The Bluffs: to support or not?

As you’ve no doubt heard already, the City of North Little Rock is considering selling roughly 43 acres of city-owned land in the abandoned Big Rock Quarry, between the Arkansas River and Fort Roots / Pulaski Technical College. The BACA board met on Tuesday, August 14, to discuss a possible response, and during the spirited debate that ensued one of our wise Emeritus Board members suggested that this is a big enough issue with enough valid arguments on all sides that we should find out what the membership thinks before making a decision.

So, without further ado, here are 3 possible responses with a bit of editorializing added for each one. Think them over. Discuss on your weekend rides. We’ll send out a survey on Monday or Tuesday next week to gauge opinion. (And if you don’t receive our emails, please join or sign up for our mailing list here.)

1. Take no action. Some would argue that the development is for the most part a done deal, with the upcoming public hearing simply a formality. Taking a stand for or against would likely alienate some portion of the cycling community and others that BACA needs in order to be effective on other issues in the future. So, leave this sticky issue alone and move on.

2. Oppose the development. A few of the many reasons to do so:
(a) A lot of people were surprised to learn that the property in question has never been designated as a North Little Rock city park, given its location and rough-around-the-edges beauty. Officially adding the land to the parks system makes more sense than building condos on it. The contrast between the industrial detritus of an abandoned quarry and the slow power that plants, trees, and the elements have exerted on the landscape over the years makes for a very interesting and unique place that arguably should be left to continue to evolve. Once condos are built, there is no way to go back.

(b) Building several hundred apartment and condo units along with a large public marina will add a huge amount of traffic to River Road. For those who have ridden the River Trail on a pleasant weekend day, that stretch of road between the FOP building and the intersection with the new Rockwater Boulevard feels like the most relaxed and least conflict-infused portion of the whole loop. There’s plenty of room for people to pass and be passed and there’s very little car traffic to worry about. Any development in the quarry will forever change the feel and safety of riding that portion of the loop. Plus, the narrow, windy section between the quarry and the wooden bridge connecting Emerald and Burns parks will likely see a large increase in trail use.

(c) It is questionable whether the tax revenues generated by the development will cover the long-term costs associated with maintaining and replacing utilities, stepping up police and fire protection (there’s already been talk of NLR buying and staffing a fire boat to douse fires in the quarry from the river), and maintaining the streets leading to and extending throughout the development. Despite its location in the middle of the city that quarry is fairly remote, and there probably won’t be any further development nearby to help share the future cost burden of the sewer lines, water lines, power poles, etc. that will be installed to reach it. Developers pay the upfront costs of building such necessities, and then cities typically assume their future costs without considering how they’ll be paid for. (See Little Rock’s recent half cent sales tax increase for an example of what happens when developers are allowed to build without demonstrating how their development model will pay its own way.) Given today’s strained budgets, both at the government and individual levels, it seems very irresponsible for a city to potentially burden all of its citizens with a large repair bill tomorrow so a private developer can reap more profits today. The question of what the actual economic costs and benefits of a development are going to be needs to be asked and answered in an honest, open way. Blindly hoping that all will be rosy in the future does not make it so.

3. Support the development, possibly with some caveats. This would be an unexpected, but potentially the most valuable response from BACA. One of the main arguments everyone cites as a justification for investing in cycling infrastructure is that it leads to economic development and greater prosperity. McKimmey’s The Bluffs project only makes sense because of the River Trail. I can almost guarantee that cyclists will be featured front-and-center on all the marketing materials used to attract potential condo buyers, and the price per square foot will likely be higher given the existence of the trail right outside the front door. For the cycling community to oppose this development could burn some big bridges down the road. Despite the reasons listed above in Option 2, a nuanced opposition would likely be simplistically interpreted by many people as “BACA is anti-development,” and any request for later help might sound like “Dear Ms. City Council Member, Please pay for our pretty bike trail. Normally it would lead to a lot of economic development in your ward in the future. Of course though, we are likely to fight against that development when it is proposed.” If, on the other hand, we support this project, then other developers’ doors might open a little wider for the cycling community’s input in the future and politicians would have a concrete local example to look at that shows the powerful results of investing in bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that adds to the livability of their communities. We could divisively set up an adversarial relationship between BACA and developers or we could reach out and be a partner to them.

Some of the possible caveats to our support
Parts (a), (b), and (c) from above can all be addressed in a way that would strengthen the development and possibly even improve the experience for existing trail users. Doing so would also lead to a better example of what cycling infrastructure makes possible.

Parkland and concert space: there’s no reason that the development couldn’t be clustered in a denser manner that would leave room for a park with potentially a small outdoor film/concert venue somewhere by the river or deeper within the quarry. If NLR code arbitrarily limits dwelling units per square foot of land, those rules should be bent in this case to allow for open space. The total number of units within the quarry doesn’t have to change, just where they’re located.

Traffic on River Road: the $1.2 million that NLR is set to receive from this land transfer should go to improving the trail outside the development. Either the shoulders on River Road or the separated path need to be widened and improved to smooth flow and accommodate more trail users. A portion of the additional property tax revenue should be devoted to future investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure too.

Tax revenues not covering long-term costs: Show the citizens the money. Hire an independent analyst to estimate long-term costs and revenues, and then compare. One big change that could lead to immediate savings for both the developer and long-term savings for the City would be to build in a smaller area. The conceptual plan shows a lot of individual buildings separated by big parking lots and roads. It’s the same stuff we’ve been building for 50 years, just with new materials on the facades, and it is completely inappropriate for the 21st century. Shrink it down; concentrate the parking on the edge; make everything inside livable and walkable, like small village. A denser development would leave more room for open space, would make local businesses like a corner store or coffee shop or restaurant/bar more viable, would be more attractive to today’s buyers, and might even create a situation in which altering a Central Arkansas Transit route to serve The Bluffs makes economic sense. Just imagine that sales pitch to potential buyers: Move here and enjoy the freedom of going car-lite! Walk, bike, take a boat, or let CAT drive for you!

And finally, McKimmey should hire an expert in designing for people on bike and on foot. The project architect on Monday night admitted that he hadn’t considered how to accommodate runners and walkers on the River Trail. That level of disinterest is unacceptable and only harms the viability of the project. Proper active transportation design requires specific training and experience that quite a few firms around the country have amassed (Alta Planning is one). There is a lot of invaluable knowledge out there that should be tapped into instead of McKimmey and Taggert trying to reinvent the wheel here.

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So, you can probably tell from the number of words written that I’m leaning toward support right now. Personally, I would rather leave the quarry alone and see NLR’s developers focus redevelopment efforts closer to downtown. However, I think it’s in BACA’s long term interest to view this as an opportunity to work with a group of people who have the power and money to play a big role in shaping how the future of Central Arkansas looks. If we engage with McKimmey now, then we could make this particular development better for trail users and we would show other developers the value in welcoming the cycling / active living / active transportation community to the table in the future.