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A stadium. A park. A plan? War Memorial

Uncertainty about the Hogs, the zoo's infrastructure needs stir call for a Little Rock Central Park.

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DOWNTOWN IN THE DISTANCE: A view of War Memorial Park and the Little Rock Zoo looking east. - STEPHEN MURPHREE
  • Stephen Murphree
  • DOWNTOWN IN THE DISTANCE: A view of War Memorial Park and the Little Rock Zoo looking east.

In the heart of Little Rock is a 200-acre park that separates two very different neighborhoods: the poorer Forest Hills neighborhood on its south and the well-to-do Hillcrest neighborhood on its north.

For years, the city was satisfied with the arrangement of the park, with its War Memorial Stadium, a 90-acre golf course, a 33-acre zoo, Ray Winder Field, fitness center and pools and a playground. But in 2007, with the Arkansas Travelers moving to Dickey Stephens Park in North Little Rock and plans for a children's library south of the interstate on Jonesboro Drive, there was a move to rethink War Memorial. What if it were greener, its fairways, greens and tennis center gone back to nature for hiking, biking, nature communing, to expand its attraction beyond golfers?

So the city hired a consulting firm that had worked with St. Louis on the redesign of its Forest Park. After a number of public meetings, including one in which several groups of people were given maps of the park and pencils and asked to draw what they'd like to see there, it became clear that War Memorial Park was not a coherent piece, but several attractions. The golfers and the football fans don't go to the zoo, the families who go to the zoo — a majority from outside Little Rock — have no use for the golf course. The weight lifters and lane swimmers at the fitness center work out and walk out. A few suggested the stadium, no longer loved by the Arkansas Razorbacks, should be removed, and others who said a memorial to Arkansas's World War dead should be honored. No Venn diagram described its use; there was no overarching idea for what War Memorial Park should be.

Only one thing was for certain: The golfers weren't going to cede their 18 holes without a fight. The fierce opposition from golfers who'd been playing War Memorial Golf Course, with its WPA-built clubhouse and midtown setting, for years put the quietus on any big change. It's hard to remove something the city has invested in since 1931. In 2010, the course was required to sacrifice some acreage for a splash park and improved playground, and what was once a par 65 became a duffer's delight par 64. The tennis courts got plowed down, a flat green space taking their place. That was that.

But the idea of making War Memorial a Central Park for Little Rock has never died. Largely thanks to the library for children that former Central Arkansas Library System Director Bobby Roberts built south of Interstate 630 and the city's extension of the park to property along Jonesboro Drive, many people have come to see the park as a way to connect, not separate, the disparate neighborhoods north and south. That it could be more inclusive, bridge that gash of freeway that kept the city divided along economic and racial lines. And that the city should once more get together and consider a reconfiguration of War Memorial Park.

FAIR PARK IN 1939: A little zoo, a dance hall, a merry-go-round and State Fair buildings.
  • FAIR PARK IN 1939: A little zoo, a dance hall, a merry-go-round and State Fair buildings.

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Competing with the notion of opening more of the park to passive and alternative recreation is a suggestion by consultants for War Memorial Park that a portion of the park be sold for development for restaurants, hotels, multifamily housing and retail.

The stadium faces several challenges. The University of Arkansas wants $10 million in facility upgrades to continue playing football there; its contract with the stadium expires this year and the Hogs' game against Ole Miss this fall could be their last in Little Rock. Governor Hutchinson, saying he wanted the stadium to become more self-supporting, asked that its state appropriation, $885,644 this year, be cut in half in 2019, and recommended a viability study. (The stadium, once operated by an appointed commission, now falls under the Parks and Tourism Department. Only the building is state property; the state leases the parking lot from the city.)

The study, by CS&L, released in March, said the stadium needed to make $17 million in improvements, paid for with philanthropic dollars (citing, among other gifts, Bud Walton's $15 million for the Bud Walton Arena and Jack Stephens' $25 million for the Jack Stephens Center), tax dollars and development opportunities.

