North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith stood in the damp chill the Saturday after Thanksgiving, ignoring pain from an emergency appendectomy 10 days earlier. The mayor, 67, was determined to see a longtime vision realized: the dedication of Argenta Plaza.
The following Monday, he was home recuperating as Chief of Staff Danny Bradley gave an update on the $5 million public plaza and the $65 million in construction projects starting and finishing around it.
The plaza, a 150-by-230-foot park on Main Street between Fifth and Sixth, is more than a public gathering space with landscaping, water features, a stage/screen and a “front porch” pergola. To Smith, Bradley and Taggart Architects CEO Bill Gray, it’s also the symbol of booming Argenta Arts District and jewel of a once-weary downtown that’s becoming a magnet for business, dining and young workers looking to live in apartments and townhouses.
Argenta’s one square mile has anchored some $500 million in downtown commercial projects since Simmons Bank Arena opened as Alltel Arena 20 years ago and was followed quickly by the Dickey-Stephens ballpark’s opening seven blocks to the west on Broadway.
“The plaza was Mayor Smith’s baby from the beginning, so it was good to see him there so soon after his surgery,” Bradley said in North Little Rock’s marbled City Hall just blocks away from the building flurry.
“He’s certainly proud of these $65 million in current projects.”
The biggest is the $15 million, 72,000-SF First Orion Building facing the plaza from the west. Its contractor, VCC of Little Rock, is seeking clearance for partial occupancy by the end of January in anticipation of a full opening in late February or March, Bradley and Gray said. Taggart Architects was a cornerstone, having collaborating on the plaza design with DLand Studios of Brooklyn while at the same time helping plan the four-story First Orion space and shaping its own new building, 600 Main, just 25 yards up Main from the plaza.
Construction is quickly wrapping up there and for First Orion, the parent company of PrivacyStar, a maker of call- and text-blocking software. First Orion, led by former Acxiom CEO Charles Morgan, plans to bring hundreds of high-paying jobs to the area.
Buildings Nearly Completed
“The goal by mid-January is to have partial occupancy on one floor of the First Orion project,” said Bradley, a former police chief who joined Smith’s administration nearly seven years ago. “Actual completion is now slated for late February, but First Orion apparently is in desperate need of space, and the contractor has told me they’re seeking a partial occupancy permit.”
Taggart will take the top floor of 600 Main, a $7.2 million, 25,000-SF project being built by Nabholz Construction of Conway. The North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association will take the other two floors. “We’re hoping to be in it by the first of February,” said Gray, who noted that Taggart is also designing another building just north of the plaza.
John Chandler is developing that property as a mixed-use project with condominiums above a gound-level food hall, with groundbreaking expected in March, Gray said.
The “live, work, play” concept seeks to capitalize on the economic potential of hundreds of new high-paying jobs, including 200 to 300 foreseen by First Orion, which said average salaries will be about $80,000 a year.
“Mayor Smith early on decided that he wanted to learn what it takes to attract good jobs here,” Bradley said. “So we went to Chattanooga and other places that had been successful, and saw that you’ve got to have a place to draw people who have the skills to do these jobs. You need a place they really want to live and work, with the apartments, trails, restaurants and entertainment. These young workers want a campus-like environment, and that’s what First Orion and Argenta are providing. It all builds on itself.”
Bentonville’s highly rated Tusk & Trotter restaurant announced in August that it will open its second location in the ground floor of the First Orion Building. Chef and owner Rob Nelson, a Hope native, said he’s “really excited about the future growth of the area.”
The Argenta boom reflects a jump in the value of approved commercial building permits last year, when projects worth $81.1 million were approved, compared with $19.8 million in 2017 and $32.9 million in 2016.
Thrive, a 164-unit apartment complex just to the south and east of the plaza, opened last year and is one of several residential projects that redefined living downtown. Others, including Argenta Flats along Maple Street and the Metropolitan apartments built just south of the arena nearly a decade ago, were already providing customers for a string of new bars, eateries and venues along Main Street.
A $36 million, 244-apartment luxury complex called The Vue has completed dirt work just west of the Broadway Bridge. “We’ve got plumbing in for two buildings,” said Dave Bruning, a partner in Terraforma LLC, which is developing the property with Newmark Moses Tucker Partners of Little Rock. The partners bought 5.6 riverfront acres from the city for $2.6 million in 2017, then hired Central Construction Group of Little Rock as general contractor. “We’re probably looking at 18 months to completion, depending on the weather.” The site commands views of the bridge and Little Rock skyline, and will have access to the Arkansas River Trail, Bradley said.
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All of these developments, along with Lisa Ferrell and Jim Jackson’s Rockwater project upriver from Argenta and Keith Richardson’s Pointe North Hills apartments, are reshaping the city’s demographics, Bradley said. “The first phase of 300 units at North Hills is slated for 2020,” he said, predicting “all this will affect our head count in the census, where I’m hoping we push 70,000 in population.” Last year, Richardson told Arkansas Business that three phases over five years could add up to 900 apartment units.
“Argenta and downtown NLR are much different today than they were 10 years ago, and a year from now it’s going to be a different place from today,” Bradley said. And he pointed out that the building spurt continues. “The project just north of the plaza, called the Power & Ice Building, is now a go, and two or three groups are interested in pursuing a mixed-use development in the City Services Building area” south of City Hall.
That project, calling for a hotel and amenities near the foot of the Main Street Bridge, is being marketed by Jimmy Moses of Newmark Moses Tucker Partners, who reported general progress but few specifics. “There is significant interest from several groups,” Moses said, keeping details close to the vest. Last spring, Moses was given a year to scare up proposals from potential developers. “But if they have a concept that’s in development and looking good, I’m sure the City Council would consider extending that time,” Bradley said.
The council also hopes to spur further downtown development through an easement it approved allowing the Rock Region Metro transit agency to “build a bypass on the rail line near the City Services Building that would allow two trolleys to pass,” Bradley said. “Rock Region expects that to change a 20-minute trolley into a 10- or 11-minute trolley, which I think is going to be beneficial as Main Street in North Little Rock develops connections to downtown Little Rock and a lot more people commute back and forth.”