Making NLR's Argenta a 24/7 Business Beacon

Mayor Joe Smith, right, and communications chief Nathan Hamilton look over the Argenta Plaza site, the mayor’s grand vision for downtown.
Mayor Joe Smith, right, and communications chief Nathan Hamilton look over the Argenta Plaza site, the mayor’s grand vision for downtown. (Kerry Prichard)

Bill Gray has explored most of his hometown’s 55 square miles over his 58 years, from the Old Mill in Lakewood to Park Hill, down to the crossroads of Levy and the rail yards that bisect North Little Rock.

But there was one area “you just didn’t much want to go to,” in his youth, the self-described North Little Rock boy said.

That was downtown.

Now, as one of the city’s most prominent architects, Gray hopes to transform downtown into a business and residential beacon centered on the $4.4 million Argenta Plaza project and the mixed-use buildings set to rise around it.

After aiding in the joint design of two downtown bookends on Broadway — Verizon Arena to the east and the Dickey-Stephens ballpark to the west — Gray has enlisted in Mayor Joe Smith’s campaign to make Argenta, named for silver, into a trendy hunk of commercial gold.

Smith’s plan focuses on the blocks bordered by Main Street to the west, Magnolia to the east, and Bishop Lindsey Avenue and Fourth Street to the north and south.

Gray, the CEO of Taggart Architects, is up to his elbows in schematics for Smith’s grand vision: A 150-by-230-foot public space in the heart of the reborn Argenta Historic District, the centerpiece of what Smith calls the largest economic development project he has assisted in more than two decades of city government work.

Gray and his team at Taggart, a major player in health care work nationally and a force in local civic design, have joined with DLandstudio of Brooklyn to design the plaza. They’re also conjuring their own new office building, estimated at $10 million, “across the street” at 600 Main, to share with the North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association.

Taggart is assisting lead architect Stephen Rousseau on another major office project on the plaza, the First Orion Building. First Orion, the parent company of PrivacyStar, which makes call- and text-blocking tools, will fill only part of the multimillion-dollar 80,000-SF space at first, but may grow to use most of its six stories. VCC of Little Rock is the contractor.

Gray’s team at Taggart is also involved in a 15,000-SF restaurant-and-residences project abutting the plaza to the north, at Sixth and Main. That project, led by John Chandler, is likely to be three stories and $10 million.

Millennials Welcome
“The new plaza is creating the energy that we knew it would,” said Mayor Smith, who calls Dickey-Stephens Park his “baby” and has toiled in the steady evolution of the Argenta area for more than 20 years. As apartments like Argenta Flats sprang up, residents fueled a boom in nightlife and dining, he said, but the new office buildings will offer 24/7 business growth.

The effect will only intensify after Thrive, a 164-apartment complex, opens next year, Smith said. Ground was broken on that $16 million project, at 501 N. Magnolia St. just southeast of the plaza and immediately north of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, in late July.

ERC Cos. of Fort Smith, led by Rob Coleman, chose North Little Rock for its third Thrive project. The others were in Bentonville and Jenks, Oklahoma, though the Jenks property sold last month for $18 million.

“I feel Thrive would never be here without the plaza coming, and probably Argenta Flats wouldn’t be here either,” Smith told an Arkansas Business reporter in his spacious office at the marbled City Hall a couple of blocks from the plaza site.

Charles Morgan, First Orion’s CEO and former chief of Acxiom Corp., “saw the area’s potential to attract the educated and the employable, what we all call the millennials now,” Smith continued. “But basically we’re talking about the workforce of the future. They want to work, live and play all in the same area.”

Gray agreed. “When I grew up, nobody really wanted to go downtown, but in the last 10 or 15 years it has developed into a cool place. We thought we could take advantage of that synergy, with going downtown helping us recruit young professionals.”

Taggart will occupy the third floor of the planned 25,000-SF building at 600 Main, with the automobile dealers group filling the second floor and the NLRCVB taking the first. Groundbreakings for 600 Main, First Orion and the plaza itself are set for spring. “We hope to be in the dirt on all these by then, and we’re thinking 12 months to completion,” Gray said.

He said the plaza may be ready by Christmas 2018, but Taggart’s own building could take a bit longer.