"Given the uncertainty of the Arkansas Razorbacks' utilization of War Memorial Stadium beyond 2018, which could limit the need for parking and tailgating in War Memorial Park, project stakeholders tasked the project team with analyzing potential redevelopment opportunities for War Memorial Park," CS&L said in its study. It proposed taking 40 of the 90 acres the golf course now uses and using 14 acres for an indoor sports complex, 10 acres for multifamily housing, 8 acres for restaurants, an expansion of the zoo by 8 acres, 3 acres for retail and 2 acres for a hotel. Fifty-two acres would be left as parkland.

However, interviews with park users and political leaders indicate zero support for selling off city-owned parkland to private developers. Even Kane Webb, director of Parks and Tourism, didn't come on strong for private development. "I'd love to see War Memorial Park become a real Central Park," Webb said. "I'd love to see a big fat conversation about that park ... . It feels like the timing is right," he said, noting that whatever happens, the community will have to be behind it.

NEEDS WORK: War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948. - STEPHEN MURPHREE
  • Stephen Murphree
  • NEEDS WORK: War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948.

Meanwhile, Webb compared the stadium to "an old Toyota that keeps on running." It needs a new field and will get it, thanks to a field bond. He expects to improve the wi-fi at the stadium and make security upgrades. About the $10 million the UA demanded: "That was from Jeff Long, a previous regime," he said. What matters more are the SEC recommendations, due out in June. Webb said he hopes the SEC "will realize that all stadiums aren't created equal."

With 200 events, including 24 football games, War Memorial Stadium is not underutilized, Webb said. It's not going anywhere, but it does need new dollars, especially if it loses the Hogs contract, which is worth about $300,000 to $400,000 for a sold-out game, Webb said.

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When the Little Rock Zoo opened in 1926, its only animals were a timber wolf and a circus bear. They're long gone, but the zoo still has a fierce occupant: Director Susan Altrui.

The zoo gets 300,000 visitors a year, Altrui said, second only to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, and she wants that to grow to 600,000. Little Rock and Pulaski County need to think big about War Memorial, she said, and how quality of life drives investment, and not the other way around.

Take New York City's High Line Park, she said. New York transformed an abandoned railroad spur into a nearly 2-mile-long linear park, with a trail landscaped with trees and bushes and grasses and wildflowers, and with places to stop and sit. It's so popular that there has been a veritable real estate boom in its Chelsea neighborhood, where unused factories are being converted into places to live, meet and work.

"You've got to think bigger than playground equipment and dog parks," Altrui said. There's nothing wrong with playgrounds and dog parks, she said, but with War Memorial, "we have the potential to make it a destination, not just another city park."

Gary Lee of national zoo building firm CLR Design is working with the Little Rock Zoo Foundation on a master plan for future development. "We wanted somebody who understood the intersection of art and nature," Altrui said, and how the park and the zoo could be more of a piece. He looked at a plan of the park and "the very first thing he observed was Coleman Creek," she said, which runs along Fair Park, and how it could transform what is now a mowed archery range into a creek ecosystem. Lee has brought to the foundation ideas for earthworks a la Maya Lin's "Storm King Wavefield," a field of grassy valleys and 15-foot peaks, and the Sultan the Pit Pony raised-earth sculpture in Wales. Why not a raised Razorback earthwork, Lee wondered, or, if the Hogs are replaced by a UA Little Rock football team, a Trojan Horse for lolling on? What about dotting the park, both within and without the zoo grounds, with features akin to the supertrees of Singapore, solarpowered vertical gardens, as a device to pull the park together?

COLEMAN CREEK: A possible focus of park development, a consultant hired by the zoo says. - STEPHEN MURPHREE
  • Stephen Murphree
  • COLEMAN CREEK: A possible focus of park development, a consultant hired by the zoo says.

