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Argenta: Revival on Main Street 

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Old houses with tons of character. Local shops with locally-produced goods. Neighborhood bars and restaurants run by your neighbors. Dedicated trails for biking and walking. A spectacular skyline view.

Up until that last bit, you might have been talking about the Hillcrest neighborhood in Little Rock. But hugging the north bank of the Arkansas River in downtown North Little Rock, the Argenta neighborhood has been making the case for being one of the trendiest places to live and play hereabouts — and with no small success.

Anchored by a revived Main Street with its historic buildings still intact (a number of them renovated), this dense, urban neighborhood dates back to the early 20th century. West of Main you'll find about 16 blocks of houses — a fraction the size of many Little Rock neighborhoods, to be sure — many of them Craftsman in style and some quite spectacular. (The 1895 E.O. Manees House on Fourth Street, home to the Junior League of North Little Rock, is the belle dame, but even the more modest homes have touches like stylish architecture, built-in cabinetry with leaded glass and original windows and woodwork.) Plus, the whole area is protected by a local ordinance historic district that requires buildings to maintain a historically correct exterior.

It's not terribly hard to see why Argenta, a neighborhood that also boasts Dickey-Stephens Park, Verizon Arena and the the Millenium Trail along the river, attracts homeowners.

As recently as five years ago, the easiest way to buy in Argenta was to know someone who already lived there. Word that a neighbor was thinking about moving invariably resulted in a race to see who could call one of their house-hunting friends first with the news, and sales were often closed without the house ever actually being put on the market. In fact, that's exactly how I bought my Argenta home.

One of the most telling things about the state of Argenta today is that people are putting a sign in their lawn when they want to sell their house. Realtor and FSBO signs now appear in front yards and turnover is slower; houses can stay on the market for weeks or months. Part of that is due to the terrible nature of the national economy and the fact that banks are still loan-shy. But it's also true that there are fewer and fewer houses in Argenta that you can get at bargain prices, even if they're fixer-uppers. Property owners understand the value inherent in those structures.

But Becky Ragsdale, president of Argenta Neighborhood Boosters, says, "I think we're actually doing well at the under $200,000 range."

Ragsdale is a former Floridian who lives with her husband, Bob, in a rehabbed brick Craftsman on Sixth Street. Sitting at her dining room table, she quickly ticks off recent sales in the neighborhood.

"There's the brick rent house in the 700 block of Willow; the duplex condo; the Dutch Colonial sold on the day of its first open house; and the Fire Department's inspector bought the house at Seventh and Orange."

The so-called "duplex condo" — more like two good-sized houses with a shared entry porch — was significant because it's the first new-home construction in Argenta in more than a decade, and was a high-dollar sale to boot. The last time anyone built from scratch in Argenta was Habitat for Humanity back in the '90s — and that house, which is next door to mine, also sold recently.

"I think overall, if something's for sale in the neighborhood, it's selling," she said. "That's pretty good."

Today, she estimates, houses are selling in the $100 to $105 per square foot range. One of my friends in the neighborhood actually tracks home prices and tells me that from 1994 to 2001 the increase, on average, was 400 percent. Case in point: Her own home, which was acquired by the Argenta Community Development Corporation for less than $15,000 in the early '90s, cost her $40,000 in 2001, and today she's selling it for $150,000.

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