- A NEW LOOK NORTH LITTLE ROCK: (Above) An artist's rendering of what the east side of the 600 block of Main could look like. And Terraforma LLC has bought acreage west of Dickey Stephens Ballpark for a mixed-use development.
Argenta fills in
What would happen if you took roughly $100 million and worked with the city of North Little Rock to invest in its downtown?
Riverside development, apartments and a plaza.
For one, you'd get an estimated $50 million project on 5.6 acres fronting the Arkansas River and west of the new Broadway Bridge that would include a high-rise building, a hotel, apartments, a boardwalk cantilevered over the seawall where folks could sit outside, enjoy a drink and watch the river, and maybe the River Trail bikers, go by. A development with a view of Little Rock that Mayor Joe Smith, who held up selling the city property until he got something he believed would be "first class," that is unparalleled. (He knows, because he got a ladder truck to lift him up for a view from an elevation equivalent to six stories.)
Smartway LLC, formed by Terraforma developers Doug Meyer and Dave Bruning, closed on the property in early February and is now looking for an anchor tenant, Meyer said. "We have had three companies approach us," Meyer said, to talk about a purchase or lease agreement. North Little Rock sold the land, previously a brownfield, to Smartway for $2.6 million, and will put the proceeds toward the creation of a plaza on an empty lot at Sixth and Main streets.
The Smarthouse plans are fluid, but envisioned is a 91,950-square-foot hotel, an office building 10 to 11 stories tall and 244,250 square feet and an 89,200-square-foot apartment building. The development will be a place where people "live, play and work, with 24/7 activity," Meyer said. The city is dubbing the area the Argenta Riverfront District.
The $50 million estimate is at the top end, but Smith is thinking top end, on the river and over to Main Street. "I'd rather not have anything if it's not first class," he said.
There's another, more solid, first-class development coming to North Little Rock: an upscale multibuilding apartment complex by THRIVE, the Bentonville residential developer. The developer has plans to build on the two blocks that once held the old feed mill, on Fourth Street between Magnolia and Poplar. Harold Tennenbaum and Dave Grundfest are selling the property to THRIVE, which is a venture of ERC Properties Inc., headed by Dawn Cook of Fort Smith. Plans call for 164 units in several three-story Colonial-style brick buildings divided by a plaza-like street. The complex will be north across the street from the Innovation Hub. Some of the buildings may hold retail on the ground floor, Smith said. North Little Rock will create a parking district around the THRIVE development that will dedicate street parking to its residents, much the way Fayetteville has done in its downtown.
Fort Worth's Sundance Plaza was the inspiration for the plaza that Smith envisions on the vacant lot on the east side of Main Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. The mayor, with a party of 60 folks who paid their own way, visited the Sundance Plaza and others to get an idea of what would be good for North Little Rock.
A farmers market occupies the spot now. The city is working with architect Susannah Drake of dlandstudio in New York and TAGGART Architects on a design for the park, which Smith said had to have a "wow factor." They envision a park with a water feature that can be turned on and off: It will spray fountains when the main part of the plaza is not in use, but the fountains will disappear when the space is needed for seating or other uses. Smith would also like to see projected, changing art on the existing wall of the old fire station at 506 Main St., now the North Little Rock Heritage Center.
Smith is also talking to developer John Chandler about a new building that would house a restaurant on the north side of the plaza and a commercial building on the east side.
The city itself wants to build six storefronts on the east side of the 600 block of Main; Smith said he has commitments from businesses to buy two of the storefronts.
Maple Street has undergone enormous change in the past four years as well. In 2013, the city and Argenta Community Development Corp. sold the western half of the blocks between Fifth and Ninth streets to Argenta Flats LLC, bringing 160 new townhouse-style apartments and condos to the street.
Smith said a private developer has plans for a lot north of Firehouse Liquor on Main Street. He added up how many dollars he expected to see invested in the coming years: $100 million. That's a nice round number.
- MANEES BUILDING: John Chandler's latest project.
