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Unrest in Hillcrest

Tension over new development in established neighborhood.


REDEVELOPMENT SITE: Old house would come down.
  • REDEVELOPMENT SITE: Old house would come down.
In real estate development, as in politics, character issues are important. A group of Hillcrest residents are opposed to a proposed development of new single-family houses that they say doesn’t fit with the surrounding area. The developers, however, contend they are bending over backwards to ensure the houses they build are consistent with the unique character of Hillcrest. “We don’t want to put up big, boxy houses that look like they belong in West Little Rock,” said Cathy Pursell, who with her husband Gary is a member of Lagniappe Ventures, which recently purchased an acre of property at 4400 I St. for the development. Currently a large house built in 1915 occupies that address, between Ash and Walnut Streets, and its accompanying land extends north to Allsopp Park. Lagniappe proposes to tear down the existing house and build four houses on the property. Documents submitted to the Little Rock Department of Planning and Development indicate that the maximum square footage of the two homes on I Street would be 3,500, and the other two homes, closer to Allsopp Park, would be up to 4,500 square feet. The Planning Commission approved the development 8-0 Oct. 21, but the Little Rock Board of Directors must vote on the issue before the project can commence. No date has been set for its consideration, but opponents have vowed to continue their fight. Several neighbors of the slated development are organizing an effort to scale it back. They worry about the style of the planned houses, which they believe will not match the prevailing look in the neighborhood, where early-to-mid-20th century Craftsman homes, as well as wide variety of divergent styles, are common. Opponents are also concerned about increased traffic and parking problems on that part of I Street. Finally, they speculate about the environmental impact on Allsopp Park, citing the potential for storm water damage that would result from the addition of hard surfaces on the hillside. “It’s a bad precedent for greater Hillcrest,” said David Rozas, an ophthalmologist whose house on I Street would face the new street that would be built to provide access to the new houses. “We’re not going to have Hillcrest anymore if we build big houses in tight lots.” The Hillcrest Residents Association agrees, and its board voted Oct. 11 to oppose the project. Tony Woodell, the board president, said that its decision was based on the number of houses slated to be built on the property, as well as the style of the houses, which he described as “more modern-looking” than existing Hillcrest homes. He also said the board was concerned about the new street, which, because it is on a steep grade in the middle of the block between Walnut and Ash, would result in automobile headlights shining into the windows of Rozas’ home and others’. The Planning Commission rejected these objections, and Woodell acknowledges that the Lagniappe proposal adheres to the city’s zoning laws. “The city says it meets the requirements,” he said. “Being a good neighbor is another thing.” In her defense, Pursell maintains that she and her business partners have made every attempt to make their development suitable for Hillcrest. The property they purchased is actually zoned for six lots, according to original city planning documents that date back to the 1920s. “We didn’t have to go before the Planning Commission or the city board to develop according to the city code,” Pursell said. “But that would have been out of keeping with Hillcrest.” Pursell recalls meeting with Bill and Sally Rector, and Don and Audrey Evans, who own houses adjacent to the proposed development. Rector is a member of the Planning Commission who is running for the city board of directors in the Nov. 2 election. The Rectors and Evanses suggested some adjustments, which Lagniappe adopted, and the Rectors also will have an option to purchase a tract of land next to their property that would act as a buffer between their house and the new development. The new houses each will have at least a two-car garage and room for at least two more cars to park. While Pursell believes this should address the parking concern, she adds that “we can’t solve the parking problem for Hillcrest.” She also says that the access street must be in the middle of the block, because the property is too steep on its eastern and western borders. Both sides say they would like to resolve the dispute amicably, but it is difficult to find potential points for compromise. Pursell says that Lagniappe already has withdrawn variances it originally requested for 8-foot privacy fences and reduced side-yard setbacks, which provoked hostile reactions from some neighbors. Woodell says he told the Lagniappe representatives after the Planning Commission hearing that the residents association would be willing to take another look at the project if they received some suggestions for changes that address their concerns. He said that Lagniappe seemed receptive to the offer, but he has not heard from them since. If he does not receive anything from Lagniappe before the next association meeting on Nov. 8, the group will continue to oppose the development. “We are pretty adamant that if it goes forward as it currently exists, the residents association will be against it,” Woddell said. “We would have to go to the city board meeting with a recommendation that they not approve it.” For her part, Pursell says that while Lagniappe is “willing to listen,” the development group intends take its plan to the city board of directors for final approval. She leaves open an alternative, however, including sale of the property to others. “If someone makes us an offer we can’t refuse, we would consider it,” Pursell said.

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