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If you’re at all the observant type, it might just take you one trip on foot along the trolley route in downtown North Little Rock to notice that a lot of the empty buildings have the same sign in the window: the name V3, and a phone number.
The signs have been the only visible change as the properties, more than 10 now, passed into the hands of a man named John Gaudin.
They’re becoming something of a sore spot among a lot of folks who live and do business in the Argenta neighborhood, North Little Rock’s old downtown. The lack of activity has spawned plenty of idle speculation. According to one theory, he’s just land-speculating. Another has him working on behalf of Vanadis, his development partner, to make their Little Rock holdings more valuable by making it all but impossible to get into downtown North Little Rock.
What Gaudin actually appears to be is very deliberate and very patient.
A wealth management consultant by trade and an artist by avocation, he landed in Argenta more than two years ago in the usual way. After years in West Little Rock, allowing his office to double as an art gallery, he went looking in downtown Little Rock for a space where he could live, work and exhibit art. When he couldn’t find anything, he crossed the river and got in touch with the people at Main Street Argenta.
“They took me around and showed me what was going on — what their hopes and dreams were for the area,” Gaudin said.
The trolley played a big part in his decision, he said, along with the general “build it and they will come” attitude of Mayor Pat Hays and other city officials.
So Gaudin made an offer on the property at the northwest corner of Broadway and Main.
“But I realized if I was the only one doing something down here, no one would get off the trolley to visit me,” he said.
Since then, with the backing of partners Harold and Judy Tenenbaum, he’s acquired most of the block between Fourth and Fifth streets on both Main and Maple, along with a building in the 700 block of Main and the Rye Furniture building at Broadway and Maple.
He said he can understand why other people are frustrated. Work was supposed to start more than a year ago on a new office/residential building at Broadway and Main.
“Part of it is trying to get enough critical mass to effect it all at one time,” Gaudin said. “The research is crystal clear — if you do it one at a time, there’s much more risk.”
Argenta’s momentum won’t suffer if nothing new opens on Main Street for awhile, he said, because the neighborhood has the slow but certain march of demographics on its side.
“Baby boomers are 42 percent of the workforce, and they’re starting to retire and move into urban areas again,” he said.
Gaudin is in the process of moving his office from West Little Rock to the second story of 401 Main, the building he recently bought from the CDC. His first art exhibit, of works by George Dombek, is already hanging on the walls.
The first part of his plan is to restore all three buildings he owns on that block of Main to their original state, and add courtyards and new-construction condos or townhouses behind them. He hopes get the plans to the historic commission and planning board within 60 days. Once that’s going, the building at 709 Main will be next, Gaudin said: It’ll be renovated and made ready for a retail tenant, he hopes by early next year.
He’d like to tear down everything on the 400 block of Maple — an obvious improvement — and replace it with new residential structures that would blend with the neighborhood.
Plans are still vague for the Rye Furnture property, but Gaudin said he sees it as ideal for a mixed-use development that would suit a national retail tenant.
And what about the original property at Broadway and Main?
“301 Main has been a struggle,” Gaudin said. He first had to downsize the plans because of city setback requirements that limited parking, and then the cost of construction materials shot up. “We’re retackling that design and hope to have something by next year.”