By the time you read this, but after press time, the Little Rock Planning Commission likely will have voted on a proposal to build a 13-story condominium building in the heart of Riverdale.
The basic plot is familiar. The residents who live in expensive homes near the site do not want an outsized structure in their backyard. The developers counter that the neighbors are being unreasonable and that even a high-rise residential development is better than the low-rise offices allowed by current zoning.
But this turf battle also raises questions about future Little Rock growth. Is the proposed River Tower actually the kind of high-density residential development that city planners and downtown advocates are encouraging as an antidote to sprawl? In a city that defines its "midtown" at University Avenue, should Riverdale be considered part of the urban core? And whether it is downtown or not, is Riverdale a neighborhood with a certain character that needs to be acknowledged and protected, like the Quapaw Quarter?
Riverdale is a curious amalgam of residential and commercial elements. Located just off the Cantrell Road corridor between downtown and the Heights, it has restaurants and gas stations on its western side, and the expensive single-family homes of Canal Pointe and condominiums of River Bend along the Arkansas River on its east side. Scattered in between is a high-rise apartment house, the corporate headquarters for Alltel, high-end retail, low-end retail, railroad tracks, office parks, a marina, and low-rise apartment complexes.
Jim Hathaway, vice chairman of The Hathaway Group, is leading the group developing the River Tower project, which is proposed for a relatively small piece of land bordered by Riverfront Drive on the west, the Alltel offices to the south, and the River Bend and Canal Pointe gated communities to the east and north, respectively. It is a $36 million project, with 38 units ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet with an estimated price tag of $300 per square foot. There are plans for two penthouse spaces, which at 5,000 square feet each, would be offered for at least $1,500,000.
River Bend residents are the most animated on this subject, because the first two floors of the River Tower (slated to be a parking deck) are only 80'6"from their property line. Carl Whillock, the president of the Board of Directors of the River Bend Condominium Association, sent a letter to the Planning Commission opposing the proposal. He said that he called an informal meeting of River Bend property owners to discuss the issue after he first heard about it, and 25 out of 34 residents showed up.
"I didn't hear anyone express support for it," Whillock recalled. The main concern, according to Whillock, was that "when you go out in your backyard, primarily what you see is a big building."
The same sentiment was expressed by residents of Canal Pointe, who sent the Planning Commission a petition signed by 37 people (although many were couples who live at the same address) stating that the River Tower would "tower over our homes, invading our privacy and possibly lowering our property values."
Nonsense, responds Curtis Finch, Jr., who lives at River Bend and is also an investor in the River Tower development. His letter to fellow River Bend homeowners suggests the project will be good for its neighbors. That is, "as more expensive projects are built near established developments the value of the older developments rises as long as the older developments have kept their property in good condition." Whillock says that while the property values of neighboring homes along the river may indeed increase, he thinks eight to ten of the units closest to the River Tower would be adversely affected, primarily because the daylight would be blocked.
Besides the issue of property values, there is the bigger question of whether the River Tower is a suitable development in terms of context and utility. Hathaway thinks that Riverdale is "the best example in central Arkansas of a mixed land-use area." He cites the various kinds of developments that exist in the neighborhood, and contends that the River Tower would be consistent with its surroundings. Furthermore, he notes that most urban planners are interested in infill development, especially when it is residential, because it takes advantage of vacant land in a city core and thereby reduces sprawl.
"There is no need to build a new police station, a new fire station, or new infrastructure," Hathaway said.
The staff of the Planning Commission initially recommended denial of the River Tower request. While they noted that "the use is appropriate for the site and the proposed development will no doubt be a quality development," they were persuaded by the arguments about the height and the setbacks.
Since then, Hathaway's group has revised its plans to reduce the height of the building and widen the gap between the condo and River Bend. In response, the staff issued a statement this week saying they are "supportive of the River Tower project as amended." The Planning Commission votes Thursday, May 6. The city Board of Directors has the final say, unless someone takes it to court.
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