Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Quarry Land Sale/Development Proposal

photo by Arkansas Parks and Tourism

Sarah Miller and Lisa Mullis enjoy a ride by the Big Rock Quarry. Now, imagine two 8-story condo towers and a few hundred apartments in this scene. Nope, not quite the same for me, either.

I've been quiet about this project since last week when I jumped on the  proposal to sell what now appears to be 45 acres of land currently owned by the City of North Little Rock along the River Trail, but I have given it a great deal of thought and have made an effort to be objective. I went to the City Council meeting and listened to the presentation and to the response of the the council members. Mayoral candidate and director of Commerce and City Affairs Joe Smith represented the city in the presentation of the plan to the council, though it was obvious that all concerned already knew many of the details of the project. Mr. Smith stated that he had been working on the proposal for over a year. It was also obvious that most of the council was ready to go. Alderman Maurice Taylor spoke of the apartment complex  as something future generation would look upon with pride. With the exception of Alderman Charlie Hight and Mayor Pat Hays, I would speculate that the council members have never been on the River Trail other than perhaps a drive by for some event and there was no mention of the potential value of the property as park land. In fact, the appraisal that values the property at $1,750,000.00 states,

"The subject property has no significant natural, cultural, recreational, or scientific value."

The fact that the subject property includes 1/2 mile of the River Trail  and is wrapped by Emerald Park makes that statement false on its very surface. The site currently has natural, cultural and recreational value and is used on a daily basis. It has cultural and historical value in that it is the Big Rock  (follow link to Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture for source information) that gave name to its counterpart, the "Little Rock" landing downstream, it was in operation as a quarry by 1849 and the French explorer LaHarpe recognized the feature in his journal in 1722.

And how much land are we really proposing to sell?

Another vague point is the acreage itself. The appraisal refers to ~40. acres. The resolution before the council talks of 42 acres and the development plan says 45 acres. I feel strongly that the property should be retained as park land, but if the City is to sell it, shouldn't we at least know what it is that we're selling?

 A question I would ask the mayor and council members is this:

If we had the opportunity to buy 45 acres of riverfront property already encircled by a park and containing the 1/2 mile of the River trail, would we buy it?

Hell, yeah!  I think the answer is that the city, particularly under the leadership of Mayor Pat Hays, would jump on that opportunity.  

Well, we own that property now. At the same time NLR is considering selling this property, we are seeking to buy land that adjoins Burns Park in order to use Burns Park acreage to build a hotel. 

There are a great many factors that point to this being a bad deal for North Little Rock and a bad development for the future of the Arkansas River Trail System. Traffic management through the project is addressed with a couple of underpasses for the trail, but it was obvious during the presentation that just enough consideration had been given to the trail to get the plan past a  cursory nod. A quick survey of the stretch of River Road between the Rockwater development and the quarry would tell an objective observer that it will not safely carry traffic for a 300-400 home development safely alongside the trail traffic, not to mention very limited access to the area in the event on an emergency. Alderman Debi Ross, who is down as supporting the project, brought up the need for a fire boat, and law enforcement officials have expressed concern for the safety of trail users in the area of proposed underpasses.

It is important to remember that the River Trail is the biggest draw for this project.

And, Yes, It's About The Money!

I'm a lifelong resident of North Little Rock, as were my parents before me. I'm a Dogtown Boy through and through, so I feel like I've got a stake in this. Even if you put aside the value of a viable River Trail, the natural beauty of the locale, and discount the once-ever opportunity to retain a spectacular piece of urban park land, let's look at the money. Forty acres appraised at $1,750,000.00. The deal calls for selling 42-45 acres for $1,200.000.00. How can our representatives on the council give away $550,000.00 in value?  I've got no malice against the developers. They know a good deal when they see one. I'm a little chapped that the city council and the mayor seem eager to rush into a bad deal. The appraisal itself reflects a fraction of the property value in comparison to the asking price of other properties for sale along River Road and the fact that it is being offering in an exclusive manner, far below the city's own appraisal, is just bad business. 

A group of concerned citizens has formed the "Save Emerald Park and Big Rock Quarry" Facebook group. These folks have been hard at work and will gather Tuesday night at 5:30 at The Joint in downtown Argenta. I am told that several council members are having second thoughts about the wisdom of rushing this proposal through. Once the property is sold, there is no guarantee of what may be built. Many of us remember the promise of "luxury condominiums and a lifestyle community" at what became the Rockwater Apartments. There was no mention of "Longfellow Arms" in that proposal, either.
The opportunity to sell this land is not a "once-in-a-lifetime" deal, but the opportunity to save it is exactly that.


