Argenta Arts District. After the shock of the initial closures and the realization that we were going to be in this situation for some time, we began to formulate a new strategy, pivoting away from our original plans, but staying within our organization’s mission. OUR MISSION The role of the Argenta Downtown Council (ADC) is to provide a clean, green and safe place that fosters economic development and supports downtown businesses. While the ADC leans into this role daily, we re-examined what this would mean during the pandemic and immediately started taking action to support our local businesses. The first thing we did was increase our Green Team staff from three to four employees. We did everything we could, including adding 20 additional flower planters, to make sure the downtown was beautiful and ready for business when the businesses were ready to reopen. With our nightlife completely shut down, we changed the role of our public safety ambassadors. Our safety ambassadors’ usual purpose is to assist downtown patrons with finding parking or giving directions to a restaurant or an event. Our ambassadors now focus on the security of our Argenta buildings and businesses, with much less focus on the concierge service they provided before. However, with the opening of the Argenta Outdoor Dining District and the beginning of businesses’ reopening, some of those concierge services will pick back VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 37
up, which is why the addition of one additional employee has been especially helpful. COMMUNITY Knowing that the downtown needed community, John Gaudin, a founder of the Argenta Downtown Council and president of the board for the ACANSA Arts Festival, revived the Argenta Farmers Market on Saturday mornings from 8-10 a.m. The ADC worked with Gaudin to promote the market as a safe place to shop and feel a much-needed sense of connection. Gaudin also facilitated the installation of several murals that added to the Art District experience. With the stage set, the next step was to partner with the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the restaurants that decided to stay open and provide delivery or curbside service. Governor Hutchinson announced in May that restaurants could open at 33 percent capacity. Many Argenta restaurants decided to continue to offer only carry out, delivery or curbside, realizing they would lose money at one-third capacity. Some restaurants even opted to remain closed completely. Flyway Brewing, finding a creative option to the current situation, contacted the ADC to promote its outside seating. To support Flyway Brewing, the ADC offered to loan tables, tents and chairs that are typically used at events hosted throughout the year. Together a partnership formed, and Flyway’s Tent City was born. Tent City was an instant success, drawing people from all over Central Arkansas looking for a safe place to enjoy dinner and a local craft beer. With Tent City’s great success, we wanted to see if we could duplicate it for the rest of the restaurants in the Argenta Arts District. We had a head start on our mission. In the last two years, a group called the Justice League had been working to develop plans to activate more outdoor spaces within the Argenta Arts District in anticipation of all the exciting plans for 2020. The league includes members of the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Argenta Business Improvement District, the city of North Little Rock, and the ADC. The ADC, NLR CVB, and the city of North Little Rock worked with the city attorney’s office to propose legislation based 38 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
on Arkansas Act 812 to create an entertainment district. The district would make it legal for alcoholic beverages to be sold in restaurants within the district and carried outside, within the district’s boundaries, for consumption. Act 812 passed April 9, 2019, and, while other communities around the state immediately implemented entertainment districts, in North Little Rock, we took a “wait and see” approach. Our goal was not to turn Argenta Arts District into an environment like Bourbon or Beale street, but instead into a fun, safe place where families and friends could enjoy a meal outside, walk around, gather in one of our many outside areas and enjoy a positive experience. The North Little Rock City Council passed an ordinance in early June creating the Argenta Outdoor Dining District. The district operates daily from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. with 13 Argenta restaurants and businesses participating with growing numbers every week. With the ability to offer drinks and food outside, we needed a safe place to allow visitors to the dining district to gather and dine while social distancing. The NLR CVB and the ADC had another opportunity to join forces and partner together to plan these spaces. The plan includes closing portions of Main Street on the weekends. We started slow, with a soft launch, closing one block on Friday, Aug. 7, and not heavily promoting the event. Two restaurants participated: Four Quarter Bar and Brood & Barley. Twenty-four tents with tables and seating were set up in the closed-off section of Main Street. It was a