In downtown Little Rock, a historic neighborhood is coming back to life.
The Pettaway neighborhood, which encompasses the area south of Interstate 630 to East Roosevelt Road and west of I-30 to Main Street, has seen a lot of change in the past three years. At 300 E. Roosevelt Road, Georgia developer Pace Burt continues a $25 million to $30 million project to transform the 435,000-SF former Veterans Administration Hospital into a 160-unit market-rate apartment complex. Right now, he’s replacing the hospital’s 2,300 windows.
But other developers are hard at work on projects of their own, building more than 100 houses and creating a new town square off 21st Street. Michael Orndorff, owner of Mike Orndorff Construction LLC of Little Rock, estimates he’s built more than 40 homes and another 10 dwellings in the neighborhood and is currently working on commercial developments. And the husband-and-wife team of Jill and Adam Fogleman, owners of Common Ground Development Co. of Little Rock, have built a dozen houses in Pettaway and renovated many more, whether it be one room or an entire property. They are breaking ground on a duplex and aim to start soon on a corner store with second-floor apartments.
With all the growth in the neighborhood, longtime residents are now seeing equity return to property harmed by past policy decisions and other factors. Jill Fogleman said disruption caused by the development of I-630, a tornado in the late 1990s, a history of gang violence and the city tearing down houses hurt the neighborhood.
“Disinvestment that was caused by redlining, the policy choices that were made by the city and by real estate professionals to actually discourage investment in this area has resulted in where we are today,” Adam Fogleman said, referring to the refusal by some lenders or insurers to issue loans or insurance on property in neighborhoods they regard as deteriorating.
“Little Rock has a lot of great neighborhoods,” he said. “Some of them have reputations as being bad places, and they only have that reputation from people who have never been there.”
Orndorff is the developer behind Pettaway Square, which might be the most significant change in the neighborhood. The 17,100-SF six-building development comprises nine retail spaces, four office spaces and seven apartments centered on a town square that will house outdoor seating and events.
It’s the first phase of three in Orndorff’s goal to create a thriving commercial space off the 400 block of 21st Street.
“We want to create small spaces that are the bottom rung of the ladder for people to climb on the commercial and business side of things,” said Orndorff, who hopes that adding local businesses will bring more people to the neighborhood. “I just knew that building a town square needed to be the anchor for this revitalization.”
The project was so ambitious that the bank Orndorff had worked with for 10 years denied his loan. He faced rejection again before Merchants & Farmers Bank of Dumas picked up the project. Even then, the bank would cover only 80% of the costs, leaving Orndorff to come up with the final 20% himself.
So far, Orndorff is $1.1 million into the $1.9 million project. What would have taken him nine months to a year has been delayed to a year and a half because of supply chain delays and inflation.
Orndorff originally budgeted $110 per square foot, but “can’t imagine” that’s the cost he ended up paying amid a shortage of windows, sheetrock and doors. He said the price of sheetrock jumped from 27 cents to 40 cents a foot since he did the estimate three years ago.
When it comes to Pettaway Square, Orndorff has “a story to share about each structure in here.”
“We have to keep building because the market needs more homes. And yet the cost to build right now is so high,” Orndorff said. “Do costs go down? I’ve never had costs go down in my 15 years of doing this. They’ve always gone up.”
Filling in the Gaps
For the Foglemans, their focus is residential, and they want to “fill in the gaps” that are the empty lots and vacated homes in Pettaway.
After moving to the neighborhood in 2013, they noticed lots opening up and kept waiting for someone to build on them, but when that never happened, they decided to do it themselves.
Jill Fogleman said their “philosophy” is to be intentional with the homes they build. They want to create a neighborhood where people can rent their first apartments, buy their starter homes and eventually purchase their forever homes.
“I want it to be affordable for people to live in my neighborhood. I want there to be diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” Jill Fogleman said. “The more it grows and the more that these prices increase, the harder it will be for it to be diverse. So we have to be very thoughtful and intentional. We don’t need four- or five-bedroom, 2,000-SF homes. We’ve got to be intentional about building smaller homes, apartments, duplexes.”
The Foglemans also prioritize sustainability, unique architecture and homes that allow for neighborly relationships, something Orndorff is also doing in the square. There, apartments have solar panels on the roof, and engraved on one building is “A Place Worth Caring About.”
“If we don’t start building spaces that are more aesthetically pleasing, two generations from now, they’ll just come in and mow this down,” Orndorff said. “I hope the kids that grow up in this environment, that one of them is going to think enough of this place that it’s worth preserving down the line.”
Room to Grow
While the neighborhood sees a lot of developers build one or two houses, Orndorff and the Foglemans say they plan to stay.
Orndorff estimates there are 200 empty lots and another 50 with abandoned structures that need to be torn down. He said small developers can’t do it alone.
“This needs to be done by someone bigger than me. If you’re in this place and you’re thinking, ‘Mike could have done this little thing here. There’s just a couple things he could have done better.’ I don’t have a problem with that. Now go and do it,” Orndorff said. “But I hope this is just the first of many times that this is done inside neighborhoods and that it just gets better and better every time that we do it.”
The Foglemans agree there’s a lot more to be done and improvements to be made, but they want to keep development small and local.
“There are folks that live in these places that work every day to make these neighborhoods better,” Adam Fogleman said. “We need to give pedestals to those people and give people in each of these neighborhoods an opportunity to build up and help their community thrive. Success of the neighborhood is not going to come from the city. It’s going to come from the people who live there.”