Community Design Center, Blackwell firm collaborate on arts district

A plan to transform four neglected blocks of Main Street in downtown Little Rock into an arts district has earned a national 2014 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. Faculty and staff members of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas designed this award-winning work.

The Creative Corridor, designed by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect, won an Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, one of six awarded. This is the center’s 11th national AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, and this is Blackwell’s third AIA Honor Award.

The Creative Corridor plan retrofits a four-block segment of Main Street, between 3rd and 7th streets, by using economic development catalyzed by the cultural arts rather than a traditional retail base. The goal is to structure an identity for the Creative Corridor rooted in a mixed-use, work-live environment that is also sensitive to the historical context of Main Street in Little Rock, which has a metropolitan area population of about 700,000.

The incremental approach employs three developmental phases to transform the corridor space into a downtown hub that supports a greater level of pedestrian activity, sociability, recreation and aesthetics. To ensure continuity between new and old, the project team devised a townscaping strategy that recombines special architectural frontages with urban landscapes, public art, and shared street geometries to serve this new aggregated arts economy.

An increasing number of public, private and non-profit groups have already invested in Main Street in recent years, including developers Scott Reed and Moses Tucker Real Estate, and that trend is continuing. Orbea, a Spanish bicycle manufacturer, relocated its North American headquarters to Main Street; the Arkansas Venture Center soon will open on the same block; and the Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board recently voted to build the park downtown along Main Street. Arts and culture mainstays like Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Arkansas and Arkansas Repertory Theatre will occupy rehearsal and creative space alongside Kent Walker Artisan Cheese and artist Matt McLeod. Residential installations and dining, along with several other projects not yet announced, will round out the live/work/play concept that surrounds the Creative Corridor.

“Little Rock has taken the first steps in reclaiming its Main Street as a great public space once again by restoring non-traffic social functions to the street,” said, Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center and a Distinguished Professor of architecture in the Fay Jones School. “Though downtown living everywhere has enjoyed a comeback, cities like Little Rock in particular teach us that the urban street can be an indispensible tool for creating value. The Creative Corridor connects the dots between arts, economy and ecology towards synthetic models of livability and placemaking that only cities can offer. We feel fortunate to have been part of a five-year-plus effort that has involved federal, state and many local participants with great leadership from the city.”

For this project, the Community Design Center partnered with Blackwell’s Fayetteville-based firm. Blackwell is also a Distinguished Professor and head of the Fay Jones School’s architecture department.

Planning and design for the Creative Corridor was funded by a 2011 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Based on the Creative Corridor plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committed $1.2 million to implement the plan’s low-impact development streetscapes, and construction is slated to begin early in 2014. Renovations totaling more than $60 million are underway, including more than 200 residential units.

“Little Rock’s Main Street renaissance is the kind of exciting, sustainable revitalization that public-private investment can produce,” said Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. “We are proud that Main Street is becoming a leading example for other communities to follow, and we will continue to encourage more sustainable development in downtown Little Rock.”

“We are indebted to the U of A Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect, who helped create the vision for what our Main Street will become,” Stodola added.

Attention was focused on the area during a recent visit by senior officials from four major federal agencies, who sought ways to promote sustainability and leverage support for investment projects in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Transportation and the Delta Regional Authority, along with the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock, toured those central Arkansas cities as part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

The AIA awards are considered the highest national professional honors to be given to design projects in architecture, urban design and interior design. Twenty-six awards were made this year in the categories of architecture, interior architecture, and regional and urban design from over 700 submissions.

The Regional and Urban Design Honor Awards “recognize distinguished achievements that involve the expanding role of the architect in urban design, regional and city planning, and community development,” according to the AIA website. “The awards identify projects and programs that contribute to the quality of these environments.”

The Creative Corridor features elements such as marquees, stormwater management landscapes, new public rail transit, and an art installation made from street lamps of different eras from city neighborhoods.

Jury members said the Creative Corridor plan “proposes to create a Main Street that is to America what the piazza was to Italy.”

“This project recognizes that a well-designed street provides valuable social functions, and it provides thoughtful solutions to address needs far beyond the simple movement of traffic,” the jury noted. “In small gestures like the recycled street lamps, and in grand ones like restoring the vitality of Main Street, this plan shows an appreciation for history. In features like streetscapes that provide ecosystem services, the plan demonstrates an understanding of what it takes to build a thriving city for the 21st century.”

The Creative Corridor has also received other honors, including a 2013 American Architecture Award from The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies. It also won a Charter Award in the Neighborhood, District and Corridor category in the 2013 Charter Awards, sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism, and it was short-listed for the 2013 World Architecture Festival Awards in the Future Projects – Masterplanning category.

The winning projects in this year’s AIA awards program will be exhibited at the annual convention in Chicago in June and published in Architectmagazine, the official magazine of the AIA.

AuthorMatthew Petty