huge success! Both businesses generated revenue that would have been impossible with only inside dining. The second weekend, Aug. 14-15, will include another block with an additional 24 tents. We plan to improve week after week, adding entertainment, more dining options and more dining areas. PLANNING FOR SUCCESS The overnight success of the dining district was possible not just because of the work we did today but also because of the work we have done over the last several years. The beautification of Argenta and the preparation for what we know today as a thriving entertainment district started in the 1990s, with the North Little Rock’s investment in streetscaping, which included new sidewalks, flower beds and decorative lighting. In the 2000s we remediated a brownfield site that sold to a developer for luxury apartments. The proceeds helped fund the Argenta Plaza. A group of downtown property owners created a Business Improvement District to generate funding for the Argenta Downtown Council. This funding helps cover the cost of our Green Team and our public safety ambassadors. Joining the Main Street Arkansas program in 2018, the ADC has received tremendous support and training from the Arkansas Department of Heritage; Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst; and her staff. CONTINUED GROWTH The unfortunate truth is that we do not know how long we will be in our current situation. While we cannot control what’s going on with the pandemic, we can help our businesses be successful, while following all the safety guidelines. Our goal is to continue to grow the Argenta Outdoor Dining District so that our community and visitors can have a fun, safe experience. Argenta has always been a friendly place to hang out, get to know everyone and really experience that #ArgentaVibe. We believe the dining district provides this same experience while maintaining our visitors and businesses’ safety. So, grab your family and pets and head on down to Argenta! Chris Kent is executive director of the Argenta Downtown Council.
FIT 2 LIVE IN NLR Garden program thriving.
TEAM WORK: Farmcorps service members (from left) Anna Sawyer, Tap Bates and Kenny Yielding work with a community member to fill raised beds at Dark Hollow Community Garden.
it 2 Live, a department of the city of North Little Rock begun in 2009 to address citizen and employee wellness, is celebrating the 10th year of its Community Garden Network program. Community groups, faith-based organizations and schools may request up to $5,000 for garden construction materials, tools and certain other expenses in the spring and fall of each year. Gardens in the network have a volunteer community garden manager who is responsible for the upkeep and setting the rules and regulations of each garden space. “Each garden has a different goal and community which the garden serves. Some are set up as educational spaces, others as allotment gardens and others to address food and nutrition insecurity in a given community,” Patrick Collins, community garden director of the Community Garden Network, said. “After COVID-19 hit, interest in gardening rose throughout the country. People look to gardening not only as a safe activity to do outdoors but as a way to mitigate the costs of their food bills,” he said. “Garden-grown food is often more nutritious, better tasting and safer than store-bought food.” FarmCorps, a national Americorps service program overseen by the St. Joseph’s Center in North Little Rock, has played an instrumental role in revitalizing many gardens in the network. FarmCorps service members Kenny Yielding and Juwan Terry of North Little Rock, Tap Bates of Little Rock, Tanner Williams of Fort Smith and Anna Sawyer of Maryland have been assigned to Fit 2 Live for their service terms. “My overall goal is to reach and teach the community through gardening,” Bates said. “We are what we eat and the way to be the change we want to become is modeled through implementation.” “One of my most proud accomplishments with Fit 2 Live was helping organize the compost and topsoil giveaway and being able to meet with community members and seeing the direct impact we had with helping them start gardens before coronavirus hit,” Yielding said. Service members have been tasked with building raised garden beds, spreading mulch and soil amendments, setting up systems of food distribution and helping community gardeners maintain the spaces by weeding, not always the easy jobs in the Arkansas summer heat. Fit 2 Live awarded its spring funding to Shiloh Baptist “Garden of Eating,” East Second Street Community Garden, St. Joseph’s Center and North Little Rock High School. Along with the awardees, the Fit 2 Live Community Garden network includes Skyline Community Garden, Iris Park, Fresh Veggies Idlewild Park, Shorter College Community Garden, Heritage House Community Garden, North Heights Community Garden, Pike View Elementary, New Africa Community Garden, First Presbyterian Community Garden, Dark Hollow Community Garden and Anti-Poverty Group. Fall applications for funding up to $5,000 are due Sept. 1. Contact email@example.com for more information.
Move from COVID recovery to community revival!
PHOTO BY SAMANTHA GADES
Contact the Velocity Group to find out how.
