Parking lots and parking structures are all that is left to mark many of the stately buildings unceremoniously erased from downtown Hot Springs’ architectural mosaic.
Professors from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design warned that leaving only concrete and asphalt where the Majestic Hotel once stood would perpetuate an unfortunate pattern.
“One observation we’ve made is that when Hot Springs demolishes a building, when Hot Springs takes away a building, what usually goes in its place afterwards is less than what was there before, both in terms of density and quite often in terms of relationship to the street,” associate professor Greg Herman said at a community forum held by the city earlier this month to gather public input on the redevelopment of the Majestic property.
Showing before and after pictures of buildings replaced by parking facilities, Herman compared the lack of infill downtown with a smile that’s had teeth knocked out of it. His presentation included the Aristocrat Manor Apartments’ parking structure, which supplanted the Hot Springs Opera House.
Opened in 1882, the Victorian building gave way to the parking structure in 1961, Herman said.
“This loss is not entirely about style,” he said. “The loss is the fact that in the opera house you have a very strong street definition with that building. You have something that appears to be a city building that holds an edge.”
The Milwaukee Hotel was an Exchange Street fixture for 80 years. The Garland County Historical Society said it was built in 1896 and torn down in 1976. The city’s multilevel Exchange Street Parking Plaza now occupies the space.
The parking lot across from the old Majestic Hotel on Park Avenue leaves the streetscape undefined, Herman said. The historical society said it was the setting for the Rockefeller Hotel, built in 1901 and demolished in 1962.
“It’s a prime example of underuse of the site,” Herman said. “This is what I mean when I say something is demolished and what is put back is less. This is the perfect example of that.”
The old St. Joseph’s Hospital infirmary, on the campus of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, is scheduled to become the next architectural void. The city-owned building, which the historical society said was built in 1927, will be razed within 16 months of the school relocating its mechanical systems from the structure, according to an agreement between the school and city.
“I think that would be a grievous mistake for Hot Springs,” Herman said. “For those of you concerned about it, you have the opportunity to rally around it before anything like that can happen. It’s my understanding it will be replaced by open space. If we lose that, we’ve knocked out still more teeth in the smile of Hot Springs.”
Open space/parking was the fifth-most-popular concept to emerge from the community forum, ranking behind a water feature/public gathering space, resort hotel, re-creating the Majestic Hotel and a water display. Only installing large-scale artwork or a mixed-use space were less popular concepts.
Professor Noah Billig said parking shouldn’t be a prime consideration.
“If this is going to be a grand vision for Hot Springs, we have to think about what Hot Springs is going to be in 2050 and 2100,” he said. “How much do we need to prioritize parking when there’s already a lot of free parking in downtown Hot Springs? We encourage people to think critically about the need for parking. We certainly don’t want that to be the prioritized land use on the site.”
The university will use the resident input and suggestions that the city has received via its website to develop a report and renderings, forming the basis for the request for proposals that the city expects to send out next month.
The city said earlier this year that $50,000 for the Majestic property redevelopment in the 2019 budget will pay for the university’s work. The money could also be used for an updated property survey or the request for proposals. The city has already invested more than $2 million acquiring the 5-acre property, demolishing condemned structures and clearing it of environmental liabilities.
Herman said a dynamic streetscape framed by buildings should be the pre-eminent concept, reversing the trend of open spaces that deprive downtown of shape and substance.
“If you walk along Bathhouse Row and through the historic north Central Avenue area, you will notice the most successful places, the places that people most want to be, are the places where buildings form a strong edge, and the space of the street is a very carefully defined public space,” Herman said. “If you eliminate those components, you have lost your city.”