If you talk to City Director Joan Adcock, the three neighborhoods south of Interstate 630 and east of University that the Little Rock Technology Park Authority has been assessing no longer face the bulldozer. "You won," she told the Forest Park Neighborhood Association last week after Authority board chair Dr. Mary Good released a letter saying the three sites would be "taken off the table." To Adcock, the matter is settled.
But maybe not. Good's letter contains a caveat: the neighborhoods will "not be given further consideration unless there is substantial neighborhood interest and support" from an area, leaving that neighborhood again vulnerable to the board's power to take properties through eminent domain.
What constitutes "substantial"? To Adcock, substantial would mean, she said, "I would have to have everybody come and tell me that's what they wanted." The Authority board hasn't spelled out what it means.
To real estate lawyer Jason Bolden, however, substantial means a group he represents that he says owns 40 properties in and around what civil engineers are calling Area 3, Forest Hills, the area closest to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, he told the Authority in May and Adcock via e-mail this week.
It's not surprising Bolden is willing to give up his Forest Hills property. He's held it — eight addresses and perhaps nine — for less than a year, buying it after it was announced the neighborhood was being considered for the park, either by negotiation or condemnation. Another dozen plus properties have been bought in the past year by Mike Ashcraft (doing business as Star Properties LLC, Downtown Little Rock Properties and Equity Properties), who has also sold property to the Central Arkansas Library System for its Children's Library on Fair Park in a deal negotiated by Tech park board member Dickson Flake. Other willing sellers are David and Gail Oyster, owners of a dozen rental properties in Forest Hills.
Good released what seemed at first blush to be a conciliatory letter Thursday in response to city displeasure at the conduct of a tech board meeting Wednesday. At that meeting, the board continued discussion of the three proposed sites with their civil engineer, Crafton Tull, which seemed to snub a city ordinance passed only Tuesday that acknowledged residents' objections to the taking of their homes and requested the board do a six-month "extensive study" of alternative sites. (The city can only request action by the board, which was created by state legislation, but it does have a hammer: $22 million in city tax dollars pledged to the start-up of the technology park.)
On Monday, however, Dr. Good insisted that the board's position is basically unchanged since before the passage of the ordinance, though the language about requiring substantial support for a neighborhood to go back on the table is new, as its request that support for any of the three locations be communicated to Adcock, as an at-large director, and Director Ken Richardson, in whose ward the three possible sites lie. As for the rest, Good said, "it's exactly what we said on Wednesday, that we will prioritize and do nothing until we've looked at all the alternatives."
There's no question that the neighborhoods — Area 3, around 40 acres in Forest Hills between Monroe on the west and Peyton on the east north of 12th Street; Area 2, 40 acres in Fair Park south of 12th largely between Fair Park and Harrison Street, and Area 1, 60 acres north of the UALR campus east of University Avenue, the location of the Methodist Children's Home — are the first choices of the Authority; two of the locations were determined by a consultant and the third by Authority board member Dickson Flake. Any alternative to them, Good said, will have to meet certain criteria that the Authority board is now in the process of drawing up. She wouldn't say whether the much-debated "five minute" rule (which City Director Dean Kumpuris described as "malarkey") that would limit the distance the park could be from Authority partners the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock would be part of the criteria. "In our mind it's not a contested issue," a description a reporter had used, Good said of the five-minute rule. "Where the location goes it is still going to, in our opinion, be relatively close to the institution."
The board itself is not looking for other sites, Good told state Sen. Joyce Elliott at its Wednesday meeting.
Flake and board member Dr. Michael Douglas, the director of UAMS Bioventures, will establish criteria for those who would propose alternatives this week, Good said she hopes. At Wednesday's meeting, she pressed for a mid-July deadline for alternatives to be submitted, a suggestion shot down by board member Jay Chessir, who said that was too soon and would put it at Aug. 1. No deadline was agreed on at the meeting. Charles Dilks of Dilks Consulting, who worked on the Angle report that identified two of the three neighborhoods being considered, will assist the board in evaluating the alternatives, Good said.
Gail Oyster spoke in favor of building the park at the Tech board meeting Wednesday, saying, "Our home is the only owner occupied home on Washington [street]." She said she knew that because none of the residents on the street had declared a homestead tax exemption. She might also have mentioned that she knows the homes not to be owner-occupied because she and her husband own three of them, along with five on Adams Street and another on Maryland. David Oyster, her husband, spoke at May's Tech board meetings, complaining of crime in the neighborhood; to which Good responded that "there is no way this park will not improve the situation."
City Director B.J. Wyrick, herself the target of an eminent domain action on eight acres of her property in Southwest Little Rock, was one of three directors (with Director Erma Hendrix and sponsor Richardson) to support an ordinance proposed last week to prohibit the use of city tax dollars to exercise eminent domain in the three neighborhoods. (The directors voted 6-3 to defer action on the ordinance.) Both she and Adcock said Tuesday they would support an ordinance to withhold money from the Authority if it decides to level one of the neighborhoods for the park. Director Brad Cazort said he'd "probably" support such an ordinance if the homeowners in the neighborhood weren't supportive. He noted that the city's $22 million isn't coming in a lump sum but over 10 years and he didn't see "a need to create angst" by zeroing in on a site without examining all alternatives. Director Gene Fortson, who was on the Airport Commission during the airport's expansion into a neighborhood, said the Airport was in discussion with homeowners for three years and could offer relocation expenses, which is not the case with the Authority. "If this park is going to cause tension [among residents] it's not going to fly," he said.
At last week's city board meeting, Richardson noted that other directors were saying they would like the park in their wards — Wyrick's suggesting I-30 and I-430 in Ward 7, Doris Wright the John Barrow area of Ward 6 and Stacy Hurst the vacant Alltel buildings in Ward 3 — but none of them were offering up neighborhoods.
The board announced the members of a committee to provide community input and relocation suggestions. Members include Barrett Allen of UALR's University District Development, city housing director Andre Bernard, UAMS vice chancellor Tom Butler, tech board members Chessir and C.J. Duvall, Ellen Gray with the housing authority, Bobbie Phillips of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, Billy Rouse of the Fair Park Neighborhood Associaton and Darryl Swinton of Better Community Development. They'll meet at 4 p.m. Thursday at Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church, 4000 W. 13th St.
Adcock said several alternatives would work, suggesting Ray Winder Field or the Alltel property and the I-30 and I-430 interchange. She is having a hard time understanding why the Authority board would still consider the neighborhoods under any circumstances. "The [city] board says they've won, the mayor says they've won, everyone realizes they've won, except for Dr. Good and her friends."
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