Daniel Hintz 479-200-1812 • Daniel@dnaofplace.com • dnaofplace.com VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 39
we're up to something...
y r a Visi
In North Little Rock, Arkansas, the question isn’t if you should build, expand or develop: it’s where. The city is home to a diverse selection of food and culture hubs. We can help you ﬁnd the perfect ﬁt for your next project, because we know that besides price and location, you are considering quality of life for employees, existing economic vitality, the “vibe” you feel and the community you join. Welcome to the neighborhood!
Dining & Entertainment:
Maumelle morningside bagels hybrid kitchen
dark side coffee larry's pizza original scoopdog
Levy & Amboy Burns Park Rockwater taqueria guadalajara Marina
Big Dam Bridge Dickey-Stephens Park
The Old Mill cozy's
Simmons Bank Arena
North Shore Riverwalk
40 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
Rose City wink's dairy bar yancy's wingz & thingz
The Filling Station
la casa real
Lakewood lakewood fish & seafood
McCain whole hog cafe NLR
moe's southwest grill
tacos 4 life
360 Fit Nutrition
diamond bear brewing co.
ristorante capeo riverfront steakhouse
mr. cajun's kitchen
VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 41
CHANGE THE RULES
Remove the automobile from planning prominence. BY TAB TOWNSELL
ver since humankind started congregating into fixed locales a reoccurring set of living patterns has emerged. What can we learn from our history of settlement that can improve our lives today? We know that access matters. Access means connectivity. The economics of each person, household and higher-level organization requires shelter or location and easy access to the necessities of existence. The introduction of currency, sophisticated economies or the desire for luxury goods does not change this formula. For the highest quality of life or greatest productivity, access is critical. Our built environment must provide the connectivity that allows access if that locale is to be successful. This is still true today. We need jobs, yes, but also affordable homes near those jobs. And shops nearby. The raw materials of life must be within reach. The demands of a fuller life, citizenship and health also make accessibility requests. Whatever is critical to our lives must be accessible. For a century our patterns of living have been dominated by the automobile, diminishing almost all other factors contributing to that pattern. The shared street was no longer shared; connectivity brought danger. Fear of automobiles twisted our subdivision streets into mazes and blocked connectivity with cul42 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
NARROW STREETS: Like Little Rock did on Main Street to make them safer for pedestrians.
WE HAVE THREE TASKS: 1.) WE MUST REINVIGORATE AREAS BUILT BEFORE THE CAR; AND 2.) WE MUST RETROFIT AREAS BUILT TO ACCOMMODATE THE CAR; AND 3.) WE MUST CHANGE THE WAY WE BUILD NEW. de-sacs. Our automobile addiction main-lined wider streets to catch up with connectivity. Wider means safer, of course, in the traffic engineering faith. Some land uses became more repugnant. Land uses where people gather were banished and lumped together because cars also gather there. Large parking lots were garish places when full or desolate when empty. People revolting against this sought homes far away. Rigid zoning separations were the defense against obnoxious land uses. As they fled these car-scapes, people flooded into former fields harvested for development instead of foodstuffs, all to create manors the size of suburban lots and castles in single-family, detached homes. We became transhumant once more, migrating back and forth across our region in a daily rhythm rather than seasonal, for jobs and necessities rather than pasturage. Living further away also demanded automobiles. In a selfperpetuating cycle, more automobiles required multilane streets. Distance, touted as a salvation, became a burden. Bigger streets created “No Man’s Lands.” Streets become barricades. Necessities were further away across barriers, all requiring more automobiles. And around we go again. After a century of planning for the automobile, we have created a world dependent on the automobile, lifestyles and budgets that must bear a tremendous hidden cost, and a society that cannot figure out how to help those without a car. In our embrace, our disdain and our accommodation of the automobile, we have forgotten how best to live. Let’s restore that old formula and re-establish those old patterns. Let’s not react to the automobile, but sensibly plan for it — with one major caveat. For a century we have built a car-friendly world. We must start here, in this poorly built world with people who love it. We have three tasks: 1.) We must reinvigorate areas built before the car; and 2.) we must retrofit areas built to accommodate the car; and 3.) we must change the way we build new. We should remember that great cities have long been built upon themselves. Troy had at least 10 layers, 10 different Troys built atop one another. Rome had layers upon layers, as does London and Paris. Why? The critical land near the city center was close to citizens’ needs. Why walk further than that? Accessibility has always dominated city planning.
