Columns » Max Brantley

Downtown dreaming

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Those acquisitions, though relatively small, are apparently part of a very big idea. Stephens has in mind: transforming the cityscape that lies below his aerie in the Stephens skyscraper on Center Street. Dreams are cheap. Stephens has the capital to make them real. And he seems serious. Already, he's plunked millions down on a prime parcel in downtown North Little Rock. It could become a new home for the Arkansas Travelers baseball team. It would be a people magnet 68 nights a year. So, too, would be a new and grander Arkansas Repertory Theatre (though I admit I like the current Rep's main theater as well as any I've been in), a new Center movie house with cafe and cocktails, plus other new restaurants and entertainment venues. These are part of the outline given to Sabin on Stephens' Main Street plan. The Main Street development would augment the River Market area. It would encourage still more people - particularly young people - to visit and live downtown. The dream is to build lofts and condos on the floors above ground-floor retail and entertainment spaces. Because the project would carry the Stephens family's backing, there are certain to be a few naysayers, sure that the public is somehow being had by a powerful interest. We can't be sure of anything until the details are known, but I tend to doubt it. If downtown is such a gold mine, it wouldn't be a mostly moribund pile of decaying buildings. Somebody with $100 million could easily find safer places to put it. It's not just the vagaries of real estate development that must be overcome. The investment would be nothing less than a gamble that a half-century of sprawling city development trends could be, if not reversed, partially arrested. That's an exciting notion. It's also exciting to finally see a major private player step to the plate. Little Rock has seen millions in development downtown in recent years, but it has been dominated by public investments. The River Market, the Alltel Arena, the Clinton Library, a trolley line and a new library all rest heavily, if not exclusively, on public support. There have been some large private projects -- the Acxiom headquarters, an office/condo project and a hotel/condo project -- but several of these have had significant public contributions, ranging from tax breaks to parking deck and streetscape work. And the private projects wouldn't have been built without the public projects nearby. Other cities, such as Chattanooga, have succeeded in revitalizing their cores only because of significant investments by private interests. I should add that this wouldn't be the first community investment by the Stephens family. They've put more than $100 million into UALR, UAMS and other institutions, including a city golf course for kids and the Episcopal Collegiate High School. Sure I'll read the fine print when and if a final plan emerges. But, so far, I haven't heard anything not to like.

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