I walked around the 1897 Arkansas building at 6th and Main last night with developer Scott Reed, who is putting up the $150,000 match for the city for its NEA Our Town grant to will help plan a "creative corridor" on Main.
Reed said he thinks he can have the first floor of the Arkansas (originally the Lasker) and an adjoining building turned into studio, exhibit and rehearsal space for artists in a year’s time. The two buildings will have large windows facing Main and Sixth Streets, which will put the artists — visual and performing — on display, a 21st century retake on the department stores that once kept Main Street bustling.
In all, Reed is negotiating to buy all four buildings on the 500 block of Main. The other two are the M.M. Cohn Building and the Boyle Building.
The $150,000 Our Town grant and Reed's match will go to the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect of Fayetteville to create the initial design for the corridor. Little Rock will provide $7,500 in site work, draining plans and topographic surveys as an in-kind match for the grant.
Partners in the Our Town plan include the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the Downtown Partnership. Reed has also been meeting with area artists who’ve expressed interest in locating studios on Main.
Reed, whose family business — his father and three brothers — is Reed Realty Advisors, is finishing up a ground floor and basement rehab of the old Blass building at 315 Main St. for Porter's Jazz Club, slated to open Aug. 4. The remaining four stories of the building will be apartments; Reed says he has a list of 40 people interested, and two contracts signed.
Reed also plans to create 124 apartment units in the Arkansas Building and annex, to be leased at a price he said the artists should be able to afford. By filling Main Street buildings, one by one, with renters, Reed could be a people-planting Johnny Appleseed downtown — indeed, he says what he wants to do is "seed the street with a winning formula" of creative people.
So how about the risk? Why should artists' studios succeed on Little Rock's sad, mostly vacant Main Street? Who's going to visit their studios? Where will people park? Isn't this risky? Especially for a 34-year-old with dimples?
"I don't think it's risky at all," he said. Downtown apartments are 95 percent occupied (his figure), which he said indicates a market for more — including the eStem teacher, a policeman and a blind state employee who've approached him. Around 4,000 public employees have offices on Main to provide foot traffic along the "creative corridor." And from his point of view — one developed in dense West Coast cities — Little Rock has plenty of parking.
But most importantly, he said, is his family's business approach: They are contractors, investors, developers and owners rolled into one, with a long history in construction. The family business moved to Little Rock from Portland, Ore., because of the development promise its downtown showed, Reed said. His father, Bruce Reed, a downtown resident who sometimes rides a bike to work, wants to "turn the Main Street lights back on." He described himself as "the light cavalry" riding in to make sure the Our Town design doesn't end up as a "file stuffer." Too, he says, he doesn't plan on getting "too cute" with the artists' apartments — they need to be affordable, after all.
I asked him about the Mayors Institute on City Design charrette in 2009 that produced the notion of the creative corridor (and the technology park that the city wants to tax us for) and my general skepticism that artists' studios can't carry the load of downtown redevelopment. "You'll never see me at those charrettes," Reed said. "I just do it."