Why not, Altrui asked, alter Jonesboro Drive over I-630 into a two-lane planted with trees and including a bike lane? The Polk Stanley Wilcox architectural firm drew up such a plan in 2015; Jonesboro would not have to be widened for it to be implemented. Why not, Altrui asked, "literally and metaphorically build a bridge between the two neighborhoods? What about a butterfly house on the bridge? "Create a reason for people to come to the park — that becomes the economic engine," she said.

Altrui noted the city's tax investments in downtown — the Robinson Center Performance Hall, the Little Rock Tech Park, the Arkansas Arts Center. They've brought new life to downtown. It's midtown's turn — in a way the people of midtown support. Little Rock contributes $700,000 a year for new exhibits and updates, but "that's a drop in the bucket" with what is needed. Other cities, like Kansas City and Tucson, have created a tax district around their zoos to bring in new dollars. With 60 percent of the visitors to the zoo coming from outside Little Rock but in Pulaski County, why shouldn't the county help it out? It's the only zoo in Arkansas — where is the state support?

A Sanborn insurance map of the zoo from 1939 shows the reptile and bird house. A Sanborn map from today would show the same WPA-built structure, still housing reptiles and birds. But the zoo is no longer a place to show animals: It has a conservation mission. Like the stadium, it's time to bring the state's only zoo into the 21st century. Altrui said the zoo plans to meet with the public over the summer to gauge interest in zoo improvements and discern people's desires for the park.

SEES POTENTIAL IN WAR MEMORIAL AS A DESTINATION: Give people a reason to come to the park, Little Rock Zoo Director Susan Altrui says, and development on its perimeter will follow. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • SEES POTENTIAL IN WAR MEMORIAL AS A DESTINATION: Give people a reason to come to the park, Little Rock Zoo Director Susan Altrui says, and development on its perimeter will follow.

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Warwick Sabin, a state representative who is leaving the House to make a run for Little Rock mayor, is another park supporter who likes to point to investment downtown in thinking about midtown's future. "The city's been able to find money for the thing it values," Sabin said. "When we have some leadership that thinks creatively and holistically and inclusively, we can look for the resources in many different places."

Sabin has been thinking about the renaissance of War Memorial Park for some time. In 2005, when he was an Arkansas Times associate editor, he wrote that the city's attention should turn to the park, suggesting that the city create a "world-class zoo" and consider development along the park's periphery. He also suggested eliminating the golf course "and re-landscaping the land to allow more people to enjoy it. ... It is not fair to cater to the sentimental feelings of a few citizens and deny the larger population the opportunity to take advantage of urban green space."

As a candidate for mayor, Sabin has dialed it back a bit. "If we have a truly inclusive process that values diversity" in thinking about the park's future, "and quantitatively determine the best use of the limited space that we have, we may find that golf is not the best use of that space in that location."

Tell that to the golfers. War Memorial Golf Course's fans may be few compared to zoo visitors, but they are ardent. In 2017, War Memorial also saw more rounds — 14,909 — than did the city's most challenging course, Hindman, which had more than 2,000 fewer rounds. Parts of Hindman, however, are in the flood plain, and can be unplayable after big rains. More rounds were played at Little Rock's third course, Rebsamen, a links-style course, than at Hindman and War Memorial combined.

On a recent Friday, a good number of players — all men, but diverse in age and race — were buying their greens fees at the club house, which also serves as the local AARP meeting space on its second floor. Japanese maples shade a patio and picnic tables in front.

THE PARK PLAYGROUND: Developed in 2010, three years after the city hired a consultant to talk about what a War Memorial Park of the future could look like. - STEPHEN MURPHREE
  • Stephen Murphree
  • THE PARK PLAYGROUND: Developed in 2010, three years after the city hired a consultant to talk about what a War Memorial Park of the future could look like.

No golfer, said Ned Dale Jr., who was celebrating his 75th birthday with a round with his friend Ernest Franklin, wants to see War Memorial pulled back to nine holes, much less gotten rid of. Rodney Lewis, an employee, laughed when asked what would happen if such a suggestion were made. A bunch of players would head down to City Hall, like they did in 2007, he said.

