Graphics provided by SASAKI

Downtown Little Rock is set to adopt a bold new vision for the city, one that revolves around better transit, a denser downtown population and connectivity via expanded greenspaces. Those are the headliner points put forth by the long-awaited draft Downtown Little Rock Master Plan unveiled last month.

 

The plan, spearheaded by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and prepared by global architecture, planning and design firm Sasaki, is the culmination of work that began last fall. Laying out an ambitious agenda for enhancements to the city core, the plan awaits approval by the Little Rock Board of Directors at writing.

 

As stated in the plan’s executive summary, Little Rock is at a crossroads, having revitalized steadily since the economic downtown of 2008 but at a much slower pace than peer communities. That has caused the city’s core to stagnate even as buildings are built or refurbished, new restaurants open, and downtown continues to be a center for events, conventions and entertainment.

 

Fortunately, according to the plan authors, the city is brimful with opportunities to correct the situation thanks to natural amenities and the possibility for bold new public space development.

 

“Downtown Little Rock has an amazing geographic setting along the Arkansas River and is the center of culture for all of Arkansas. These are huge strengths that cannot be replicated,” the plan states. “There are large amounts of available underutilized land, mostly surface parking lots, which are prime sites for new infill development.”

 

Four focus areas were identified as primary targets for reimagined usage. On the riverfront extending roughly from the Clinton Presidential Center to Robinson Center, underutilized public and private properties and ground would be redeveloped into mixed use. New trails would also be constructed, along with more and better access for water recreation on the Arkansas River.

The plan also calls for extensive greenspace and the redevelopment of underutilized public and private properties and parking lots into mixed-income housing in blocks surrounding the State Capitol. Other features in that zone would include a Marshall Street bridge with enhanced pedestrian and bike facilities and connection to the Arkansas River via Rose Creek greenway and Southwest Trail.

 

The plan gives particular attention to the Ninth Street corridor and seeks to enhance and celebrate the area’s heritage as Little Rock’s historic Black Main Street. Extensive new greenways, including a deck park over Interstate 30, would bring together assets on both sides of the highway and reconnect the storied street. West Seventh and Chester streets would be reimagined as the heart of the neighborhood.

 

Arguably the most ambitious element of the four, 30 Crossing Park, is the Downtown Little Rock Partnership’s strongest lobby yet for utilizing land freed up by highway reconfiguration as a sweeping new central park. Featuring a variety of natural and sports amenities, as well as a huge gathering lawn for public events, 30 Crossing Park would bring foundational changes to the look, function and connectedness of downtown.

According to the plan, the proposals are not just development for development’s sake but feed into the plan’s central goal of increasing downtown density. Within its 2.5-square-mile footprint, Little Rock’s downtown has about 4,400 permanent residents, roughly one-tenth of the number of people who work downtown. A key goal in the plan is to double downtown’s residential population by 2035, and the statistics suggest that with the right housing and amenities, a supply of potential downtown dwellers already exists.

 

The downtown master plan joins other ambitious public and private projects currently at work or under study for the city’s core, including expansion to Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the Clinton Presidential Center; renovation of the Central Arkansas Library System’s main branch; reimagining River Market Pavilions; and new trail connections joining the Southwest and Southeast trails.

 

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