In our cities, the areas built before the car have well-connected streets. They are well-located but terribly underutilized. These are easy areas to restore. Give investors and developers incentives to build new back into these areas where infrastructure already exists. Let them experiment with small-scale multifamily, mixed use and add upper floors. Cities should give the sidewalks, street signs and street lights a little TLC. Add walkers back on side streets — think about that! Add park space following the 10-minute-walk neighborhood concept. Second, and this is tough, we must retrofit new connectivity into car-centric, post-World War II areas where we forgot to build sidewalks for 50 years. This means capturing access with every new permit and building sidewalks to nowhere — for a time. That means acquiring new easements for new walking paths and bikeways where possible. This means allowing different structures and land uses in older areas when neighborhood lifecycles allow flexibility, but with area sensitivity. Third, we should redraft regulations for all new development. We need to drop the myth that wider is safer. Local streets should be much narrower and force cars to drive slowly. Base safety on the walker moving 3 mph, not a car driving 30. Plan different land uses closer together, even integrated, while paying close attention to what things look and act like. Parking minimums should be replaced by maximums, lot sizes, building setbacks, and block sizes made shorter, and more connecting roads built. Closed loop subdivisions should be banned and cul-de-sacs should give walkers a more direct path than vehicles. Smaller, denser, finegrained and interconnected is the goal. Urban form should be encouraged; suburban tamed. We know how to live better lives. The pattern of life is written into the DNA of old cities everywhere. It is what makes Main Street, Disney World feel quaint and adds the charm to old cities of Europe. This kind of world doesn’t have to be relegated to vacations. Accessibility is connectivity and connectivity is created by rules. We can change the rules. By removing the automobile as the centerpiece of our planning, we might discover those older patterns of living are now pretty accessible. And everything ties back to accessibility. Tab Townsell is the executive director of Metroplan. VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 43
PROGRESS FUELS OPTIMISM FOR PINE BLUFF COMEBACK With $40 million in investment downtown.
BIG ADDITIONS IN PINE BLUFF: The Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Main Public Library (left) and the Pine Bluff Aquatics Center.
hen Go Forward Pine Bluff began the monumental task of putting into motion the Delta city’s infrastructure and economic rebirth a few years ago, CEO Dr. Ryan Watley had to rely on the public’s imagination and trust the vision of a new Pine Bluff. But even he knew how critical tangible progress was to fuel that optimism and sustain momentum. That moment has arrived, and on the strength of several highprofile milestones, the plan is paying off. “The phones are ringing often,” Watley said. “We’re going through several processes whereby we’re recruiting investment to the area. It’s very difficult given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, but we also have to look past this current season to when the new normal will be established and business will take place in the new environment.” Go Forward Pine Bluff, along with other community stakeholders, from the chamber of commerce to City Hall, have more tools in their economic development toolbox than the city has had in decades. Last summer, the city christened a $12 million indoor aquatics center, the first public pool in Pine Bluff in 40 years. Also downtown the gleaming showpiece of the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library System is rapidly nearing completion. Officials estimate the $10.5 44 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
GO FORWARD PINE BLUFF
BY DWAIN HEBDA
million, 35,000-square-foot complex at about 90 percent done. Watley said the two projects represent solid cornerstones in the city’s core and are as important to Pine Bluff’s overall economic future as new businesses, particularly for their effect on stemming population loss. “What you see is built on retention; individuals who see and use the developments will have a second thought about leaving the area,” he said. “We’re trying to sustain and retain the population that we have through amenities and an awesome education system. We’re working on that to improve the landscape whereby individuals will know that ‘If I stay here, my children and family will have a great place to make an income and my kids will have an opportunity to get a great future through the education system.’ “Those are things that will eventually attract people to the area, but these new developments are currently working in retaining the city that we have today.” Arguably the most telling sign of progress downtown is also its most subtle: Phase I of $2.8 million in streetscape improvement that has advanced full speed ahead since March. The improvements revitalized the appearance and usability of several contiguous blocks of Main Street with new sidewalks, landscaping and other enhancements, including new water lines.
