Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project

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The Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project (CLR URP) began in 1961 as a joint effort of the Urban Progress Association, the Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA), Downtown Little Rock Unlimited the City of Little Rock, and local architects. LRHA executive director Dowell Naylor Jr. was the chief author of the Central Little Rock Project.

History of Little Rock Urban Renewal

The project's roots lay in the Main Street 1969 plan created by the Arkansas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in the spring of 1957. The Central Litle Rock Project became a national model for urban revitalization in the 1960s (then called "slum clearance"), and was bolstered by a planning grant of $350,000 approved under the National Housing Act of 1959 in only twenty-eight days with the help of powerful U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright.

The Central Little Rock Project swiftly became a nationally-recognized for leadership in urban renewal in the 1960s because the city already had a decade of experience with slum clearance under the 1959 housing act. The earliest urban renewal project took place in the Coliseum neighborhood in 1951. The city received $282,928 to engage in urban renewal activities in the Philander Smith neighborhood (1955), $2.2 million for the Dunbar neighborhood (1961), $1.3 million for slum clearance in the Granite Mountain neighborhood (1954), $1.3 million for renewal in the Livestock Show Area (1957), $1.4 million in Westrock (1956), and $2.5 million in the East End neighborhood (1956). Local dollars supported an additional High Street Urban Renewal project on 283 acres beginning in 1958. The Housing Authority, led by executive director George Millar Jr. purchased sixty-five properties in the University Park (1961) neighborhood for another $832,486.

About seven and a half percent of single-family housing stock in the city had been removed by 1960. The Urban Renewal League help relocate more than 5,500 families in the process, most of whom could not afford to return to their neighborhoods because the house had moved "far out of reach" of their incomes.

Central Little Rock Urban Renewal

Raymond Rebsamen, the president of the organization, claimed the group's goal in the Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project was to have "the first capital city in the national where no child will come out of a slum to go to school." But it also sought to obliterate bad publicity stemming from the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, which exposed the city as a powerful "symbol of brutality and prejudice for all the world to scorn." The city secured $18.8 million in federal Urban Renewal Administration funding in June 1962. In all, fifteen percent of the land area of the city underwent significant renewal activity. Five hundred and eight acres of downtown were demolished, including 471 buildings, which displaced 296 businesses of varying size. The population density dropped dramatically, from eighteen people per acre in 1960 to five people per acre in 1970. In Census Tract 8 near Philander Smith College the resident population dropped 72 percent. In the riverfront district it dropped 62 percent.

The renewal project included proposals for an Arkansas Exchange market for good manufactured in the south-central part of the country, a sports center (the proposed "Arkansas Sports Center") and marina along the Arkansas River, a downtown local and interurban bus terminal, a convention center, a Variety Lane pedestrian district for retailing in an area bounded by West Capitol, West Eighth, Spring, and Center streets, underground fallout shelters, parking ramps, upscale apartments, and plazas across from the eighteen-story new Tower Building and along Main Street. The renewal project also had a special committee designated for work on a proposed Quapaw Quarter of historic homes just south of downtown. The plan included projected razing of 2,292 houses and tenement units.

Rebsamen defended slum clearance this way: "The plain truth is that our cities were built chiefly in the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century, when horse-and-buggy provided the most common transportation and horse-drawn wagons carried our local wares, when factories huddled together in high buildings and a man lived within walking distance of his job or took a streetcar to work. How many of you walk to work today? How many of you took a bus or a streetcar? How many cities even have streetcars? The automobile has us in its grip. This is the age of decentralization, from the factory in its landscaped acreage to the regional shopping center out in the middle of nowhere, from the drive-in theater to the drive-in branch bank. The use of land has changed to meet our own pattern of living, and our cities must change too, to accommodate us the way we want to live, or our cities will die."

"Are you going to spend your tax dollars and your private investment dollars to replace exactly what you have, or are you going to build to meet the demands of the next 10 years, the next 20 years, the next 50 years?" Rebsamen asked. "The inadequate, narrow street rights-of-way, the 50-foot commercial lots, the quarter-acre industrial parcels ARE remnants of the past, but are you going to perpetuate them indefinitely? Are you going to tolerate street patterns that are built-in hazards to your lives and your property, or are you going to plan and to build so that motor traffic will serve you, not threaten you."