Plotting their own space has challenged Gray and his fellow Taggart designers, James Meyers and Alan New. “We keep tweaking the design, so it’s taking longer. We keep refining and changing our minds, and it’s kind of hard for three architects to agree on anything. But we’re getting close.”

Taggart, a private partnership that doesn’t reveal its revenue, offered no cost prediction, but the city estimated a $10 million price tag for 600 Main.

Swinging on Main
Renderings of the plaza, with its “front porch” pergola along Main and a 20-foot cascading water wall, depict children splashing in interactive fountains, adults lounging on shaded swings and grassy knolls, and al fresco diners at the restaurant on the plaza’s north edge.

“The water wall will be all lit up, and fountains coming out of the ground will be doing different things,” Gray said. On the south side, a screen with recessed tabs will resemble an art piece when it’s not being used as a video screen for movies, sports or other entertainment. Below that will be the stage, backing up against the building housing the North Little Rock History Commission. “You’ll be able to sit there by Main, swing and watch the folks go by.”

Taggart is a 50-50 partner on the plaza with DLandstudio, led by Susannah C. Drake. “She’s widely known as a landscape architect,” Gray said, “and she’s done great projects, parks and plazas, all over the country.”

Smith said North Little Rock, with 65,000 citizens, was fortunate to have empty downtown lots ready for development.

The site, on the grounds of a demolished old feed mill, is now a parking lot opposite the North Little Rock trolley barn.

The plaza plans have generated excitement for business leaders like Conan Robinson, owner of the Four Quarter Bar at 415 Main, and Jun Pyo Kim, manager of the new sushi eatery KamiKaito at 521 Main, across the street from the plaza site.

“We have a full-staff kitchen, and we’re actually looking for another chef,” Kim told KARK-TV. “We’re getting ready for it.”

Robinson was alarmed back in 2015 when he was preparing his bar for its opening. “Back then, by 9 or 9:30 the area was a ghost town,” he told Arkansas Business. “It’s amazing how that has changed in a short time.” He expects crowds from events at the plaza to pour in afterward “for late-night food and entertainment.” His bar is open nightly until 2 a.m.

Argenta, named in 1866 by Robert C. Newton for the silver his family had mined north of the Arkansas River, is compact and welcoming, Smith said. “It’s not too big and it’s all homegrown with local businesses. But we needed daytime people … we were missing the First Orions of the world.”

Smith dealt a poker metaphor. “With Charles Morgan deciding to come over here, we’re completing the full house; we had gotten up to two pairs, but First Orion gave us the full house, and I expect more development to the east of the trolley barn, to the north of 600 Main, and on other properties.”

Nathan Hamilton, the city’s communications director, credited a willingness to sock away money for years as a key to the plaza-area developments.

“Over the years we sold several different properties, many downtown, with the proceeds designated for a future plaza project,” he said. “One significant property was Smarthouse Way, along the riverfront, that provided about $800,000. About 15 transactions in total generated about $2 million for the project.” That money, along with capital improvement sales tax proceeds from previous years, provided the $4.4 million the City Council appropriated for the plaza in November.

“Downtown belongs to everyone in the city, and I firmly believe that you cannot have a successful city without a successful downtown,” Smith said.

Revitalization has been a priority for Smith since he went to work for Mayor Patrick Henry Hays more than two decades ago. “Urban sprawl had pushed everything out to the edges, and downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock became ghost towns,” he said. “When we started having crime issues in our vacant downtown and in the aging Argenta neighborhood, we had to start doing something.”

Patience Was Key
But the city had to be patient. “We turned down offers over the years, things that wouldn’t complement our growth,” the mayor said. “We’ve been fairly successful in this rejuvenation by having the patience of Job. It’s hard to turn down projects, but when they just don’t fit right, you have to. Now the pieces are falling together correctly.”

The plaza project seemed natural for Gray’s architecture firm, which worked on the North Little Rock School District’s new high school and elementary projects, as well as the Hays Senior Center and Argenta Community Theater. “I felt it was an opportunity for a North Little Rock boy to kind of give back, to be part of a revitalization,” Gray said.

But walking into Taggart’s new offices will be bittersweet, Gray predicted. “My old partner, Jerry Currence, died of cancer two years ago, and he had really pushed getting us downtown. So it’ll be a happy day and a sad day when we get there, because Jerry won’t be there with us. But I know he’ll be smiling.”