Thursday, February 7, 2013

There goes the neighborhood: Push emerges to sell Forest Hills for Tech Park

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 9:08 AM

FOR SALE: Rohn Muse has led opposition to use of Forest Hills for the tech park. Now some residents are saying they disagree.
  • FOR SALE: Rohn Muse has led opposition to use of Forest Hills for the tech park. Now some residents are saying they disagree.

A letter has been distributed to the board of the Little Rock Technology Park asking that it consider the Forest Hills neighborhood, a lower-income residential area between UAMS and UALR, for the site of the tech park. This is the area targeted by Board member Dickson Flake almost from the outset of his push to build a spec office building in Little Rock as a lure to technology enterprises. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce ran a campaign to approve a city sales tax from which more than $20 million in public money is promised for the project. No other meaningful financial contributions have yet surfaced, apart from token amounts from UAMS, UALR and Children's Hospital.

An "expert" on technology parks was hired to study potential sites and he didn't include this territory in his original findings. But at Flake's behest, he reconsidered. Surprise. Forest Hills rose to the top. Then came an outcry from people in the neighborhood who didn't want their homes taken, certainly not at market value, hardly enough to relocate anywhere comfortably.

The outcry was heard by the City Board, which ruled out Forest Park, but it also has declined to rule out its condemnation by ordinance proposed by Director Ken Richardson. A study has narrowed alternative sites to selections that the "expert" has said repeatedly don't enthuse him as much as his original, Flake-influenced preference. Board Chair Mary Good and her rubberstamp, Bob Johnson, have proclaimed all the alternates unacceptable and have continued to point the search back in the direction of Forest Hills.

That's a long intro for today's development, hand-delivered to Chair Good. The letter, said to represent 30 property owners and bearing 20 signatures, favors negotiations for sale of the property, unlike the position in opposition from Rohn Muse, the president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association.

Here's the letter. It doesn't identify addresses of those who signed, but it says they live in the area. "We are against eminent domain," says the letter, whose first signer is Phyllis Johnson. She's been at public hearings on the project to ask whether Forest Hills really was permanently excluded from consideration, a question for which she got an ambiguous answer a few months ago.

"Negotiations do not mean agreement with use of eminent domain," the letter says. Nor does it mean "giving away our property for low market rates."

The letter continues, "We are willing to come forward. We only ask that you allow individual residents of the proposed area to speak and ask non-residents, outsiders and non-impacted individuals to stand aside and give us the right to speak publicly."

Count on Good and Johnson, at least, to give this group great opportunity to speak, with a likely friendly nod from Dickson Flake, who's been working assiduously to find flaws in the the currently most favored alternative site downtown. Will city directors like Joan Adcock continue to say the subject is "off the table?" Stay tuned. The whole area can't be acquired without eminent domain, no matter what this particular group of residents says, unless every single property owner falls in line and likes the city's offer. Tall order. Also, legal work is underway to challenge any effort to expropriate the property with public tax money to provide office space for private enterprise.

But, at a minimum, the plot thickens. Powerful forces have wanted this property from the start and have never wavered from that belief. The City Board may shortly find itself in a sensitive spot.

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