About $100 million in new development is unfolding along Little Rock’s Main Street as developers bet on an influx of jobs and residents, according to an estimate by Moses Tucker Real Estate of Little Rock.
In approximately three years, those projects have included Moses Tucker's Mann Building, which opened in September 2013 and includes loft apartments and a restaurant; the newly opened CJRW building and the Jones Production offices soon to be completed across the street; and the Little Rock Tech Park, whose leaders are poised to make their first real estate acquisitions.
It also includes the still-unfinished K Lofts and Main Street Lofts projects, two Scott Reed developments months behind schedule and now in limbo with unpaid contractors off the job site.
But activity along the corridor continues, with investments coming from technology, housing, retail, restaurants and the arts.
"I think it’s really a cool thing to see that people are coming back downtown to spend their time and spend their money," Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said. "Whether it is for an event like the food festival … or just coming down for dinner and to go to a show at the Rep, it’s a good environment that is building here and it’s going to pay dividends for years to come."
Much of the investment is rooted in the jobs that developers hope the Little Rock Tech Park brings to the area.
"The Tech Park has so much potential for job creation and, to me, everything kind of comes from that," Rett Tucker, co-chairman of Moses Tucker Real Estate said. "We can have some companies get started there and grow and do well then those people will support everything else."
In 2011, city voters approved a new sales tax that will generate $22 million by 2021 to build a 3-acre office park where researchers and other business ventures could collaborate and commercialize their work.
Last year, the Tech Park’s Authority Board — which includes representatives from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Arkansas Children’s Hospital —voted to put the Tech Park downtown.
The project is now on schedule to make its first purchases of Main Street real estate around the first of the year, according to Brent Birch, the Tech Park’s director.
Last month, the park requested $6.6 million in proceeds from the city’s Tech Park sales tax to buy properties in the 400 block of Main Street — part of phase one of the Tech Park’s development. Using those dollars, along with $17.5 million in loan financing, Birch hopes to close on the purchase of the Exchange Bank building at 421 Main St., its annex at 417 Main and the Mays Byrd & Associates law firm at 415 Main by the first week of January.
Demolition, construction and renovation would begin soon after, he said.
According to Birch, putting the Tech Park downtown will help revitalize the area by providing an integrated campus-like environment. He said park is also distinct from other projects taking place downtown, adding variety to the area.
"Diversity is important to any development project, especially in a downtown environment," Birch said. "In cities big and small, trends across the country show the live, work and play mantra is working. Each piece enhances the next to create a part of town people want to be and be seen. Downtown has become cool again."
The Right Mix
Mixed-use has been the strategy for many projects downtown and is particularly visible in the 300 block of Main.
Across the street at 315 Main, Reed’s 42,000-SF K Lofts project contains restaurant space and unfinished apartments. And facing each other at the southwest and southeast corners of Third and Main are the new 21,000-SF CJRW building and the 28,000-SF Jones Production studio.
"Typically how this evolves is that you see restaurants, and then the housing comes, and then retail follows that. So, as you know, we have some restaurants that have moved into the area and that are proving to be very successful," Holmstrom said. "But I think retail is kind of the next wave."
Moses Tucker is now renovating the Fulk-Democrat Building at 615 Main St. The $2.2 million, 15,000-SF project, set to be complete in the spring, includes eight loft-style apartments with retail on the ground floor, to be anchored by the 3,200-SF Raimondo Winery.
The arts are also making inroads along Main. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre has long held productions in its complex at 601 Main, but it also plans to open a small venue, called a "black box" theater, in the Arkansas Building at 524 Main St.
The Arkansas Building, a Reed development that was once home to the Pfeifer Brothers Department Store and later the Dillard's Inc. corporate headquarters, will also house rehearsal and office space for Ballet Arkansas. Next door in another Reed project, the M.M. Cohn Co. building at 510 Main, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra plans to take on its own rehearsal space.
The arts component is key to the city’s marketing of Main Street as the "Creative Corridor." But delays in development have clouded the timeline for occupancy.
Karen Basset, executive director of Ballet Arkansas, said the company was originally supposed to move its studio and offices into a space in the Arkansas Building in fall 2013. She said the studio space is almost done, but the offices are far from complete and she has no estimates on when they can relocate.
Christina Littlejohn, executive director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, said they were originally supposed to move in during the summer 2014.
"We don’t know when we will move in," Littlejohn said. "I wish I knew. We’re optimistic it'll be within the next three months."
While some Main Street projects have gone off schedule, the developers at Moses Tucker remain optimistic about growth, and they plan to manage it in stages.
"We think the demand is there for more, and one interesting contrast in some of this urban redevelopment is many of the projects are smaller," Tucker said. "Often you’ll see suburban apartment projects with 250 units, and we just don’t have the space to do that downtown, particularly on Main Street … So instead of having one project with 250 units, what we'd like to do is 30-40-50 every year to 18 months and let the market absorb them in a more realistic way."