NO! to a 5-Story Hotel in the Heart of Dickson Street

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.)[3]

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.

Notice that only the depot out of the surrounding historical structures is shown to scale. If they were, viewers could more fully appreciate how the development would overpower its surroundings.

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[1] https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/jan/23/fayetteville-downtown-parking-deck-nego/?news-arkansas-nwa

[2] https://www.fayetteville-ar.gov/3539/2019-Bond-Information

[3] https://www.artspace.org/presentation-findings-northwest-arkansas

What Future, Fayetteville?

Fayetteville’s city government periodically yields to citizen outcry as one or another development project violates neighborhood norms or common sense. But the lessons never seem to stick, and the town with all its wonderful vintage atmosphere continues to hurtle toward mediocrity.

Currently, the landmark corner of Dickson and West is under dual assault, first from the renovation of the two old structures at the northeast corner. From their original 1904 construction, the sandstone block building at 430 W. Dickson and the red brick structure at 426-428 W. Dickson  became the Swingin’ Door in 1973. Then in 1994 the buildings became Ozark Brewing Company under the ownership of John Gilliam. The city failed to require Gilliam to maintain the original integrity of the old buildings and the result was a conglomeration that is now being dismantled by the latest owners.

Renovation in progress, 426 – 430 West Dickson

Tragically, instead of taking this moment in time to require the new owner to return the buildings to a semblance of their original appearance, perhaps aided by a city grant, the powers that be have allowed a redesign that will result in a slick modern look completely out of place in the midst of vintage buildings.

The second assault is a parking garage location recently chosen by the mayor which will finish off the vintage atmosphere along the 300 block of West Avenue north. This is where the Arsaga family has lovingly restored and repurposed an 1880’s railroad freight building into a thriving eatery. It is also where Richard and Gina Berquist restored a 1920’s building into a photography studio, performance venue, and other uses since renovation in 1990. Both these beautiful and beloved parts of the Dickson Street district as well as surrounding period structures would be either blocked from view or dwarfed by the mayor’s chosen location for a parking garage.

Spring Street garage

We’ve seen the city’s taste in parking garage design in the recent construction of the Spring Street garage adjacent to the Walton Arts Center, a big square box clad in—believe it or not—rusted metal panels. Rusted metal.

What a cutesy design, all avant garde and modern and stuff. Completely out of place in an entertainment district built on the Dickson Street ambiance of funky old turn-of-the-century buildings. The only forgiving aspect of this garage is its one-block distance and zero visibility from Dickson Street.

So what could be a better place for another parking garage than right across School Street from the Spring Street garage? This was one of three potential locations suggested by Garver Engineering in their study contracted by the city, the least intrusive into the visual heartbeat of Dickson. Why advocate for the West Avenue location?

Fayetteville’s history is most apparent in its old buildings. One glimpse around the Square or along Dickson Street and its cross streets is a look back in time to when individual buildings reflected the ambitions of proud owners and their bid for prosperity. Every time one of these period structures is ‘updated’ or demolished, more of the neighborhood’s charm and the community’s treasure is lost.

In their places, we find out-of-scale, out-of-sync monuments to greed and arrogance, multi-story behemoths like the full-block structure on the east side of the Square currently housing the U of A’s Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, or the Arvest Bank building on the northeast corner of the Square, or the E.J. Ball building at the northwest corner.

Originally the home of First National Bank, the building occupying the entire east frontage of the Square made a token effort toward traditional design. In a later effort to generate profit, condos were built on top.

 

EJ Ball building with a recent face lift, none of which can overcome its absurd size next to its neighbors.

Meanwhile, we have to ask why the city is currently allowing the owner of the Mountain Inn’s Arcade/Annex building to fold his hands while this Art Deco treasure disintegrates before our eyes.

On Dickson Street, there’s the first of the onslaught, the red brick Walton Arts Center which never considered fitting in and might have been acceptable except for the real estate feeding frenzy that followed: the Three Sisters building, the Legacy Building, and The Dickson.

Previously, this location included Restaurant on the Corner and The Grill. Now the Three Sisters building seems a bit unsure about what world it lives in.

 

Left foreground: Walton Arts Center. Left background: The Dickson with its eight stories.

No one person can afford to own any of these new Goliaths. No single business owner can stake a claim to any of these to open a bar, or a barber shop, or a used record store. These monsters have priced out all but the wealthy with expensive condos and precious boutiques instead of affordable apartments – despite the close proximity of the university campus and the screaming need for low-cost housing. We have bank- or corporate-owned real estate blocking traditional views and crowding access to venerable structures built on a human scale.

View of Arsaga’s that would vanish behind parking garage

Where do the profits of those massive buildings go? Out of town. What happens when a bustling eatery like Arsaga’s Depot goes out of business because it’s hidden behind a parking garage? A parking garage won’t hire those employees. How is this good for Fayetteville?

It would be easy to blame city planning for approving such flagrant violations of the old town feel, but that’s not where the buck stops. The city council is responsible for zoning and building codes—and those people are elected by a majority who either don’t know or don’t care about the town’s historical legacy.