A continuum of redos
John Chandler, whose most recent project in Argenta was the old Koehler Bakery renovation in the 700 block of Main Street into retail and apartments, has new plans on the drawing board: the restoration of the two-story Manees Building at 317 Main St., which he purchased from Thomason Furniture Co. for $700,000.
From John Chandler
The 10,000-square-foot building, constructed in 1912, features 12-foot ceilings covered in pressed-tin and hardwood floors; Chandler has removed the façade to expose the original glazed brick. The ground floor will hold retail spaces, the second floor offices. The work should be complete by August, he said.
Chandler's played an important role in the revitalization of Main Street: He also renovated the Faucette-Cook building at the southwest corner of Fifth and Main streets, where Ristorante Capeo, Greg Thompson Fine Art and Argenta Methodist Church are located. Back on the 300 block, across the street from the Manees Building, Chandler renovated 314-315 Main St., where Skinny J's Restaurant and Bourbon and Boots are located.
Chandler figures he's invested between $4 million and $5 million in downtown North Little Rock, in what he calls "a continuum of renovations. We enjoy it, and it's also economically fruitful. Whatever we have renovated has filled up very quickly."
"If everything works out right," Chandler said, he plans to buy the option from the city on land at the north and east side of the plaza the city plans to construct in the 600 block of Main. Chandler is thinking of putting in two mixed-use buildings abutting the plaza; they'd accommodate a restaurant, retail, apartments and offices. That work would begin in late 2018.
"There's a lot of demand" in Argenta, Chandler said. "I'm trying to create high-end renovated spaces that have some cachet and some culture to it."
- Brian Chilson
The Koehler Building and Koehler Bakery Building
700 block of Main Street, Argenta
It has taken a while for the continuing revival of Main Street in Argenta to progress beyond a few core blocks between Broadway and Seventh streets, but the push further northward is in progress, with the renovation of four buildings in the 700 block, including the historic Koehler Building and the Koehler Bakery buildings. The mixed-use, two-story redevelopment will feature commercial space downstairs and condominiums and apartments upstairs. Three businesses have committed to locate in the block so far, including studio space for painter Barry Thomas at 711A Main. Next door will be Ozark Escape, the area's newest entry in the popular "escape room" entertainment genre, a live-action puzzle-solving game that locks participants in a themed room filled with clues and gives them a set amount of time to figure out how to escape. Ozark Escape will feature three different rooms that can hold up to 20 players at a time. At 715 Main will be Mortgage Peer Network, a startup company that sells technology to mortgage lenders, run by Greg Ellis.
- HUB OF TECHNOLOGY: The Innovation Hub has merged with Winrock International.
Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub
201 E. Broadway
Opened in January 2015, Argenta's Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub is a haven for tinkerers. It features a full woodworking shop, a printmaking and screenprinting shop, several 3D printers and two high-powered lasers that can do precision cuts and engraving in materials from paper to plywood. The Hub also offers regular classes on welding, laser-cutting, coding, block printing and more to members who pay a reasonable monthly or per-day fee.
Warwick Sabin, who served as the executive director of the Innovation Hub, now oversees its operations as well as Winrock's other job-creating programs as the senior director of U.S. programs for Winrock International, which combined with the Hub in June 2016.
Sabin said the number of people who used the Hub grew by about 40 percent in 2016. New developments on the drawing board for 2017 include continued work toward satellite makerspaces in other cities and a mobile makerspace that can be towed to far-flung corners of Arkansas.
For Central Arkansas, the big Hub-related news is a new Food Innovation Center, which Sabin said should open this year. While those looking to start food-related businesses — cheesemakers, pie makers, artisan bakers and the like — often have to turn to under-used industrial church kitchens to get their small businesses off the ground, Sabin said the Food Innovation Center would offer a certified industrial kitchen available for use by members, plus industrial packaging and labeling machines, a large garden and cooking classes. "It would take a similar approach as what we've established at our current Innovation Hub," Sabin said. "It would basically be an aggregation of tools, technology, equipment education, making that available to the community, both youth and adults, around food and agriculture."
