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UALR pares back

Urban design off drawing board.

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SIX BRIDGES VISION: To make the Junction Bridge a pedestrian connection.
  • SIX BRIDGES VISION: To make the Junction Bridge a pedestrian connection.

For 17 years, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's urban design program has worked with the Downtown Partnership and government entities at all levels to provide “vision plans.” With George Wittenberg at the helm during all that time, the Urban Studies and Design program, initially funded by a grant from the George W. Donaghey Foundation, has produced more than 250 studies. They range in size, Wittenberg said, “from a small Little Rock housing project study and a brownfield study to recently on what to do about the state line in Texarkana,” he said.

The most high-profile plans are those for downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock — among them the so-called Six Bridges plan that called for a sports arena and trolley line and the Junction Bridge redo, and designs for Riverfront Park, the downtown “corridors” street plan, and, most recently, the MacArthur Park Master Plan.

But the program — now called the Urban Policy Forum — is in a period of “transition,” Wittenberg and UALR Dean Deborah Baldwin said. The urban studies minor was suspended more than a year ago when a professor left; Wittenberg was offered a retirement package this spring and took it. The one remaining person on staff is working in the office — now in the Arkansas Studies Institute in the River Market district — only two days a week.

The program — funded with $2.2 million over 10 years from the foundation and gradually picked up by the university — broke even, Wittenberg said. But in a time of tight budgets and low student numbers, “this program is hard to justify,” Wittenberg said.

And that's a shame, downtown real estate developer Jimmy Moses — who also holds a graduate degree in urban design — said.

“The way I look at it,” Moses said, “is if Little Rock doesn't have a real effort through a university or city government to do good urban planning, then the long-term future of the metro area is not going to be as bright.”

Moses said UALR's design program “played a huge role” in the planning that created the River Market district. The city's own planning department doesn't have time to devote to big-picture ideas, he said.

Big-picture ideas don't completely come to fruition because of money constraints — the final design for the Junction Bridge, for example, was pared down because of funding. But that 2004 design included another idea that has come to pass — the La Petite Roche Plaza. (It also suggested the exposure of the “Little Rock,” an idea better as concept than reality, since in regrading the park, no rock was found.)

In a study done for Southside Main Street (SOMA) last June, the Urban Design program proposed a park that would be built atop Interstate 630 to reconnect the north and south parts of the city that the freeway now divides. That's an idea that's not likely to happen any time soon, but it is food for thought, and it is that active creativity that may have been the program's greatest contribution.

Urban studies may not be dead, though. UALR now has on staff a professor who is an urban historian and a sociologist whose specialty is urban affairs, Baldwin said, and the program could continue in a new form. “Over the next year, we'll have a more definitive sense of what we can do.”

Wittenberg estimated the program needs between $100,000 and $150,000 a year to operate. Wittenberg, Moses and others have met with City Manager Bruce Moore about the need for community support, but the city's pockets have been turned inside out by basic needs.

“Somehow we've got to try and put this back together,” Moses said. “Everyone needs to stretch a little bit and put some dollars toward this and patch back together a planning vehicle.” 

The paring back of the program comes at an inconvenient time for SOMA, Wittenberg said. He's gotten word that the National Endowment for the Arts' division focused on cities is looking to the region for more applications. SOMA would like to apply — perhaps jointly with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville — for a feasibility grant on that park across the interstate.

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