Columns » Max Brantley

Tale of two cities

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It's the best of times in North Little Rock, the worst in Little Rock. Consider:

Both cities have reviving downtown core neighborhoods with preserved older buildings — Argenta and the River Market. Both have imposed design rules in those neighborhoods — four-story building limitations — for aesthetic reasons.

Developers are hungry to build hotels in both neighborhoods. In North Little Rock, a local investment group with some background in the city, but no previous hotel experience, wants to build an 8- to 12-story hotel on the site of a vacant furniture store at Broadway and Maple. In Little Rock, a hotel developer with two proven, thriving properties in Little Rock wants to build a seven-story hotel on a current parking lot at Clinton Avenue and Commerce.

North Little Rock, led by a truly strong mayor, Pat Hays, can't move heaven and earth fast enough to get the new $28 million hotel.  It almost instantaneously waived its height limit for the project. It stands ready to give away millions in school tax money to provide the hotel with free convention facilities and parking.

Little Rock? “Strong” Mayor Mark Stodola is missing in action. A $20 million Aloft Hotel project seems likely to die because of opposition from Central Arkansas Library Director Bobby Roberts, who wants the parking lot untouched until timing is right for him to build an auditorium on the property. Roberts' opposition — thinly rested on the four-story height limitation — was going to fail until billionaire Warren Stephens, the investments mogul, entered the picture. He doesn't want new competition for his nearby Capital Hotel. The jillionaire owners of the Peabody Hotel have thrown in with him.

Money talks. The city is having trouble filling Planning Commission seats in part because some are fearful of voting against the Stephens interests. The Stephens forces  — avowed proponents of free enterprise and smaller government — are using the tiniest of design technicalities as a pretext to kill hundreds of new jobs for Little Rock. It's worth noting that the hotel developer proposes a big capital infusion in Little Rock — plus a healthy dose of high-density development — at a time when commercial building nationwide has all but come to a halt. Little Rock ain't exactly booming.

How tiny is the design technicality? The Aloft developer reduced the height and footprint of his proposed hotel to suit the library and provided desired retail space. It would “soar” to 75 feet — two feet SHORTER than Bobby Roberts' own library; five feet SHORTER than his Budget Office building next door, if you count its water tower; a mere 10 feet higher than Bobby Roberts' nearly completed Arkansas Studies building; 93 feet SHORTER than the First Security building just a few yards away; only 9 feet taller than a parking deck across the street.

I've ridden Pat Hays hard for some of his corporate giveaways. But, give it to him, he gets things done. A hotel developer in Little Rock wants no gifts, only to gift the city with millions in new jobs and tax base-helpful construction. The city's mayor is invisible. The Little Rock Planning Commission and its City Board seem prepared to cravenly cower to Stephens' bullying under the cover of a few inches of excess brick stacking.

Next time a member of the Stephens chapter of the Silver Spoon Club starts lecturing you about economic bootstrapping, the free market and burdensome government regulation, do me a favor: Tell them to stick a sock in it.

 

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