The Main Street of Little Rock, Arkansas, runs perpendicular to the Arkansas River and has been, until recently, underutilized as an urban corridor. As adjacent neighborhoods began to undergo revitalization, the mayor proposed transforming the Main Street into a “Creative Corridor,” which would provide affordable housing to artists and a vibrant mixed-used, culture- and arts-based experience for residents and visitors.
Set on the Arkansas River, Little Rock is the capital and largest city in Arkansas. Like so many other American cities today, Little Rock has land-use challenges along the riverfront adjacent to the central business district. Main Street, which is a short, four-block walk to the river, was once a thriving corridor. Industry left the waterfront in the 1920’s and 1930’s, however, causing its local economy to languish, leading to the eventual collapse of Main Street in the 1970’s. Recently, areas in the waterfront district have begun to revitalize. The River Market District and the MacArthur Park District, for example, have each seen neglected strips of abandoned property transformed into busy neighborhoods of restaurants, shops, nightlife venues, and a farmers market, and they are both now recognized as highly walkable neighborhoods.
The City of Little Rock has a population of approximately 196,000 and a metropolitan area of around 700,000. With a per capita income of $40,000 and an active business sector, the city has a robust economy. According to the Brookings Institution Metro Monitor, it has the fourth best economy in the country. In 2008, a reporter for Southern Business and Development Magazine said, “if Little Rock were a stock, I’d buy shares in it…it doesn’t get much better than this.”
Despite the revitalization of nearby neighborhoods, Main Street continued to languish and was widely perceived as unsafe and in a state of decline. Though the area was busy during the day with business people in the commercial downtown, it emptied out at night and on weekends. The city had found it difficult to encourage people to live there because there were so few affordable options. Knowing they needed to revitalize Main Street to become an attractive place to live, work, and play, the city decided to adopt a creative placemaking approach and support the growth of a larger arts community in the area as a means to spur economic development.
Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, envisioned that the Main Street could become what he called a “Creative Corridor”—a place where arts and culture could anchor a vibrant, mixed-use place in the center of the city. Rather than rely on a typical retail base, the plan would include land uses for residences, tourism, and cultural arts. It was a strategic decision, since much of the surrounding downtown areas had already been undergoing economic revitalization. This Main Street project would be an extension of that larger process. As a way to ensure that artists could benefit from the revitalizing energy that they would bring with them, Stodola proposed the creation of affordable housing units for artists. The goal, he said, was to encourage a neighborhood structure “rooted in a mixed-use working and living environment.”
Mixed-used development occurs when different land uses (such as residential, commercial, and entertainment) are placed close to one another, instead of being separated as often occurs in traditional development and zoning patterns.
As the co-chair of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, a private non-profit focused on sustainable downtown redevelopment, the mayor was personally invested in the project. Because it involved a diversity of uses and was part of the city’s larger vision, the mayor assembled strategic partnerships between public, private, and non-profit entities to address the full range of issues. Central to the process, though, was the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC), which created the urban design plan and provided project management. They worked with Marlon Blackwell Architects, an Arkansas-based firm, who provided preliminary conceptual designs and with Reed Realty Advisors, which purchased and redeveloped five buildings in the corridor. The plan would bring the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Ballet Arkansas, and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra—formerly dispersed across the city—into this consolidated corridor.
- Environmental Protection Agency
- City of Little Rock
- State of Arkansas
- The University of Arkansas Community Design Center: Created the Urban Design Plan and managed the project.
- The Arkansas Repertory Theatre: A private non-profit regional actors equity theatre whose young artist program will occupy a black box theatre in the newly renovated buildings. The Rep participated in stakeholder meetings.
- Ballet Arkansas: A non-profit ballet company that has relocated to the Creative Corridor and participated in stakeholder meetings.
- Arkansas Symphony Orchestra: A private, non-profit symphony that has a state of the art practice facilities on the Corridor.
- Little Rock Downtown Partnership: A non-profit organization representing over 200 stakeholders and community leaders interested in the revitalization of the downtown area. The Partnership participated in the charrettes, generated publicity, and hosted many of the necessary meetings.
- Reed Realty Advisors, LLC: Helped to purchase and redevelop five buildings in the Corridor.
- Marlin Blackwell Architects: Provided preliminary conceptual design and visualization services for the renovation and restoration of four existing buildings on Main Street.
UACDC created the initial urban design plan and managed the project. Following intensive site research, the project started with a three-day charrette, which provided a forum for local stakeholders to provide input. Using this information, Marlon Blackwell Architects and UACDC drew up a conceptual masterplan. Because it was a long-term project, the team divided it into three phases. First, they located gateways meant to calm traffic as it moved in and out of the corridor. In the next phase, they designed an iconic center, using public space and art. In the final phase, they created a pedestrian link between the gateways and the center. Marlon Blackwell Architects authored a visual identity for the masterplan, allowing the city to promote it in print and online.
CDCs are non-profit organizations that provide planning, design, and development services to low and moderate-income communities. Some CDCs operate independently in a local community, while others are affiliated with local governments or educational institutions. For example, the UACDC is an outreach center of the University of Arkansas School of Architecture.
The project resulted in something very valuable: a direct and actionable plan forward. The urban design will help to guide future decision-making processes beyond the grant cycle. The city and UACDC held several design charrettes, too, galvanizing community interest in the project. With the involvement of Reed Realty Advisors, six buildings in the corridor have been purchased and are poised for renovation and redevelopment. The brand identity, conceived by Marlon Blackwell Architects, will help to keep a consistent focus on future developments in the area.
“This project has been a total catalyst,” said Stodola, citing changes that have been taking place around the corridor that were not originally a part of the masterplan. Expected to bring over $20 million in investments, Little Rock Technology Park Authority, for example, committed to relocating there with a need for over 500,000 square feet of space. The Authority is an initiative of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, City of Little Rock, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The total costs for public improvements are estimated at $5 million with $1.2 million committed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement the Low Impact Development (LID) ecological-based stormwater system. Organizers reported that there has been considerable energy and “buzz” surrounding the project. “It has exceeded our expectations,” said the mayor. In initial construction, the area has seen $60 million of investment in renovations, including 200 housing units. “It has gone from a neglected and almost totally abandoned Main Street to a thriving 24/7 urban environment.”
The Creative Corridor Plan received a 2014 AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, one of six awards bestowed annually by the American Institute of Architects. In the four-phase plan, designers focused on the traditional social function of streets as places for gathering, assembly, recreation, and aesthetic expression.