Shared from the 2/21/2024 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

LR master plan team hopes downtown can double by ’35

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Downtown Little Rock Partnership Executive Director Gabe Holmstrom (center) speaks during a panel discussion about a master plan for downtown during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Little Rock at the Clinton Presidential Center on Tuesday.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

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Daniel Church (from left), Gabe Holmstrom and Hank Kelley participate in a panel discussion about a master plan for downtown Little Rock during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Little Rock at the Clinton Presidential Center on Tuesday.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Officials working on a master plan for downtown Little Rock want to see the population of the downtown area double by 2035, attendees at a Rotary Club of Little Rock luncheon were told Tuesday.

In terms of density, downtown Little Rock is “dramatically behind” cities along the lines of Greenville, S.C., Richmond, Va. and Chattanooga, Tenn., said Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.

A lot of the challenges or issues that people bring up as a reason not to go downtown “are fixed simply with adding more people,” Holmstrom told attendees. “People solve so many of these problems and these challenges.” As a result, officials have set a goal of doubling the downtown population by 2035, he said.

During the discussion at the Clinton Presidential Center, Holmstrom was joined by Daniel Church, a Little Rock native now working for Sasaki, a planning and design firm leading the master plan effort. Hank Kelley, the chief executive officer of Kelley Commercial Partners, served as the moderator.

Holmstrom attributed the confusing dynamics visible in downtown Little Rock — where residential real estate has very high rental occupancy levels but is surrounded by vacant or underused land, such as parking lots — to a lack of access to certain financial incentives available in almost every other state.

For his part, Church noted that the 2.5 square-mile zone being studied is the largest employment center in Arkansas, with approximately 41,000 workers, but is not a very large population center, with only about 4,400 residents.

Those “benchmark cities” of Greenville, Richmond and Chattanooga have two to four times the number of people who live downtown, Church said. That kind of density can drive “retail success” and “the activity that you need,” he said.

Between 2010 and 2020, the population of the city of Little Rock overall — not just the downtown area — increased by 4.7%, or slightly more than 9,000 residents, for a new record-high population of 202,591, according to the most recent decennial U.S. census.

But the rate of growth was slow compared to the nearbycities of Bryant and Benton — their populations increased by 24% and 14%, respectively — not to mention the booming cities of Northwest Arkansas.

On Tuesday, Kelley told Church that he was “looking for a win,” and expressed his desire to see something happen as soon as possible.

“Where are some lay-ups? Where are some things we can do to get momentum started?” Kelley asked.

In response, Church described the Arkansas River as the city’s “greatest asset.” Many other cities would love such a natural asset as their front door or front porch, he said.

Outside of bigger infrastructure changes, potential “quick wins” could be achieved by pursuing a reorientation toward the river, with restaurants and amenities that other cities enjoy, Church explained.

Additionally, outdoor recreation generally has the potential to be a big win, Church said. Chattanooga and Greenville in particular doubled down on outdoor recreation as a way to attract talent and improve quality of life, he said.

During a brief question-and-answer session, state Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, called the panelists’ attention to “five things that really weren’t covered: crime/safety, homelessness, litter, graffiti and employment.” With regard to the last item, Johnson referred to the sale price of the Bankof America Plaza and empty office space downtown. Bicycle trails and walking paths are not going to bring people downtown if they are working in west Little Rock, Conway or North Little Rock, Johnson said.

Kelley said one of the first people the planners engaged was Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Hugh McDonald, who had offered assistance.

“But we need the help of the state,” Kelley added. “We need state government to support downtown Little Rock in a bigger way than they have,” including by repopulating buildings that were previously occupied by state agencies and the private-sector businesses that feed off them.

Holmstrom took the opportunity to remind attendees of the downtown ambassador program that relaunched late last year. In the first 30 days, ambassadors picked up 2 tons of trash, he said.

In exchange for Sasaki crafting the master plan, the Little Rock Board of Directors last year voted to pay the firm up to $745,000 using the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act money.

A public kickoff event tied to the development of the master plan was held in October. A series of open house meetings were scheduled for today in Little Rock.

Wednesday’s events are scheduled for noon to 1 p.m. at the office of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, located at 512 Main St., and 6 to 7 p.m. at Philander Smith University’s Harry R. Kendall Health and Science Center, located at 900 W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive.

Prospective attendees have been advised to attend one meeting because each session will have the same format.

A draft of the master plan is expected to be ready for review in May. Adoption by the city board should follow shortly thereafter.

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