Albert Einstein defines insanity as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.
The City of Pine Bluff took a pledge against insanity last Thursday when hundreds of residents packed the gallery of the Community Theatre for the unveiling of a master plan to reinvent downtown.
There was no precise cost associated with the plan, which is long term and will be partially funded by the Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax.
It features everything from the simple to the complex — from developing a downtown housing stock to constructing a giant Ferris wheel at Saracen Landing.
All of it, according to city officials, is designed to make Pine Bluff a premier location in which to live, work and play. The plan was designed and presented by Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, and Steven L. Anderson, chair in architecture and urban studies.
The plan is the result of the public-private partnership between The City of Pine Bluff and GFPB. Luoni outlined the plan, entitled Re-Live Downtown Pine Bluff, by acknowledging what residents of Pine Bluff said they want, where the city has been and, finally, its current state.
Luoni read comments from listening sessions that were held in September 2017 where residents expressed what they hope to see in a revitalized downtown Pine Bluff. He said he looked at the most reoccurring comments to define an approach to his plan.
That approach is inviting people downtown by creating an environment for them to live and work.
“Coming from you, downtown is the front porch of any town,” Luoni said.
“You want a bustling downtown, a business district that is a regional anchor and that’s your niche market. There is no other town with the historic character with the scale that can deliver the kind of services that Pine Bluff downtown wants to deliver, and there’s a real market demand for that. The closest city that does that is Conway, Arkansas.”
Luoni said his plan is not to get people to move from the suburbs of Pine Bluff to downtown, but rather to make downtown a destination and premium community. He said in order to re-invent Pine Bluff, one must understand the patterns that lead to Pine Bluff being a strong market system, then reestablish the patterns that are already here.
He described it as “resituating what’s already in your DNA.” He cited results from an 1899 study on black wealth conducted by W.E.B Dubois, a famous African American sociologist historian and civil rights activist.
Dubois’ study revealed that Pine Bluff had the fourth highest rate of black wealth in the United States behind Charleston South Carolina, Richmond Virginia, and New York City.
“So Pine Bluff, at some point, was working for everybody,” Luoni said.
“It was an amazing city that not only had a fantastic urban environment but had great building fabric, great streets, public transit — one of about 12 Arkansas cities to have a street car, which was a real benchmark of vanity. It had walkable neighborhoods where all of the central services were available within a half mile — you could walk anywhere in Pine Bluff and access central services.”
He described Pine Bluff as a “once significant wealth creating machine” that was recognized nationally. The audience was then shown a side-by-side view of downtown Pine Bluff in 1918 and 2018.
The purpose of the diagrams was to show the patterns that created the wealth and how to revive those patterns to get a re-investment into the city.
“You had residential neighborhoods in downtown that supported the commercial district and also the warehouses — you had a fully functioning city,” Luoni said.
“Keep in mind that downtowns do not work when you have empty spaces.”
Luoni said the diagram of downtown Pine Bluff in its current state is a diagram of dysfunction. He said the remedy is putting the building fabric back in place, which he described as a high concept of low tech. He said if he had to pinpoint one thing that is going wrong in downtown Pine Bluff, it would be the housing density.
In 1918, downtown had an estimate of seven-to-10 housing units per acre as compared to the current .75 units per acre currently, which is considered a rural density. The typical suburban density is estimated at three dwelling units per acre.
“This is why moving into what we are proposing, ReLive Downtown is a housing-first revitalization, so you begin with the construction of urban housing,” Luoni said.
“We’ll begin with urban housing downtown and letting other uses, particularly signature projects and commercial development, happen in tangent with that housing.”
Luoni said Pine Bluff is a weak market city unlike places like Fayetteville, Bentonville and El Dorado.
In those cities, the obligation in planning is to make sure housing and commercial uses are affordable, there’s better access to the city, and all income levels participate in the right to the city. In weak market cities like Pine Bluff, the downtown area has been hollowed out, and the periphery has enjoyed resources, investment and growth.
“With weak market cities, the planning needs to be really focused on a small area, bringing the downtown back,” Luoni said.
“Because of your resource constraint, those resources need to operate in a triage manner where you focus what resources you have on a few select areas. You build a critical mass of housing and surrounding development. That becomes a catalyst for further markets to grow.”
For this plan to work, Luoni said downtown would have to go through three phases, with the first phase being the pioneer phase of development. He said this phase focuses on 10 percent of downtown, and only certain types of agencies and organizations will participate. It focuses on what’s called the center of strength.
Downtown Pine Bluff’s center of strength starts with Saracen landing, the courthouse, Main Street, the Reynolds Community Center, the Jefferson County Historical Museum housed at the old railroad depot, the Hotel Pines, the new library, the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, city hall and the new multi-purpose aquatic center.
“This triage plan makes sure all of the investment happens around those centers of strength,” Luoni said.
“The reason why a lot of downtown revitalizations have failed in America in the last 40 years is because reinvestment was scattered. Another mistake that has been often made is that American cities have used signature projects to redevelop downtown. They built casinos and arts centers, museums, convention centers and entertainment complexes as a way of bringing back downtowns, and those things alone will not bring back downtowns. People living downtown is what brings back downtowns.”
