Arts district aims to bring connection, sense of place

Posted: January 16, 2018 at 4:44 p.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Brian and Megan Anderson, of Plano, Texas, jog Dec. 26 on the Razorback Greenway that runs through the Fay Jones Parkland located west of West Avenue near the Fayetteville Public Library. The city of Fayetteville will get nearly $1.8 million, from the Walton Family Foundation's Design Excellence Program, to design a series of open spaces within an interactive cultural arts corridor downtown. Once complete, the corridor will provide better access to arts and entertainment destinations such as the Walton Arts Center, TheatreSquare's future building, Community Creative Center and the library.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a four-part series on plans made by the 2017 recipients of grants from the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program.

FAYETTEVILLE — City leaders want to take what everyone loves about downtown and make it better by creating an arts district.

The plan focuses on the Fay Jones wooded parkland next to the library, the Walton Arts Center parking lot, and more connections downtown with sidewalks, trails and road improvements. The district will span about 50 acres surrounding either side of West Avenue from Dickson Street south to Prairie Street.

Anchor tenants

Representatives of the arts district’s anchor tenants share an enthusiasm for its potential.

“We are excited for the development of an expanded arts district in Fayetteville and look forward to the community and local businesses being able to be part of the development and planning process. Fayetteville has a strong theater and performing arts culture that we are proud to be part of, and this will create opportunities and provide resources to expand this area and make it even more of a destination for the entire region.”

Jennifer Wilson, Walton Arts Center spokeswoman

“We’re enthusiastic and excited to be a part of the creative vision of the people in the city and the community. They support and endorse the arts, certainly, and we see one of our many roles as being a cultural institution that helps people not only come and find art but actually, in the future, do more creating of art at the library. It’ll be exciting to see what comes out of that design.”

David Johnson, Fayetteville Public Library executive director

“The city’s new design plan is a terrifically ambitious step toward realizing a vision of walkable, interconnected cultural assets in our downtown. We were excited to be part of the conversation as the city put together their impressive application, and our audiences will be beneficiaries of their visionary thinking for decades to come.”

Martin Miller, TheatreSquared executive director

Source: Staff report

The Walton Arts Center, the soon-to-come new TheatreSquared building and an expanded public library will serve as the anchor points of the corridor. The Razorback Greenway and Tanglewood Branch also run through it.

The district’s design will marry outdoor elements with the key destinations visitors already enjoy downtown, said Peter Nierengarten, the city’s director of sustainability and parking.

An outdoor amphitheater could go in the woods, which would flow seamlessly into the courtyard of the library’s expansion, the city said in a grant application for the district. Dogs and their owners would enjoy a tasty treat at a plaza sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Better lighting and streetscapes would make walking downtown a more pleasant experience,the application says.

Chocolate chip cookie

The city received a $1.77 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation to pay for the district’s design. Money for construction, estimated at $15 million, would likely come from renewal of 1 percent sales tax if voters approve.

Other ideas for strengthening the downtown have come and gone.

A 2008 proposal under then-Mayor Dan Coody would have brought a hotel and parking deck with more than 1,000 spaces to the lot at Dickson and West. The project fell through because of a legal issue. Another idea in 2011 would have taken 40 spaces in the northeast corner of the lot for a six-story boutique hotel. The developer never presented a final proposal.

The difference this time is the concept includes improving the area’s outdoor environment, not specific buildings, said Don Marr, the city’s chief of staff. Plus, more than $100 million invested in the Walton Arts Center, TheatreSquared and the library provides momentum that didn’t exist before, he said.

“We’re coming with a concept, not a plan,” Marr said. “And we’re coming to the public to develop the plan, not people with a financial interest in a specific development.”

Jeremy Pate, program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, likened the arts district to a chocolate chip cookie. The venues, restaurants, bars, murals and sculptures are the ingredients. Connections, such as trails and sidewalks, bring everything together to make the cookie, he said.

For example, drafts of a recent parking study showed downtown does not suffer from a lack of spaces, but rather a lack of walkability from those spaces to destinations, Pate said.

“What excited us was the ability to pull all of these institutions together so the entire corridor becomes the destination and the experience as opposed to just those individual places,” he said. “The journey in itself becomes part of that experience.”

Plans call for bids to open by the end of January for a design team, selected from a list the foundation put together of the world’s best architecture firms. The City Council will pick a winner by the end of May. Public input will start in the summer, with a final design approved a year later.

Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program

The Design Excellence Program provides financial support to entities such as school districts; county, state or local governments; and nonprofit organizations that intend to develop spaces for public purposes. Money is earmarked for all phases of design work.

The Walton Family Foundation awarded $3.6 million to projects in the area’s four largest cities.

Source: Walton Family Foundation

Something magical

Culture and the arts typically improve public health, serve as a revitalization tool and help bring about a sense of place with social connections and neighborhood investment, said Jennifer Henaghan, deputy director of research with the American Planning Association in Chicago. Studies have proven the economic benefits, she said.

But with the potential for growth comes the risk of gentrification. Cities need to develop strategies to preserve affordable housing and keep rental rates for galleries and workspaces manageable. A city that already has a cultural arts identity has to make sure it doesn’t push out the people who helped create that identity, she said.

“The best way to get ahead of these issues is to make sure you’re talking to the people who will be affected before you develop the plan and make them part of the process,” she said.

Joe Fennel, president of the Dickson Street Merchants Association, said business owners and city leaders are on the same page. The groups have clashed in the past, particularly when it comes to parking. But having a world-renowned, outside entity design the district opens exciting possibilities, Fennel said.

“Sometimes we get in the way of ourselves because we’re all fighting for what we believe is right,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to just set everything down and let somebody come in here with far greater expertise than what the rest of us have collectively. Put an idea in front of us that we can all massage and turn into something pretty magical for Fayetteville.”

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said the arts district will serve as the northern end of a larger arts haven with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s Windgate Art and Design District to the south, near Hill Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A $40 million gift from the Windgate Charitable Foundation last month made that project possible, on top of a $120 million donation in August to the university’s art school from the Walton Charitable Family Support Foundation.

Jordan said he couldn’t imagine anything like it when he took office in 2009.

“I would go to all these conferences of mayors, and they’d talk about all the wonderful arts things they were doing in their cities,” he said. “And there we were, sitting in this recession. I didn’t know how we were going to keep everybody working at that time.

“But, you know what? We have come from there to looking at this arts corridor,” he said. “It’s all starting to come together. You’ve just got to stay after it.”