Developers understandably expect to earn a profit on their investments, and in a time of high construction costs, the more than can be crammed onto an expensive footprint of land, the more profitable. The solution is height; where three or four stories might be semi-acceptable in these historic surroundings, only seven or eight stories break into the desired profit range. Keeping costs down means compromising on materials. Cut stone or even brick with its structural weight load doesn’t compare to sheets of inexpensive siding or glass.

I get it.

Folks, Fayetteville’s most treasured locations are being sold to the highest bidder. Currently, the city council’s lack of respect for our inherited wealth of time-honored buildings at the Square and along Dickson Street translates into increasing infiltration of inappropriate architecture. Is this due to a lack of understanding of the town’s history on the part of city council members? A lack of interest in preserving the town’s unique, irreplaceable qualities? A belief that new always means better?

Or is it the pressure from real estate developers whose entire motivation is profit? Taking advantage of the lack of vision of town fathers, they capitalize on places like Markham Hill, Dickson Street, and the Square to build their mega-structures. To hell with the town’s history, or its charm, or anything else.

Newsflash: The more these locations are infested with ‘modern’ buildings, the lower the real estate values become. It’s exactly the old buildings and the mood they invoke that creates the value in the first place.

If Fayettevillians wish to see rows of multi-story buildings veneered with steel and glass, they should focus on the mall and its surrounds. Or anywhere along College Avenue north of Township. No one expects to see quarried stone walls there, nor Art Deco portals carved in limestone or even trusty red brick. Quick and cheap, structures in the “Uptown” area include big boxes with clone-designed facades or strip malls of the same ilk.

Citizens who love this town should demand appropriate design regulations for irreplaceable parts of old Fayetteville. Yesterday isn’t soon enough. First step is to mount a vociferous campaign against the proposed parking garage location on West Avenue. One clever idea for an alternative, not suggested by the Garver Engineering study, would be to divide the existing Walton Arts Center parking lot lengthwise, dedicating the eastern strip to the desired park and walking trail, and the western strip along the railroad tracks to a garage.[1] A bonus of this idea is that no buildings would have to be torn down, a problem faced in the two Garver proposals aside from the West Avenue location.

Anyway, why does the city suddenly believe that an arts corridor and park in place of the existing WAC parking lot is the most important thing ever? It’s an absurd idea for such a large space in what is one of the town’s most desirable locations. Yes, parking is vital to the success of surrounding enterprises. But building a garage along the WAC lot’s west side leaves at least 300 feet width for the park and trail. And lots of art.

Dickson Street isn’t just Dickson Street. It’s the traditional entry to the University, hallowed ground to millions of alumni whose footsteps are worn into the sidewalks of Dickson, West, and School. It’s where George’s Majestic Lounge has reigned over nightlife since the 1920s. It’s where countless musicians have created their magic to the joy of thousands of fans, dancing the night away in venues like the Swingin’ Door, Red Lion/West Street, The Library/Chester’s, the Landing Strip/Dickson Street Theater, Dave’s on Dickson, Lily’s, and many other iterations crafted by entrepreneurs in those masterful old buildings.

Citizens have the power to demand protection for these historical locations. Dickson Street and its surrounds deserve new rules for preservation that prohibit any structures more than four stories, as does the town square. Renovations should follow strict building codes meant to preserve the ‘old town’ look. Any developer eager to construct warrens of rooms in towering buildings should look elsewhere.

The Legacy building looms over the popular 400 block of Dickson Street.

A more complete discussion of the parking garage issue can be found at the Fayetteville Flyer.

[1] https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2019/mar/14/parking-options-studied/

Dickson Street — Stayin’ Alive

Courtesy Fayetteville Visitor’s Bureau

The heart of Dickson Street runs six blocks east from the southeast corner of Fayetteville’s University of Arkansas campus. After one hundred years of industrial and commercial development that came with the railroad, entertainment took over. By the 1970s, bars and nightclubs thrived in the run-down buildings alongside old school barber shops, pawn shops, artist studios, restaurants, and head shops. The sound of live music filled the night air. Patrons from all over the region flocked to the street to mingle with co-eds, quaff a few beers and cheer on the rock ‘n’ roll. The alternative community centered at the street; walking down the sidewalk meant seeing and greeting old friends and meeting new ones.

The 80s saw further decline and the emergence of tawdriness and then with the arrival of the Walton Arts Center in the 1990s and concurrent rising rent, the magic started to drip away like water through fingers. Depending on the point of view, Dickson Street is now either a thriving commercial mecca or a faint shadow of its former glory. In 2004, an article in the bi-monthly tabloid All About Town addressed the issue of Dickson Street and the decline of the music scene. And not for the first time.  The first such complaints appeared in an earlier tabloid, The Grapevine, in the 1980s and periodically become the focus of community consternation. Some of it has to do with changing demographics. The people who packed the live music venues in the 1970s were staying at home to raise families in the 1980s. Each generation enjoys its high points on the street then subsides into other activities as years pass.

