It’s been half a century or more since downtown served as Little Rock’s true “center,” but with a thriving River Market District and millions of dollars in public and private investment, downtown is beginning to flourish once more.
Aiming to help downtown revitalization reach its true potential, a nonprofit group called StudioMAIN has unveiled plans to market an area of downtown it’s calling the Financial Quarter. The group defines the quarter as 20 city blocks including the riverfront and bounded by Sixth Street to the south, Broadway to the west and Main Street to the east.
StudioMAIN, composed mostly of downtown architects and other community leaders, will formally introduce its plans as part of Little Rock Marathon festivities the first weekend in March. The final mile or so of the course runs down Capitol Avenue through part of the Quarter, and group members will host a prerace event promoting the area on the Saturday night before the Sunday marathon.
Glen Woodruff, director of business development for Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Architects and the StudioMAIN coordinator for the Financial Quarter project, said the goal is to reintroduce the area to downtown workers who know it through the lens of parking decks and office cubicles only, to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly and to connect other developing areas of downtown.
He wants to see more downtown workers venturing out to enjoy their surroundings but knows the area needs more attractions to draw them. The group will work with area businesses on plans to redesign little-used bank lobbies along Capitol with retail and food venues and develop new “streetscapes.” Funding these plans will likely fall on downtown property owners. StudioMAIN has received donations from some of them, but so far hasn’t identified long-term funding sources other than organizational fees paid by group members. Woodruff expects city cooperation but no city money.
Phase one of the projects entails the big event associated with the marathon. It will occupy bank plazas along Capitol and include food and drink venues and kiosks. Further down the road, phase one includes the addition of street furniture (consistently designed trash receptacles, benches and lighting, for example), painted crosswalks, banners and landscaping, as well as permanent “pop-up” kiosks that would function as signs, art, music pavilions, food vendors and even retail outlets. Woodruff said Little Rock real estate development firm Moses Tucker is in negotiations with vendors about redesigning the Regions Center lobby and opening it up to the street.
Phase two requires “more financial investment” and could include plaza redesigns along Capitol between Main and Broadway. It would also include the addition of more street furniture and all-important “way finding” signage to guide pedestrians between destinations such as the River Market, the Financial Quarter, even the Arkansas Arts Center and Governor’s Mansion District to the south.
Long term, Woodruff envisions a corridor down Center Street linking the South Main and Quapaw Quarter neighborhoods to the “heart of the city” — a direct, pedestrian friendly and aesthetic route between the Governor’s Mansion and the Old State House along the riverfront.
That vision makes up part of phase three of the Financial Quarter plan, in which Capitol and Center would be redesigned with public spaces repurposed for mixed use and existing buildings converted for high-rise housing. Woodruff said roughly half of the ground-level property in the Quarter is surface parking. His group believes mixed-use properties with ground-floor retail and parking above could become realistic future options.
‘A Bona Fide Rebirth’
Little Rock Technology Park Director Brent Birch, who is overseeing the planned project on and along Main, sees the Financial Quarter as another strong component to a burgeoning downtown.
“Marry the new and improved Main Street with the proposed plans of the Financial Quarter district, and downtown Little Rock doesn’t resemble anything I knew when I returned from college,” the former Razorbacks pitcher said. “We are seeing a bona fide rebirth of downtown Little Rock, and restaurateurs, hoteliers and real estate developers often mention the Tech Park as a key driver in why they chose downtown for their efforts. To be a part of downtown’s resurgence coupled with the Creative Corridor and the Robinson Center renovation is beyond exciting.”
Woodruff knows the vision is a big one, and he doesn’t expect it to take off overnight. But the River Market started off as just a dream, he noted. In the meantime, the marathon pre-event will serve as the Financial Quarter’s launching point.
“We’re just trying to brand the Financial Quarter using the energy of the marathon,” Woodruff said. “And the marathon folks are all for this and have been very supportive. We’ll take the opportunity to brand this and hopefully get some folks excited.”
Jay Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, has been active in downtown redevelopment, promoting the Creative Corridor and serving on the Tech Park board. He sees a downtown Little Rock that slowly but surely is blossoming into a budding commercial/residential/entertainment district.
“Who’d have thought that 10 years ago, downtown Little Rock would be something that people are clamoring for,” he said. “We’re transforming downtown into an urban, walkable environment. We’re just beginning to see the activity to come. Folks will wake up five years from now, look both ways down Main and Capitol, and wonder, ‘When did this happen?’”
A Look at the Property That Makes Up the FQ
True to its name, the area defined as the Financial Quarter includes office buildings, most of them named for banks, that make up much of Little Rock’s skyline.
The four-block stretch of Capitol Avenue between Main and Broadway includes the 22-story One Union National Plaza (home to the former Union National Bank), the 23-story Bank of America Plaza (formerly the Worthen Bank building), the 30-story Regions Center (formerly the First Commercial and the First National Bank building before that and home to Regions Bank’s Arkansas operations) and the 40-story Simmons Center, named for Simmons First National Bank.
According to StudioMAIN, a group made up mostly of downtown architects and other community leaders, the daytime population of those bank towers plus the 25-story Stephens Building on Center Street is roughly 6,000. In addition, the area defined as the Financial Quarter is home to roughly 1,100 hotel rooms (Little Rock Marriott, Capital Hotel, the Doubletree and LaQuinta Inn & Suites); an office inventory that includes 43 buildings with more than 4 million SF and a vacancy rate of 12.2 percent; and a retail inventory of eight buildings with 74,515 SF and a current vacancy of 2.62 percent.
In all, and including one small building listed as industrial, the Financial Quarter’s total office/retail inventory is to 52 buildings with 4.1 million SF and a vacancy rate of 12 percent.