By AY Staff | Photography by David Yerby

The revitalization of Little Rock and North Little Rock’s downtowns, from abandoned warehouses and dilapidated buildings into model neighborhoods, offers mixed-use developments that blend residential and commercial space. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable.

The Little Rock development started in the early 1990s with the Little Rock River Market project, the cornerstone of a $300 million riverfront development project, designed to utilize the Arkansas River’s scenic charms. Riverfront Park and historical buildings along the oldest section of the city known as as the Quapaw Quarter. The district encompasses a 10-block area in the heart of downtown spanning the length of President Clinton Avenue. Ottenheimer Market Hall serves as the main focal point of the district with merchants offering an international bazaar of food, specialty items, coffees and more. Part of the area includes the Arkansas Studies Institute, part of the Central Arkansas Library System, the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, The Museum of Discovery and Cache Restaurant. Within walking distance, the Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International Headquarters are major tourist attractions.

The Little Rock Technology Park opened in March of 2017. The development consists of two 100-year-old buildings designed to form an integrated environment for startup and mature technology companies.

REVITALIZING DOWNTOWN LITTLE ROCK

Jimmy Moses, chair and founder of Moses Tucker Real Estate, says Little Rock is becoming an urban city. “We are more interested in the inner city, in particular, not just downtown. But I think [of] Little Rock [and] North Little Rock as a single place,” he says.

“The Argenta neighborhood has gotten vibrant and healthier. The districts downtown are better defined like SoMa and the Little Rock River Market District. The central business districts are becoming big, strong, urban neighborhoods. The midtown area of Little Rock is stronger and more vibrant.”

“I think Little Rock is small enough that an individual or small groups of people who want to do things to improve their city can really make an imprint, and [it’s] big enough that it’s interesting and has diversity and you aren’t always necessarily known in town doing things,” he says.

“It’s a big enough city that you can get lost in at a level [but] you can [also] really make a difference. That’s a neat combination.”

Moses Tucker Real Estate started out as part of an architecture firm in the 1980s.

“We were more of a strict development company in the early years, but with a heavy focus on downtown Little Rock. Now 35 years later we’ve changed a lot but we are still very much committed to downtown development.”

Moses says he was inspired by Seattle’s Pike Place Market. “I thought we had a good farmers market, it was on the street, not physically a place, but an idea, but farming being important in central Arkansas for 10-15 years, it showed me we could build a market to be the centerpiece for a cultural and entertainment district. A lot of people got involved in making that happen.”

The majority of Moses Tucker Real Estate’s projects have focused around downtown Little Rock. Moses says the company has done storefront renovations on Clinton Avenue and the River Market Tower. Currently, the company is focusing on niche housing downtown. 

Rett Tucker, co-chair of Moses Tucker Real Estate, says Little Rock has been building on the momentum that started about 20 years ago.

“We’ve jumped on the tech train, which I think is important,” he says. “Job growth is very important for any community. You have companies that are growing and creating new jobs. People who visit here are always very pleased with what they find. We’ve made a lot of progress. [There’s] still work to be done. Locations like the Innovation Hub and Little Rock Technology Park, which are huge assets to the Little Rock community.”

The ESSE Purse Museum spearheaded the redevelopment in SoMa. Many tourists travel to the museum.

Tucker says he believes individuals are drawn to Little Rock because of jobs and the quality of life. “We’ve got great park trails and that system has developed so well, fishing, hunting and hiking,” he says. “You’ve got to have a good place to work and a good job, that goes hand in hand. I think that combination creates an exciting community.”

Director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership Gabe Holmstrom says he’s seen some of the most remarkable changes on Main Street. “Five years ago there were no restaurants,” he says. “Now there are additional people living in condos and apartment units of downtown. There has been an overall increase in urban density.”

Little Rock has changed through its urban core redevelopment and expansion of neighborhoods. Older areas of Little Rock have even been reestablished.

Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, says he is amazed at what people give of themselves in order to make the city of Little Rock a better place.

