How high the hotel? 

How high the hotel?

On Sept. 9, I attended the River Market Design Review Committee's meeting regarding the variance request for a proposed seven-story hotel on the corner of President Clinton Avenue and Commerce Street.

I own an art gallery in the River Market — one of the original and longest surviving retailers in the district. I have struggled through change and construction in the area, and I have also thrived and succeeded during its proudest moments. I have watched retailers all but cease to exist in the area, and I've watched vendors in the Market Hall itself continually dwindle — creating way too many vacancies for such a wonderful facility that used to flourish with small business owners who were proud of the part they played in the downtown market. For years I have advocated the need for more retail in the area, and the hotel promises to help fulfill this need by dedicating ground floor space to retail. What kind of retail isn't yet known, but the desperate need for more retail would come to fruition in some form.

Now our community is faced with a choice — to go against the original Overlay District guidelines for the area and the desire to keep it on a pedestrian scale and approve a hotel that will clearly eclipse all the buildings that surround it, or to stay the course and say no to such a development in order to preserve the integrity of the district. Even though I am a retailer, and, not only a retailer, but one who has begged for more businesses in the area, I support the latter of the two choices and oppose the building of the new hotel at its current height — three stories taller than is allowed by the River Market's Overlay District.

While I understand the hotel will bring much needed economic viability to downtown, I believe the highest calling of our River Market District leaders is to preserve the uniqueness it offers to the thousands of people who visit our city annually. I have often referred to the River Market as a snapshot most any tourist will see of our state. The impressions they gain from a few city blocks have the potential to set us apart from other cities all across the country. I fear we are at a tipping point that, if we head too far in one direction, the District will never be able to get back what it once had. Some say it's too late anyway; others still have hope that the River Market District will continue to help put Little Rock on the map as a thriving urban downtown entertainment and cultural district. I, for one, believe we can do this.

 When the variance request comes before the Board of Adjustment, I hope board members will look seriously not just at the approval or disapproval of this hotel in its current state, but also for the entire River Market District years down the line. If the buck doesn't stop here, where will it stop? When historic buildings are sold and torn down to make even taller buildings so we can look like every downtown in America? Or can we stop it now and come together as a community and pay attention to the immediate needs of the River Market, finding better ways to make it thrive, while also adhering to the guidelines of the Overlay District? The principals of Moses Tucker Real Estate and library director Bobby Roberts have all put enormous lifeblood into this area of our city that was neglected for years. I applaud all of them for their investments in  the community, and I would certainly defend them against their harshest critics in that regard. Whether the hotel is approved or disapproved, I look forward to future debates about the District that, if nothing else, prove that people really do care about the community and its citizens and are passionate about revitalizing downtown to its fullest potential.



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