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George Wittenberg: downtown visionary

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When George Wittenberg sent me his address I didn’t look at it closely. It wasn’t until the morning of our interview that I read it and thought, “Huh? This isn’t near the River Market.” I was so certain that was where he lived. I plugged the address into Mapquest and, again, nowhere near the River Market district. I e-mailed Wittenberg for confirmation. “Between 15th and 16th,” he replied. In the Abeles complex.

Where did I get the idea that his home, which is legendary for its sophisticated and gorgeous aesthetic, was near the River Market? It dawned on me: It’s because that’s where I’ve heard people talk about him and his home. It’s a testament to the crucial role Wittenberg plays in the continued development of downtown Little Rock; you can’t talk about it without his name coming up.

About his home: You have to see it. You won’t believe it. It’s the most interesting home in Little Rock. You’ve never seen anything like it. Unless you’ve been to New York.

It also has a clean, functional aesthetic with a hint of playfulness and a hint of edginess. It is signature Wittenberg. You have to see it.

But even more interesting is the home’s location. South of I-630, past Juanita’s, west of Main. Surrounded by buildings of all sorts — hopelessly rundown, livable but sad, well-tended, immaculately restored.

Let’s back up and talk a bit about who George Wittenberg is. If the name sounds familiar, there are at least two good reasons. Wittenberg is a third-generation architect; his grandfather was, in 1919, the first registered architect in the state of Arkansas. The firm he established and where his grandson was once a partner, Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson, has been a force in Arkansas architecture for almost 90 years. George Wittenberg’s name has also been in the news regularly since he left the family firm in 1992 to help found the Urban Studies and Design program at UALR. The program teaches urban planning and design through a combination of classroom and real-world experience. That real-world experience largely comes through working with Wittenberg on community-driven planning projects.

Wittenberg’s heart may have always been in community projects. He said that he was always interested in studying “architecture’s relationship to the community rather than architecture’s relationship to itself. It is not isolated.” After completing his master’s degree in architecture and design at Harvard University, Wittenberg went to work for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. There, he worked largely on the redevelopment of downtown Boston. When he returned home to work at the Wittenberg firm, he had more public clients, like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

As part of the Urban Studies and Design program at UALR, Wittenberg and his students have completed more than 200 studies on community design for public and private investors. Wittenberg’s goal for the UALR program is to make the city, especially downtown, what cities should be: a place for people. Several of these studies have resulted in large projects, such as the Junction Bridge, that are now in various stages of completion. Here are two:

Block 97

Block 97 is the block southeast of the Pulaski County Courthouse (between Second and Third and Spring and Center streets). County Judge Buddy Villines wanted an affordable, community-friendly, attractive way to add parking near the courthouse. He was joined by the city of Little Rock, the Downtown Partnership and Metrocentre Improvement District in commissioning the study.

Block 97 is largely vacant, with the exception of a handful of historic buildings along Second Street, most notably the Center Place building. Initially the plan called for underground parking and a park “dedicated to Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation.” It would have been a green spot in the middle of the city with benches, trees, sidewalks and shade.

But underground parking proved to be too expensive. Because no one involved wanted to give up the park and simply build a parking structure on Block 97, another plan had to be hatched.

Wittenberg expanded the study to include adjacent Block 82, to the east. It is the site of vacant buildings and historic buildings, the most prominent being the Pyramid Building.

Now Wittenberg’s plan includes a park on Block 97 and new construction, a building that includes both commercial and living space. No size or design has yet been decided on. A parking structure that would accommodate 900 cars would be built on Block 82. The Pyramid Building would be remodeled and reconfigured to hold commercial and business space as well as living space.

Financing the Block 97 project should be a public/private partnership, Wittenberg said. It will require assistance from the multiple landowners involved, new investors and local government and community agencies.

The downtown grid

Less developed but a fascinating example of how urban planning works are the Corridors Study and its offshoots.

Wittenberg and his students identified six main corridors downtown — Markham/Clinton, Capitol, Ninth Street, Chester, Broadway and Main — that could use added visual appeal. The Downtown Partnership zeroed in on Main Street: What, exactly, needs to happen there?

The Wittenberg plan suggests high-density development near the Statehouse Convention Center, including a mixed-use high rise; maintaining the historic core area between Third and Ninth streets by encouraging adaptive use of existing structures; and a major arts complex between Ninth Street and I-630, as well as new lighting, sidewalks, trees, pedestrian street crossings, underground utilities, and transit stops.

But Little Rock south of I-630 — a neighborhood cut off literally and financially — is also in Wittenberg’s mind. He and the newly formed Southside Main Street Project are interested in future development on Main south of the freeway to 17th Street.

The plans are for streetscape improvements including trees, planters, brick paving, and new curb alignments and preservation of historic structures.

Recent years have seen the renovation of the Jungkind building and the Little Holtze House, replacement of the tornado-damaged Harvest Foods, construction of the Mahlon Martin apartments, and Wittenberg’s Abeles Garage Loft and Apartments complex. A remodeling and adaptive reuse of the Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church is being talked about.

Wittenberg lights up when he talks about the Southside Main Street Project — it is where he lives and it is clear he can’t wait to get to work. He’d like to see Southside Main — which just recently installed a public art project, artist-designed chairs, along Main — lined with mixed-income housing, art galleries, restaurants, and green space and walking space for pedestrians. Wittenberg and others would like the River Rail trolley to run on Main Street. “Businesses want to be where trolley lines are. It will bring customers. It will bring people.”

During our interview Wittenberg and I took a moment to bemoan the division between the haves and the have-nots that I-630 has created. He can’t move I-630, but he believes he can move us across it, and build a bridge the community will want to cross.

— Joy Ritchey

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