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Little Rock Unveils Ambitious Downtown Revitalization PlanLock Icon

6 min read

Little Rock has a blueprint to create a new downtown.

<p>Frank Scott Jr.</p>
Frank Scott Jr.

The Downtown Little Rock Master Plan was unveiled earlier this month and provides a detailed map for how to improve the quality of life for the residents, workers and visitors in the 2.5-square-mile area. The 134-page report provides points on enhancing everything from housing to the riverfront.

The study, conducted by the Denver office of Sasaki Associates Inc., a planning and urban design firm, is in the 30-day comment period and will go to the Little Rock Board of Directors for final approval.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. supports the recommendations, which comprise the first master plan in the city’s history. “We’re excited to have the plan,” Scott told Arkansas Business. “But, with anything, we have to make certain it’s an actual plan and not allow for it to sit on the shelf.”

He vowed the city won’t do that and said that’s a reason for his pursuit of an additional 1% sales tax “to truly transform our city.”

Scott hopes to put a 10-year, 0.625% sales tax for capital improvements before voters in November. He’s also proposing a permanent 0.375% tax for city operations.

If the tax passes, the city is proposing a $60 million multipurpose indoor sports complex near the Clinton Presidential Library, though it hasn’t finalized a location.

The sales tax proposals include about $100 million in projects that are directly aligned to the downtown master plan, Scott said.

Hank Kelley

Hank Kelley, CEO of Kelley Commercial Partners of Little Rock and a member of the executive committee of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said approval of the proposed tax is “vital” for the master plan. “I’m completely supportive of it,” Kelley said.

Kelley also praised the master plan final draft. “There’s no pie in the sky in it,” he said. “It’s real stuff that if we’ll follow and do, our community will be better.”

The plan, however, could take years to implement. “This is definitely a long-range plan,” said Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.

It’s taken 20 to 40 years to transform other similarly-sized cities.

“And that’s OK,” Holmstrom said. “Now we have a road map… It’s going to be up to the policymakers and the leaders to prioritize these and see which of these things we can start to accomplish.”

The city will have a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” with the 18-acre 30 Crossing park that’s a proposed outgrowth of the Interstate 30 project, which is scheduled to be completed next year.

“By redeveloping this land into open space and other community amenities, it will repair urban fabric that had been divided by the highway ramp and drive activity and vibrancy in the process,” the report said. “This new park should include activities for all ages and provide space for outdoor programming for the numerous surrounding museums.”

Economic Incentives

In recent years, Little Rock has seen little job growth in downtown as businesses left for the suburbs. Companies cited homeless people and safety fears as reasons for leaving, the report said. Employment in downtown has grown by 3% since 2003, compared with 14% for the metro area, the report said.

The city paid Sasaki $750,000 for the study, which seeks to reimagine a post-COVID downtown. The study considers downtown as the area of the Arkansas River to the north, Bond Street to the east, East Ninth Street and 14th Street to the south, and the Union Pacific Railroad near the Capitol to the west.

The topic areas for study included development and urban design, streets and mobility, infrastructure and transportation, and parks and open space.

The report “looks complex, but you can start breaking it down pretty simply by saying, OK, what are the things that we need to start on immediately,” Holmstrom said.

One top priority will be putting economic incentives in place to spur development. Holmstrom said that Arkansas is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t have the same economic development incentives as neighboring states.

The master plan agreed. “One of the most obvious and critical issues for successful revitalization of Downtown Little Rock is the need for new financial incentives to assist private development and the construction of public infrastructure,” the report said.

While no such incentives exist at the city level, there are various state and federal tax credits.

Two of the most viable offerings to help with redevelopment are tax increment financing and tax abatements, but both are limited by state laws, the report said. It suggested officials continue to work with state lawmakers to make the taxes available to more developers. “Those conversations are ongoing and should be the highest priority in the first two years of implementation,” the report said.

Housing Draw

Another hurdle is attracting more people to live downtown. About 4,400 people live downtown, but the area needs about 10,000 residents to attract additional businesses. The more people living downtown, the more businesses they will attract.

Holmstrom said there’s a demand for downtown housing, but it’s not being built. “Why are there not 200 units being built in downtown Little Rock every year?” he said. “That’s what it’s going to take to accomplish one of the goals of the plan, which is to double that downtown population in 10 years.”

If the sales tax passes, Scott said some of the revenue generated will provide for affordable housing.

Building housing is critical to the success of downtown. “The world of retail follows rooftops,” Kelley, the developer, said.

Holmstrom said enough land is available for housing in the downtown area. “Now, 23% of the land is owned by the government; 10% of the land is made up of surface parking lots,” he said.

He said he would like to see incentives offered to parking lot owners to transform their parking lots into housing or mixed-use developments. “I think we have a plethora of parking in downtown,” Holmstrom said.

The study agreed. “It will be critical to build out from the areas with strong urban form and walkability, such as the River Market and Main Street, in order to create a more vibrant and connected downtown,” the report said.

The large number of parking lots also increases the heat of the area while lowering the perceptions of safety, the report said.

The report estimated that there were 46,000 parking spaces in downtown, which is more than one space from every resident and worker combined.

But having people continue to work downtown also is a feature of Little Rock’s downtown.

“It is important to retain the employers that we have, as well as bring more,” Holmstrom said. “Having people live here is part of what makes a 24-hour downtown a true downtown.”

River Called Asset

The report also called the Arkansas River “a tremendous open space asset” that’s being underused. The consultants said that while the city has made improvements along the river’s edge in Riverfront Park, “the urban fabric of the city continues to turn its back towards the water.”

Reconsidering the open spaces and development along the river “is essential for unlocking success in the area and in creating high quality of life amenities to make living and working Downtown superior to other neighborhoods in Central Arkansas,” the report said.

Holmstrom said the easy part was developing the master plan, which took nine months.

“The difficult part is going to come when the consultants leave town, and then we are left to implement it,” he said. “And so it’s going to take a lot of work from our city leadership.”

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