GO FORWARD PINE BLUFF
LAST SUMMER, THE CITY CHRISTENED A $12 MILLION INDOOR AQUATICS CENTER, THE FIRST PUBLIC POOL IN PINE BLUFF IN 40 YEARS. ALSO DOWNTOWN THE GLEAMING SHOWPIECE OF THE PINE BLUFF/ JEFFERSON COUNTY LIBRARY SYSTEM IS RAPIDLY NEARING COMPLETION. OFFICIALS ESTIMATE THE $10.5 MILLION, 35,000-SQUARE-FOOT COMPLEX AT ABOUT 90 PERCENT DONE.
Even though Phase I is expected to take several more months, the progress thus far stands in stark contrast to the not-long-ago era when the district had become so dilapidated the city blocked off sections of its main downtown artery for fear of several buildings’ imminent collapse. Today, Watley and other Pine Bluff promoters are singing a much different tune. “Overall, there’s approximately $40 million worth of investment that has occurred in downtown Pine Bluff over the past three years,” he said. “We’re removing a lot of blight from the area, averaging about two houses per week to a hundred over a year. So, the plan is working. “We have a master plan and vision that identifies areas in downtown such as the municipal district, the library and arts court, the entertainment district and historic district. In terms of specific business, we want to let the private sector dictate where their business best thrives. But we will put out requests for qualification with the urban renewal agency and requests for proposals to see how we can make that a private area. We’re actually in the process of doing that.” Of course, all streets in Pine Bluff, including Main Street, lead to the behemoth Saracen Casino Resort. More than 1,000 jobs — construction workers and full-time Saracen employees at its casino annex and convenience store that opened last fall — have already been created by the $350 million project. The annex also gives a glimpse of the potential windfall the city expects to reap in tax revenue once the main component is finished. At a February topping out ceremony, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington told reporters the annex was generating $100,000 per month in tax revenues from gaming taxes and money visitors spend on food, lodging and gas. Of this, just under 20 percent stays with the city. Considering the annex, at 15,000 square feet of gaming space and 300 machines, is a fraction of the main gaming floor’s forthcoming 80,000 square feet, 2,000 machines and dozens of gaming tables, it’s not hard to imagine the substantial economic impact that lies on the horizon. Saracen Casino Resort officials estimated in May that the main complex will be open this fall, later than originally planned due to delays related to COVID-19. All of which culminates into unbridled optimism for Watley, even as Go Forward Pine Bluff faces the new challenge of capitalizing on the recent wins. “The plan is working and all of our plan is working systematically. They’re overlapping each other, which is what we hope will work,” he said. The plan is to have new projects overlap. “We have to populate those buildings along Main Street. That’s the major hurdle, that we can transform an empty storefront into a thriving business through public and private investment,” Watley said. “We have to begin to pivot from public to private in order to take us across the finish line. We want to be ready to pull the trigger when the economy is ready to accept those investments. We have been really working to bring more private attention to this public investment and see how we can leverage that for development. “We’ve made demonstrable progress, but we have a ways to go in terms of transforming empty storefronts into thriving businesses. That’s when you’ll see the full transition.” VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 45
SPRINGDALE FOCUSES ON EXPANDING CENTRAL GREENSPACE A new vision for Luther George Park. BY DWAIN HEBDA A DESTINATION PARK: That’s the vision Springdale leaders have for an improved Luther George Park.
