Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
The block bounded by West Markham, Garland, South Victory and South Pulaski Streets near Union Station in Little Rock doesn't look like much yet — a sloping, newly-denuded lot that quickly turned to a muddy quagmire during the rains last week. Given the neighborhood, however, any amount of progress has to be counted as a positive. Nearby, a seemingly abandoned car sits on a flat, surrounded by old clothes, empty food wrappers, cigarette butts and broken glass. A few blocks over, outside the Salvation Army shelter on Markham, homeless men linger on the sidewalk, hands jammed in their pockets against the cold snap.
The developer of the project — to be called Vertical Modern Urban Lofts — believes in the potential of the area. Calling the neighborhood around the train station a “well kept secret,” he hopes his $7 million dollar development will be the spark the area needs to take off.
The brains behind Vertical Lofts is Matt Bell. A co-founder of Little Rock's Bell-Corley Construction, Bell recently left the company to pursue projects like Vertical. Bell's vision for Vertical is ambitious: a compact, gated community of 22 residential units and one commercial space, each housed in a modern, three-story take on the traditional townhouse. All will be built with environmentally friendly features like ultra-efficient heat and air, bamboo floors, and insulated concrete forms. Bell said utility costs should run at around 35 percent of a traditionally built home of similar size. The residential units, ranging from 2,050 to 2,450 square feet, will each feature a two-car garage, a rooftop patio, and views of the State Capitol, Union Train Station and Episcopal Collegiate School. Bell said the units will be priced from $319,900 to $375,500.
In order to buy the entire block for the development, Bell had to put together a series of seven individual deals for the houses that once stood there. He said if he hadn't been able to purchase all the properties, the project would have been a no-go.
“Once I got the entire block, it allowed me to secure [the planned development] with fencing and controlled access gates. It's a lot more secure.”
Though condominiums have been the hot thing in the Little Rock real estate market of late, Bell said that the units at Vertical Lofts aren't condos. Instead, he said, they're “lot line houses,” with the buyer purchasing both the structure and the land it sits on. As such, there will be no condo dues, just a property owners' association fee. He said about a third of the units in phase one have already been sold.
“It's behind about three weeks because of this rain right now,” Bell said. “But in six months from right now, the first phase — phase one — will be complete. We'll start phase two within three months after that, and it looks like we'll have a lot of that pre-sold as well.” Bell said that the pricing will be considerably lower than condominiums in the River Market area.
“These are going to be quite a bit less per square foot,” he said. “The ones downtown are running close to $300 a square foot. These are starting at $153 a square foot. So, about half the price, and they all have two car garages not included in the square footage.”
Bell admits that the neighborhood around his development — which includes shabby warehouse space, some dilapidated houses and the Salvation Army shelter — is part of the reason why the area has long been passed over by developers. Bell, however, sees the neighborhood as ripe for investment. Once Vertical Lofts is in place, he said, it should serve as a catalyst for further development, with new construction and upscale renovations “backfilling” toward downtown and eventually revitalizing the entire Markham/President Clinton Avenue corridor.
To see that happen, however, Bell said that the Salvation Army shelter at 1111 W. Markham will likely need to go. “There's a lot of loitering,” Bell said. “For further development — commercial, retail — it's a pretty bad detriment to the area and I would like to see it moved to a location that is less critical to the city as far as development goes.”
Randy Jeffrey is director of the Capitol Zoning District Commission, a state agency that tries to spur development and revitalization in the neighborhoods adjacent to the state Capitol. Though the Salvation Army shelter lies just outside the CZD, he said the location of the shelter can be a problem when it comes to development near the train station.
“The homeless force that is so prevalent in that area can be a detriment to development,” Jeffery said. “It is a concern, and it's difficult to know what to do. You want to help people in need, but the area also needs development.”
Regardless, Jeffery said the Vertical Lofts project is sure to help the prospects for the train station area. “It's the first residential development that's gone on in that neighborhood in — oh, I couldn't even begin to guess,” he said. “I certainly think it's going to help spur revitalization of the neighborhood and be an asset to the neighborhood.”
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