Anonymous said...

So So So very well said!!!

Jo said...


Anonymous said...

This is an old rock quarry with rusted old trucks scattered about. It's man-made and abandoned. Most cities that border a river have housing and dining that take advantage of the river view, ie Memphis, New Orleans, San Antonio. This is also a dead-end location that 99% will never visit to be offended. Lighten up.

Joe Jacobs said...

I wouldn't call it a "dead-end" I ride through it all the time to get from one part of town to the other. I just don't use a car to do it.

This is one of the most tranquil parts of the Arkansas River Trail, I'd hate to see it get all car and condo'd up.

JohnnieC said...

Great points!

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't apartments provide more opportunity for more people to use the trail? Seems like a win on that point...

Anonymous said...

Yeah and in those big cities you can't get away in 5 minutes and feel like you are miles from nowhere. I don't know about where you are from but here in AR we like our rusted trucks and dead-ends.

Anonymous said...

Then you should buy the property and leave the rusted trucks there. :)

Anonymous said...

Mayor Hays and JBar = very good team. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

J-Bar thanks for keeping us in the loop. I noticed that Fox16 has a quick article on line about this today. Information is good. It helps us make good decisions.

Anonymous said...

The reasons for selling it cheaper than market value are simple- nobody else wants it, and it's a down market. I know this viewpoint won't be very popular here, but the opportunity to have new development in this part of Little Rock is exciting. We should welcome any project that will create jobs and grow our city- even if it comes at the expense of losing some bike trails.

Anonymous said...

How do you know nobody wants it? That's half the point. This never went up for auction nor was advertised as available for development. The people of North Little Rock were very pleased to have it as is, premium green space along one of their favorite and most valuable public spaces, and I imagine somewhat surprised that it wasn't already designated a park.

And why on earth sell in a down market? The city is in no desperate need for the paltry revenue this would bring. As JBar mentions, they are actively looking to acquire more land in Burns Park.

This isn't at the expense of some "bike trails" - it's at the expense of one of our best city assets.

Anonymous said...

Typically, municipalities don't advertise land for sale- and only use auctions when they are sure they want to sell. When you see "land for sale" signs they always bear the logo of a non-governmental entity.

This area is used disproportionally heavy by cyclists, and as someone mentioned earlier- having a housing development located here would give more folks the opportunity to enjoy it. I think that fighting progress isn't the best course of action. Embracing it and working toward improving the space seems much more logical and attainable. So instead of advocating for leaving it undeveloped, why not advocate for developing it and improving the existing trails?

Anonymous said...

I do not have a problem with improvement. This area could use some clean up. But here's the deal. We cannot afford to lose ANY trail. (See where we rank in bike friendly states...50) This location has VERY limited access (One way in and out on what is already considered by most, bike route) Two 8 story condo's with apartment units and a marina in this location is the most unappealing gaudy idea anyone could possibly have thought of. There is natural beauty in this area. There is Arkansas history in this area. We SHOULD improve this area (clean up the concrete and rusty cars). We SHOULD NOT make this a Condo/Rental fiasco. This is valuable location for green space, quiet space and educational space and should be treated as such. Develop, YES, but only as truly improved green/quiet/outdoor space. DO NOT create an eyesore that is a densely populated and commercial traffic nightmare.

Anonymous said...

Lets say there are 400 living units.
Lets avg 2 occupants/unit. 800 folks.
Lets say that averaged thru the year each occupant makes 1 trip a day. that is 1600 car trips/day(1 out, 1 back)we have not taken into account any "Marina" traffic. We could easily see traffic densities on par with downtown Little Rock at peak traffic times making Pedestrian/Bicycle traffic suspect without MAJOR cost to the city of NLR for traffic improvement. New roads, traffic signaling, pedestrian, bicycling safe access. This $1.2M sale, should it go thru, will wind up COSTING the city much more financially. And we have not touched on what this takes away from the river trail system.

Anonymous said...

You say Arkansas is the worst state for bicyclists, but Bicycle magazine has named Little Rock one of the top 50 cities for biking- and since we are talking about LR, let's use that number. Seeing that LR is such a bike friendly place already, what's the problem allowing privately funded development of an area you describe as "having very limited access..." by bike only?

You say that this project will create traffic on par with downtown- you can't seriously think 400 living units will come close to creating downtown levels of traffic. I would venture to bet that the number of people going in and out of downtown is in the 10's of thousands.

