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story.lead_photo.caption Juan Quiros shows two homes June 26 he and his crew have built in downtown Bentonville, in conjunction with Lamplighter Restoration. The homes are new but are built to resemble older styles of homes. Though development has brought many big-city amenities to Bentonville, residential developers said they’re committed to maintaining a small-town atmosphere by marrying historical characteristics with modern features. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

BENTONVILLE -- Realtor Natalie Edwards remembers when downtown Bentonville was a hard sell.

Photo by Flip Putthoff
New homes are for sale or sold downtown along Southwest D street near the Bentonville square. Lamplighter Restoration’s Todd Renfrow and Patrick Sbarra have turned their attention to the street, where the two are fulfilling their vision of creating modern living spaces infused with pieces of history.
A map and information about downtown Bentonville development.
Photo by Flip Putthoff
Juan Quiros (from left) Manuel Hluz and Efrain Silva work June 26 on fencing between two homes they have built in downtown Bentonville along Southwest D Street.

The streets were quiet, most houses were in various states of disrepair and there wasn't much in the way of amenities. For the thousands of residents engrossed in suburban living, downtown was just a place to buy a cheap house.

Expanding options

Developers are working on several additional projects to provide more housing options downtown.

• The American Flats, opening Sept. 1, will provide 10 housing units named after American icons, such as Bill Clinton and Sam Walton. One-bedroom, one-bathroom units are sold out, but two-bedroom, two-bathroom units are still available for $285,000.

• The 210 Towers are next to the American Flats at 210 S.E. A St. and offer four multifamily units that include up to four bedrooms. Prices for the 210 Towers range from $450,000 to $500,000.

Source: americanflatsbentonville.com and homesbythesquare.com

Though houses in the Bentonville historic district along West Central Avenue usually sold fairly quickly, Edwards had a house listed there that had been for sale for five months.

"Downtown real estate sales were very quiet," Edwards said. "Nobody was calling and saying, 'Show me all you got downtown.' It just wasn't on people's radar."

That all changed on May 23, 2005, Edwards said, when Alice Walton unveiled plans for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which promised to transform downtown Bentonville into a destination for tourists across the country.

The house on Central sold the same day the museum was announced.

"To me, that's when it started," she said. "The announcement of Crystal Bridges made experienced investors say, 'I think something is going to come of downtown.'"

Since that time, Edwards has seen a steady uptick in downtown housing interest as the construction of restaurants, shops and attractions increased the desirability of downtown living. Momentum temporarily was halted when the national recession hit around 2008 and slowed the downtown real estate market. Since the recovery started around 2010, property values and sales have increased, she said.

The opening of Crystal Bridges on Nov. 11, 2011, and the debut of the Scott Family Amazeum on Wednesday have only sparked more interest.

What was once known primarily as a commercial district, downtown Bentonville is becoming a booming residential market that has residents eager to buy property close to the growing number of amenities downtown.

"We understood that different developments with Crystal Bridges and the Amazeum would bring a lot of amenities, and we wanted a place to be able to walk to those amenities," said Ryan Dagley, a loan manager for Signature Bank who moved into a new house in the northwest quadrant of downtown with his wife and 1-year-old son last year. "It's bustling now. If we sit on our front porch, we can see three to four houses being built."

The explosion of downtown housing options, which include apartment complexes, single-family homes and multifamily homes, provide living spaces within a 15-minute walk or bike ride to downtown happenings such as First Fridays and the Bentonville Farmers Market. That creates the sustainable, community-engaged lifestyle driving demand for downtown housing, developers said.

In addition to entertainment options, the opening of a Walmart Neighborhood Market later this year will allow residents to buy groceries and retail goods without having to leave the downtown area.

"You can't get a better location," said Melanie Merkling, a real estate agent who moved in June from her house on Northwest B Street to the Thrive apartment complex a few blocks south of the Bentonville square. "My whole world is within my view right now. I really like how bigger cities have catered to pedestrians, but I've never wanted to live in a big city, so downtown, you have all that with a small-town feel."

STILL SMALL TOWN

Though development has brought many big-city amenities to Bentonville, residential developers said they're committed to maintaining a small-town atmosphere by marrying historical characteristics with modern features fitting with the architectural style of downtown neighborhoods.

"Our hope when we build is that it looks like these homes predate everything else that was here," said Todd Renfrow of Lamplighter Restoration.

With two completed projects on Southwest C Street, Renfrow and his partner Patrick Sbarra have turned their attention to Southwest D Street, where the two are fulfilling their vision of creating modern living spaces infused with pieces of history.

Incorporated into the design of all Lamplighter homes are salvaged items Renfrow has collected over the years. A door from a sorority house in Fayetteville, the floor from the first school in Benton County, metal salvaged from St. Louis row houses or a chimney cap from a house in London -- all are used to add a classic component to the homes and preserve the history of the neighborhood.

The result is a home appealing to buyers from across the country, who are reminded of their childhood in cities such as Boston, New Orleans or Baltimore, Edwards said.