“People like Jimmy Moses, Rett Tucker and Warren Stephens of Stephens Inc. have done an incredible job,” he says. “We had to have a place to live, work and learn. With more people you begin to see a 24-hour economy emerge for more restaurants, now jobs are coming back to the core of the downtown area. All of that has created a real estate boom for all ages that Little Rock hasn’t seen in decades.” 

Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, says she noticed the revitalization of Little Rock about 12 years ago. “The growth and expansion has been great for our industry. We represent the entire city and we represent many footprints throughout our city. Downtown is the heartbeat of the destination.”

A few blocks on down Main Street is the Creative Corridor, a revitalization area stimulated by the arts, entertainment and culture rather than traditional retail. Initial planning and design of the corridor was funded by a 2011 Our Town Grant from the National Endowment. The plan involves relocating arts organizations along Main Street, including Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

The Little Rock Technology Park opened in March of 2017. The development consists of two 100-year-old buildings designed to form an integrated environment for startup and mature technology companies. Thirty-two companies call the Technology Park home. Phase 2 is currently in early stage planning mode and is targeted to be a combination of wet/dry lab space plus office. UAMS, UALR and Arkansas Children’s Hospital (“ACH”) have significant and growing research activity, which will provide opportunities for commercialization and new business ventures. The lab facility is crucial to the attraction and retention of biomed and nanotechnology companies and talent to the Little Rock region.

Little Rock’s trail system includes hundreds of miles of trails all throughout the city.

Executive Director of the Little Rock Technology Park Brent Birch says, “The Little Rock Technology Park would be considered a founding member of the Main Street revitalization. The project has been a significant factor in the rebirth of our city’s core. Once the site was selected, I firmly believe that decision kick-started some of the restaurant and apartment growth we’ve experienced as well as companies staying or moving downtown.”

“The change in Little Rock is interesting due to the contrasting nature of the change. While the development of commercial and residential properties west of I-430 is obvious, the ‘knock ‘em down, build a new one’ trend in the Heights has really shifted the look and feel of that part of town. Little Rock has also put a lot of modernization into Midtown as well as the complete overhaul of Main Street downtown,” Birch says.

Director of River Market Operations Diana Long says she loves Little Rock. “We are not a huge city and we have the metropolitan feel for how small the city is. I love that I can get anywhere I need to go in 20 minutes and that there’s plenty of variety here.”

Little Rock has established real estate growth on both sides of the river. One recent project is Rockwater Village, a Southern Living-inspired community.

“We emphasize architecture with a porch-friendly neighborhood. It’s a mixed-use neighborhood and we have Rockwater Marinara,” says CEO and President of Rockwater Lisa Ferrell.

She says Rockwater is a unique place to live and draws in creative people. The Rockwater team is hoping to have the project done in the next five months.

SOMA

Further south on Main Street across I-630 bridge sits Little Rock’s Southside Main Street (SoMa), an urban neighborhood that fosters economic development between Interstate I-630 and Roosevelt Road. SoMa is a historical district. Anita Davis, who is credited with helping develop SoMa, built the Bernice Garden in 2007 to celebrate the community, host events and to foster pride in the neighborhood.

SoMa is anchored on Main Street by the long-standing Community Bakery. The area is home to Boulevard Bread Company, The Green Corner Store, The Root Cafe, ESSE Purse Museum, South on Main and Oxford American.

Little Rock’s SoMa is an area that locals have seen rapidly grow and develop over the last five years.

One of those businesses is ESSE Purse Museum. Abby Olivier, the museum & program director at ESSE, says the museum is the only purse museum in the country. It celebrates and honors the history and journey of women and has been open a little more than four years.

“ESSE Museum is owned by Anita Davis. We call her the ‘godmother’ of SoMa… it was one of the first [buildings] she bought in the area,” says Olivier. “Some people just come to Little Rock to see ESSE. People come to Arkansas to see Crystal Bridges, people will say they drove an extra 3.5 hours to see ESSE.”

Eliza Borné is the editor of Oxford American magazine, which is headquartered in SoMa. Borné  is ultimately responsible for all facets of the magazine. She’s been working for Oxford American since 2013 and in her time at the publication, she’s seen SoMa’s growth over the last several years.

