Metrocentre Improvement District
The Metrocentre Improvement District No. 1 is a state legislated special improvement district comprising 44 blocks of downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. The improvement district is managed by the Little Rock Downtown Partnership.
Origins in the Main Street 1969 Plan
Between February and August 1972 Little Rock Unlimited Progress executive director Jimmy Moses worked tirelessly with representatives of city government, the Arkansas Highway Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Little Rock Housing Authority, Metroplan, the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Central Arkansas Transit, downtown business leaders, property owners, and utilities operators to knit the downtown back together according to the precepts of the Main Street 1969 plan. Moses interpreted the Main Street 1969 plan as stressing variety in urban activities, specialty stores and entertainment opportunities over department stories and general merchandise, convenience, and a "permanent downtown population" drawn by unique living accommodations. Most importantly Moses focused on the aesthetics to be derived from central planning, which included "strong physical and visual" imagery drawn from the Arkansas River, attractive historic structures, and orderliness.
The Metrocentre retail plan was also inspired by an April 1972 visit of seventeen local business, government, and civic leaders to Minneapolis' successful downtown Nicollet Mall. Nicollet Mall was completed in November 1967. On April 27, 1972, O. D. Gay of the Downtown Council of Minneapolis and Nicollet developer Thomas Thompson expressed their belief that downtown Little Rock could successfully copy the Nicollet Mall experience. Members of the Little Rock group also visited malls in Evansville, Illinois, and Louisville, Kentucky.
The Metrocentre Plan
The plan was made public on September 13, 1972, by Unlimited Progress officials who described Metrocentre as a "new concept for creating a pedestrian shopping and business mall downtown." The concept was born in reaction to tremendous retail growth in suburban neighborhoods, and decline of downtown Main Street sales. In its heyday fifty percent of all retail sales in the metropolitan region were rung up in the central business district. By 1972 that percentage had fallen to 10 percent. Total retail sales figures downtown declined twenty percent and increased seventy-seven percent on the periphery in the five years before 1972. In 1967 Little Rock CBD retail sales totaled $111 million. By 1972 that figure had dropped to $89 million.
Wrote the project directors, "Downtown America is becoming a dreary environment to not only those people who have left, but also to those people who still function in the Downtown area. Suburban shopping centers, office parks, and residential developments are now common to most every city in the nation." The shift to the suburbs shifted both the political and geographic center of the Little Rock to University Avenue, which before 1950 defined its western edge. The retailing pattern observed by Unlimited Progress was mirrored all across the United States, as downtowns struggled to accommodate and regulate automobile traffic that threatened to overwhelm local roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
In February 1973 the state legislature approved a bill to create the special improvement district. Two thirds of downtown property owners signed an agreement to formally call the district into being on September 29, 1973. Improvement District authorities now held the power of eminent domain, and Metrocentre designers -- which included Erhart, Eichenbaum, Rauch, and Blass Architects, Comprehensive Professional Services, and Cromwell, Neyland, Truemper, Millet, and Gatchell -- began working on tangible plans.
Metrocentre's project leaders remained guarded about the potential success of the project. Metrocentre executive director George Millar Jr. noted in 1975, "Little Rock downtown is sick. It is sick to a degree and is certainly not dying and has a lot of life left yet. But anyone who can tell you that we can bring downtown Little Rock back to the days I remember when it was the No. 1 shopping center in Arkansas is foolhardy."
The project originally circumscribed eight blocks bounded by Third, Seventh, Louisiana, and Scott streets, but later revised to encompass the area bounded by Broadway, Ninth, Markham, and Cumberland streets. Improvements in the district were to be funded by self-imposed voluntary taxes to fund tax-free revenue bond issues for large projects, as well as general obligation bonds. The bond issues were to provide "convenient access; a place to park; and a place to walk," according to local architect and Metrocentre designer Byron Chapman of Erhart, Eichenbaum, Rauch, and Blass.
Transit in the district would change dramatically under Metrocentre. Auto traffic would be encouraged by the new Main Street Bridge and a Wilbur D. Mills Freeway interchange to the south. It would be discouraged in the heart of the district by revising the hierarchy of streets and expressways, by transforming choked two-way streets into a one-way system, adding parking meters, strategically placing and improving mass transit transfer points, and by emphasizing pedestrian pathways. Part of Main Street and the Capitol Parkway would be closed entirely to vehicular traffic other than buses and emergency vehicles, and made into a pedestrian walkway. A downtown circulator shuttle bus system would reduce the walk for the elderly, infirm, and those with children. Porter Briggs of Old Town Properties said of the plan in 1977, "Metrocentre is a great thing, because it's the first thing, in my opinion, that's been done here since World War II for the pedestrian. Everything else has been done for the automobile."
But the car was still king. Visits to smaller regional malls in Evansville and Louisville led organizers to the conclusion that parking ramps would be absolutely essential. Architects anchored the northeast, east-central, and southeast corners with 1,000 space parking garages (one of which was written out of the plan on September 9, 1975), and connected them to superblocks of retail development by air-conditioned skyways. During the planning stage authorities noted that "it takes no particular powers of discernment to determine that ample parking at reasonable cost is essential in a society oriented, rightly or wrongly, to the motor car."
Bulldozing of vast swaths of downtown during the 1960s Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project left plenty of space for parking -- 20,269 parking spaces in excess of demand -- but little that could be seen from the front doors of Main Street retailers. What they really meant was concentrated off-street parking near re-concentrated retailing, the kind that could be protected by highly visible guards and regular police patrols. Two police quarter-horses in particular, Doc and Majic, were fixtures on Little Rock's Main Street in the 1980s.
The Plan is Pared Back
Strenuous objections to initial Metrocentre assessments levied against local property owners in the improvement district on October 3, 1975, led to the paring back the cost of the pedestrian and parking construction project from an original $17 million estimated budget to only $4.5 million by April 15, 1976. A special panel eliminated several "goodies," including a proposed sculpture entitled Centrenyn as well items deemed essential in early discussions, including both parking garages. The largest assessments were levied against Worthen Bank and Trust, First National Bank, the Boyle Tower, KATV Channel 7, Commercial National Bank, the Continental Building, the Tower Building, J. C. Penney, M. M. Cohn, the Federal Reserve Bank, KARK-TV Channel 4, and the Holiday Inn. Some tenants left altogether. Walgreen's trustee Frank J. Wills said, "We have not sponsored this silly thing in trying to revive Main Street. We think they're 10 years late and barking up the wrong tree."
The scaled back design led architect Noland Blass Jr. to downgrade the Metrocentre to secondary importance as a retailing center in the city. The importance of the close-in parking garages was also downplayed by Metrocentre executive director Bob Joblin in 1977, noting that, "All this asphalt you see, that's land being held for potential redevelopment. And what's the cheapest way to hold land? Parking lots." But these vacant lots fragmented downtown and invited comparisons to a war zone. After dark they discouraged local residents from venturing out onto the streets, where shopkeepers locked up early and went home to their own homes in the suburbs.
Construction of the Metrocentre Pedestrian Mall
Three architectural firms -- Noland Blass Jr., Cromwell Architects, and Wittenberg, Delony, and Davidson -- teamed up to design Metrocentre. The Metrocentre bonds were issued by Powell and Satterfield. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in a rainstorm on March 3, 1977, with civic leaders passing around a gold jackhammer to symbolically break up pavement at the corner of Capitol and Main streets. The mall was constructed by George S. Rush Company of Anniston, Alabama, which also constructed the Mid-America Mall in Memphis.
Even before the pedestrian mall officially opened on October 6, 1978, local merchants worried about the kinds of people that open plazas and benches for loitering would bring to downtown. Most of the "walk-in" shoppers came from local black neighborhoods that were widely assumed to be incubating crime. Some businesses like On Time Leisure Clothes, which catered to African Americans, were unwelcome because they "catered to a very small percentage of the market in their merchandising." Others capitalized on the new audiences, like the Arkansas Theater which showed fringe films like "Black Hooker," a coin-operated adult movie cinema at 1314 Main Street, and the racy nightclub Regina's Place. Metrocentre executive direct Bob Joblin tried to assuage those fears by pointing out that "once the street is reclaimed from the automobile and returned to the pedestrian, we can do 'people' things. They will include gymnastics, belly dancing, pep rallies, concerts, boat shows, fashion shows, and just casual relaxation." Some even hoped for a "new white hope," like the opening of the Excelsior Hotel and adjoining Statehouse Convention Center to lure suburbanites back downtown after hours and on weekends.
