Thirty years ago, state Highway 10, also known as Cantrell Road, was a ribbon of a road that wound its way west on a scenic course parallel to the Arkansas River, past Pinnacle Mountain, the shores of Lake Maumelle and into Perry County. The two-lane passed the small black community of Pankey, a couple of liquor stores, some trailers and lots of pine trees.
Today, Highway 10 is a principal arterial (the largest road designation below an interstate) for the city to points west. The six-mile section between Interstate 430 and Chenal Parkway has blossomed into a modern five-lane corridor lined with major developments, both commercial and residential, and more are on the way. But progress hasn't come without potholes: City Hall skirmished regularly over the area's zoning in the early 1990's. One even erupted into a full-blown legal battle. Now that the controversy has died down, city planners and real estate developers celebrate the corridor as an example of well-planned development.
Others aren't so sure as they fight rush hour traffic or worry about planned new commercial developments.
A drive along the corridor offers a variety of views. Great cliffs of stone rise up at sharp angles from the road, covered thickly with trees, which give way to gently rolling hills. Split rail fences along the highway frontage add a country air, as this piece of Arkansas River valley land gives way to the early foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. Nearby are the peaks of Pinnacle and Shinall Mountains, the highest elevations in the county.
But a more recent feature along the road is less scenic. Signs rising from raw and exposed earth announce new development. Other signs seek purchasers for more development. With building in the West Markham-Bowman Road-Chenal Parkway area at critical mass, Hwy. 10 has become the new spot for businesses to locate, and the attention is worrisome to residents and activists.
Besides the fact that development has altered the bucolic nature of that segment of town, residents are concerned about traffic. According to the state Highway and Transportation Department, traffic along Hwy. 10 has tripled in the past 10 years, from 6,000 cars a day in 1991 to over 18,000 in 2001, the latest year traffic counts are available. During evening rush hour, a steady stream of vehicles — bumper to bumper in most places — fill both westbound lanes of Hwy. 10, a nasty surprise for those haven't been out there lately. For those who live and work in the area, fighting traffic on Hwy. 10 has become a way of life, and the future will bring even greater congestion.
Large employers like Cingular Wireless telecommunications company and Leisure Arts publishing are currently one of the greatest contributors to traffic counts.
Cingular's two-story, 100,000-square-foot building is located in the commercial and residential development known as The Ranch, which was developed by Financial Center Corp. The call center for the national telecommunications company houses 500 employees, mainly telemarketers and customer service representatives.
Cingular's neighbor Leisure Arts, the giant publisher of how-to instructional books on needlecrafts and home decor, employs 300 people in its executive offices and distribution center.
Family Life, a part of Campus Crusade for Christ, is building its international headquarters at Hwy. 10 and Drew Lane. The 100,000-square-foot facility will serve as office space for the ministry's 300 employees (with the capability of housing between 450 to 500 workers in future). The group will also broadcast several radio programs from the building.
Arvest, Superior, Bank of the Ozarks and Twin City Bank are building branches in the area. Retailers include the established Pleasant Ridge Square and Candlewood Shopping Center, and signs near Taylor Loop announce a future Walgreen's pharmacy.
In November, the city Planning Commission approved plans for a 210,396-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on 23 acres at the southeast corner of Hwy. 10 and Chenal Parkway, near the Duquesne neighborhood.
Traffic studies show the Wal-Mart Supercenter could bring another 3,000 to 4,000 cars per day, and Wal-Mart has agreed to widen Chenal Parkway to seven lanes at its intersection with Hwy. 10. Along with two other developers, the retailer will pay for the installation of a traffic signal. (Developer Lou Schickel also paid for a traffic light, at the Pleasant Ridge Road intersection.)
"The Supercenter will draw all kinds of traffic. Any reasonable person would be concerned," said Duquesne resident Tom Draper. "Cingular generates a lot of traffic — other development may compound the problem," he said.
