Main Street Arts District

Tags for this project:
A rendering of the main plaza in the Main Street Arts District, showing a projection of Howlin' Wolf on a modern building, cyclists, streetcar lines, and permeable pavers.Sustainable infiltration features of the plan include pervious paving, rain gardens, bioswales, and transportation includes streetcars, bikes, and cars.There are four phases to this project.

Location: Little Rock, AR. Neighborhood, District, and Corridor

SITE: A four block district in the historic center of downtown Little Rock

Program: A plan to transition the downtown center from a commercial monoculture to a cultural and residential center through coordinated enhancements to the public realm.

Little Rock’s downtown, like many centers in similarly sized American cities, has struggled to remain vibrant through changing regional and national urban growth patterns. It remains a commercial center, but faces a dwindling retail base and the need to reconcile its historic character with potential future growth.

This plan by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) focuses on the four blocks at the heart of downtown Little Rock and sets out strategies for the area’s transition from a commercial monoculture to a combination of residences, commerce, culture and tourism. Juror Colleen Carey praised the project for exemplifying how urbanists can work with areas larger than a block but smaller than an entire neighborhood. While focused on particular public realm enhancements, each is rooted in this larger transformation of the area’s function in the city.

In developing the plan, which was publicly commissioned and supported by federal planning grants, UACDC worked with over 30 organizations including real estate developers, art institutions, local businesses and public agencies. Though the downtown features many finely detailed historic buildings, developers in the area are seeking to create large infill structures featuring contemporary design features. In its plan, UACDC seeks to foster compatibility between these assets, but had to work within the larger culture of property rights in Arkansas that precluded the use of tools such as form-based codes or strict historical guidelines. 

The plan’s recommendations hence focus on public infrastructure that guides development and shapes the character of the downtown area. For example, the project seeks to intensify non-traffic social functions through complete streets that accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and transit vehicles in a mixed-traffic environment that integrates public and private outdoor spaces. 

These streets are made even more “complete” through the inclusion of a Low-Impact Development (LID) storm water treatment network. Natural features such as bio-swales and infiltration basins transform the street network into a multi-purpose infrastructure, accommodating storm water runoff on-site or filtering it before it is discharged into the Arkansas River.

Jurors appreciated that the plan focused on incrementalism, acknowledging the complex community and market realities of fostering change in an existing neighborhood. The proposal provides for discrete phases, each of which brings positive benefits to the area. 

The first phase focuses on demarcating the boundaries of the district. The plan proposes design strategies such as lighting effects triggered by weight-bearing sensors in the ground and digital screens on buildings that project the images of famous figures with roots in Little Rock.

The next phase develops a center for the area at the key intersection of Capitol Avenue and Main Street, which serves as a transition point to the important state capitol complex to the west. Existing public right-of-ways will be integrated into a continuous mixed-use plaza that can accommodate public events as well as daily amenities such as food trucks for downtown office workers. 

Finally, connections between this center and the gateways will be emphasized through an expansion of the current sidewalk into a pedestrian promenade with LID features, outdoor dining areas and public art. The enhanced streets are designed to accommodate the planned expansion of the regional streetcar through the center of the district, with bicycle lanes being moved to parallel streets to create cycling boulevards. 

The Charter Awards jury praised the proposal’s thoughtful and timely expression of Charter ideas tailored to the needs of the downtown Little Rock community.

Transect Zone(s): T4 general, T5 center.
Status: Proposed
Project or Plan's Scale: District
Features: Live/work, Mixed uses, Rail/fixed guideway transit, Sustainable infrastructure.
Land area (in acres): 50
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
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Residential types: Mid-rise/loft.
Project team designers: University of Arkansas Community Design Center + Marlon Blackwell Architects
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -