Funding to support pedestrian-oriented environment, mixed-use area

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center has received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support preparation of an urban design plan for an arts district in downtown Fayetteville.

The Community Design Center, an outreach program of the Fay Jones School of Architecture, is one of 50 programs to receive a 2013 Art Works grant in the design category from the NEA. The grants for all 817 funded projects in all categories total $26.3 million. The center’s mission is to advance creative development in Arkansas through education, research and design solutions that enhance the physical environment.

 “The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support these exciting and diverse arts projects that will take place throughout the United States,” said John Shigekawa, NEA acting chairman. “Whether it is through a focus on education, engagement or innovation, these projects all contribute to vibrant communities and memorable opportunities for the public to engage with the arts.”

Although the city of Fayetteville already has a designated cultural district consisting of a majority of the downtown, no physical framework or anchor exists to give the scattered cultural assets an identity, said Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center. The NEA grant proposes establishment of an arts district core around West Avenue and the Walton Arts Center.

The NEA funding will support the Community Design Center – working in collaboration with the city of Fayetteville, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and the arts center – as it prepares a plan that includes two main components. One of these is a new streetscape for West Avenue that provides a public venue for festivals and other civic gatherings. The second involves the schematic design of the parcel west of the arts center as a mixed-use development featuring housing (including live/work space for artists), commercial space and a pocket park.

Luoni said a designed arts district would be valuable to Fayetteville because the city already hosts and celebrates countless arts events and programs.

“A district plan will provide a pedestrian-oriented environment important to the continued success of downtown’s cultural and commercial functions. The district plan also optimizes the potential of new investments as the downtown grows denser and more complex,” he said.

For example, the current street geometry of West Avenue promotes high traffic speed, while the large-scale surface parking lot on its west side doesn’t advance livability of the downtown area. The streetscape and block redevelopment will complement the estimated $20 million in improvements that the Walton Arts Center plans to make to the performing arts center property and the Nadine Baum Studio over the next several years.

“The proposal will also coordinate with other improvements scheduled by the city and private property owners to make a ‘complete neighborhood,’ enhancing the downtown’s capacity as a regional destination,” Luoni said.

Steve Clark, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce, said he wrote a letter in support of the NEA grant proposal because this idea is consistent with the city’s plans for 2025 and 2035. Those plans envision making downtown friendlier to pedestrians and more appealing for people who want to live and work in the area. That concentration of people also encourages investment in both housing and commercial entities, such as restaurants and retailers.

“An arts district would be a real plus for us,” he said. “For economic development reasons – it attracts people to come to our community to see the arts as we embrace them.”

As baby boomers retire and opt to relocate to downtown, officials look for ways to attract the next generation of workers. Technology allows many of them to work from anywhere, making a downtown live-work environment ideal and appealing. An arts district itself would also create jobs.

In addition, reusing and retrofitting existing buildings and pieces of property is a sustainable way to develop downtowns.

“The population of Fayetteville is growing at a couple of percent per year, and we want to be able to do that, not with sprawl, but by emphasizing what’s already here,” Clark said.

Fifth-year architecture students will work with Community Design Center staff in a studio this fall to begin project design. Final drawings and models will be completed in spring 2014.

AuthorMatthew Petty