Mayor Mark Stodola recalled they came "armed with 9-irons" to keep what he called the "pure park people" from taking over the fairways. Stodola was exaggerating as to their clubs, but not their influence.

Sabin thinks its time to bring people together again to talk about the park, and so do City Director Kathy Webb and another announced mayoral candidate, Frank Scott.

***

While the vision of the park expressed in the mid-aughts was one of a vast green and leafy space with walking and biking trails that all could enjoy, rather than more sporting attractions, that seems to have changed. A "Think Big Little Rock" task force recommended last year that the stadium usage be increased with track meets, intrastate collegiate games, more vendors and more concerts. It said the park should be turned a into a "multi-purpose 'central park' " with various types of ball fields, a skate park, climbing walls, a dog park, a food truck area. It recommended that the pool at the Jim Dailey Fitness Center be enlarged.

City Director Webb, too, said her constituents want more soccer fields, to give them an alternative to the fields at Natural Steps west of Little Rock and Burns Park in North Little Rock. "I'd love to see a big soccer complex. I think there are a lot of possibilities rather than dusting off a plan from eight or 10 years ago."

Scott is really big on the sports idea. "I would support the park being turned into a regional sports complex that would emphasize youth sports — soccer, baseball, basketball, a regional AAU organization," Scott said. To do that, he said, "I would like to see the golf course being either completely removed or going from 18 holes to 9 holes."

By focusing on youth, Scott said, the city could bring in more kids from south of the interstate to the park. "It's a great opportunity to focus on being intentional about community."

The sports complex idea was tossed about several years ago, before the city decided to fund the Robinson Center. Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Gretchen Hall said that developing an indoor sports facility is "my personal soap box." Such a facility would attract "sports-related tourism. I think that War Memorial falls into that conversation for sure."

***

What her constituents don't want, Kathy Webb said, is private development.

When the CS&L study was released in March, Webb tweeted and posted on her Facebook page that she was troubled by the consultants' suggestion on monetizing part of War Memorial by turning 40 acres over to private development. "An additional part of the feasibility study that troubled me was the dismissal of the area south of 630," she wrote on Facebook.

The report noted that "there does not appear to be a near-term market for conventional commercial/residential development" in the neighborhood near the children's library, essentially writing off the area as a viable community.

"I had more response to that tweet than anything on any subject at any time ever," Webb said. No one responding to her Facebook post was in support of development.

"Development is a bad idea. I would love to see that park become the Pulaski County Central Park."

To make major changes, Webb said, "We shouldn't be afraid to talk about anything. Like, we need to look at, would we be better off if we did work more closely with Pulaski County with the zoo? ... It's an important piece of the park. ... Would the zoo be better off if it were affiliated with the state, because it is a statewide attraction? Should it be the Central Arkansas Zoo?

Webb would even consider rethinking the fitness center.

"While I don't think that everything in government translates to a business model," Webb said, it would make sense to look at income, expenses and average attendance. "I was watching something on TV and saw a commercial for a fitness center, and whatever the price was it was crazy low. ... How do you compete with that?" Fitness center admission is $5 for individual day use ($3 for seniors) and $40 a month ($30 for seniors).

"I have constituents who love the fitness center, but I hear from them regularly about repairs that are needed," Webb said.

Webb also wants more connection north and south: "If we could link the children's library and the zoo a bit better it would open up the whole area more to the south of 630."

She would also like to see lower prices to the zoo for low-income children, noting that the Memphis Zoo gives free admission to Tennessee residents on Tuesdays. "I wish we could see something like that," Webb said, though adding as an aside that "Susan [Altrui] may kill me" for the suggestion and that there would have to be an alternate source of funds to offset it.

"We can disagree about specific pieces" of the park, Webb said, "but we do need to bring people together and have a conversation."

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