here’s no shortage of grand designs in Arkansas’s bustling northwest corridor, as the region is regularly touted as one of the fastest-growing in the country. Among the rattling bulldozers and towering cranes bringing to life glass, steel and concrete has sprung an ambitious project that is all about the quiet tranquility of nature and facilitating the human connections that define a community. That project, Luther George Park in Springdale, will create a multifunctional space that will accommodate family activities and, post pandemic, public events with the potential to attract thousands of people. “What this park ties together is the different urban spaces in downtown Springdale,” said Jill Dabbs, executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance. “It’s already a widely utilized park, and has been for many years. But what we want to create is something so significant and so special in our downtown it will be a destination-type attraction that Springdale can be proud of for years to come.” Plans for the reimagined 15-acre downtown park include a performance space, playground and recreation spaces for all ages, with access to the restored banks along Spring Creek. Designed by Spackman Mossop Michaels Landscape Architects of New Orleans, the park’s community features support connectivity, play, events, green, exercise, art and nature. “This park is surrounded by great, culturally rich neighborhoods 46 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
that utilize it on a very regular basis,” Dabbs said. “From the beginning, we engaged those communities and got their feedback on what they wanted in their park. “They wanted even better places to do all of the things that they’re doing now — gathering for birthday parties, picnicking. They wanted places where the arts could flourish and develop, a performance stage, lots of beautification, more shade, places to gather and hang out.” The performance pavilion at the center of the park is designed to face a large audience on the west lawn of up to 3,000 people or smaller groups of 50-300 on the east side. The pavilion cover itself will stand as a sculptural piece accentuated by unique lighting at night. The playground will remain where it is, complete with the existing skate park, but several unique concepts have been proposed for the new areas. The design calls for radical elements of large outdoor spaces called “playrooms” that are connected but retain their own unique attributes. Like the pavilion cover the proposed play equipment will also blur the line between art and function. The park’s amenities will be tied together by a central concourse that will line up with South Water Street off East Emma Avenue, downtown’s main thoroughfare. The entire perimeter of the park will be lined with a double row of trees in a garden alley to replace the chain-link fence now surrounding the park, improving both aesthetics and access while boosting available shade.
“As Water Street enters the park, it will become a pedestrian/ bicycle plaza,” Dabbs said. “We’re going to make it a very beautiful gateway.” Dabbs said that in addition to these amenities, the park’s location is an important draw, especially as it pertains to the Razorback Greenway trail system, an important feature for the area’s bicycleheavy culture. “Luther George Park sits midway on the greenway,” she said. “For first-timers or the casual rider, that makes it the most reasonable place to get on, because it’s flatter and part of the most beautiful stretch of the trail. If you ride north, it’s a short ride to Lake Springdale; if you ride south, you’re going to go around Lake Fayetteville. “It also caters to riders who are looking for a short destination ride. You can ride 15 miles one direction to Fayetteville and 20 miles the other direction to Bentonville. It’s not as daunting a task from here as it is starting on either end of the trail. We’re going to be much more of a hub for the greenway.” Study and design work for the Luther George Park project has been paid for through a $642,638 Design Excellence Grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Even though she couldn’t pinpoint a groundbreaking date, Dabbs said she was confident a forthcoming capital campaign will raise the $8.5 million needed to bring the plan to life.
“Springdalers have indicated to me they are fully intentional on building this park,” she said simply. The project has the potential to return that investment through continued economic development and attracting new residents seeking quality of place. The park is part of the 600-acre master plan the city adopted five years ago and falls in line behind other improvements to the city’s core. Those additions — a greenway market, revitalization of historic buildings, construction of Walter Turnbow Park, several new restaurants opening and the creation of an entertainment district — have all brought new life and attention to downtown. Dabbs said Luther George Park will be the crown jewel in that effort. “Downtown Springdale already is and will continue to be a sought-out place to live and work,” she said. “The number of residential living options downtown is going to increase significantly. There’s going to be beautiful multifamily living put in above commercial spaces and in new mixed-use spaces. This park is not separated at all from downtown; it’s nestled right in its heart and therefore a catalyst to everything else that is in the downtown master plan. “We’re creating a destination park for the entire region. When this is completed, if you list four of the top things to visit when you come to Northwest Arkansas, Luther George Park is going to be one of those things.” VOLUME 6 | 2020 BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING | 47
THINKING STRATEGICALLY IN LONOKE How to move a small town forward. BY RYAN BILES