In all, more than five hundred acres of the central business district fell under the jurisdiction of the renewal project, and fifteen percent of the city as a whole. Five hundred blocks in the city saw some blight reduction. Sixteen hundred and fifty-eight buildings were pulled down. The CLR URP was the largest demolition and clearance program anywhere in the country in the 1960s.

The Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project transformed housing in the city. Real estate moguls like future governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Dallas-based Trammell Crow, and local investor R. A. Lile regularly met in the Top of the Rock Club in the Tower Building to plan new developments. In 1960 Little Rock held only three urban apartment complexes greater than fifty units in size. Over the next fifteen years the city added seventy-eight complexes this size or larger.

The total cost of the project in public and private funds was around $50 million. The project was occasionally deemed "socialistic," politically corrupt, and a "white preserve" maker by commentators and members of the public. One of its lasting reminders was a hotly contested McDonald's restaurant at the corner of Capitol and Main, which replaced a number of exiting local downtown eateries, including Breier's, Tom and Andrew's Barbecue, the Courthouse Cafe, Canton Tea Garden, and Buddy's Cafe. The clearance made room for Worthen Bank and Trust Company, Union National Bank, Quapaw Quarter Apartments, the Sheraton Little Rock Hotel, the Camelot Inn, the Federal Reserve Bank, a Continental Trailways bus terminal, Parkview Towers, the One Spring Building, and the offices of the Arkansas Bar Association. Linchpin features of the plan eventually became widely known as the Main Street Mall and the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

This vast urban renewal project came to an official end in 1977 as the federal government began turning to the Community Development Block Grant program for street improvements and housing rehabilitation in lower income neighborhoods.


  • "Bright Promise Lies in Central City Project," Arkansas Gazette, June 13, 1962.
  • City of Little Rock, Little Rock 2000: A Population Analysis, (Little Rock, AR: Office of Comprehensive Planning, October 1978).
  • "11 More Properties Acquired for University Park Project," Arkansas Gazette, December 2, 1964.
  • Ernest Dumas, "Mid-Little Rock Renewal Plan Wins Approval," Arkansas Gazette, June 12, 1962.
  • John L. Fletcher, "Little Rock Leads in New Endeavor of Urban Renewal," Arkansas Gazette, November 19, 1961.
  • Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, Downtown Little Rock Development Plan, Vol. 2: Land Use Plan (Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, January 1982).
  • Jimmy Jones, "Downtown Plight: Only Big Business Can Afford Land," Arkansas Gazette, April 12, 1970.
  • Jimmy Jones, "LR Held Out Hand and U.S. Filled It With $6,526,897," Arkansas Gazette, December 18, 1966.
  • Little Rock Unlimited Progress, Little Rock New Town In-Town: A Downtown Residential Feasibility Study (Technical Assistant Project, Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1975).
  • Letha Mills and H. K. Stewart, Greater Little Rock: A Contemporary Portrait (Chatsworth, CA: Windsor Publications, 1990).
  • Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Comprehensive Development Plan (Little Rock, AR: Metroplan, 1968).
  • "More Goes On Than Meets the Eye in Urban Renewal," Arkansas Gazette, June 27, 1965.
  • Bette Orsini, "Renewal in Little Rock: 'Dedicated to People,'" Arkansas Gazette, October 1, 1965 (reprint from St. Petersburg (FL) Times).
  • Ray Rebsamen, Keep This City Moving (Little Rock, AR: Urban Progress Association, 1964).
  • Ray Rebsamen, Little Rock: Poised for Progress (Little Rock, AR: Urban Progress Association, 1960).
  • Raymond Rebsamen, The President's Report (Little Rock, AR: Urban Progress Association, 1961).
  • Homer L. Saunders and Robert C. Haring, Apartment and Condominium Market in the Little Rock-Central Arkansas S.M.S.A., 1960-1974 (Little Rock, AR: Metroplan, January 1978).
  • Bob Stover, "Sweeping 'Renewal' Ending Quietly," Arkansas Gazette, November 2, 1977.
  • "Outward and Upward for Downtown Little Rock," Arkansas Gazette, March 5, 1973.
  • Matilda Tuohey, "Little Rock Has Massive Urban Renewal Program," Arkansas Gazette, February 17, 1963.
  • Martha Walters, "Little Rock Urban Renewal," Pulaski County Historical Review 24.1 (March 1976): 12-16.

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