Little Rock contest sees park plans for space freed up by I-30 project

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A design competition for a Little Rock property received 21 submissions promoting visions ranging from rock climbing walls to waterways for what could become one of the newest downtown parks.

The competition challenged students, design professionals and the general public to submit ideas for the redevelopment of approximately 20 acres of space freed up by Project 30 Crossing, an ongoing project of the Department of Transportation of Arkansas to expand and revise the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock. and North Little Rock.

“It’s really once [in] a unique opportunity to make our downtown pedestrian-friendly and give it back to the people,” said Chris East, President of studioMAIN, the local non-profit organization that hosted the competition.

While studioMAIN handed out prizes to entrants earlier this month, East pointed out that the contest was only meant to solicit ideas for the space. At this time, there are no firm plans to redevelop the site, which includes a corridor along Second Street and rectangular lots either side of and under I-30.

Funding and land use constraints may limit what Little Rock is able to do with the site.

According to Leland Couch, director of the Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation.

But Couch, who helped judge submissions for the studioMAIN competition, smiled when talking about the designs received by the nonprofit.

“With my background in design, I loved seeing different big and bold ideas,” he said.

Since at least 2014, studioMAIN organizers have advocated for the removal of the entrance and exit ramps that occupied the site.

“There you go, ARDOT decided that they were going to remove [the ramps] and design I-30 going downtown to be denser, more urban,” East said.

In March, studioMAIN announced the design competition and challenged entrants to “consider connections to all cultural, commercial and residential areas adjacent to the site,” according to a statement from the nonprofit organization. The property is within walking distance of the Clinton Presidential Center, River Market, Arkansas River Trail, and other downtown Little Rock attractions.

The non-profit organization saw 88 groups and individuals enter the competition and 21 submitted final designs. For East, one of the most exciting parts of the competition was receiving entries from locals.

“It can be more exciting than anything else because we know it’s not just those people who live and breathe design and think about these issues every day, but the people who are citizens of our community who care. to create a big, beautiful, well-designed downtown,” East said.

Kwadi Higgins, a Little Rock native who grew up playing in the city’s parks and green spaces, submitted an award-winning design that she said would offer something for all users.

“When I was a teenager it was harder to play in the areas I used to go to because most of those areas were geared towards a younger age group or they didn’t provide anything. other than a field of grass,” said Higgins, who currently lives in California as a software tester.

For inspiration, Higgins looked to parks and green spaces she had visited in other cities. An outdoor space near Conway that has exercise equipment prompted her to include workout machines and pull-up bars in her design. A park in California that allows users to create spray paint art inspired her to add a mural.

When assembling her vision, Higgins also relied on her personal interests.

“In my free time I explore the trails, skate, meditate, do yoga, create art and eat well, attend community events and wanted to incorporate that into the idea “, she said. “My vision included all of those things that helped keep me mentally and physically healthy.”

Part of its design is paved for skaters and cyclists. Another section features a raised stage for hosting events. Canopies and trees scattered around the site would provide shade for people wishing to do yoga or escape the heat. She added hammocks and lounging areas to the site for people to relax or take a nap.

Higgins ensured that his design would be accessible to people with disabilities. His vision includes inclusive playground equipment, such as a merry-go-round that would allow children to sit or ride on it with a wheelchair.

To realize his plans, Higgins had to learn to use architectural software.

“There was a huge learning curve, but I was able to watch a bunch of YouTube videos and do it,” she said.

His hard work paid off. Earlier this month, his design won one of three prizes deliberated by the competition’s jury.

A jury selected the winners from entries submitted by professionals, students and members of the public. Higgins won the audience award and $750. Taggart Architects, a North Little Rock firm, won the professional award. The student prize went to Ella Reynolds. The student and professional awards each come with prizes of $1,500.

The competition received 18 entries from professionals, one from a student and two from other members of the public, according to East.

The judging panel included representatives from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Central Arkansas Library System, Simmons Bank, Little Rock Downtown Partnership and University of Arkansas Little Rock.

Organizers had hoped but were unable to include an elected official from the city of Little Rock and a representative from the Arkansas Department of Transportation on the panel.

“With the judges, the intention was to involve all major stakeholders,” East said. “I understand that they didn’t necessarily want to endorse anything…but it sure would have been nice.”

For Couch, selecting the winners was a difficult process.

“A lot of [the entries] were really cool, it’s hard to say which one is better over the other,” he said.

StudioMAIN organizers also offered three People’s Choice Awards, each with a different theme.

For the “Little Rock Placemaking” award, voters selected a design submitted by Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects. The “Establishing Connections” award was given to Cromwell Architects Engineers. AMR Architects, a design firm based in Little Rock, won “The Wildcard” award.

An online survey drew 2,050 responses for the selection of these awards, according to East.

While studioMAIN asked applicants to consider traffic, parking, roaming and other urban design challenges, East said the nonprofit kept constraints to a minimum to avoid discouraging the participants.

“Our intention is to make something happen, something happening there,” he said. “By coming up with these ideas, we were getting people excited to see something happen with this space. We didn’t necessarily want to limit our creativity by adding a whole host of real-world constraints.”

For their award-winning unconventional design, AMR Architects took this intention to heart by envisioning a channel running through the site. Along the banks of the waterway, the team envisioned multi-use buildings and walkways.

James Sullivan, a business partner, acknowledged that erecting permanent buildings on the site would likely not be feasible as long as the Arkansas Department of Transportation retains ownership of the land. But his team wanted to use the competition to promote a vision of a dense city center and provide an idea of ​​what the space could become if land ownership changes.

“Basically, based on our design that we’ve put in place, that’s about 2 million square feet of real estate,” Sullivan said. “Just imagine if you had that many residents, that many business owners… how much more life that would bring to downtown.”

By using the space to add businesses and housing downtown, Sullivan noted the project could generate more tax revenue.

At this time, Little Rock has no final plans for the site. Earlier this month, voters renewed a capital improvement property tax that will provide the city’s parks and recreation department with $24 million. But those funds are for existing projects, according to Couch.

“We don’t have a book that outlines the next steps for this area,” he said. “For me though, it’s about working with our board, management and other departments … to figure out what’s best for this area.”

Along the way, Couch said the city will seek feedback from residents. He expected the process to take a few years.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation has been working with the city to determine how the site should be classified, Keli Wylie, alternative projects delivery administrator for the department, said at a press conference earlier this month. this.

“He’s going to sow grass. We’re going to plant trees,” she said. “We don’t know the final product at this time. We’ll wait for the city of Little Rock to come up with a plan.”

Details of the design competition and submissions received by studioMAIN can be found on the nonprofit’s website: http://www.studio-main.org/.

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