Last December, the city of Little Rock unveiled the Creative Corridor, a master plan to revitalize four blocks of Main Street. Designed by Fayetteville architects Marlon Blackwell, who heads the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, and Steve Luoni, who directs the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, the plan calls for Main Street becoming the cultural heart of the city. A variety of arts organizations would join the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to form the Creative Corridor (the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has agreed to occupy the ground floor of what used to be the MM Cohn Building at 504 Main and the dance studio/performance space ReCreation Studio at 608 Main will host a grand opening April 6) in the 300 to 600 blocks of Main Street. Their presence, Blackwell and Luoni argue, would be enough to keep a steady, diverse flow of people coming to Main at different times of the day — and inspire more consumer-focused businesses to fill in remaining real estate.
Beyond that underlying arts-focused concept, the design includes the sorts of things that make New Urbanists swoon — a pedestrian promenade, rain gardens, street furniture, LED lighting installations. In May, the plan is up for an award at the Congress for the New Urbanism's 2013 Charter Awards.
During a public presentation, Luoni said the plan was designed to be implemented incrementally as political will and private funding allows.
The first proposed phase is to "create gateways" that set the district off from the rest of Main Street and downtown, by using the likes of architectural pavement, special landscaping and unique lighting (one idea is to collect old city street lights into a "light garden" art installation).
The second is to "develop a center" at Capitol and Main streets with a large public plaza the architects imagine would include an outdoor amphitheater and a giant Times Square-style LED screen along the edge of a skyscraper they think should be the same size or larger than the Stephens Building and include a roof garden. Blackwell and Luoni place this skyscraper on the west side of the 400 block on property owned by Warren Stephens, who's expressed disdain for projects like the Creative Corridor (see page 25).
The third phase involves "thickening the edge" of Main Street with trees, rain gardens and terraces and creating a pedestrian promenade.
The fourth is to create a transit district with a trolley route (per Metroplan's scheduled trolley expansion plan) and designated bike "boulevards" on Louisiana and Scott.
In their presentation, Blackwell and Luoni conceded that some of what they're proposing is abstract. Because it's so reliant on private money, there's no predicting how — or if — much of the plan will be implemented.
Caran Curry, the grants coordinator for the city who helped secure the $150,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant that funded the design of the Creative Corridor, likens the plan to a Ferrari. It's elegant, futuristic looking, expensive — and the city would love for someone, or several someones, with deep pockets to pay for it. But in the near term, because of another grant, the city will be funding something significantly less sexy, but still trendy — call it a Prius.
In August, the city will begin construction on a low-impact development project on Main Street focused on the east sides of the 100 and 200 blocks and both sides of the 300 and 500 blocks. The cost is expected to be around $937,000. Last year, the city received a matching federal grant from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission via the Environmental Protection Agency. The city's share of the match is $450,000, plus in-kind labor from city employees.
The grant money is for controlling rainwater quality and quantity, but the project will also likely address some of the parts of the Creative Corridor plan that focus on pedestrians. Crafton Tull and the University of Arkansas Community Design Center are drafting the plans for the development. Their designs aren't complete, but last week, Crafton Tull's Kyle Blakely and Brad Peterson explained that their goal is to catch runoff where it's generated and treat and slow it down in a small area, using strategically placed pervious pavements (material through which water can flow) and rain gardens.
"In an urban area with the street, besides dirt and gravel, you're going to have oils, trash and debris," Peterson said. "The pervious pavement will help to catch some of that. The rain gardens will help collect a lot of that trash and debris. The plants and the soil will help filter out some of the nitrogen, phosphorus or heavy metals. So once all this water reaches the Arkansas River, it's had some level of natural treatment."
On the east side of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau parking deck on the 200 block, the city will install signs and possibly some outdoor mini-plaza-type areas that'll serve as an outdoor classroom for nearby eStem, whose students, at all levels, will learn about low impact development.
Plans for the 100 and 300 blocks are more in flux. On the 500 block, the city is considering positioning rain gardens that extend into what's currently space for parallel parking. Traffic lanes wouldn't narrow, but putting a garden or a part of the sidewalk up against lanes would have the effect of slowing down traffic. Another option for the block is replacing parallel parking with angled parking that drivers reverse into. It's supposed to be a safer method of parking than parallel.
Peterson said that throughout the project they'll work with property owners.
"We've been as sensitive as we can to their needs and their desires while still keeping with the [water quality] grant and trying to fulfill this Creative Corridor project."
Whether Little Rock gets further than a five-block water-quality demonstration project may depend on Congress getting its act together (sequestration doesn't bode well for future federal grants to the city) and, more importantly, on the will of city power brokers.
"There will always be naysayers," Luoni said at the end of a Creative Corridor presentation last year. "Real productivity in the world happens because of illogical people."