The location for the Food Innovation Center is still up in the air as of this writing. A source close to the project, however, says developers are looking at sites in East Little Rock and Southwest Little Rock.
- Brian Chilson
- SKINNY J'S: New eatery on Main in Argenta.
Plenty of good food and nightlife is either in place or coming soon to Argenta. In the "coming soon" category is Kamikaito by Kiyens (521 Main), in the space at Sixth and Main streets that previously housed Good Food By Ferneau and Argenta Market. A spinoff of Kiyen's Seafood Steak and Sushi on Chenal Parkway, the space will reportedly offer sushi, seafood, steaks and Asian fusion cuisine. The original target date for Kamikaito was last October, but permitting snafus got in the way.
Open since early last year and steadily drawing raves since then is Four Quarter Bar (415 Main), the New Orleans-inspired music venue and bar by former Midtown Billiards bartender and talent booker Conan Robinson. Located in the former Sidetracks storefront, Four Quarter features cozy decor reminiscent of a French Quarter dive, over a dozen local beers on tap, a 2 a.m. private club permit and a solid lineup of live music several nights a week. Four Quarter took home the Best New Bar award in Arkansas Times' annual 2016 Toast of the Town issue, and was a finalist for a half-dozen other awards, including Best Dive, Best Neighborhood Bar and Best Bar Food. That last is a nod to a solid menu of booze-soaking fare, including slow-smoked pork sandwiches, burgers, nachos, mac and cheese and more.
A bit longer established is Skinny J's (314 Main), which opened in July 2015, the latest link in a small, Arkansas-only chain by chef and owner James Best, who opened his first Skinny J's near Jonesboro in 2009. Skinny J's features a solid sub-menu of bar vittles, including staples like loaded nachos, cheese curds, cheese fries, fried green tomatoes and crab cakes. For more stick-to-your ribs food, Skinny's has over a dozen incarnations of cheeseburger, 11 different sandwiches, a whole bunch of salads, several pasta choices and more. Unique, however, is Skinny J's status as the lone oyster bar north of the river.
- Brian Chilson
- FILL 'ER UP AT FLYWAY: One of three new breweries in Argenta.
When Diamond Bear Brewery packed up its taps and headed to the other side of the Arkansas River to establish the Arkansas Ale House (600 N. Broadway St.) in June 2014, it marked the beginning of a brewery community in North Little Rock's Argenta District. Diamond Bear still serves pre-brewery boom staples like its Pale Ale, Dogtown Brown and the Paradise Porter, as well as a rotating cast of seasonal ales like the Irish Red, the Honey Weiss and the handsome-hued Strawberry Blonde. The Ale House has an expanded taproom, a patio and an ample menu worthy of prepartying before heading to Dickey-Stephens for a baseball game: fried cheese curds, beer nuts, brat plates and one of the best veggie sandwiches in town, a crusty sourdough hoagie loaded with zucchini, caramelized onions, goat cheese, tomato, olive tapenade and fig jam.
Diamond Bear is just a short walk from newcomer Flyway Brewing (314 Maple), a microbrewery whose Bluewing Berry Wheat was a favorite at last year's Riverfest. Flyway, which moved into the space at 314 Maple St. in December 2015, serves up Banh Mi sliders and Duck Confit Nachos alongside standard brews like its Migrate Pale Ale and the Early Bird IPA. Its seasonal brews include the Lord God Imperial Chocolate Stout, with a whopping ABV of 11 percent. If that last one sounds like trouble to you, try the Flyway Root Beer (nonalcoholic).
And, while Flyway Brewing was celebrating its grand opening, Northwest Arkansas's Core Brewing and Distilling was making plans to move into the neighborhood. In March 2016, the Core Public House opened its doors in the former location of the Starving Artist Cafe, 411 Main St., to serve the full range of Core brews, including year-round favorites like the Arkansas Red, Behemoth Pilsner and the Leg Hound Lager.