Two centerpieces of a $65 million construction boom surrounding the new Argenta Plaza in North Little Rock — the First Orion Building and 600 Main — opened for move-ins recently, just in time for workers to start moving out because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yes, we moved in Feb. 21,” said Taggart Architects CEO Bill Gray, whose firm designed the new 600 Main building north of the new $5 million plaza. The Taggart firm took the third floor of the $7.2 million 25,000-SF project, but Gray said only about three employees are working there these days, all in self-contained offices with doors closed. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway served as general contractor.
“I go by to sign checks and do some tasks, but we’re very well set up to work remotely,” Gray said. Some Taggart employees were showing up for a while, “I think just because the building is new. But we’re being very safe and mostly working from home.”
The North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association also moved into floors at 600 Main in late February and early March before largely heading for home offices.
Charles Morgan’s First Orion Corp. had also moved into its yet-unfinished $15 million, five-story headquarters that faces the plaza from the east, but offices appeared mostly abandoned last week.
That 72,000-SF project, built by VCC Construction of Little Rock, is a keystone in North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith’s longtime vision of Argenta. Once a quaint downtown neighborhood of bungalows and prewar duplexes at risk of decline, Smith has worked to make Argenta a magnet for young people looking to work, live and socialize in a walkable environment.
The First Orion project will include a commercial gym and a widely anticipated location of Bentonville’s Tusk & Trotter restaurant. Morgan, the Fort Smith native and longtime CEO who turned Acxiom into a marketing database juggernaut, wanted room to grow for First Orion.
Morgan is CEO and chairman of privately held First Orion, whose PrivacyStar app promises to identify smartphone callers and block unwanted calls. He retired as Acxiom’s chairman in 2007.
“I know Charles moved into the building with a lot of his staff,” said Smith, who has made downtown revitalization a legacy priority. He offered a telephoned update on construction projects in Argenta and beyond.
“The restaurant is not finished yet at First Orion, and the west side of the building is not yet complete, which is delaying finishing the east side of the plaza,” the mayor said. “But we’re expecting that to be finished in coming weeks.”
Power + Ice
Taggart Architects is also working on a three- or four-story mixed-use development by John Chandler opposite 600 Main and immediately north of the plaza. “We are designing Chandler’s building; a contractor is pricing the building now, but no contract has been signed,” said Gray, a North Little Rock native who has left his imprint on decades of downtown development.
His firm has had a hand in designing everything from the Simmons Bank Arena, opened as Alltel Arena in 1999, to the Dickey-Stephens ballpark seven blocks to the west, opened in April 2007. Those bookends have framed more than $500 million in construction developments since, by Smith’s estimate.
The design on Chandler’s project, known as the Power + Ice Building, is still in flux, Gray said, but preliminary ideas include a ground-floor food hall and two or three floors of apartments above. “It will most likely be four stories,” Gray said.
A Taggart team led by architect James Meyer helped design the plaza itself, a 150-by-230-foot public park on Main between Fifth and Sixth with landscaping, water features, a stage/screen and a “front porch” pergola with swings. Taggart teamed with DLand Studios of Brooklyn to design the plaza, which was built by Alessi Keyes Construction of Maumelle.
Admiring The Vue
A major new riverfront apartment complex, The Vue, has topped out its first building in a $35.6 million 246-unit project northwest of the Broadway Bridge.
Terraforma LLC of Maumelle and Newmark Moses Tucker Partners of Little Rock bought 5.6 acres between the Arkansas River and Riverfront Drive from the city for $2.6 million in 2017.
With waterside views of the Little Rock skyline and access to the river trail, designs call for amenities like a resort-style swimming pool, fitness center, clubhouse with kitchen, pool tables and a golf simulator, covered parking and some enclosed garages.
Central Construction Group of Little Rock and Thomas Engineering Co. of North Little Rock joined the project, and despite wet weather and COVID complications, Terraforma partner Dave Bruning is encouraged.
“Central Construction is doing a great job for us, and the project is coming along pretty well, with not a lot of obstacles.”
He said a fortunate decision to use shale rather than dirt mitigated rain delays. “We got lucky, because shale drains so much better. So we’re encouraged by that.”
He predicted that Newmark Moses Tucker, which will handle leasing and manage the property, could start pre-leasing late this year. “One thing that could slow things down is the coronavirus issue,” Bruning told Arkansas Business. “Our guys are able to work, but we’re starting to see problems getting supplies and materials from out of state.”
Chris Moses of Newmark Moses Tucker has called The Vue “an amenity-rich property unlike any other apartment community in downtown Little Rock/North Little Rock,” but Bruning said he expects rents to be competitive. “We have run a pro forma, but that’s all subject to change. With what’s going on with the virus, it’s hard to say what demand is going to be. But we’re going to get through this.”
Newmark Moses Tucker is also working with the city on plans to redevelop the area around the City Services Building at the northbound foot of the Main Street Bridge. The effort hopes to generate developers’ enthusiasm for a new hotel and amenities; a one-year deadline for proposals has been extended.
“We’re continuing to work on it,” Jimmy Moses of Newmark Moses Tucker said in a terse email. “Thanks for checking.”
Mayor Smith said officials were “still trying to put a development team together, but we can’t quite get over the hump in trying to make the three or four square blocks into mixed use. We can’t make everything fit right.”
The new Argenta developments are just blocks from Thrive, a 164-apartment complex that opened in 2018, joining notable residential projects that have redefined living in downtown North Little Rock, once scorned as rundown and risky.
Argenta Flats along Maple Street and the Metropolitan apartment complex just south of the arena, among other residential developments, created foot traffic for a string of bars, eateries, theaters and performance venues along Main Street that have cropped up in the past decade.
“Downtown North Little Rock is now a place people want to be,” Gray told Arkansas Business last year. “The mayor has worked hard on that vision.”
Smith noted several projects beyond Argenta, including a $20 million development known as the Esplanade District, which broke ground in January on River Road. The Monde Group of Maumelle is developing the 41-acre mixed-use neighborhood between Riverview Park and Rockwater Marina, starting with dirt work, drainage and infrastructure.
“It’s going great guns,” Smith said, with the first phase comprising 92 one- and two-bedroom units.
The city itself has a $30 million project going, a new Justice Center on North Poplar Street where North Little Rock School District offices and the old Fisher Armory are making way for an expansive facility to re-place the Police & Courts Building at 200 Pershing Blvd., which was built nearly 60 years ago.
“We have $30 million budgeted for that, though I hope we’ll come in at less than that,” Smith said. “It’s funded by $20 million from the penny sales tax we passed in 2017,” and the city has borrowed the other $10 million. Flynco Inc. of North Little Rock is the contractor, working from designs by Hoefer Wysocki, an architectural and design firm in Leawood, Kansas.
“I wanted that Justice Center to be right there by the interstate, where thousands of cars will see it everyday,” the mayor said with a laugh. “I want the people of North Little Rock to see where their money is going.”