By 1982 so many stores had left the Metrocentre Mall that critics began calling it a failure. Included in the list were stalwarts like Haverty's, J. C. Penney, Stifft's Jewelers, Delta Luggage and Woolworth's. In all about one-third of all Main Street retailers called it quits between 1969 and 1981. Sales performance per square foot were $50-75 downtown, and $90-111 in the suburban shopping centers. At the same time, downtown's population of white-collar office workers continued to growth. By 1982 downtown, with the era of personal computing still to arrive, had become a vast file cabinet maintained by 30,000 daytime employees. At nighttime it was a different story, with most commuters heading home or to the shopping centers out west. Nathaniel Griffin of the Little Rock Comprehensive Planning Office defended the ongoing experiment, saying, "Better a healthy office building than a marginal retailer." The local planning firm Hodges, Vine, Fox, and Associates validated taking exactly this path in a September 1982 plan for downtown revitalization. Jimmy Moses, a Hodges planner with deep family roots on Main Street, endorsed the plan's argument that retail establishments and restaurants would do much better to reestablish themselves along historic East Markham Avenue where "interesting and historical" warehouse buildings could be converted into new businesses ("entertainment/mixed use"), and high density residential apartments and condominiums could be established.
The Main Street Mall
Metrocentre's Main Street Mall (also called "Main Street Market") involved an enclosed multilevel shopping, office, and restaurant center, and opened under the direction of the Metrocentre Commission in November 1987. The mall was created by renovating and connecting the upper levels of a block of buildings for $12 million. Project director Ralph Megna remained unapologetic about the old retailers displaced by Metrocentre improvements in 1987, "The people who were selling TVs and refrigerators and sofas on Main Street in the 1960s were dinosaurs waiting for the weather to change." Megna preferred to see downtown retail space occupied by trendy boutiques instead. Despite all efforts to transform the central business district, a chapter of Little Rock history closed when Main Street Mall was shuttered in 1989 and the pedestrian-only boulevard reopened to traffic.
While the Main Street Mall at the center of the development had largely been deemed a failure, the Metrocentre Improvement District continued to operate. Planners, developers, and city officials began adjusting their plans to include space for mixed-use development, state government offices, and began waking up to long sought-after opportunities for recreation, sightseeing, and entertainment. City officials, planners, and Metrocentre officials hoped the plan would stimulate the development of Riverfront Park along the Arkansas River, the refurbishment of Kempner Opera House, the Pulaski County Courthouse, and the Old State House, and enhancements to the Statehouse Convention Center and its plaza. These improvements would tie together the riverfront and central business district, which had become physically separated over time by vacant lots, neglect, and outright abandonment.
The first city effort to redevelop the downtown riverfront and East Markham Warehouse District emerged in the 1982 Downtown Little Rock Development Plan sponsored by planning director Nathaniel Griffin and the design firm Hodges, Vines, Fox, and Associates. The plan's authors imagined pedestrian traffic in an area dominated by entertainment outlets and mixed-use developments. The historic River Market District flourishes today along Markham Avenue, but its link to Metrocentre and Main Street remains tenuous at best. Three of the first four blocks encountered on Main Street at its intersection with Markham Avenue are parking lots.
- Richard Allin, "Metrocentre: Good Idea Didn't Work," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 16, 1989.
- Julian E. Barnes, "[No title]," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 13, 1995.
- James W. Bell, The Little Rock Handbook: A Book Containing Brief Histories and Lists About Little Rock and Nearby Cities (Little Rock, AR: James W. Bell, 1980).
- "Big Step for Metrocenter," Arkansas Gazette, June 7, 1974.
- Kyle Brazzel, "James A. Moses: Success Finally Came Downtown for Jimmy," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 21, 2001.
- Linda Caillouet, "Retailers' Flight Left Void That Put Street in Decline," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 14, 2000.
- "Cost of Metrocentre Mall, Garages Reduced $6 Million," Arkansas Gazette, September 10, 1975.
- Leroy Donald, "Let's Stroll Down the New Mall ...," Arkansas Gazette, October 2, 1977.
- "Downtown Planning is Urged to Keep Out 'Inappropriate' Firms," Arkansas Gazette, September 18, 1979.
- "Forward to the Past; Downtown is Dead; Long Live Downtown," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 28, 2000.
- Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, Downtown Little Rock Development Plan, Vol. 2: Land Use Plan (Little Rock, AR: Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, January 1982).
- Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, Downtown Little Rock Development Plan, Vol. 3: Implementation Strategy (Little Rock, AR: Hodges Dean Lowe McGetrick & Moses, August 1982).
- Hodges, Vines, Fox & Associates, Final Environmental Assessment of the Cumulative Impact of the Proposed Downtown Little Rock Riverfront Development (Little Rock, AR: City of Little Rock, August 1980).
- Joseph A. Huddleston, "'Metrocentre' is Discussed for Downtown," Arkansas Gazette, September 13, 1972.
- Joseph A. Huddleston, "Plan for Mall at LR Seen as Catalyst to Revive Business," Arkansas Gazette, October 3, 1972.
- Bill Lewis, "A Mall Grows at LR," Arkansas Gazette, August 8, 1978.
- Little Rock Unlimited Progress, Inc., A Plan of Action for Downtown Little Rock: Metrocentre (Little Rock, AR: Little Rock Unlimited Progress, Inc., n.d.).
- "Metrocentre: Exciting Concept for Downtown," Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1972.
- "Metrocentre Mall, Which Has Changed Much in 17 years, Will Be Reopened to Traffic; Mall Couldn't Fulfill Mission," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 23, 1989.
- "Metrocentre Parking Decks," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 18, 1985.
- "Metrocentre Site 1989; Demise of a LR Mall," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 23, 1989.
- Letha Mills and H. K. Stewart, Greater Little Rock: A Contemporary Portrait (Chatsworth, CA: Windsor Publications, 1990), 29-33.
- Leslie Mitchell, "Property Owners Push Downtown Mall Plan to Near Starting Soon," Arkansas Gazette, July 26, 1973.
- "Petitions for Downtown Mall Moving Ahead With Slow Haste," Arkansas Gazette, January 6, 1974.
- "Letters by 15 Landowners Protest Metrocentre Tax," Arkansas Gazette, October 19, 1975.
- "Mall First Discussed in '50s with 'Main Street 1969,'" Arkansas Gazette, September 12, 1982.
- "New Life Downtown," Arkansas Gazette, May 13, 1977.
- Mark Oswald, "City Planners Urge Historic District, Improvements to Park," Arkansas Gazette, September 19, 1982.
- Mark Oswald, "Sweeping Redevelopment of Downtown LR Planned," Arkansas Gazette, January 26, 1982.
- "Reduced Assessments and Levies for Scaled-Down Mall Project Filed," Arkansas Gazette, August 19, 1976.
- Doug Smith, "Mall Still Struggling; Fails to Restore '50s Main Street," Arkansas Gazette, September 12, 1982.
- "A Snag for Mall Project," Arkansas Gazette, October 22, 1975.
- "Some Cutbacks in Metrocentre Called Possible," Arkansas Gazette, November 6, 1975.
- Brenda Spillman, "Metrocentre Mall Holiday Sales Brisk," Arkansas Gazette, September 5, 1978.
- Bob Stover, "Alabama Firm to Build Mall," Arkansas Gazette, February 4, 1977.
- Bob Stover, "Big Reductions in Mall Project are Discussed," Arkansas Gazette, October 25, 1975.
- Bob Stover, "15 Landowners File Protests of Levy to Aid Metrocentre," Arkansas Gazette, October 19, 1975.
- Bob Stover, "Mall Reduced to $4 Million," Arkansas Gazette, April 16, 1976.
- Bob Stover, "Metrocentre Mall Formally Opens; More Work Ahead, Merchants Told," Arkansas Gazette, October 7, 1978.
- Bob Stover, "Most of Cost of Metrocentre Borne by Few," Arkansas Gazette, October 4, 1975.
- Bob Stover, "Rumor is Fact: Main Merchants Say They're Happy, Successful," Arkansas Gazette, May 16, 1977.
- Bob Stover, "20 Years After Conception, Birth of Mall Excites Hometown," Arkansas Gazette, February 13, 1977.
- Bob Stover, "Type of Establishments and People Mall to Attract Causing Worries," Arkansas Gazette, March 12, 1975.
- David Terrell, "Little Rock Story: Downtown Residential Area Becomes Increasingly Attractive as a Place to Live and Work," American Preservation 1.1 (October-November 1977): 69.
- "U.S. Report Shows Decrease in Sales in Downtown LR," Arkansas Gazette, April 4, 1975.