typical morning in the town of Lonoke begins with the sunrise over a rice field, fish transport trucks rumbling to life to begin cross-country delivery routes from one of the community’s innumerable minnow or goldfish ponds, and public servants and attorneys heading to work in the 1928 County Courthouse on the edge of downtown. For many years, Lonoke has been overlooked, taking a back seat in size and visibility to other communities that have been impacted by the suburban population shift in the last three decades. Four years ago, citizen volunteers in Lonoke decided to identify resources and partners to develop a plan of action. Like numerous communities concerned with creating opportunity for students — the objectives of battling rural “brain drain”— reversing population stagnation and stimulating job growth was central to their motivation. Determined that their hometown had potential that had not yet been cultivated into opportunity, Lonoke’s volunteers worked with the University of Central Arkansas’s Center for Community and Economic Development to develop a strategic
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plan, unveiled in May 2017. This planning process emphasized an asset-based approach to prioritizing and undertaking key projects. Following this “Ideas Phase,” volunteers formed action teams and launched “Lonoke 2022,” a five-year implementation phase to conclude with the town’s 150th anniversary. At the heart of this volunteer effort is the common vision to build a “Visible, Attractive, and Connected Lonoke.” That vision statement has been a constant guide as the community of Lonoke began to “make the bricks” that would be used to construct the future they had declared for themselves. Lonoke Mayor Trae Reed, who has a degree in landscape architecture, was determined to amplify the voices of volunteers and citizens who have been pushing for a fresh approach in the community. With a designer’s eye, he understood that well-planned public spaces provide opportunities for shared experiences and inclusion. Before taking office, Reed and his family launched Fishtown Farmers Market — a first for the town — in downtown Lonoke, where they experienced firsthand the power of activating
a previously ignored outdoor space. In the years since the birth of the Farmers Market, citizens have seen how such pedestrianfriendly development — as opposed to “design by default” — can invigorate communities. In 2019, Reed invited colleagues and mentors Professors Peter Summerlin and Jason Walker from Mississippi State University, where Reed received his bachelor’s degree, to consider the town of Lonoke as the subject of their studies in the university’s fall 2019 Regional Design Studio. A studentdriven, three-part process resulted in the “Connecting Lonoke” presentation, which created vignettes for pilot projects focusing on Two Prairie Bayou, state Highway 31 corridor enhancements, downtown Lonoke public space, Lonoke Community Center expansion and outdoor recreation, Lonoke Ballpark enhancements and a greenway recreational network. The concepts developed in the “Connecting Lonoke” study have sparked imagination both within and outside the community. Locals have recently tested the waters of Two Prairie Bayou on the north edge of town with a kayak and canoe float with the goal of developing a water trail, wetland arboretum and education center, an asset for both citizens and travelers. The greenway recreation trail concept is designed to create a hub of activity for a regional trail system along former railroad tracks to connect Lonoke with North Little Rock, the Clinton Presidential Center, the Arkansas River Trail and beyond. Lonoke has re-engaged with Metroplan to investigate the funding of recreational and transportation infrastructure projects to enhance connectivity and create destinations with Lonoke. A community with a distinct central heart has an advantage over those that don’t. The
CONNECTING LONOKE: Trails and greenspace are part of the vision.
Shared spaces provide common ground for exchanging friendly waves, compelling ideas, personal concerns and warm smiles. Downtown Lonoke, long anchored by the historic Rock Island Depot, which was saved through the historic preservation efforts of past generations, represents a blank canvas that neighbors can fill. Recreational trails now occupy the former railroad right-of-way, and new businesses are bringing experiences that the town has not previously known. The Cozy Nook Studio and Gallery brings fine art and art education to the heart of Lonoke. An adaptive reuse project to develop a new local restaurant called The Grumpy Rabbit promises a refreshing, well-designed experience housed in a historic building in Downtown Lonoke. The “Connecting Lonoke” plan contains concepts for a downtown plaza and open structures for gathering and a permanent home for the community’s farmers market. Lonoke will soon have a downtown coffee shop again. A walk audit has been conducted via a partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and UCA in advance of the development of a bike and pedestrian master plan for the town. In May 2020, Lonoke learned that it was accepted into Main Street Arkansas’s Downtown Network program. The goals of the 2017 Strategic Action Plan are being achieved one by one. Lonoke is now in a position to define its growth on its own terms. As a community in which the pace of life is noticeably slower than many of the suburban communities circling Little Rock, Lonoke is leveraging the unique asset of a different pace to plan and implement with intention. In a place where most progress will be incremental, Lonoke’s volunteers and elected leaders have embraced a posture of
A COMMUNITY WITH A DISTINCT CENTRAL HEART HAS AN ADVANTAGE OVER THOSE THAT DON’T. THE CONCEPTS FOR ENHANCING THE CENTER STREET CORRIDOR ARE DESIGNED TO BRIDGE THE DISCONNECT FROM THE GENERIC DEVELOPMENT AT LONOKE’S INTERSTATE 40 INTERCHANGES AND DRAW GUESTS TOWARD THE HEART OF TOWN WITH RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES AND WELLDESIGNED LANDSCAPE. concepts for enhancing the Center Street corridor are designed to bridge the disconnect from the generic development at Lonoke’s Interstate 40 interchanges and draw guests toward the heart of town with recreational activities and well-designed landscape.
