John Burkhalter Sees Green With Arkansas First Building

by George Waldon  on Monday, Jul. 25, 2011 12:00 am  

This year is shaping up to be a breakout year for John Burkhalter and his development dreams. The Little Rock businessman is enjoying a second career as a real estate developer since selling his U-Liner Mid-America Inc. in April 1998 to CSR Pipeline Systems of Houston.

Burkhalter said terms of the deal were confidential, but the sale positioned the civil engineer with more time to pursue his interest in public service and more money to bankroll his affinity for building things.

"I love to hear the sound of a Skilsaw cutting through a piece of plywood," said Burkhalter, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission.

If all goes according to plan, construction of two ambitious projects in Little Rock could begin this fall: his 40,000-SF Arkansas First Building near the Capitol and his 16.1-acre River City Yacht Club development, four blocks east of the Clinton Presidential Library grounds.

"The marina project has the potential to be a LEED-certified project," Burkhalter said. "If I can get it LEED-certified I will. I haven't given up on it yet."

The $6 million Arkansas First development was envisioned as a green development from the get-go and was planned to open in 2009.

However, construction of the proposed office project was delayed by market conditions and an ongoing battle over its height.

Opponents claim the proposed site for the five-story structure at 1417 W. Sixth St. will harm vistas of the Capitol. Burkhalter and the Capitol Zoning District Commission disagree with that.

"It's my dream and passion," the 54-year-old businessman said of the project where he intends to relocate his office. "I do things right. It's an important piece of property, and it needs to be done right. I'm building a building that will be reverent to the Capitol."

Even critics of the project's 73-foot height have given approving nods to the design of the Arkansas First project.

Burkhalter said the size of the building was dictated by economic feasibility.

He is optimistic the commission again will approve the necessary rezoning to give a green light to the construction.

"I should be good to go sometime in October," Burkhalter said.

He also hopes to begin construction this fall on the first phase of the River City Yacht Club, a $7 million endeavor that includes 141 boat slips, a fishing pier and public walking promenade, a dock store, fuel islands and a small park.

Burkhalter is working to finalize a lease agreement with the city for six acres on the western end of the site. This undeveloped land, which will contain the first phase, adjoins 10.1 acres that he purchased for $900,000 in 2006.

He said the first slips should be completed by spring. His marina plans, revised from four years ago, call for 176 slips in phase two, 101 slips in phase three and a restaurant in phase four.

"There's a strong demand for slips," said Burkhalter, who grew up in Sherwood.

Joining the development mix will be 168 apartments with balcony views of the Arkansas River and a five-story, 25-unit condo tower. Burkhalter said he already had lined up enough residents to make the condo component happen but construction would wait until the marina was further along.

"It will be a jewel that will stand the test of time," he said of the River City Yacht Club. "I'm a professional engineer, and I draw all the plans. I've drawn this project many times."

Seated in the lobby of his upscale Fountaine Bleau Apartment project in North Little Rock, Burkhalter flips through the blueprints of the marina project double-checking numbers.

Four large marble water fountains are planned for the gated riverside development, and Burkhalter has worked the design to incorporate the property's huge cottonwood trees into the site plan.

Before turning his development gaze on the capital city, Burkhalter was drawn to North Little Rock's Maumelle Boulevard corridor.

He has a stake in 122 acres zoned for commercial, industrial and multifamily development, holdings that extend northward into neighboring Maumelle.

"Being an engineer, I was shopping for value and looking at traffic counts," Burkhalter said. "This corridor made sense."

His first multifamily project in the area was Lexington Park Apartments, a 288-unit project with room to grow that was launched with Kent Vestal Jr. in 2005.

The first two phases of Fountaine Bleau also total 288 units, and expansion plans call for 312 more, with construction of 180 units set to start after Labor Day. The tripped-out French decor and Class-A amenities are meant to radiate a resort vibe to visitors and residents.

"I want you to feel like you're on vacation when you walk in here," Burkhalter said. "I believe the details make a project."

Farther east, construction recently began on his 216-unit Fountaine Bleau North project at the northeast corner of Smokey Lane and East 46th Street in North Little Rock. The first apartments should open by Christmas.

After selling U-Liner, Burkhalter looked for new opportunity and saw it with market-rate apartments decked out with upscale trappings.

"As I began to diversify, I saw a change in people's sentiment in this country," he said. "There's a changing of the guard when it comes to home ownership."


Arkansas First

The Arkansas First Building will sport a granite cladding on its exterior walls, made of energy-efficient insulated concrete forms.

Four stories of office space will be crowned with a 1,800-SF conservatory on the roof/deck, with landscaping to cut the heat absorption of the roof and insulate and reduce radiant heat. The glass-enclosed structure will serve as a meeting room or a covered gathering place for rooftop events at the building.

"It won't look like a green building," said Tim Heiple, partner at Heiple + Wiedower. "It's intended to look very traditional and fit in with the neighborhood."

The Capitol Zoning District Commission will revisit John Burkhalter's Arkansas First proposal in August. The nine-member commission again will consider rezoning the property after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Jay Moody ruled that procedural errors negated the commission's unanimous approval in December.

Dan Cook, the project's chief antagonist and a former member of the commission, brought the lawsuit that erased the commission's action. The Capitol Zoning District Commission has granted variances to other projects. 



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