Residents and visitors of Fayetteville might want to pay close attention to the issue currently facing the city council, that of a proposed ‘arts corridor’ and parking deck at Dickson and West. Several aspects of this project don’t quite pass the smell test and once it’s done, it’s done.
No one seems to know how the idea of an arts corridor got started. According to one council member I consulted, “The story I’m being told is that one of our planners, Leif Olsen, who has no expertise in arts and culture, drafted the grant proposal to the Walton Foundation. I can’t discern who directed him to do that, if anyone with appropriate expertise consulted with him, or if he worked with any stakeholder group.” So far the biggest champion of the art corridor is the Walton Arts Center CEO and president, Peter Lane. Hm.
In order to gain the coveted arts corridor, the city must convert the WAC parking lot into a park with a civic forum space, which in turn requires the construction of a parking garage to offset the loss of parking for the WAC. The mayor has determined that such a parking facility must be no more than 1000 ft. from the WAC, no doubt after consultation with the WAC.
The project has progressed to the point that only three possible locations will be considered. One is the place now known as the Nadine Baum Center, which would be torn down and replaced with a garage and some liner buildings that would supposedly offset the loss of current art studios in the Nadine Baum Center. Another is a city-owned space on School Avenue, immediately east of the current Spring Street garage. The third, and current favorite of Peter Lane, the mayor, and certain other development-happy folks, is a space smack in front of Arsaga’s Depot along West Avenue. About half of that land is privately owned by developer Greg House.
A fascinating bit about the preferred lot is that House plans to build a 5-story hotel immediately adjacent to the parking garage. The hotel would take pride of place at a landmark corner of Dickson and West, removing the train bank and looming over the 1882 depot building. We must ask whether any study has discovered the remaining number of parking spaces for the WAC once the hotel’s employees and guests have parked there. Hm.
Also fascinating is that in April 2019 when voters were asked to approve a $31.5 million bond issue for a cultural arts corridor, the bond issue included a parking deck for $10 million to replace the 290 spaces lost when the Walton Arts Center parking lot becomes a green space. (One must ask why one of the most trafficked spots in town must suddenly become green space, when most people patronize parks near their homes. Oh, yeah, the arts corridor…) What the bond issue also covered was a group of improvements for streets, police, the fire department, and other civic concerns which might be more appropriately labeled ‘bait’ to assure the approval of the arts corridor.
But hey, just asking questions here.
Apparently the clock is ticking on how long this issue can be batted around before the money time frame runs out. That is, the time frame for the $1.7 million Walton Foundation grant to help fund the arts corridor. Thus the hurry-up among council members as well as interested parties in the refusal to take a step back and think about the big picture before rushing into an irreversible decision.
So to get the $1.7 million, we’re going to spend somewhere near $30 million. Fast, before we have time to really think about it.
Big picture considerations include the historic tradition of Dickson Street. As I’ve ranted before, once Dickson Street’s charm is pockmarked with big shiny boxes, the charm leaks away. At that point, the only reason to go there would be the WAC. With structures built as early as 1882, the street has been a treasure to alumni, residents, and visitors not to mention entrepreneurs who find small individual buildings more affordable housing for their dream enterprises. Slick new buildings such as The Legacy and The Dickson cost a lot more per square foot and offer ZERO charm. But hey, they’re new and shiny.
Some people don’t care about historical. Remember when they wanted to tear down Old Main?
If the city has determined on its own aside from Walton influence that an arts corridor is truly going to be an asset, something the city needs, then why not take half the current WAC lot and make it a park/arts corridor and use the other (west) half to build a parking garage. Simple. Just because this wasn’t considered in the original conceptualization of the project doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Currently, the reason it ‘can’t’ be done is: “We spent about $350,000 on a schematic design,” [the city’s director of sustainability and parking] Nierengarten said. “A schematic design that does not show a parking deck on the civic plaza is what the citizens of Fayetteville voted on as part of the bond last April.” So let’s rush right out and spend $10 million building a deck that will primarily benefit a private developer and add one more nail in the coffin of one of only two historical areas left in Fayetteville.
Who first had the idea of a cultural arts corridor? Or a ‘civic plaza’? Why was the ‘study’ funded by a Walton Foundation grant? Why was a study of the area’s arts community, also initiated by unknown parties, contracted out to a Minnesota company named Artspace that developed a “Creative Economy Map” for the NWA region, also funded by a Walton Foundation grant? In this map, significant portions of the Fayetteville creative community fails to appear. (The map is heavy with Bentonville locations.)
I agree that NWA and Fayetteville in particular is home to a large contingent of richly creative people. In the 1960s, Dickson Street became the town’s entertainment district because there was affordable commercial space where creative people built popular music venues that hosted talented musicians plus art studios and art galleries (now mostly priced out), and pursued skills as varied as tie-dye, jewelry, poetry readings, one-act plays, sculpture, metal work, and even outdoor gear that later became famous (Borealis). The result was a vibrant part of Fayetteville that attracted the Walton Arts Center.
In the tradition of The Little Shop of Horrors, the benefit of Walton money for the arts center (and so much more) is countered by the need to please the Waltons. As we’ve seen on multiple occasions, the money comes only when Fayetteville does what they want. For example, the outdoor concerts that started at the Fayetteville mall parking lot grew in popularity but now operate at the Arkansas Music Pavilion, otherwise known as the Walmart AMP, in Rogers, moved under Walton threat of withdrawing funding if they didn’t get their way.
No question that an arts corridor across from the WAC would primarily benefit the WAC but arguably, also the city. But the corridor will also infect the city’s trail system from Lafayette Street down to Center and then south to Prairie with a ‘cleanup’ of unsightly undergrowth and removal of wild aspects of those surroundings including partly channelizing the stream. Okay, the stream has been channelized for at least 100 years, rising from a big spring currently hidden under the WAC parking lot. That spring originally served as a water source and cooled produce and meat in the earliest industrial area of the town. From the WAC lot, the stream flows through underground ditches to Center St. and then comes into view for the distance to Prairie.
The rushing stream and the wildness of that stretch of the Frisco Trail has been a primary attraction to hikers and bikers. Now, as part of the arts corridor, that section of trail will suffer the imposition of installations of ‘art,’ as decided by various persons. Why, in the midst of our downtown, can we not have some unadulterated natural areas?
By the way, the rationale behind this concept is the same as the rationale allowing the natural woodland of Markham Hill to come under bulldozers, concrete, and x-number of persons per square foot in order to satisfy the bottom line of out-of-town developers. But that’s another story of greed, insider capitalization, and lack of spine/vision by the city government. The excuse is that there are only a handful of reasons city government can refuse a developer, none of which are impassioned pleas by neighbors, preservation of natural areas, or historical importance.
There’s still time to save what’s left of Dickson Street from any additional high rise buildings. (Too bad there wasn’t any protection of Dickson before The Legacy and The Dickson were built. And yes, big bucks can buy anything and do what they want in private ownership, but there can be city codes requiring that anything built in a historical area must meet historical design standards.)
A greater understanding of what voters want remains to be seen because the city didn’t fully inform voters of what the arts corridor et al would entail. No one is going to die if this project comes to a full stop right now and renewed efforts are made to educate the public about the ripple effects of the project – including the destruction of Dickson Street’s unique historical flavor.