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Procedure in question for development OK

Zoning panel weighs downtown block project

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A planned residential development near downtown Little Rock has the backing of the Capitol Zoning District Commission staff to move forward, but a developer behind the $5 million project said she fears it won't get off the ground if the commission doesn't streamline its approval process.

At issue is a 16-house development proposed on a mostly vacant city block bounded by South Gaines and South Arch streets and West 15th and West 16th streets.

Development in the area is controlled by the Capitol Zoning District Commission, which was created by the Legislature to protect the historic and architecturally significant structures in the vicinity of the state Capitol and the Governor's Mansion and to "encourage compatible development within the district."

The commission staff said the proposal seems to be a good fit for the district but has stopped short of an endorsement, and recommended the "commission initiate the rule-making process and release the proposal for public comment."

The commission will consider the recommendation at its monthly meeting Thursday. The Mansion Area Advisory Committee, an arm of the commission, reviewed the proposal last week and voted to recommend the rule-making process begin for the project.

Meanwhile, Carol Worley has invited area residents and property owners to a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at Raduno Brick Oven and Barroom Restaurant at 1318 S. Main St. to get a "sneak peek at our new development plans."

Worley said that because her development is a planned zone development that the commission's current rules don't address as part of its ordinary application process, the commission should defer the proposal to the city of Little Rock for final approval.

The commission staff recommendation to go through the rule-making process is too lengthy and should address future applications, Worley said.

In an interview last week, Worley said she will "guarantee if we have to sit for four years, it isn't going to be built. We'll move on to something else."

The commission's executive director, Boyd Maher, expressed surprise that the process would take any longer than three months.

"Have mercy, I certainly hope not," he said when asked if the process would take three years or more. "That would be a lot of work for me."

The commission cannot "kick it to the city of Little Rock," Maher added. "Our agency is the exclusive zoning agency for the neighborhood. That would be like Little Rock re-zoning property in Benton."

The block in question is overgrown with weeds and brush, but its history includes what the commission staff describes as a "wide variety of uses" dating to the Civil War, when a Union fort occupied part of the property.

As late as 1950, an ice cream factory, a row of storefronts, a service station and several houses were on the block, according to the report by Maher.

Former buildings on the Gaines Street side included the King Building, which housed a laundromat downstairs and apartments upstairs, and the Dickson Building, which housed three commercial storefronts at the southwest corner of the block, the report said.

Those buildings as well as five other garages and outbuildings from the Arch Street side were removed between 1950 and 2000.

Gaines Street Missionary Baptist Church bought the block in 1998, by which time just two structures remained -- a former Church of Christ building constructed in 1959 and a small house on 15th Street, the report said.

Gaines Street Missionary Baptist used the Church of Christ building for classrooms and a community center before leasing it to several other congregations. The house was used as a church office and residential rental.

Cassie Toro acquired the property in 2014 and removed the remaining structures.

Worley teamed with Toro, who is on the Capitol District Zoning Commission but won't participate in the discussion or vote on the proposal, to develop the project.

"Cassie and I are good friends," Worley said. "We are just two people who like to develop things. We both want to make the neighborhood better. Having 16 more families will increase the tax base and will increase [property] values."

The proposal envisions building up to six houses facing Arch Street. On the Gaines Street side will be four smaller houses and three houses each facing 15th and 16th streets. The houses would back into a shared green space.

Worley estimates the houses would range from 1,200 square feet to 3,500 square feet. Price estimates are premature, she said.

The different-size houses would ensure that people in different socioeconomic brackets would be able to afford to buy a house in the development, Worley said.

As homage to the fort, Worley and Toro have tentatively named the development, Fort Steele Commons.

Fort Steele was built in 1863 following the capture of Little Rock by Union forces led by Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele.

Described as a "square redoubt," which are earthwork fortifications built outside a larger fort, Fort Steele "became the central point in a network of batteries and rifle pits built to defend Little Rock from Confederate attack," according to the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. "The fort, bristling with cannon and manned by veteran Union infantrymen, apparently did its job well, as Confederate forces never mounted an offensive to retake Little Rock."

A historic marker commemorating the fort was installed near the southwest corner of the block, at 16th and Gaines streets, in 2013, but no permit had been issued for it, according to Maher's report.

SundayMonday Business on 07/16/2017

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