“SoMa has developed in many ways, but I’m especially proud that Oxford American has been an anchor in the creative corridor, connecting exceptional acts with appreciative audiences on Main Street,” she says. “We book world-class musicians for our annual concert series, many of whom have never before performed in our city.”

John Bell is the owner of Sweet Home Furnishings, a desitnation where  guests can relish in glorious antiques. 

“In the ‘80s SoMa was a completely different place. Anita [Davis] spearheaded the revitalization, along with Joe Fox,” says Bell.

Bell says some of the best spots for tourists are ESSE, the Oxford American and South on Main. 

“It’s just all locally grown and the restaurants are pretty much farm-to-table. It’s a great place for out-of-towners to visit.”

He says every business owner is a friend. “There’s something special about SoMa.”

ARGENTA DISTRICT

North Little Rock’s Argenta District is home to well-known restaurants.

Downtown North Little Rock’s Argenta District consists of a three-block stretch of Main Street, between Broadway and 6th Street. The Argenta Community Development Corp., was founded in 1933 to restore houses and buildings in the historic neighborhood. The organization was the catalyst for the improvements on Main Street.

North Little Rock’s Argenta District is full of the arts, tourist sites, gourmet restaurants and creative breweries. It provides access to multiple trails and is located near Dickey-Stephens Park.

Argenta is home to favorites like Ristorante Capeo, Mugs Café, Diamond Bear, Flyway, The Joint, Barry Thomas Fine Art, THEA Foundation, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, Verizon Arena and many more entertainment and food choices.

John Gaudin, CEO of Argenta Wealth Management, knows many interesting facts about Argenta, even how it got its name.

“From a silver mine near the city. When the ward of Little Rock located on the north side of the river broke away and created a separate town called the City of Argenta. Later it became the City of North Little Rock.”

He says Argenta started changing when the city adopted a master plan. “The public, private and nonprofit model championed in Argenta has changed the image, dynamics and trajectory of not only the city of North Little Rock but the whole metro area,” he says. “Argenta is his home, it has a European flavor with many friends who enjoy each other’s company.”

Paul Leopoulos is the executive director of THEA, a nonprofit located in the heart of Argenta. The nonprofit is named after Leopoulos’ daughter, Thea. His daughter was a lover of the arts.

Some of her pieces are included in the art gallery. One of her pieces was blown up into a large wall mural.

“To me, Little Rock is the perfectly sized city. We don’t have that mass of people that makes it hard to get around. There’s no rush hour. What makes this [city] great are the people. You are knocked over with kindness and generosity, Leopoulos says.

Chris Kent is the marketing director for Argenta Downtown Council. He says what’s so neat about Little Rock is that there’s so much to do.

“I remember when we struggled to find activities.  Now I can’t keep up with them all. [There are] art walks, concerts, festivals, sculpture gardens, bike trails and so much more.  More importantly, there is a sense of pride about being from here and wanting to continue to make it better. People like Scott McGehee from Yellow Rocket Concepts and Kathryn Tucker, with the Arkansas Cinema Society, left Little Rock and came back to make it better.”

Kent says when he left Little Rock in 2007 there were four restaurants and bars in Argenta, he says now there are 11. “We have a couple of new buildings, including the one I work in, there is a lot more housing, and we have much more activity on the streets on any given day.   

In regards to the real estate revitalization, Kent says it has expanded tremendously.

“The Argenta Flats apartments opened in the last few years and have over 150 units. You can hardly find a house for sale in the neighborhood, and the Thrive Apartments are currently under construction and are adding over 150 upper-end apartments off of 4th Street,” he says.

Holly Fish, the current chairman of the Argenta Downtown Council says, “The North Little Rock downtown area has dramatically changed since I landed in 2007. The last few years in Argenta have been booming for our real estate, historic buildings and homes being renovated for all the condo and apartment growth.”

“The Argenta Flats apartments opened in the last few years and have over 150 units. You can hardly find a house for sale in the neighborhood, and the Thrive Apartments are currently under construction and are adding over 150 upper-end apartments off of 4th Street,” he says.

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