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Argenta: Revival on Main Street

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Old houses with tons of character. Local shops with locally-produced goods. Neighborhood bars and restaurants run by your neighbors. Dedicated trails for biking and walking. A spectacular skyline view.

Up until that last bit, you might have been talking about the Hillcrest neighborhood in Little Rock. But hugging the north bank of the Arkansas River in downtown North Little Rock, the Argenta neighborhood has been making the case for being one of the trendiest places to live and play hereabouts — and with no small success.

Anchored by a revived Main Street with its historic buildings still intact (a number of them renovated), this dense, urban neighborhood dates back to the early 20th century. West of Main you'll find about 16 blocks of houses — a fraction the size of many Little Rock neighborhoods, to be sure — many of them Craftsman in style and some quite spectacular. (The 1895 E.O. Manees House on Fourth Street, home to the Junior League of North Little Rock, is the belle dame, but even the more modest homes have touches like stylish architecture, built-in cabinetry with leaded glass and original windows and woodwork.) Plus, the whole area is protected by a local ordinance historic district that requires buildings to maintain a historically correct exterior.

It's not terribly hard to see why Argenta, a neighborhood that also boasts Dickey-Stephens Park, Verizon Arena and the the Millenium Trail along the river, attracts homeowners.

As recently as five years ago, the easiest way to buy in Argenta was to know someone who already lived there. Word that a neighbor was thinking about moving invariably resulted in a race to see who could call one of their house-hunting friends first with the news, and sales were often closed without the house ever actually being put on the market. In fact, that's exactly how I bought my Argenta home.

One of the most telling things about the state of Argenta today is that people are putting a sign in their lawn when they want to sell their house. Realtor and FSBO signs now appear in front yards and turnover is slower; houses can stay on the market for weeks or months. Part of that is due to the terrible nature of the national economy and the fact that banks are still loan-shy. But it's also true that there are fewer and fewer houses in Argenta that you can get at bargain prices, even if they're fixer-uppers. Property owners understand the value inherent in those structures.

But Becky Ragsdale, president of Argenta Neighborhood Boosters, says, "I think we're actually doing well at the under $200,000 range."

Ragsdale is a former Floridian who lives with her husband, Bob, in a rehabbed brick Craftsman on Sixth Street. Sitting at her dining room table, she quickly ticks off recent sales in the neighborhood.

"There's the brick rent house in the 700 block of Willow; the duplex condo; the Dutch Colonial sold on the day of its first open house; and the Fire Department's inspector bought the house at Seventh and Orange."

The so-called "duplex condo" — more like two good-sized houses with a shared entry porch — was significant because it's the first new-home construction in Argenta in more than a decade, and was a high-dollar sale to boot. The last time anyone built from scratch in Argenta was Habitat for Humanity back in the '90s — and that house, which is next door to mine, also sold recently.

"I think overall, if something's for sale in the neighborhood, it's selling," she said. "That's pretty good."

Today, she estimates, houses are selling in the $100 to $105 per square foot range. One of my friends in the neighborhood actually tracks home prices and tells me that from 1994 to 2001 the increase, on average, was 400 percent. Case in point: Her own home, which was acquired by the Argenta Community Development Corporation for less than $15,000 in the early '90s, cost her $40,000 in 2001, and today she's selling it for $150,000.

Indeed, 10 years ago the Argenta CDC was doing a lot to drive the real estate market here as it bought up neglected properties and bought out landlords. As prices followed the upward trend of property values, many people who'd hung on for years in Argenta decided to cash out, which drew bargain hunters and do-it-yourselfers. But once the resurrection of Argenta became self-sustaining, the CDC wasn't needed as the primary house rehabilitator anymore.

Ragsdale sits on the CDC board and acknowledges that the economy is prompting the nonprofit to change its focus some. For example, a large, mixed-use residential and commercial project proposed for the 700 block of Main Street that was highly touted just a few years ago is now off the table. "We're trying to sell our property there," Ragsdale said.

But, she said, the need for entry-level affordable housing is still being met in the area, this time just west of Argenta. "There's a lot of growth and development in Baring Cross. It makes me very hopeful."