Luoni said they propose the generation of residential neighborhoods around Pine Bluff’s seven centers of strength with 440 units of housing, along with supporting commercial and other uses.
He said this framework is the first step in the revitalization assembly kit.
“This is the footprint of our framework plan, and once that works then the rest of downtown hopefully will be developed through incremental marketing, public sector, non-profit, property owners and small developers once they see the pioneer investors have actualized their investments.”
The second step is the housing plan. The housing plan will use what the city already has or is developing, such as new streetscapes and green space, to build houses around. Rather than single-family homes, he said downtown should have missing middle houses. Missing middle houses are duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, row housing, courtyard apartments, bungalow apartments and mansion apartments.
He said this type of housing is called missing middle because they haven’t been built since the 1940s due to changes in the way people have lived during those decades, such as the rise of suburbs. Today, however, many are seeking opportunities to move back into cities’ urban cores.
“If you really want a successful downtown, build housing with density,” Luoni said.
“This is housing for all income groups, but in the framework plan we really privilege housing for workforces that want to move back downtown who work with university, work at the hospital, work at the city, first responders, school teachers — these are workforces that we’ve seen nationally want to live downtown but are priced out of downtown.”
He gave the example that faculty and staff in Fayetteville have been priced out of the market over the past 20 years and must live 20 miles outside of the city. He said missing middle houses are a good way to get families in different income groups back in the city, not to be mistaken with low-income housing.
He said workforce housing is for those making between 60-and-120 percent of the area’s median income. The third part of the revitalization assembly kit is the street plan.
When comparing downtown with the year 1918, Luoni mentioned that another component to a mixed-use downtown is walkability. In 1918, there were 315 intersections per square mile. He further explained that to achieve full walkability, a city needs at least 150 intersections per square mile. He compared Pine Bluff’s walkability to New York City, citing that they have 184 intersections per square mile. Pine Bluff has double the intersections.
“What that means is that your blocks are small and walkable,” Luoni said.
“They support incremental development, and you’re not quite the gold standard. You’re the Cadillac, but Portland, Maine, has the gold standard of walkability and intersections. They have more than 500 intersections per square mile, meaning their blocks are 200 feet by 200 feet. Your blocks are around 300 feet by 300 feet — that’s a great walkable block size.”
He said Portland’s 200-foot square blocks allow more corner sites for commerce and give pedestrians more of choice on how they move through the city. He said although Pine Bluff has a walkable downtown fabric, with the walk score being 40 out of 100, most everything must be done by car.
“No downtown can survive with that type of walk score,” Luoni said.
“Your walk score should be an 80 or 90. We can double that walk score by bringing uses back downtown.”
Luoni said there must be streets that are not built for people to drive down at 50 miles per hour, but rather 25 miles per hour to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians and public transit. He said people need to be able to live along streets, gather along streets and socialize along streets.
The public having access to the streets in that way ties the housing plan with the street plan because it is proposed that every house have a porch, balcony or terrace. He said streets determine the quality of life in a downtown.
The last component of the revitalization assembly kit is special projects. Five signature projects anchor the Framework Plan, including the Saracen Wharf and Bridge, the Cinema on Theater Row, the Pine Bluff Band Stand, the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Art Walk and the Pine Bluff Civic Center Gardens.
“Signature projects construct an experience economy that makes cities unique destinations in which to live, work and play, desirable to both residents and visitors alike,” Luoni said.
“Retail follows rooftops. While neighborhood development initiates a positive investment climate through commitments to reside downtown, high profile public works projects become feasible once residents are living there. Urbanist Jan Gehl said, ‘First life, then spaces, then buildings.’ — the other way around never works.”
Luoni concluded that for this plan to work there must be a three-way partnership between the non-profit sector, the private sector and the public sector.
Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said this is a 14-to-20-year plan.
“Because you were willing to pass the tax, we’ll be able to focus on starting a neighborhood in downtown Pine Bluff," he said. "It’s going to take public and private investment to be able to accomplish that. The second thing we will focus on is the cinema — we’re tired of going to Little Rock to the movies. The third thing is initiating an art walk — that’s going to be a very important piece.”
Maurice Taggart, executive director of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, announced incentive programs that are designed to spur economic development and business growth in downtown. He said the agency will also consider residential incentives, as well as other options. The first program will target the preliminary stages of site development.
This will be helpful for individuals who are looking to move their businesses downtown, he said. The second is the Targeted Improvement grant, which will deal with the interior of business development.
This grant is for those individuals who have a business downtown they want to expand. The last grant is the facade improvement grant, which will focus on the exterior of the existing businesses downtown.
“Its very important to have this public-private partnership working together in order to move forward,” Taggart said.
“One of the things we’ve done is we’ve come together, and we think this is going to be a prime opportunity for those business owners downtown to expand and to do something to bring their businesses up in terms of the outside and interior.”
Taggart said more information will be provided on these grants in the coming months. For more information on the Re-live Downtown plan, visit gofowardpinebluff.org.