The debut of a major riverfront arena 20 years ago turned out to be a warmup act for the real headliner: a sweeping transformation of downtown North Little Rock.
Anchored by Verizon Arena to the east and Dickey-Stephens Park to the west, the Argenta Historic District’s revitalization had Mayor Joe Smith searching for a number last week.
“Is ‘jillion’ a word?” he asked. “A jillion dollars, maybe.” The actual economic impact estimate? “If you go back to the building of the arena, you’re talking about probably $500 million.”
And the downtown revival tour rolls on. Some $40 million in projects are nearing completion within a half-mile of Argenta Plaza, the $5 million city gathering place taking shape at Main and Sixth streets. It’s expected to open in November.
Steel has risen around it, with a $15 million headquarters for First Orion likely for an early spring completion, and the $7.2 million 600 Main Building set for a January opening. Its designer, Taggart Architects of North Little Rock, will occupy the top floor.
A third building, expected to feature a restaurant and apartment units, is being developed by John Chandler for the corner just north of the plaza.
Two other major downtown projects are on the drawing boards, furthering the evolution of a rundown retail and industrial sector into what Smith sees as a vibrant 21st-century jobs magnet. The mayor says Argenta will attract a workforce looking to live, work, eat and shop all within a single square mile.
A hotel and mixed-use development is planned for the City Services Building’s footprint near the Main Street Bridge. Taggart developed initial drawings, and Newmark Moses Tucker Partners is marketing the project to developers nationwide.
Terraforma LLC of Maumelle also expects to break ground in late summer on a 244-unit multifamily project just west of the Broadway Bridge.
Doug Meyer, Terraforma’s managing member, wasn’t ready to put a price tag on that development last week, but he said BGO Architects of Addison, Texas, is developing drawings. “It’s going to have great river views, bike and jogging trails, all sorts of amenities,” Meyer said. “It’ll be another link to make the whole Argenta project thrive.”
A Litany of Projects
Taggart CEO Bill Gray, a North Little Rock native, ticked off some big projects — most aided by his firm’s designs — that have reshaped his hometown. Taggart helped design the arena and Dickey-Stephens ballpark, and the firm shaped First Orion and 600 Main. It teamed with DLand Studios of Brooklyn to conceive Argenta Plaza, a 150- by 230-foot public space with a stage, a “front porch” pergola, interactive fountains and a water wall.
“After the arena and Dickey-Stephens came Enclave,” a $30 million, 260-unit apartment complex opened in 2008 and now called the Metropolitan, Gray said. “Next were the townhouses like Argenta Flats on Maple Street, and then the [Arkansas Regional] Innovation Hub.”
Thrive, a 164-apartment complex a just southeast of the plaza, opened last year and was sold to out-of-state investors last month for $19 million by Argenta Thrive LLC, led by Rob Coleman. Bars and eateries draw traffic to Main Street. “If downtown North Little Rock hadn’t set the stage, I doubt that these projects would’ve ever been built,” Gray said.
Alessi Keyes of North Little Rock is the plaza contractor. VCC of Little Rock is building the four-story, 75,000-SF building for First Orion, Charles Morgan’s parent company of PrivacyStar, a maker of call- and text-blocking cellphone applications. Nabholz Construction of Conway is general contractor for the 25,000-SF 600 Main Building, future home of Taggart, the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association and the North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which will share ownership.
Smith called downtown crucial to economic development and a positive city image.
“I’ve been preaching for seven years that you can’t have a successful city without a successful downtown,” he said. “You get just one chance to make a first impression. Now when we sit down with the Charles Morgans of the world, we can offer an art district, business district and residential district downtown. They see we have the kind of progressive city that can attract young, educated workers.”
‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’
Smith said a 1% increase in college graduates living and working in the city would translate to a $40 million-a-year economic impact for North Little Rock.
“We have a feel for what modern workers are looking for: an opportunity to work around a gathering spot, restaurants, and walk or ride a bicycle to work. Seeing that steel go up and that plaza coming together is a badge of honor for us. It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Meyer, of Terraforma, praised Smith for his pro-business outlook. “He’s seen what the River Market and Creative Corridor have done in revamping Little Rock. Now that’s leapfrogged across the Arkansas River.”
The hotel project on city land between Washington Street and Third is just a concept for now, said Jimmy Moses of Newmark Moses Tucker.
“The assignment was to come up with a development in keeping with what’s going on in Argenta, and then go out and market it to the world. It’s early, and the market will guide us, but ideally the hotel will be the centerpiece, as small as 100 rooms or as big as 150,” Moses said.
The $20 million to $30 million project would complement the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel two blocks west, Moses said. Preliminary design work is being done by — you guessed it — Taggart. “It’s going to be built around hospitality and retail,” Moses said, and the project may or may not include the land under the Bank of America branch at Broadway and Main, which isn’t city-owned.
The asking price is $16 per square foot, Moses said, which could yield $3 million to $3.5 million for the total site footprint. “I don’t want to overstate it, but this is a significant assignment, and it goes well with what’s already been developed in Argenta.”
Newmark Moses Tucker isn’t being paid for its marketing work, but will reap a brokerage fee if a sale comes through. “We hope that we can shake something loose,” Moses said.