Nevertheless, the article does a good job of peeling back the layers to discover some basic issues. From that, city leaders, musicians, club owners, and other interested fans of the street might derive some workable ideas of how to ensure that the Dickson Street scene never dies.

Five reasons were cited, which have been added to for this piece.

1. Club owners have to pay the bills. That includes ever increasing costs for rent, utilities, wages for employees, advertising, insurance, supplies like glassware and napkins, and inventory of alcohol and any other items served. Back in the day, rent on Dickson Street reflected the run-down nature of the real estate. Now with gentrification all around, rent has skyrocketed. Also, there’s increasing pressure to pay higher wages, utilities keep going up, and … well, it’s all about the money. The clubs count on alcohol sales to generate the profits they need to keep their heads above water. Some bands don’t attract people who like to drink. And people who like to drink have increasingly begun to patronize stand-up bars.

“Stand-up bars are easier to operate,” said Dave Bass, formerly of Dave’s on Dickson and later yielding to the inevitable by opening two stand-up bars, The Blue Parrot and 414. “It’s impossible to make live music work during the week, and you can’t be open two days a week and make a living.” He admitted losing money with his live music at Dave’s.

2. People don’t want to pay a cover charge. Many people don’t realize that a cover charge is the only way to pay a band to play. As veteran performer Jed Clampit pointed out, “You don’t get free drinks, but you want free music. Think about going to your job and working for free.” Owner/operator of George’s, Brian Crowne said “People will think nothing of paying $7 or $8 for a two-hour movie but gripe about paying $5 for live, professional entertainment for four hours.”

Another problem for club owners and bands is that many young people today prefer to float from place to place depending on where their friends might be. A friend might text and want to meet them at a specific location. A half hour later, the two friends might decide to go to a third location. Cover charges don’t work for that kind of activity where the objective is socializing, not watching a particular band perform.

3. There are too many clubs and too many bands. Bringing live music to a particular venue requires a lot of upfront investment in securing the band, promoting the event, and doing as much as possible to bring in a crowd. If multiple venues compete for the club-going public, there’s less to go around. That’s the basic math. But there’s no shortage of aspiring bands whose goal of wealth and fame requires building a local following first. Also, painful as it is to recognize, there’s a big disconnect between the many musicians who want to write original songs and audiences who want to hear familiar music. This particular problem is exacerbated by the fact that record deals and other important steps on the road to wealth and fame depend on original music. Nobody wants to record the 38th cover of “Proud Mary.”

Wade Ogle, veteran of the Fayetteville music scene, says the quality of new bands isn’t what it used to be. “With today’s technology, practically everyone can record a CD cheaply. While I think it’s a good thing, the downside is that way too many new bands are looking to play live before they’re really ready.”

So bands thread a narrow line, forced to invest in decent equipment and hours/months of practice until they can get booked to play and then play covers of popular music in their chosen genre while at the same time working on original songs that might be worthy of record label or promoter interest. If they manage to get booked into a club and they’re not ready, people who bother to show up are turned off to live music in general.

4. There aren’t enough fans. This wasn’t so much a problem in the ‘70s when the Baby Boomers came through en masse, the right age and right mindset to thrive on live music. You could almost say that live music was part of their religion. Alas, those days have passed. Somewhat smaller subsequent generations don’t necessarily take song lyrics as their personal anthems. Some might even allege that popular music today can’t hold a candle to the music being created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With the rise of digital media, music suited to personal taste is available any day, any time, and any place. Free. Why go to a club and pay a cover charge when you can listen to what you like at home? One benefit of live music will never change, however, and that is the attraction of mingling in a crowd of enthusiastic fans, dancing to the same beat and being part of the ‘family.’

5. The town and Dickson Street itself have changed. Yes, this is a big factor. Fayetteville’s population has tripled since the 1970s, and University enrollment has increased from around 15,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 in 2019. More cars and the infill of properties near Dickson means much less parking plus much of the available parking is now metered. Clubs with occasional live music have sprung up along North College Avenue and near the Northwest Arkansas Mall, meaning competition for Dickson Street. Also, until recent years, Dickson Street was the place to party for the entire region. Now that Benton County allows alcohol to be served, clubs have sprung up there like dandelions in early spring. In particular, the Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) at Rogers has created a major performance venue for big name performers that in the past would have appeared only in Fayetteville.

Slogans like “Keep Fayetteville Funky” notwithstanding, times change. We change. It’s inconceivable to think that a day might come when Dickson Street would no longer vibrate with the heartbeat of live music and of people streaming through the doors to hear it, commune with each other, and let their hair down. But the world is, after all, what we individually and collectively make it, and it behooves us to not let such a good thing slip unnoticed into the shadows of the past. Dickson Street has been an institution as well as a collective of our entertainment experiences. We have to pay attention and do what we must to keep it that way.

 

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“A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music,” by Ian Tamblyn