by Max Brantley
Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter, a Beebe appointee to the state Hiighway Commission, arrived at the Capitol Zoning District Commission meeting this evening with a compromise for the office building he wants to build at Sixth and Woodlane across from the Capitol.
He didn't get a chance to present it. The Commission voted 7-1, with one abstention, not to change the zoning for two blocks along Sixth to Victory to allow a five-story building, rather than the three-story limit required by current zoning.
An emotional Burkhalter said afterward that he was disappointed and that he thought the issue had been a "convoluted" one, difficult for commissioners to understand. He said he'd wanted to build a "beautiful," green project in a "blighted" area to benefit downtown Little Rock. He said he couldn't build something smaller on the property because it wouldn't be economically feasible.
In a brief discussion before a vote not to approve the zoning — which has been discussed at length previously — Commissioner Tommy Jameson, an architect, spoke of the design in complimentary fashion. He noted the Commission had twice given the project a waiver from height limits to proceed. But a lawsuit by preservationist Dan Cook established that the commission didn't have power to issue a waiver. If it wanted to approve the building, it had to rezone the blocks to allow a higher height limit, a court ruled. The prospect of rezoning stirred opposition from a broad cross-section of neighbors, preservationists and others who feared it would be a bad precedent. Jameson said the rules had worked well for 20 years and to open them up to change now for a so far nonspecific project (Burkhalter didn't have committed clients for the building) would be a "big mistake." Jameson called it an "unfortunate situation.
Only Commissioner Ralph Vines voted against Albert Hurst's motion not to adopt the zoning change. Chairman Ron Maxwell, who runs the Governor's Mansion for Beebe, shook his head, said his vote didn't matter since five had already voted against the project when his turn came and then abstained.
Burkhalter said he'd come prepared with a compromise, a four-story building. His supporters said that, when you considered where construction would begin, downhill and well below the Capitol's ground level, that the ultimate height of the building wouldn't be far off the limit provided in the zoning rules. They contended it would cause scant obstruction to views of the Capitol, the point of the height restrictions. But a four-story limit might as well have been a 14-story limit under terms of the court ruling, which seemed to give the commission no room to discuss compromises, only rezoning. Burkhalter didn't speak. Hurst made his motion shortly after the topic was called for discussion.
Burkhalter said he couldn't come back with a rezoning proposal for a year. (CLARIFICATION: Since Burkhalter's project wasn't the subject of consideration Thursday night, this isn't correct strictly speaking. A rule change — reclassifying a block of property to a different zoning category, as proposed last night — can be proposed at any time and repeatedly. So Burkhalter could push for a new zoning rule that would impose a four-story rather than three-story limit over a neighborhood in which he'd like to build. He would have to wait if his specific project had been denied.)
Josh Gillispie, the lawyer for Cook in the zoning fight, had several comments:
This was a win for the people of Arkansas and for future generations of Arkansans who will be able to enjoy unobstructed views of our beautiful Capitol.
Tonight the Commission chose to act on behalf of the people of Arkansas. I know that Mr. Burkhalter is unhappy that he cannot build his Arkansas First Building where he wants to build it. But in disappointing Mr. Burkhalter, the Capitol Zoning Commission truly has put Arkansas first.
This case is about the preservation of our state Capitol's visual prominence and the zoning laws that have accomplished that preservation for decades. These rules were put in place specifically to prevent the kind of thing Mr. Burkhalter has been attempting to do - build a five story building right in front of the Capitol that would block important views to the Capitol from multiple locations, including Interstate 630. But tonight, Mr. Burkhalter learned that some rules apply to even politically connected individuals.