It's not the prettiest corner of South Main Street — a Harvest Foods store, the lowslung, red cinderblock Box restaurant, a Post Office parking lot, and a lone remaining historic house — but residents who live near 17th and Main are hoping a developer's proposal to build a Walgreens drugstore there will help, not make things worse.
Springfield Holdings, a local development company that has built other Walgreens drugstores in Little Rock, is hoping to build one at the northeast corner of the intersection, where the Box sits. It would extend north all the way to 16th Street, taking out a row of storefronts and an existing parking lot.
The typical Walgreens design is a large store set away from the street, with parking in front. But 17th and Main is part of the Capital Zoning District, meaning anything built there would have to meet standards designed to maintain the historic character of the neighborhood: Most notably, that the structure would have to front the sidewalk, with parking on the street or behind the building.
“That's pretty much the crux of the issue,” said Sharon Welch-Blair, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
The Capital Zoning District Commission, a state board, has the authority to approve the design, and can grant waivers to the zoning regulations if it wants to. The developers have yet to submit an application to the commission, but residents in the area have already been working to make sure the design reflects more attractive parts of the neighborhood.
“I think for the most part everybody wants something that meets historic standards,” Welch-Blair said. “There are different schools of thought about how capitulatory we want to be about that — some are saying ‘We need Walgreens, give them what they want,' and others say ‘No, we want it but we've got to protect the historic district.' ”
Jeff Nicholas, a partner with Springfield Holdings, said the design isn't finished yet, but plans are to build it to the sidewalk, as Capital Zoning District guidelines require.
“To my knowledge it'll be the only one in the state of Arkansas” built that way, he said.
It's the third or fourth time in the last decade that someone's talked about locating a Walgreens at that corner, Welch-Blair said, and this one's not a sure thing either, even if the Capital Zoning Commission approves the plans.
Nicholas said he's worked “very closely” with Walgreens to find a suitable location downtown, and the company has given Springfield Holdings the go-ahead to put the 17th and Main proposal through the company's approval process.
“This is an underserved area of the market as far as they're concerned,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas said he'll be asking for some minor variances from Capital Zoning regulations, but he's not sure yet what they'll be.
The developers met last month with downtown residents to discuss the design of the store.
“They are aware of Capital Zoning and realize that our organization as well as the neighborhood are happy to have them as long as they adhere to zoning regulations,” said Judi Casavechia, head of Southside Main Street.
The organization has a design committee that's currently working on alternatives to Walgreens' traditional design that will meet the Capital Zoning District guidelines, she said.
The Capital Zoning District was formed by state law in the 1970s to protect the areas around the Governor's Mansion and the State Capitol, which had been allowed to deteriorate. The commission reviews all proposals for construction, demolition and business uses in the district to make sure they are “appropriate to the dignity of the state and the special character of these neighborhoods,” according to a description on the commission's web site.
The commission can grant variances to specific Capital Zoning District guidelines, said Randy Jeffery, director of the commission. But a traditional Walgreens design would involve major variances, he said.
Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhood have been discussing the issue on an Internet listserv. Most comments urge drawing a hard line on enforcing the historic standards, while making the point that Walgreens would be a welcome addition.
“One of the attractive features we still have on South Main is good access and good parking,” Welch-Blair said. “One of the reasons we've got good access and good parking is we've tried to stick to our guns about new things coming in. We are not so jammed up that we don't have options. There's a fine line — everybody has to be willing to give a little bit. We're not so rigid that we're not going to discuss anything, but we also realize Walgreens has already put together stores that meet our criteria.”