"These homes trigger nostalgia in people," she said. "It's a return to a comfort feeling. I've really never sold a house outside of downtown where people expressed those kinds of feelings."

For developers, the goal isn't to produce the best piece of real estate on the market, but to help residents get involved in the downtown community by collaborating with local businesses.

One residential developer leading the way in community partnerships is Thrive. The 44,000-square-foot building on the corner of Southwest Fourth and A streets is home to 62 residences and two commercial spaces designed to increase support for local businesses. Thrive also offers residents discounts through partnerships with community businesses, such as Yoga Story and Phat Tire Bike Shop.

"We want to support growth and development down here," said Eve Rosin, experience curator at Thrive. "It doesn't feel corporate. It has a community-based feel because we want people to be invested in the area and to develop those relationships."

But community living comes at a cost.

In a cultural shift away from houses in gated subdivisions, many residents are seeking housing in neighborhoods that emphasize community involvement and promote a more active lifestyle, even if that means paying the same amount or more for a smaller house, Sbarra said. With the ongoing development of the city, home values are on the rise, especially downtown.

The Lamplighter homes listed on Southwest D Street cost upward of $600,000, about $220 per square foot, according to real estate listings. The average price for a house downtown was $134,555 in 2012, according to the city's Southeast Downtown Area Plan published last year.

Thrive is similarly expensive. With rents ranging from $770 to $1,275 a month, Thrive is nearly $200 more than the average price of $600 for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Bentonville, according to the 2014 Northwest Arkansas Apartment Market Survey from CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate brokerage firm.

While high prices may prevent some residents from moving downtown, the Thrive complex appeals to a diverse population including professionals and retirees, Rosin said.

The main way expensive prices can be addressed is if housing options increase, which will drive prices down over time, said Troy Galloway, community and economic development director for the city.

Many residents, however, said the downtown lifestyle was worth the price, especially when they could save on gasoline because of the walkability and bikeability of the area.

"I feel like the price, for what is offered, is extremely reasonable," Merkling said. "It's not just a home you're getting, it's a community and a lifestyle."

FILLINGS GAPS

With renewed interest in the downtown area, restaurant and business owners have flocked to the square, making it imperative for the city to encourage high-density residential development to sustain the growing number of amenities downtown, Galloway said.

"Development in the housing market and the downtown area are mutually beneficial, mutually supportive and mutually dependent," Galloway said. "We are trying to create an environment where the free market can thrive. If we are going to retain the talent in our community to be competitive over the next decade or two, the first thing is we have to be a place where people want to live."

In 2004, the city launched an extensive development project to facilitate downtown growth by removing infrastructure impediments that kept residents and developers out of downtown, Galloway said. As part of the project, the city installed sidewalks and pedestrian lighting on the blocks beyond the square, improved the visual appearance of storm ditches and overhead power lines and updated water and sewer lines to meet the needs of new development projects, according to the city's 2007 downtown plan.

"We are blessed to have a progressive city," Edwards said. "They're proactive, and they're available. It's everybody working together for the improvement of this city."

To facilitate the development of an urban living environment downtown, the city adopted a plan for 300 acres southeast of the Bentonville square where residential construction has lagged behind the rest of the downtown area, according to the Southeast Downtown Area Plan. The goal of the plan is to develop an Arts District and a Market District to create distinct neighborhoods, which will also create additional destination areas downtown, according to the plan.

The Arts District, four blocks south of the square, will be anchored by the Bentonville Public Library and include cultural facilities such as galleries, theaters, book shops, dance studios and performance spaces.

Walton Arts Center officials have announced plans to build a second location in Bentonville, but when or where it might be built will not be discussed until after the center in Fayetteville has been renovated and expanded, said Erin Rogers, public relations director for the Walton Arts Center.

An arts center location in Bentonville wasn't considered when the Arts District was designed, but city officials hope some aspect of the center will be incorporated into the district, Galloway said.

The Market District, along the Razorback Regional Greenway trail, will focus on developing the food and culinary experience to provide healthy food options for residents.

Cultivating neighborhoods won't stop there, Sbarra said. As the downtown area expands from the square like arteries from a heart, each quadrant will put in its draws to develop its own unique atmosphere, he said.

"There's a good decade of expansion in front of us as the Arts and Market districts flesh out," he said. "This will be the sun and there will be little planets. Then you'll see more clusters form, and for the people that live over there, that will be their downtown."

While city planners don't know how many housing units are needed to support downtown growth, a 14-member Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee was formed to promote growth by continuing efforts to increase population density and address infrastructure concerns, Galloway said.

Expansion will inevitably slow once development hits the edges of what buyers say is the "walkability zone," ending the residential boom. However, because of possibilities for a lucrative resale market, interest in downtown housing won't be slowing any time soon, even after construction has waned, Edwards said.

"We're still a long way from that," she said. "This is the bottom of the graph, and when we look at the trajectory, we're still in infancy. This is just the beginning."

NW News on 07/19/2015

Print Headline: Downtown housing booms in Bentonville

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