Draper and many other residents chose to live in the area because of the country feel and beautiful scenery, a feature developers like Deltic Timber and The Ranch Properties emphasize in their marketing. Yet developers say high traffic volume is inevitable.
"I don't want to sound anti-development, but a Supercenter isn't a good mix in the immediate vicinity," Draper said. "We knew the property was zoned for commercial use, but we were hopeful they'd do what they've done on Rahling Road," Draper said, where a more upscale shopping center, including the recently-closed Brannon's Market, was built off Chenal Parkway.
But Gene Pfeifer, a real estate developer and hardware store owner who lives in the area, doubts it makes much difference whether development is high-end or not. "Who is to say if it wasn't a Wal-Mart that the traffic wouldn't be as much? Breckenridge Village is all upscale and it certainly has generated a lot of traffic."
The new home interiors store David Claibourne Ltd. at Hwy. 10 and Taylor Loop Road certainly gets traffic. Located in what was once a Harvest Foods store, the 44,000-square-foot store stocks the antiques and furnishings west Little Rock residents covet for their homes.
"We had so many customers from Chenal and west Little Rock come to our North Little Rock store and beg us to move a store out west," said David Underwood, who owns the store with his wife, Susan. "We had a soft opening on Jan. 22, and the parking lot has been full ever since."
Jim Lawson, city planning director, noted that the area's C-3 zoning allows for development as diverse as a Wal-Mart and a chic antiques store. "The city doesn't have detailed control of what goes on a particular piece of property if its use matches with the zoning," he said.
Rick Ferguson, a homebuilder who lives in the area, believes the Supercenter is both a blessing and a curse. "There will be more traffic, but the traffic lights will actually slow traffic and make it safer," he said. He says sometimes he feels fearful on Hwy. 10 because of how fast people drive, and that he'd rather trade convenience for safety.
Draper is also concerned about his property value. "It's a catch-22. If I decide I want to move, who's to say someone else will want to live there?" Draper said. However, he was "pleasantly surprised" when he heard a house in the area sold after the Wal-Mart announcement was made. "We'll wait and see how all this plays out."
Residential developers are more optimistic.
Ferguson says sales have been "very steady" in his Valley Falls Estates development of $1.3 million to $1.8 million homes on one-acre lots at the end of South Katillus Road (four miles west of I-430 just past Taylor Loop Road). Jim Swink, who also has a residential development on South Katillus, isn't concerned that traffic will hurt home sales. He says his Montagne Court, a neighborhood of 60 patio homes, will be set back about 200 feet off of Hwy. 10, and that residents can exit the neighborhood via Taylor Loop Road.
Lawson says development isn't entirely to blame for Hwy. 10 congestion. "The traffic problems are due to sprawl outside the city. A lot of it is that people have left Little Rock and gone farther up Hwy. 300 to Perryville. There's just a lot of traffic coming in and out of the city, and the only way to get back and forth from those areas is Highway 10."
There have been talks about creating other arterials, such as widening and extending Rahling Road down to Saline County, but because the cash-strapped city depends on developers to make road improvements, and developers don't build unless they can develop along what they've built, new roads aren't a solution.
Don't expect the state to widen Hwy. 10. "Hwy. 10's carrying capacity is 25,000 cars in a 24-hour period. It's been shown that no matter how wide you build a road, it will fill with cars. Widening roads hasn't solved the traffic problem," said Brian Minyard, spokesman for the City Planning Commission.
Susan Simms, chapter chair of the Central Arkansas Sierra Club, said the city should call a halt to development long enough to study the traffic issue. "We need to look at options like putting in mass transit. The traffic in the whole area is terrible — on Rodney Parham, Chenal Parkway, Shackleford, and now Hwy. 10. That area can't maintain the kind of traffic Wal-Mart will bring," she said. Simms believes the city should make a study of what it needs and what it can successfully sustain.
But David Jones of Vogel Realty says that those who voice concerns over traffic sometimes have other agendas. "People who don't want commercial development and who don't want to see continued development will use whatever arguments available to forestall it," he said.
