Historic North Little Rock Neighborhood Enjoying Renewed Interest

By reporter Carl D. Holcombe

 

Street-churning development is remaking North Little Rock’s downtown, but its historic Park Hill neighborhood is generating interest by relying on old-fashioned charm, affordable housing and an infrastructure touch-up.

Those three factors, business and civic leaders hope, will take the tree-canopied neighborhood out of the shadows of Little Rock and imbue it with a new sense of vitality by attracting new businesses, residents and respect.

“We really want to pattern Park Hill after what The Heights has done,” said Terry Hartwick, president and CEO of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. “The Heights really took off, and Park Hill is about to do the same ? quaint shops and quaint restaurants are coming.”

The city has recently finished installing 1920s period light poles, sidewalks and improved medians on John F. Kennedy Boulevard as part of a facelift by Marlar Engineering of North Little Rock that ran up about an $800,000 bill, according to city officials. A multimillion dollar project to improve John F. Kennedy Boulevard drainage was also finished a few years ago.

Soon to be launched is a beautification program to plant flowers, shrubbery and other flora in sidewalk cutouts along JFK.

“There was no atmosphere,” Hartwick said.

The Park Hill area recently gained its first hefty business development in about 30 years, said North Little Rock First Ward Alderman Martin Gipson. Crye-Leike Realtors of Tennessee, one of the nation’s largest realty firms, began redevelopment of the 16,000-SF Park Hill Shopping Center last year. Crye-Leike bought the site from Park Hill Baptist Church for about $550,000. The new shopping center and the renovation of the strip next door will push the total investment to about $2 million, according to company president Harold Crye.

Gone from the 0.8-acre site are the gutted Park Theater, a pharmacy and other vacant store fronts that had been built in the 1940s.

“For Crye-Leike to locate their agency there, by them investing in new construction, it tells me they’re bullish on Park Hill and even more so on (the city),” said North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays, whose Park Hill home is four blocks from where he grew up. “But I wouldn’t doubt that the city’s plans had something to do with their interest and enthusiasm in being there.”

Besides Crye-Leike’s realty, insurance and banking operations at the 3400 John F. Kennedy Blvd. site, the office’s managing broker, David Goldstein, said the two-building site will lease office space at about $16 per SF. Interested businesses so far range from florists to restaurateurs to neighborhood service providers.

“(Improvements are) sparking new business to come to the area,” said Johnny McKay, former owner of McKay Realtors of North Little Rock and now a Crye-Leike broker in Little Rock. “Certainly, Crye-Leike saw it as a place to set up.”

Gipson, a Park Hill homeowner for 39 years and a 22-year alderman said, “Park Hill is a very viable business community ? (But) as buildings became vacant, they stayed vacant ? the infrastructure decayed.”

The neighborhood has seen other development, including the nearly $8 million expansion and renovation project by Park Hill Baptist Church that included a roughly 1,200-seat fellowship hall.

But planners foresee a future where a walk down the boulevard to get a meal at a high-quality restaurant is the norm for Park Hill residents. They mostly anticipate boutiques and small businesses.

The downtown area won’t compete with Park Hill for development dollars or resources because the goals of each are different, Hays said. The city also can’t provide tax incentives for businesses because of Arkansas’ precarious financial situation.

“Five years from now, when the Bass Pro Shop is here and North Little Rock is a destination ? and not to be sexist ? I envision dad and son spending time at the shop,” Goldstein said. “And (I see) mom and her daughter walking to Park Hill for high-end boutiques and caf?s. You’ll be able to stroll the neighborhood.”

Holding back those restaurants’ arrival is Park Hill’s decades-old status as a dry township, which bars all alcohol sales, beer and wine at restaurants. A ballot initiative petition two years ago to lift the law failed to garner enough signatures, but Gipson blamed that on outdated voter registration rolls maintained by Pulaski County Clerk Carolyn Staley.

A 1947 recall law requires signatures from 38 percent of registered voters in the precinct.

“It’s very difficult when 40 percent of the registered voters are dead or don’t live there anymore,” Gipson said. “We had 40 percent of the people that actually still lived there.”

Another group will relaunch the initiative campaign this summer, he said.

Crye-Leike’s location may indicate Park Hill real estate may be shaping up as one of the Little Rock area’s better values. The location offers a quick jump onto Highway 40 and speedy access to downtown Little Rock and to the McCain shopping areas to the northeast without the traffic clog of west Little Rock, say business and city officials.

Housing stock hidden behind mature trees and down side streets and dating from the 1920s to the 1940s offer big yards and a variety of home sizes ? and the feel of Little Rock living at North Little Rock prices.

“It’s an eclectic blend of housing,” Hays said.

Housing values are rising at about a 5 to 7 percent annual clip, according to Goldstein. In 2002, 118 Park Hill homes sold, with a median price of $94,500, he said, while 723 homes sold city-wide with a $82,500 median price.

That median hit $104,000 in 2003 on sales of 120 homes in Park Hill and $87,500 citywide on sales of 785 homes. Twenty-eight homes had sold through mid-April of this year with a median price of $94,250, while 206 homes had sold in all of North Little Rock with a median price of $88,250.

North Little Rock homes are staying on the market an average of 64 days, while Park Hill homes are selling in an average of 35 days.

Moving in are ex-Park Hill residents, retirees, young families and young professionals without children.

“Park Hill is shaping up as a destination,” Goldstein said. “It’s for people who want all the convenience of city living but with a hometown feel. Park Hill is definitely that area.”

Helping values was the August 2000 designation of Park Hill ? including 561 homes ? on the National Registry of Historic Places, said Sandra Taylor Smith, director of the North Little Rock History Commission.

“It’s our unique, vintage, 1920s neighborhood,” Taylor Smith said.

North Little Rock’s outside image as a step down from Little Rock doesn’t worry city and business leaders. A sizable part of that probably traces to a natural competition between the “twin cities.”

“If anything, I have to live with the stereotypes people have of Arkansas, which is worse,” Gipson said. “North Little Rock is a big little town. I can still walk down the street and still know most of the merchants.”

Park Hill was platted in 1921, at the same time as The Heights, by Justin Matthews who had bought 500 acres of land in the area, Taylor Smith said.

Building took off in 1927, stuttered through the Great Depression, and took off again after World War II as G.I.s flooded home, she said. For years it had its own schools, water system and fire department, until annexation by North Little Rock in 1946.

“We’ve got our little good and bad spots, but we’re right next door to Little Rock so we get more attention,” the Chamber’s Hartwick said. “But we’re winning more now.”