National Register Listings Light a Towering Inferno

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Apr. 17, 2017 12:00 am  

Some downtown Little Rock property owners are surprised and upset that three public housing towers have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places despite being rejected by the state’s review board.

The Fred W. Parris Towers, the Cumberland Towers and the Jesse Powell Towers were built in the early 1970s to provide affordable housing for senior citizens. The Metropolitan Housing Authority of Little Rock, which owns all three buildings, requested the towers be placed on the national register; their inclusions would allow the MHA to receive up to $11 million in state and federal tax credits for renovations of historic buildings.

Heritage Consulting Group of Portland, Oregon, which specializes in obtaining historic status for developments, made a presentation on the Housing Authority’s behalf at the State Review Board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program meeting on Dec. 7 in Little Rock. The board voted 4-2 to exclude the towers from the national register.

Stacy Hurst, the director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, then directly nominated the towers to the National Park Service on Jan. 17. The Department of Arkansas Heritage announced the towers had made the national register list on March 25.

The announcement stunned the proposal’s opponents, who had not known Hurst had directly applied for the towers’ register inclusion at the federal level.

“I personally think heads need to roll over this,” said Sharon Welch-Blair, who spoke against the proposal at the review board meeting. She is a past president of Little Rock’s Downtown Neighborhood Association. “We need to stand up. The problem we have right now is citizens aren’t standing up on principle. This is a money-grubbing issue that doesn’t have anything to do with historic properties. This has to do with who can make money.”

When Hurst’s office was contacted for a comment on her support for register status for the towers, Communications Director Melissa Whitfield responded by emailing a copy of the nomination letter Hurst sent to the National Park Service.

$55 Million Renovation
The towers were erected in response to a federal policy that gave funding priority to senior public housing projects. Little Rock responded by building Parris in 1972, Cumberland in 1974 and Powell in 1975, by which time the federal policy had changed.

Proponents of the towers’ national register inclusion argued that the buildings are historically significant as local examples of the federal public housing initiative. That significance compensated for the buildings being less than 50 years old, which is an unofficial cutoff age for register applicants.

The three towers represent nearly 600 residential units, and the Housing Authority plans a $55 million renovation project for the buildings. Because the buildings are for low-income seniors and disabled people, it’s unlikely rent payments will make up the costs.

That’s why the tax credits become such an important factor in the buildings’ renovations, for which the Housing Authority plans to partner with Gorman & Co. Inc. of Oregon, Wisconsin. It is expected that as much as $11 million of the $55 million cost could be reimbursed through various state and federal tax credits.

Jill Judy, who owns Little Rock Historical Properties with her husband, said she was approached about buying Parris Towers, but that idea disappeared when the Housing Authority decided to put the complex on the national register. Judy said she and her husband live near Parris Towers and own property near Cumberland Towers.



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