The Main Event
North Little Rock Officials Dream Big for Argenta’s Next Phase
By DWAIN HEBDA
For decades, North Little Rock played the shabby little sister to Little Rock’s debutante, but those days are long gone. North Little Rock —especially the Argenta district in the city’s historic downtown —is today the belle of the economic development ball in Central Arkansas, if not the entire state.
“We’ve got a lot of great things going for us,” said Alan New, partner and lead designer with Taggart Architects, which is building a new corporate headquarters in the heart of the neighborhood. “I truly think Argenta is poised to be one of the most significant cities in Arkansas, if not the most significant city in Arkansas.”
The city’s latest project only underscores New’s bold claim. North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith unveiled to Block Street & Building in May the next phase in his vision for transforming the city’s core, reimagining roughly 5 acres across four largely underused city blocks
“My next vision for our downtown district is where our City Services Building is, at 200 Main Street,” Smith said. “We own that building, we own the building next door, we own two or three parking lots over there. There are a good two square blocks that we have access to and then probably another two square blocks that others own that would be available for development. That’s a pretty good little district to develop as a clean slate.
“I mean, what a great opportunity. The property is all river views, skyline views, on the trolley line, on the bus line. It’s got everything you could ever want when you go to develop a property.”
Smith got the idea for the project after visiting a development in Plano, Texas. He was captivated by the walkability of the area and the many amenities that were seemingly at arm’s reach throughout. He returned to Arkansas convinced he’d found the omega to the alpha Argenta Plaza rising out of ground on the opposite end of Main Street.
“I fell in love with a little district in Plano called Legacy West,” he said. “It had everything from retail, to restaurants, to apartments, to condo,s to a hotel and office building. I recently took some of our staff and one of our city council members down there to show them what I could see happening in those four blocks in our downtown.”
Smith enlisted the expertise of Jimmy Moses of Newmark Moses Tucker Partners in Little Rock who promptly endorsed the idea and who, along with New’s team at Taggart Architects, helped crystallize Smith’ ideas into a design.
“It’s approximately a 5-acre site that’s wide open for mixed-use development,” said Fletcher Hanson, principal and executive managing director for Newman Moses Tucker Partners and who’s also been a key player in the plan. “[The new development] is right in the crosshairs of the river, the new plaza and then flanking to the east and the west the arena and Dickey-Stephens ballpark.”
All parties involved acknowledge when developers with actual money start to show interest, the project may evolve somewhat, but the wish list components include an 8-10 story, 160-room boutique hotel, multiple retail and restaurant spaces, 20 or so condominiums and approximately 100 apartments.
“Our vision, along with the city’s, is to energize Main Street as soon as you come across the river,” Hanson said. “This 5-acre site ties back to the new plaza as the two anchors in that effort.”
The composite plan received the blessing of the North Little Rock City Council, and Hanson’s company began shopping around for investors in May, including at a major real estate developers convention in Las Vegas.
“It’s a vision that we’re marketing, a vision that the city buys into. We’re seeking to sell the land to a developer that shares in the vision and can execute on the plan,” Hanson said. “We’re marketing it as widely as possible to every developer.”
From the get-go, the project called for development that complemented—not cloned—other new structures in the neighborhood. New introduced innovative design around the concept of walkability, right down to the 350- to 500-car parking garage around which will wrap some residential components.
“This is an opportunity for a truly new urbanist streetscape community,” he said. “We have an urban fabric we’re building from. I think that adds to the uniqueness of this project, to actually be shoring up the missing teeth of this jack-o-lantern and really giving life to the new urbanist mentality that you could live above where you work.”
New knows what he’s talking about, living as he does on the second floor of a building he owns along Argenta’s Main Street. He said he not only appreciates the neighborhood’s potential, but the effort that’s been made by City Hall to bring it out.
“Mayor Smith has got an unbelievable vision,” New said. “He removes obstacles to successful developments because of his personal interest in them. He is, by far, the one driving this; his idea of the City Services building being a pawn in this game that could be demolished and the new facility built there, that’s out of the box. And then you partner with Jimmy Moses and Fletcher Hanson, both of these guys are instrumental in this vision as well.”
Smith said he expects investment to be solidified in about a year with groundbreaking occurring a year after that. He’s eager for the transformation, but not so much so to sign on with the first developer who comes along. With time on his side, he gains the luxury of being highly selective of prospective partners.
“I’ve turned down a lot of projects that I didn’t think fit what was worthy of being in North Little Rock’s business and entertainment district,” he said. “If it’s not right, I don’t want it. I’d rather have nothing than something that’s average. We are going to build something that we’ll all be proud of, that’s my attitude.
“I mean, I can keep collecting electric bills down there and use the rest of that property for parking if it’s not something special. We are looking for something special.”