Thinking big about Argenta's future is The Argenta Downtown Council, another nonprofit development agency, which has made its bid to be the provider of vision for the area. Established by developer John Gaudin and staffed by some of the area's most familiar names — former Twin City Bank exec Donna Hardcastle is the executive director, and long-time Argenta resident Don Chambers is the general manager — the ADC has produced a master plan for the neighborhood. The most sweeping changes it shows are concentrated in the area between Main Street and Interstate 30. That stretch, generally known as East Argenta, has long been the redheaded stepsibling of Argenta proper. Other than the construction of Verizon (nee Alltel) Arena back in the '90s, it has been left almost entirely untouched by the nearly 20-year rehabilitation trend the area west of Main has enjoyed.

Gaudin has good reason to want to see a second Argenta renaissance east of Main: He owns a whole lot of property there and has spoken often of the potential for this part of the neighborhood. An advocate and practicer of New Urbanism (he lives smack on the corner of Main and Broadway above Cregeen's Irish Pub, in a building he built and owns), Gaudin has already put his money where his mouth is by developing the CityGrove townhouses along Maple Street. He would love to see the area east of Main reborn as the Mill District, an homage to the old Mountaire Feed Mill at Fourth and Poplar streets that he bought and tore down.

But the big picture again intrudes. Just as the national real estate bust cooled the rate of home sales in Argenta, it put the brakes on Gaudin's initial plan to expand CityGrove along another couple of blocks of Maple. Likewise, there's not much movement toward realizing the Mill District plan; in fact, Gaudin has placed a number of properties in the neighborhood on the market, including the former mill site itself. The Argenta Downtown Council has asserted, though, that it would be happy to work with new owners interested in taking part in the master plan.

While the gentrification of East Argenta still remains a dream, west of Main Street they're living a lifestyle that wouldn't seem out of place in Hillcrest. The Third Friday Argenta ArtWalks see crowds up and down Main, perusing artworks under shade pavilions and listening to live music, popping into galleries and shops that take advantage of the extra foot traffic. Argenta Market has been a major boon to residents who don't like the 20-minute round trip to the Levy Kroger to get just one thing — and who don't mind paying small-store premium prices. And with six bars and restaurants in a two-block stretch drawing diners from a wide swath of the socio-economic scale, finding a bite to eat is never a chore.

"We've got a neighborhood for all age groups," says Ragsdale. "Activities for the young, family stuff, the park, bars, the River Market a trolley ride away. And for retirees, they can walk to the grocery store or the drug store."

That walkability, she adds, is one of the best things about Argenta — not just the quiet streets and the nearby River Trail, but the fact there's someplace to go, like the farmer's market (in season) and the grocery store.

"Sometimes we walk to the [Argenta] Market two or three times a day," she admitted.

So what's missing?

"We need more shops," Ragsdale said. "A Ten Thousand Villages, a Hallmark, more retail. That would draw more people in. Look at downtown Conway — all those little shops."

Indeed, there are spaces to fill on Main Street, where some storefronts have remained stubbornly empty over the years; that's been one of the great frustrations for the partisans in Argenta. Ragsdale notes there's been an uptick in crime lately, though the overall rate in Argenta is still low. Walmart's plan to open one of its Neighborhood Market grocery stores in Riverdale — not too far a drive on Cantrell — could be detrimental to Argenta Market. Plus, the uncertainty of the master plan's fate means nobody knows when the next wave of investment needed to draw in even more residents and businesses will happen.

Still, in the grand scheme of neighborhood problems, Argenta's pretty well off.

"I think the neighborhood overall is stable," said Ragsdale. "I think we've held our own in this economic crunch better than many, many neighborhoods. I think Argenta is attractive to a lot of people. We have homes here small enough to support your lifestyle. You can walk to everything you need."

And, when you get right down to it, lots of good neighbors.

"We're like a little San Francisco here," Ragsdale said of the live-and-let-live attitude she sees pervading Argenta. "You can be of any political persuasion, any sexual orientation, white or black or polka dot, and people just don't care."

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