Downtown Little Rock, AR. Photo by Amy the Nurse, via Flickr.
For Mayor Mark Stodola, revitalization in Little Rock, AR began with his own home. He renovated his 1868 Victorian home, then moved to a Craftsman 4-plex, which he restored before moving and repeating the process again. He has restored six houses in historic neighborhoods across the City and watched their value increase. As Mayor, Stodala has taken restoration and reuse to a neighborhood-wide scale to generate activity and value in once-neglected neighborhoods.
Founded in 1821, Little Rock has great historic assets including the original state house and housing stock dating back to the 1840s. Stodala explains that “Urban renewal wiped out a lot, unfortunately.” However, several adjoining core neighborhoods were preserved as historic districts. “Their distinctiveness was what saved these neighborhoods,” he contends.
Stodola saw an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization in these historic neighborhoods. “I’m a big fan of adaptive reuse,” he said citing successful local projects such as the conversion of an historic fire station into apartments and the renaissance of the River Market area, which was previously dotted with vacant warehouses twenty years ago.
While strategic public leadership will often spur private development, Stodola believes that in communities like his, a little more is required from the public side. For example, the City purchased the former large Fones Brothers’ Warehouse building that had fallen into disrepair and turned it into the City’s central library. Yet another historic building was converted into a 10,000 square foot market space for fresh food and upstart restaurants. These significant public investments anchored the emerging River Market district and kick started private investment into the neighborhood.
“Bringing more arts organizations to Main Street will also give the corridor a cultural excitement and identity that is so vital to the renaissance of our downtown,” said Stodola. The Creative Corridor project would redevelop the Main Street into a central arts hub. The corridor design was completed with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the EPA, and $60 million in private investment has already flowed into this long-neglected corridor.
Tackling revitalization on a citywide scale through historic restoration required confronting challenges of segregation and decades of disinvestment. The decline of once wealthy neighborhoods left many large homes in disrepair forcing renters to expect poor conditions. Before running for mayor, Stodola remembers seeing the City literally white wash the outsides of dilapidating buildings around Central High School in preparation for the 40th anniversary of the landmark desegregation of this school, while the insides of the buildings and the surrounding neighborhoods remained degraded. He knew Little Rock could do better and was inspired to run for office. His administration has focused heavily on historic building restoration and neighborhood revitalization.
Looking forward, Stodola sees the transportation needs of his City growing and changing. He believes, “We need to see transportation in the total context. Are we moving people or moving cars? With rising gas prices, transit needs to be more reliable.” The City has put $9 million into the county transit system. However, Stodola has a much greater vision of a downtown trolley that connects to residential neighborhoods and a wider transit network across adjoining cities in the region.
Mayor Mark Stodola is a Member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, and he presented many of Little Rock’s revitalization successes at the June 2014 Local leaders Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.
Neha Bhatt contributed to this article.