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I’ve lived on West Fifth Street in North Little Rock’s historic Argenta neighborhood since 2002, and I love it with the zealous heart of the converted. After spending my childhood in a drab post-World War II tract home in Southwest Little Rock, my only knowledge of North Little Rock was McCain Mall. There were few things an ’09er was allowed to be scornful of, and North Little Rock was one.
So imagine my surprise when I visited my future husband’s apartment, which was half of a ramshackle duplex on Orange Street. While his place badly needed a coat of paint, I fell instantly in love with the houses around the corner on Fifth. Fortune smiled on me several months later when a duplex on Fifth owned by Billy’s landlord became available. I also had the option of the newly built Argenta Square apartments, located at Seventh and Orange, but chose to give up all the modern conveniences for the drafty brick home built in the 1920s.
Argenta is a neighborhood filled with an eclectic mix of architecture, from shotgun houses built by the railroad and quaint bungalows to two-story manses and sturdy brick duplexes. Old-growth trees shade the sidewalks, and neighbors call their greetings from house to house, from street to porch. Children ride their bicycles down the quiet streets and occasionally knock on your door, offering to mow the lawn in exchange for pocket money.
“When you think about the South, this is the kind of neighborhood you picture,” said Charles Dwan, who lives at Willow and Seventh. “There’s a great sense of neighborhood.”
But life wasn’t always so peaceful in Argenta. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the neighborhood was overrun with gangs and crime. The historic homes, some a century old, were left to decay by uncaring slumlords. Longtime residents were moving out and crackheads were moving in. Two 1991 murders in the neighborhood galvanized the residents into action: They formed the Argenta Community Development Corporation, and began a concerted effort to clean up the crime and restore the homes to their former glory.
The neighborhood began to hit its stride in 2000, and now it’s almost impossible to buy property in Argenta. An uninhabitable house that Scott Miller, an Argenta resident and owner of the Baker House bed and breakfast, sold a year and a half ago for $38,000 recently sold for $179,000 after the owners made extensive renovations. “It sold within two weeks,” Miller said. A duplex across from his home on Fifth Street sold in three days. “Nothing stays on the market for more than a week now,” he said. Real estate agents are now listing addresses in midtown North Little Rock as “North Argenta,” and young professionals like Cornerstone Pub co-owner Mike Kent are buying property in nearby Melrose Circle.
Unfortunately, development in the commercial district, especially on Main Street, hasn’t kept up with the explosive residential growth, and the residents are getting frustrated.
Talk about projects on Main Street with neighbors and you’ll get a subtle “I’ll believe it when I see it” reaction, a rolling of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders. Rumors come and go, but empty storefronts remain.
“It takes people living downtown to spur development,” said Michael Drake, director of Main Street Argenta, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown’s central business district. In Drake’s estimation, there won’t be enough residential density until proposed condominium projects are built. So what of the existing residents who’ve seen the empty storefronts for years and want them filled sooner than later?
“The pace of downtown development will not be dictated by the hoi polloi,” Drake said.
The “hoi polloi,” though, are the ones that invested their personal fortunes into buying and renovating Argenta’s homes. They’re the ones who risked their personal safety by staying in the neighborhood and cleaning up the infestation of crime and drugs in the 1990s, making it a desirable place to live again. The hoi polloi also spend their money supporting the new and existing businesses on Main Street, and voted for the sales tax for the new ballpark. In short, if it weren’t for downtown’s hoi polloi, Michael Drake’s job would be much harder.
Miller counsels patience. “It’s slow developing, but it is coming. Do I wish it would happen faster? Yes, but I’m learning to be patient.”
There have been positive signs that serious commercial development is in the pipeline. John Gaudin, who plans to develop several blocks of Main and Maple streets, moved into the Owens-Henry house, a gorgeous two-story yellow Tudor at the corner of Fourth and Willow. Harold Tenenbaum, one of Gaudin’s investors, has rented half of a duplex at Fifth and Orange.
Gaudin’s Argenta Place project, a three-story mixed-use development located at 301 Main St., is moving forward. Demolition is finished on the property’s existing structure, and there’s a projected March 2007 completion date. Three of six luxury condominiums included in the 24,000-square-foot building have been pre-sold, Gaudin announced in October. The anchor tenant for the project will be an authentic Irish pub called Cregeen’s. “It’s literally being built in Dublin and will be shipped here,” Gaudin said.
Eric Isaac, owner and chef of the popular Ristorante Capeo, and his brother, Brian, will open a new restaurant, the Argenta Seafood Company, in the old Teak Furniture store at Sixth and Main streets. The restaurant will seat 115, which includes a 50-seat space for private parties. There will also be a 20-seat lounge, and Isaac hopes to have outdoor seating along Sixth Street. If all goes well, Isaac hopes to open in March 2007.
Two Little Rock restaurateurs are also seeking locations downtown. Ed David, owner of the Faded Rose and Bubba and Garcia’s restaurants, wants to open a Faded Rose in Argenta. “We have been in negotiations with a developer in downtown, but nothing is final,” he said. He said he’s currently reviewing plans and is “very, very hopeful that it would work out.”
Argenta resident Dwan said he has a deal pending with Gaudin to lease 409 and 411 Main St. for a new location for his business, Don Vicci’s Italian Restaurant. (The Little Rock location closed in October.) He said plans are to have half the dining room in outdoor seating. “There will be fire pits with seating around it, like a bar,” he said.
So there’s hope, at least, for the gourmands among us. There’s no doubt that the area will continue to develop. The April 2007 opening of the new baseball park is hoped to speed things along, encouraging the thousands of baseball fans that flood downtown to stay a while.
— Janie Ginocchio