I understand this is an area you and other cyclists like to frequent, but it's a little selfish to stand in the way of economic development just so a handful of bikers won't have to look at a couple buildings.

Anonymous said...

You are correct. I just checked. My apologies. For cities we're #49. My bad....
You are also correct in the amount of traffic funneling out of LR. Those numbers are in the 10's of thousands. However, those tens of thousands can funnel any number of routes into and out of town. Unless NLR provides better access to this location at peak traffic times I still contend a very congested route in that location.
I am all for economic development. Heaven knows we need it, I would love to retire some day so I could ride every day. But I believe that the draw and benefit that this location could have as a park (yes it needs to be cleaned up)or green space in our community out weighs the dollar figures in this instance.
I appreciate J-Bar and and the folks out here allowing discussion on this issue. I do believe both sides of this issue have very valid points. I would like to see some facts regarding traffic, anticipated infrastructure improvements (water, sewerage, drainage, roadway, etc.)and their costs so that rather than talking about what I "believe" will happen we can all be better informed and make smart decisions rather than the pissed off emotional direction that I am in the middle of working thru now.
Regardless, two 8 story condos against the beautiful sandstone cliffs and occasional wet weather waterfalls will always crawl all over me as ugly. Economic development or not.

Anonymous said...

This is the anonymous guy who keeps posting support for the development.

I don't live in Arkansas and don't bike- in my opinion the farther we keep you people from foot/road traffic the better. My friend Josh bikes around there and posted the link on his facebook. If it's important to him, it's important to me, so I'm going to offer you all some free and unsolicited advice. I'm a lobbyist- companies pay me to work with federal, state and local governments to fix things. I apologize if I seemed antagonistic in the above posts, but I was testing your message. After doing so, I have a few recommendations to make that might help you be more successful.

1. As a community, hire a lobbyist. Someone local who has city level experience. To get somebody decent expect to pay around $10,000. This is a lot of money, but if money isn't an option I think it would help.

2. Build a coalition. Who else uses the area? Boy Scouts? Fishermen ( your wildlife department might be able to tell you)? Running clubs? Make contact with these people and let them know what's happening.

3. Get your message right. A positive message works best on a local level. Hometown pride runs deep in most places. Instead of saying that Arkansas is last in biking- say that LR is one of the top 50 in the entire country. There are 116 cities with a higher population than LR- and you all still made the top 50. The natural terrain makes LR a haven for bikers and that is something to embrace and be proud of. On a single front-sided sheet of paper, explain the situation and type out some of your talking points. Also, put the city council and mayors contact info at the bottom. Every time you go on a ride- give one to every biker you see.

4. Now that you have a coalition and message nailed down, go talk to your city council members. The mayor can propose whatever he wants- but the city council will have to approve. When speaking with them always be polite and never confrontational. Remember- these people ran for council because they truly love LR and want to see it thrive. You must convince them that you want the same and that your position is the correct approach. I repeat- do not be confrontational. They must believe you are in this together. When you leave- give them the sheet of paper with the info on it (remove their contact info from the bottom first) and ask them for a campaign t-shirt or sticker and tell them you want to wear in in your next race. This will show them you are part of the team.

5. Call your state representatives and senators. Even though they operate on a different level, they can still have a tremendous amount of influence on the local front. Get another sticker/shirt.

6. Be prepared to fail. Not everything goes your way. If the development is going to be built regardless- ask the city to include in the contract a minimum amount that the developer has to spend on upgrading the trails surrounding the area. Since it sounds like they are purchasing the land for a reasonable price, the city should have no problem making this ask.

Whether you all take this advice or not, I wish you the best of luck and will be watching for an outcome.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Josh's friend that needs to ride a bike :). I was curious about the direction some of your comments were taking. And thank you for supporting by antagonizing (dumb way to say that, but...). You are correct to show us (me) that we have got to have good arguments to go forward with and need to be prepared to respond correctly to challenges.
Anyway I do hope that we are able to take some of your advice to heart as a community and go at this issue with a positive attitude/outcome. Even if some compromise must be made I believe we should be able to make the river trail system even better and move up from honorable mention.
I hope that our local bicycle advocacy groups (and JBar - man, thanks for bringing this to the public eye)continue to bring information to the local public to make this a better community for everyone not only cyclist.

JBar said...

The outcome, Anonymous, is no deal.

Unknown said...

Indeed, very well said.
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house and land packages under $400,000 excludes fencing and landscaping