The Next Great American City
In 2013, Kiplinger named the city of Little Rock #1 on its list of 10 most livable cities in America. The capital of Arkansas, and its largest city, Little Rock is on the rise again. A renaissance is happening in downtown Main Street and its eclectic mix of community, culture and passion for the arts is leading the way.
Between the Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River, surrounded by rolling hills and ubiquitous trees, is the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Located at the crossroads of Interstate of 30 and Interstate 40 on the south bank of the Arkansas River in Central Arkansas, the city is home to nearly 200,000 residents and is a major cultural, economic, government and transportation center within the entire United States. Considered the place where America Comes Together, the second fastest growing region in the nation faced a unique set of circumstances on their way back to relevance and prominence.
The task of reinvigorating a cityscape fell onto the shoulders of Mayor Mark Stodola, a lawyer by profession and a Little Rock resident since 1974. Over the course of his long career, Stodola has earned experience working alongside Bill Clinton and as president of the city’s state wide preservation organization. Going into his third term, Stodola understood and accepted that changes to Little Rock were necessary – and it all began with the downtown core.
“I always had an appreciation for downtowns that have had a renaissance in one fashion or another,” he said. “I like downtowns that have taken the existing built environment and fabric and figured out a way to make them vibrant, alive and part of the 21st century.”
“In Little Rock, the Clinton Library opened in the east end of the downtown area along the river and for 15 years the river market area was thriving,” he continued. “Very expensive renovated old warehouses, high rise condos, and other new construction all developed and created excitement going east and west along the river, but as it intersected with Main Street, Main Street had been dead for 30 years.”
SYNERGY IN THE CITY
In a city filled such promise, growth and youthful exuberance, Main Street needed salvation. For all the charm, history and pageantry that Little Rock was known for, its urban highpoint was non-existent. While real estate development was booming, something was missing from the downtown core. So when Stodola was first elected mayor in 2007, his mission was to change that and bring life back into Little Rock.
“I was introduced to the Mayors Institute on City Design where mayors, engineers and architects take a project and tear it down and suggest functions to help development,” he said. “I came up with an idea for downtown Main Street to synergize the area by getting arts organizations to move in and collaborate together.”
Using art and the freedom of expression as a vehicle to empower interactions and drive a city forward, Stodola’s inspiration came from a bygone era where he witnessed the city of Little Rock headed for troublesome times.
“In mid 1980s, the vogue thing was to create a downtown mall,” he said. “We did what Memphis did and took a bunch of building and created a mall, closed off the streets and ran every retail business out west into the suburbs. Not the intended consequence, but it was the consequence.”
“It effectively created several blocks of vacant building. The only thing that existed was a military surplus store, a wine/liquor store and a wig shop. It persisted like this until about 24 months ago.”
MAIN STREET REVITALIZATION
Widely perceived as a place in decline, Main Street sat idly by as nearby neighbourhoods basked in a revitalization and rebirth of their own. The reclamation project, known as the Creative Corridor focuses on a four-block segment of Main Street, which was considered to be unsafe and uninviting. The three-phase approach, to be completed in increments reintroduces the traditional social functions of streets back into city life through the creation of gateways, the development of a plaza and a low impact development infrastructure designed to deliver ecological services in addition to urban amenities.
Combining affordable housing and an arts-based mixed development environment, the retrofit and urban designed plan caters to a new creative economy, while maintaining its historically sensitive contexts. The change in approach – from traditional retail spaces to the aggregation of cultural arts – was an endeavor that relied upon significant partnerships and grants to make it a tangible reality. The City of Little Rock has received numerous investments from the private sector – somewhere in the region of $76 million.
“We received an art place grant and an educational foundation of American grant for $550,000”, Stodola said. “We are now able to put in the latest and greatest in LED lighting for signage, for arts organizations for ticker tape for really interesting streetscape lights, light gardens, it’s going to be a mini Times Square.”
An art installation made from street lamps from different eras of city neighbourhoods lights up the Creative Corridor. The re-using of old material – mainly oak from old scrapped rail cars in apartment buildings – show Little Rock’s affinity for charm, character and continuity. Perhaps these aesthetics are on display to honor the past before moving forward. Or perhaps they are mementos to a time when things were not as vibrant, busy and alive.
“It has exceeded our expectations,” Stodola told the National Endowment for the Arts when asked about the Creative Corridor. “It has gone from a neglected and almost totally abandoned Main Street to a thriving 24/7 urban environment.”
By melding art, sustainable and eco-friendly architecture the city of Little Rock maintains its objective to urbanize the streetscape and restructure the area. Publically-commissioned, the plan provides an affordable downtown living option that was non-existent before the inception of the Creative Corridor. The novel townscaping connects both public and private spaces encouraging livability and openness. The project has been well received and met with plenty of acclaim, positivity and profit.
“In the 500 block of Main Street, the upper floors are being converted into apartments and property values have skyrocketed,” he said. “The developer bought the block of buildings for $1.5 million and sold one of the buildings for $4.6 million, 18 months later.”
ASLA AWARD RECOGNITION
By addressing a full range of issues and assembling strong partnerships between public, private and non-profit groups, the Creative Corridor would introduce the city of Little Rock to a new identity, never before experienced. The commitment to taking on the challenge of creating a sustainable, resilient and beautiful public space was recognized in 2014 by the American Society of Landscape Architects with an Honor Award in the Analysis and Planning Category.
In their decision, the 2014 Awards Jury detailed what made the Creative Corridor such a stand-out project, saying:
“Main street design is a grand challenge of the 21st century as urban neighborhoods seek to create sustainable, resilient, and beautiful public spaces. This project highlights what careful design can contribute to the making of place, not a lot of jewels or distractions, but simple, clear, and elegant design of public space. The emphasis on thresholds, nodes, and shared spaces is exactly what urban design needs to engage”
As Stodola continues into his third term as mayor of Little Rock, the moniker he gave himself when he was first elected remains his number one priority.
“My job is to make little rock the next great city in the South,” he said. “That’s been a motto I’ve used since I was elected. My job is to continue with that effort and let people know there is a tremendous location here in the middle of the country.”