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Big Ideas for Downtown (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

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Arkansas’ most expensive highway construction project presents a valuable opportunity to showcase the capital city in an exciting way. But it will be up to local business and political leaders to seize the moment.

I’m talking, of course, about the 20 acres of downtown Little Rock land that will be left open by the $1.15 billion 30 Crossing project, which is widening Interstate 30 through Little Rock and North Little Rock and adding a new freeway bridge over the Arkansas River. 

The Arkansas Department of Transportation began opening the new bridge to traffic last week. And once the project is complete, probably in 2025, the acreage reclaimed after ArDOT removes the I-30 on- and off-ramps in the River Market District and near the Clinton Presidential Library could be ripe for development. 

In short, Little Rock has a rare opportunity to transform a well-traveled, highly visible area into a signature attraction. Think about Chicago’s Millennium Park and its iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as The Bean; Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, a 5-acre oasis with an amphitheater, children’s park and green space built over an eight-lane freeway; or even the 1.5 mile-long Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, which sits on 17 winding acres left vacant by the demolition of the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway.

Fortunately, some of the city’s biggest thinkers have been dreaming up ways to put the land to new use. Last week, architects from some of the state’s top firms presented to the Rotary Club of Little Rock their proposals devised under the Envision Little Rock ideas competition sponsored by nonprofit architecture group StudioMain. 

Rotary Club 99 meets in the Clinton Library ballroom, which boasts a magnificent westward view of the 30 Crossing construction zone and the eastern edge of the 20-acre site. James Meyer, a designer and project architect at Taggart Architects of Little Rock, asked Rotarians to look outside and imagine the possibilities. Taggart’s proposal, which won top prize in the jury-deliberated “professional” category, includes a winding walking path starting at Cumberland Street and running east along Second, a well-lit park beneath the I-30 overpass and a raised, grass-covered berm around “treehouse city,” which would sit inside the circular former I-30 off-ramp at Exit 141A. That’s also where you’d find Little Rocky, a 100-foot dinosaur-shaped climbing wall distracting interstate motorists whizzing by.

Another idea, by AMR Architects Inc. of Little Rock and presented by project architect Heather Davis, won the “wild-card award,” and it’s easy to see why. It envisions a canal that would bring the Arkansas River right downtown, cutting into the riverfront just to the east of the I-30 overpass, heading south to meet Second Street, then turning back west along Second to end at Cumberland. Davis described athletic fields under the I-30 overpass and mixed-use developments — retail and housing — on available acreage along the canal, generating new tax revenue. Renderings showed kayakers paddling past the Central Arkansas Library.

The architects behind two other designs thought deeply about reconnecting parts of the city divided by I-30. Structural engineer Brittani Mitchell of Cromwell Architects Engineers of Little Rock described their Little Rock Parkway project as one aimed to unite the established River Market with the emerging East Village with a park, pond, baseball field, sculpture garden and raised pedestrian terrace. Architect Nikki Crane of Polk Stanley Wilcox of Little Rock said their plan, dubbed UNDRPASS, emphasizes reconnecting communities using a quilt-like structure on the underside of the I-30 overpass that rises between and above its east- and westbound lanes, creating a signature image for the city.

So what’s next? Rotarians seemed energized by the proposals, but questions about cost, who controls the land, the development timeline and the public’s appetite for such a thing threatened to kill the buzz. Chris East, chairman of StudioMAIN, said now is the time to go to city and state leaders and “express how important this space is.” That’s because, as ArDOT later told me, Little Rock would have to apply to the department to develop the land as park space — and ArDOT would still own the property.

In all, developing the green space near 30 Crossing will be a complex endeavor requiring cooperation among business and political powers and a new vision for the capital city. Will Arkansas seize the moment?

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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