The transformation of patient rooms into apartments is moving toward a late summer completion at the old Veterans Affairs Hospital in downtown Little Rock. Heading to that finish line, the $25 million redevelopment now bears a new name in keeping with its future function and a nod to the nearby South on Main district: Flats at SoMa.
A year ago, Burt expected to complete the build-out of 168 apartments by December 2023. Now, he’s on track to begin marketing units in the spring, he said.
“A lot of it was just getting the numbers right,” Pace Burt, owner and developer of the property, said of the revised timetable. “We had to redesign a lot of the project to make it more efficient. We had to go back to the drawing board. The construction costs came in more expensive than we expected.”
The multifamily makeover of the interior of the 11-story landmark at 300 E. Roosevelt Road started on the upper floors, where electrical conduit snakes through metal studs that outline walls inside doorless doorways. The new construction awaits inspection before drywall covers the work with painters to follow.
“We probably won’t start hanging sheetrock until December with cabinets delivered in January,” said Burt, who lives and operates out of Albany, Georgia.
About 90% of the apartments will be one-bedroom configurations of 1,000-1,300 SF, with the balance in a two-bedroom layout of 1,200-1,400 SF. All of the units feature nine-foot ceilings with windows galore.
One-bedroom apartments, aimed at young professionals, will rent for $1,300-$1,400 per month, Burt said. Among the planned amenities are an indoor bocce ball court, outdoor pickleball court, a swimming pool on the east side of the building and a water fountain in the heart of the front circle drive.
Burt said he incorporated SoMa into the project name with the blessing of the district’s leadership.
“We didn’t do that without talking to them,” Burt said. “We’re riding the coattails of SoMa. Their whole hip, historic vibe is what we want to spin off from.”
The challenge of repurposing a 73-year-old building with nearly 10 acres of space under roof is an impressive, risky endeavor that locals are watching with interest.
“When someone steps out like that, people will say, ‘I don’t know about that,’ and then a couple years later, those same people will say, ‘Boy, that was a great idea,’” said Richard Cheek, partner in Little Rock’s Multifamily Group. “I tend to think that’s what is going to happen there.
“It’s kind of a courageous undertaking, and I admire him for taking it on. I think his floor plans will be compelling, with views looking out over the city.”
Burt’s $2.7 million acquisition of the massive building in November 2020 was followed by months of cleaning and construction prep. Burt also installed more than 2,200 windows and a new roof.
“When you deal with a building this size, you have to tackle a few issues,” he said.
Burt reckons that the hospital-to-apartment conversion has cost another $12 million in hip-pocket funding since he purchased the 6.8-acre centerpiece of the former medical complex.
“We’re in neck deep,” Burt said of the investment to date. “It’s been our own money until we get bank financing. We still haven’t secured financing, and we won’t until we get farther down the road.”
He plans to take potential lenders inside the building in the coming weeks, showing them what’s taking shape. His go-to financier is Synovus Bank of Columbus, Georgia, a publicly traded, $60 billion-asset lender.
“We don’t have a commitment in writing, but they’ve done all of our stuff,” Burt said.
Burt figures that over nearly 20 years, he’s developed 6 million SF of these types of historic apartmentproperties. He developed conventional projects exclusively until 2004 when he took on his first historic redevelopment: the Monaghan Mill in Greenville, South Carolina.
Two years later, he relaunched the former textile mill as The Lofts of Greenville, a 190-unit apartment complex with a theater, pool, fitness center, fenced dog park, community garden, fire pits and more.
These days, his current list of works in progress includes a 350,000-SF textile mill that will house 210 apartments in Griffin, Georgia, where he hopes to break ground in February.
A 46-unit expansion of The Row, a cotton warehouse redevelopment in Augusta, Georgia, encompassed 140 units in its first phase. Another Augusta redevelopment in the wings is the 17-story Lamar Building, with 70 apartments.
The key to funding these projects: historic tax credits. Burt estimates that more than $10 million in combined federal and state tax credits will come into play for the old VA redevelopment in Little Rock.
“Without tax credits, this project would’ve never happened,” he said. “We’ve never done a hospital before, but we’ve done this type of project time and time again.”
City officials have committed to doing streetscape and lighting work to accentuate a new entrance to the gated property from East 25th Street. This one-block stretch from Scott Street is home to an even older member of the National Historic Register than the former VA hospital.
The Lightfoot Cabin at 200 E. 25th St., a one-and-a-half-story en-closed dogtrot house, was built in 1857 in rural Phillips County. Dr. Hampton Roy moved the residence to Little Rock in the 1970s.
Burt appreciates the historic symmetry of a restored 19th century home and his redeveloped 20th century hospital/residential tower as neighbors.
According to the Veterans Affairs history of his property, construction of the 514-bed hospital began on March 1, 1948. Cost: $11 million. The formal dedication of the project was held on Nov. 26, 1950.
At the time, the 415,600-SF hospital was touted as the largest single structure in Arkansas. The facility employed a staff of 600, including 35 doctors and 100 nurses, with an annual payroll of $2 million.
It was replaced by the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital, which opened at 4300 W. Seventh St. in 1984.
The revamped and repurposed original hospital will reopen in 2024.
“We are excited to be getting open this summer,” Burt said.