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/