A master zoning plan for the area was adopted by the city in 1986. The master plan created commercial nodes at certain intersections with residential areas and transition zones (land zoned for office or multifamily use) in between in the nodes. In 1995, the city approved a design overlay district for the corridor, which outlines landscaping requirements and limits access points on the highway.
"The city tried to stop the 'domino effect' seen on Rodney Parham, University and Asher Avenues," planner Lawson said. Commercial development on these roads forced residents out.
"I think the present development [on Highway 10] bears out the wisdom of the original plan. There's very high quality development on Cantrell," said Pfeifer.
Ed Willis, developer of The Ranch, agrees. "The developers along Hwy. 10 should be congratulated, and the city is going a good job of monitoring the plan," he said.
Lawson points to the transition and residential zones as the key to making the plan work. He says that these zones, coupled with the design overlay, has provided the buffer needed to preserve the natural beauty of the area.
Yet one developer wants to see more growth. David Jones said the master plan has slowed development, and that "there's more demand for Hwy. 10 now that Chenal is almost developed out."
Is there any danger that the city might radically change the plan?
No, says Lawson. "The plan for Hwy. 10 has been successfully upheld. There have been some changes to it, but not a movement to straight commercial. The changes are still in keeping with the intent of the plan," he said.
Ranch developer Willis agrees. "Amendments have been made to the plan and there will continue to be others. All applications have to be considered on their merits and they make sense or they don't," he said.
Jim Lynch, head of Little Rock's New Party, is skeptical. "The city doesn't have a good track record of sticking to the plan. If a developer comes in with a pocketful of money, the plan can be changed in an eyelash," he said. He points to areas further east on Hwy. 10. "It's totally commercial from Steinmart to Pavillion in the Park," he said.
No one can talk about the master plan without mentioning National Home Centers, and the time a zoning battle went from city hall to the courtroom.
In 1993, the Little Rock City Board of Directors voted 4-2 to rezone 17.7 acres of residential land on Hwy. 10 for commercial use, a vote that went against the recommendations of city staff and the Planning Commission. The rezoning effort, spearheaded by David Jones, was to pave the way for a National Home Centers big box store. Three years before, Jones led a successful bid to rezone a parcel of land at Hwy. 10 and Taylor Loop Road for the Harvest Foods store that later failed.
Pfeifer, president of OneSource Building and Home centers, along with other opponents of that rezoning, filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Judge Vann Smith reversed the board's decision, describing the vote as "spot zoning incompatible with the city's land-use plan." The state Supreme Court upheld Smith's ruling on appeal.
Pfeifer said that had Mayor Jim Dailey and city director Joan Adcock succeeded in approving the National Home Center project, "it would have torpedoed the Hwy. 10 plan."
Mayor Dailey voted against the rezoning, but critics at the time contended he allowed the issue to be rushed through a single city board meeting and voted no on the issue only after he saw it already had enough votes to pass.
Jones contends the city hasn't been consistent when changes are made to the plan. He points to the site for the proposed Wal-Mart as an example. "At the request of Deltic Timber, the city expanded the commercial node there beyond what the master plan originally showed, while other expansion requests were defeated," he said. He doesn't necessarily feel that the city favors Deltic Timber over other developers, but says they have shown a "proclivity over the years to support Deltic Timber." Jones would like to see the city "look as open minded at other projects on Hwy. 10."
"Each proposal should be looked at in and of itself. The quality of the development and the actual use instead of absolutely denying opportunities for commercial development in the transition zone," he said.
While the city considers the master plan and design overlay successful in Highway 10's case, planners don't consider it a template for all parts of the city.
"I wouldn't say this is the shape of things to come," said city planner Brian Minyard. "You can't apply the exact same plan to a different area." He says the city is considering using design overlays in areas like the Clinton library/Heifer Project area, but in the midtown University Avenue/Markham area, a slightly different approach is being considered.