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Mr. Moses’ neighborhood (and Tucker’s too)

Their faith in downtown is 18 stories high.

by and

LOOKING UP: Jimmy Moses (left) and Rett Tucker.
  • LOOKING UP: Jimmy Moses (left) and Rett Tucker.

Maybe they're sentimental souls whose warm memories of the bustling downtown of their youth drives their work today. Maybe they're just well-connected homeys who saw a niche and capitalized on it. Or maybe they're savvy civic-minded businessmen who saw a way to keep Little Rock on the map, give it an identity and some red-blooded, cosmopolitan airs, even if the path there was a tough one. Possibly all of that is true.

Whatever the reasons, Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker — and their silent partners, both financial and political — deserve credit for a reoxygenated part of downtown Little Rock whose centerpiece architecture is not offices, but places to live.

The real estate firm has just announced its latest change in the downtown skyline: River Market Place, which will include an 18-story condo tower with retail on the ground floor, new retail spaces in Tuf-Nut Condos and a 120-room, eight-story business hotel. They will be given what they call the “River Market treatment,” with brick paved sidewalks, ornamental lighting and a brick façade on the hotel and brick accents on the high-rise. (See sidebar.) When the River Market Tower opens in January 2009, it will be Moses Tucker's sixth residential project in an area whose doornails were definitely dead.

There's a Mutt and Jeff cartoon from the 1920s that shows the shortish, wacky Jeff asking the tall and skinny Mutt for an umbrella. “Sure!” says Mutt. “But there's no sign of rain!” “I know,” Jeff says, “but it will rain someday!”

Like Mutt and Jeff (with the Energizer Bunny thrown in), the skinny and tall Tucker and the merrier Moses knew they could create an urban residential area just off the River Market entertainment district even if the need for it wasn't crystal clear. It would someday, they knew, rain condo-seekers.

When they got the idea to build — rather than restore — a condo/business/residential project, the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center, they went to their banker, John Lopez, then at Regions Bank. “Where are your comps?” he asked. What are other condos in new mixed-use buildings downtown selling for?

There weren't any, of course. Tucker and Moses had been leasing their Tuf-Nut Lofts for apartments since 1999, but condos were still uncommon. The two got busy, selling the yet-to-be-built condos in the yet-to-be-built building at Commerce and Third themselves. In six weeks, they'd sold five of the eight they had planned to build and went back to the bank — this time with plans to cap off their new building with two floors and 16 condos, double the original number.

“These were very hard deals,” Tucker said. The River Market district didn't lend itself to easy deals and quick investment. Moses Tucker took risks — like buying and redoing the Tuf-Nut building for $2 million in the days when “it was a cold walk to Clinton Avenue,” as Moses put it. “It was not a savvy purchase.”

The seven-story, $14 million Capital Commerce blend of business and residence opened in July 2002, and in an interview that year, Moses said, “Who would have dreamed people would spend a quarter of a million dollars to live on top of a building in downtown Little Rock?” Having the city build a parking garage next to the building — a somewhat controversial decision that some thought was too costly an investment for the city — didn't hurt any.

As it turns out, people are spending a lot more than that, and again, they're buying in a building that's not even complete. Moses Tucker's $45 million, 18-story 300 Third Tower is well on the way to its scheduled opening in 2007. By October, the building was 73 percent sold. Still available was a 2,100-square-foot condo (finished out) on the 14th floor — for $727,000.

Shell units, finished out to suit their owners, are located on the 9,000-square-foot 15th, 16th and 17th floors. Several buyers have combined units to make larger condos; in September, only one shell unit was unsold.

Tuf-Nut at Third at Commerce has 23 loft apartments. The Capital Commerce center has 16 condos. The First Security center at Clinton and Sherman has 24 condos atop a hotel. Rainwater Flats at 515 E. Capital, 20 condos; 300 Third Tower, 98 condos. River Market Tower will add 150 more. That adds up to 305 new places to live in an area three blocks wide and four blocks deep.

Who are these buyers? Where are they coming from?