intentionality and strategic planning. In a small community, every incremental win can be leveraged for the next step toward progress. Ryan Biles is an architect, the director of development for Thrive Inc., a Lonoke alderman and a member of Lonoke 2022.
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AIDING DEVELOPMENT IN LITTLE ROCK Comprehensive changes to zoning laws will make a difference.
t’s mid-July as I write, and COVID-19 cases have been rising precipitously across Arkansas for weeks. On top of the fear and stress about the virus, thousands of Arkansans remain unemployed and uncertain about when they might return to work, or if their previous employer will reopen at all. The city of Little Rock won’t have a true reckoning of the financial impact of all of this for months, but we have already reduced the 2020 budget by $5 million in response. Things are a mess, but many great business people believe that there is opportunity in chaos, maybe none more so than property developers. During these past few months, the Little Rock market has been hot as developers have moved to do what they do, which is to take advantage of fluctuations in markets that allow them, ultimately, to wring another point or two of margin out of a project. In June alone, the city issued 21 single-family housing permits, 51 units of multifamily housing and more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space, all of which align with annual averages. I’m not as surprised as some are by the activity. Little Rock has seen growth in every ward of the city every year since the end of the Great Recession. Obviously, some wards have seen quite a lot more investment than others, but the city’s growth has been ticking upward for close to a decade now. And while I’m grateful, I’m unsatisfied with the rate and reach of our growth. Since we took office in January 2019, we have added 2,513 jobs to Little Rock’s economy, and we’ll continue to work with all of our partners to ensure that we are competing to attract the best companies from around the world. Helping existing businesses, particularly small businesses, grow is another area where we want to work with partners to bolster our results, and in August we plan to unveil a new portal on the littlerock.gov website dedicated to small-business information. I’m proud of our record of job creation so far, but again, we must do more. In an environment where many workers have increasing power over where they live and work, cities such as Little Rock have to have abundant housing choices, strong neighborhoods and great amenities in order to compete. To move that way, our focus in 2020 has been the creation of a better, faster, stronger development cycle in the city of Little Rock. 50 | BLOCK, STREET & BUILDING VOLUME 6 | 2020
BY FRANK SCOTT JR.
In May our City Board approved an ordinance making the first comprehensive revisions to zoning, infrastructure and development laws since the 1980s. The changes streamline cumbersome processes by removing outdated steps and implementing new technology. These revisions also open the door to allowing developers and neighborhoods to petition for zoning changes that will allow new approaches and designs, such as tiny houses or different lot configurations, where previous zoning prevented it. These changes will impact developers across every facet of the industry, working in every corner of the city. I’m particularly interested in the impact on redevelopment projects in neighborhoods in our city’s core. We have strong developers working in the neighborhoods south of Interstate 630. We want more, and our Little Rock Opportunity Zone Task Force is just one way we’re working to identify both potential projects and partners. We are exploring redevelopment and revitalization projects across the city, talking with both public and private partners, big and small about ways we can collaborate to create neighborhoods whose residents enjoy better outcomes across health, education and economic indicators. I am energized by all of these conversations and eager to get to work, but there is still one piece missing. There are some projects and some neighborhoods that I don’t think we will help in my lifetime without an incentive program. Tax increment financing (TIF) programs are used successfully in cities around the country, but our school financing formula makes that approach problematic in Arkansas. We need something different that is targeted very tightly to make abuse difficult; that prioritizes school funding, yet mitigates what is going to be tremendous risk for developers on some projects. I know that many of my peers around the state are looking at these same issues, and I anticipate some interesting conversations in the months ahead. A beautiful city that provides a place for everyone to pursue their dreams in safety and good health — these are modest goals, but it will take residents from across our city, uniting to work together, to bring them to reality. Frank Scott Jr. is the mayor of Little Rock.
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