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Rachel Chaney and her husband lived in the Leawood subdivision in Little Rock. They didn't know when they bought their house that their street was a popular detour for drivers looking for a fast cut-through to Mississippi Street. Worse, their home was on a curve. During the short time they lived there, three cars crashed in their yard.
Fed up with the traffic and scared to let her children play outside, Chaney soon went looking for a new home in West Little Rock. What she and her husband found was a house along Beckenham Drive, a dead-end street far from the main thoroughfare but within walking distance of the community pool.
Now, however, Chaney and her neighbors are afraid their fairy tale life in the 'burbs is heading for a not-so-happy ending. Prominent West Little Rock developer Deltic has a plan on the table that would connect Beckenham and nearby Wellington Plantation Drive to busy Rahling Road and Hinson Road. Chaney and others say the proposed change is a scheme to funnel traffic to Deltic's new Promenade at Chenal shopping mall. The result, those along Beckenham insist, will be hundreds of additional cars coming down their street every day. That will lead to accidents, noise, and a neighborhood unsafe for bikers and pedestrians.
“We were looking for a safe area that didn't have that much traffic,” Chaney said, “and now we're facing the possibility of dealing with it again.”
Deltic's plan for the area is two-fold. First, they are seeking to amend the city land use plan to rezone a 73-acre wooded site on Rahling Road just south of Pebble Beach Drive. Forty-one acres would be re-zoned from low-density single family residential to multi-family residential, allowing for the construction of apartment complexes with between 10 to 36 units per acre. An additional 19.9 acres would be rezoned commercial, while the balance of the land would be rezoned for office space, a small area for single-family construction, and eight acres for a park or open space.
The second part of the plan would extend Beckenham Drive and nearby Wellington Plantation Drive through the rezoned area. Beckenham would connect to Hinson Road on the west and Wellington Plantation would connect to Rahling Road on the east. This would create a potential shortcut for drivers looking to move between Rahling and Hinson. Chenal Properties, which is owned by Deltic, has agreed to commit $325,000 to the street project. According to a Little Rock Planning Commission report, that amount would cover the cost of a two-lane road, but not drainage and sidewalks.
Citing “concerns about the implications of the combination on the two roads as well as Rahling Road,” the staff of the Planning Commission recommended against the road expansions. The staff also recommended that the request to rezone the property along Rahling Road be denied, saying they believed that it was “most appropriate for this property to develop as it is currently zoned.” But at its Oct. 2 meeting the Commission voted to approve both the street expansion and Rahling rezoning. The application goes to the City Board of Directors on Nov. 18 for final approval.
Bud Laumer is a member of the Hillsborough Property Owners Association, a land-use planner with the state Highway and Transportation Department and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners who planned for cities in California and Wisconsin before coming to Little Rock. Laumer said that having his own neighborhood threatened by bad planning has been a real eye-opener — and that he felt that God reached down and decided to put him in the same kind of situation he's been helping communities deal with for years.
“It's like, you can't be serious,” he said. “You can't do that. You'll ruin that neighborhood! Hey, that's MY neighborhood.”
Laumer said that in the 15-plus years he's been in planning, he's never seen a board so disregard their own land use plan and the advice of their staff — acting, he said, “with total disregard for any semblance of objectivity.”
Laumer said that Deltic is a victim of its own success — an automobile-centric developer who is still working under an antiquated model that says people are always going to want to flee downtown and urban areas for the suburbs. The result, Laumer said, is a mess of streets in West Little Rock, with only a few multi-lane “arterials” that allow for heavy traffic flow and a web of “collectors” — streets built for light residential traffic — that are quickly being overwhelmed.
“You can't get there from anywhere, and the solution is let's punch some through-streets through,” Laumer said. “We know it's going to violate all the standards we've adopted about making places where people can walk and ride their bikes, but that's OK with us, because it's going to save our bacon because we've got a development out there — a dead mall.”
Chauncey Taylor, chairman of the Planning Commission, lives on Montvale Drive, which would be less than a block from the proposed expansion of Beckenham Drive. Taylor voted for the street expansion, but against the rezoning of the property along Rahling Road. Taylor said that while the proposed street expansion will “open up those two streets,” he had concerns about the commercial development along Rahling, saying there is plenty of retail space available on Chenal Parkway. Taylor notes that the idea of connecting Rahling and Hinson via Beckenham and Wellington Plantation is not new. The connection — though not in exactly the same configuration Deltic has proposed — has been on the city's master street plan for years.
Taylor said that it's common for the Planning Commission board to go against the recommendation of staff, and disputes the idea that street planning in West Little Rock is any different from street planning in the rest of the city. He said that those who think the commission is too willing to bend to the will of developers — particularly those in West Little Rock — are wrong.
“It is all on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We vote as a commission, so we each have to weigh the issues and make a Solomon decision.”
Laumer has his own ideas about what should be done to alleviate traffic congestion in West Little Rock. He said that if the Commission and Deltic would trust the planning process, “We can create solutions that don't victimize anyone. You could have people come in off Rahling onto Pebble Beach, through that little collector and out to us. That would drain all the traffic out of the middle of those neighborhoods. That would give you a way to walk through those neighborhoods, and you wouldn't see heavy traffic. … For the sake of this community and the sake of this city, we absolutely have to get past the notion that we should cannibalize existing neighborhoods for the benefit of developers.”