They're not empty nesters from the Heights and Hillcrest, where Moses and Tucker grew up and still live, though the two at first expected them to be.

“They're any demographic you want to point to,” Moses said. Some are famous, a “who's who list of some significant people everyone in Arkansas would know.” Many are over 50 and do a lot of traveling. A high percentage of buyers are speculative — maybe as high as 50 percent — but Moses says the turnover is far less than that. Half the buyers are permanent residents, and a smaller percentage own two homes (many of them Arkansans who live outside Little Rock).

Only two families with children have bought at 300 Third. Increasingly, younger buyers, 35 to 50, are interested, so much so that that's who Moses and Tucker plan to market new housing to.

More? Moses, 58, and Tucker, 57, hope to have created 1,000 units in the River Market area and south to MacArthur Park before they retire.

“When I look out and see a parking lot, I see a place to live,” Moses said. The firm owns the two city blocks directly south of 300 Third St., between Rock and Cumberland, so look there first.

Why the focus on downtown? Because, they say, they care about the revitalization of Little Rock's downtown. They claim they're not in it for the money, a claim that was once more credible.

Moses practically grew up downtown, in his father's music business, Moses Melody. At 22, when he was working for his father, he was asked to head Little Rock UP. “I didn't have a clue about anything,” Moses said, but he learned a lot. He learned that a project conceived in 1970 but not executed in 1979 just might be a big flop, as the Metrocentre Mall was. He also watched the Diamond Center plan go down in flames. In 1982, Moses renovated the Gans Building on Second west of Main Street. Later, Moses partnered with John Allison and Rick Redden (AMR Architects) to transform the Heritage East and West buildings on Markham.

But it was a slow decade downtown before voters said yes to the Alltel Arena plan in 1995 and River Market plans began to take shape.

Meanwhile, Tucker, who'd been a leader in the Project 2000 arena plan, spent the mid-'90s working to get the Central High Museum off the ground and headed the school's 40th anniversary celebration. (He's a Hall High man himself.) When those projects were done, he cast about for new ideas.

In 1998, Tucker and Moses “had a conversation,” Tucker said. It wasn't intended to be a prelude to a partnership, but it was. “Our goals were so compatible. … It was clear to me that Jimmy had an interest in building a better community. It's the truth, whether it sounds good or not.” Moses Tucker was born.

Moses had been involved in a number of big deals out west — like the Bowman Curve shopping centers — but he and Tucker constantly had to remind people that they didn't just work with downtown properties. “Finally we said, ‘Why don't we just do downtown?' ” Tucker said. Tuf-Nut was their first project together, then they bought the one-story stucco building that was Riggs Tractor and McLarty Leasing directly north across Third Street (now the Capital Commerce Center). They thought they'd renovate it, put a restaurant in it. But in 1999, Jimmy said, “I had an epiphany.” There were not many bigger buildings to acquire downtown. The answer to building a neighborhood: Build new and build bigger.

Certain deals kept the ball rolling, Moses said. “In the dark cold winter of 2001 [when he and Tucker were scrambling to sell condos in Capital Commerce] along came Steve Engstrom.” He wanted condo space for his law firm. The late Frank McGehee was an investor in Moses' projects from the start. “We have partners in every one of these projects,” Moses said. “We couldn't do what we do if we didn't have risk takers” helping.

The partnership's success has, of course, made purchasing land downtown more expensive. Where once you could buy land for $7 a square foot (like the Heritage building deal), costs today run $40 to $50 a square foot, Moses said. Building today is more costly; money costs more to borrow, building materials cost more to acquire.

But Moses, like Mutt's friend Jeff, is still in the market for an umbrella. He's sure 300 Third will be full by the time ground is broken on the firm's new project, River Market Tower. In fact, he and Tucker said, they feel “a little behind” on providing more places to live.

If the firm follows suit and breaks ground on a new project when its last is fully leased, look for an announcement about the old Arkla headquarters just south of River Market Place in a couple of years.

— Leslie Newell Peacock

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