REX NELSON: Betting on downtown
There was something reassuring last month when I saw a photo in this newspaper of veteran developer John Flake wearing his mask and pointing to the former Arkansas Power & Light Co. building off Interstate 630 in downtown Little Rock .
Flake has seen it all when it comes to commercial real estate development in Arkansas. For those of us who believe that downtown revitalization is important to all Arcansan, it is encouraging that this old war horse has not given up on the central business district.
Flake is one of a group of local investors who acquired the structure built in the 1950s. It was considered to be the city’s first major international-style building. It is located at 900 S. Louisiana St. and is on the National Register of Historic Places. What AP & L called an “energy ball” is still on the roof.
Flake’s business partners are James Hendren and David Payne. Hendren is a former executive director of Arkansas Systems Inc., one of the state’s early high-tech companies. He has a long history in the Arkansas technology sector. Payne is the chief financial officer of Curtis Stout Co., an electrical equipment and power solutions company based in Little Rock.
“This building will contain leading edge technology with lighting and ionization solutions that will keep tenants safe,” says Payne. “And we will have plenty of parking space for tenants and visitors.”
Flake plans to provide collaborative workspaces that include “amenities that appeal to many types of businesses, from law firms to technology.”
The four-story, 50,000 square meter complex will have offices, conference rooms and common rooms on each floor. A restaurant and a common lobby of 8,500 square meters are planned for the first floor. There will also be outdoor meeting and seating areas.
Flake says this project is more exciting for him than developing the 40-story skyscraper on Capitol Avenue now known as the Simmons Bank Tower. I find this comment meaningful.
At the time of development, the Capitol Avenue Tower was billed as the tallest office building between Dallas and Atlanta and between New Orleans and St. Louis. It was a big deal.
The look of downtown began to change in the late 1960s with the construction of main buildings for two Little Rock-based banks, Worthen and Union National. Worthen’s 23-story building was 375 feet tall, and Union National’s 22-story structure checked it at 331 feet. Both were taller than the Tower Building, which was built in 1960 by a group of investors led by Winthrop Rockefeller.
The future governor had moved from New York to Arkansas in 1953. The 18-story Tower Building was the tallest structure in Arkansas from 1960 to 1968 and replaced the Medical Arts Building in Hot Springs.
“Arkansas, like most of the nation, experienced a real estate boom in the late 1970s and 1980s,” writes historian Kenneth Bridges. “For decades, the State Capitol and its familiar dome dominated the Little Rock skyline. … In 1975 the First National Bank Building in downtown was completed. The $ 23 million skyscraper stood 454 feet by 30 stories. Later through the Merger of the Banks, it became known as the Regions Bank Tower, and for more than a decade it was the tallest in Little Rock and the state.
“In an ambitious collaboration in the early 1980s, Flake and AP&L President Jerry Maulden gave birth to a new skyscraper. The plan for the Capitol Tower was announced and the foundation stone was laid in 1984. The building rose on its property at the Capitol Avenue The bank building was right across the street and was soon overshadowed by its neighbor. Construction was completed in 1986. “
The Little Rock-based frozen yoghurt chain TCBY moved into the tower and received naming rights in 1991. TCBY was sold to Mrs. Fields Corp. in 2000. sold. A few years later, the Metropolitan National Bank bought the naming rights. In 2005, the bank added outside lights on the sides of the tower. The Simmons Bank of Pine Bluff acquired the Metropolitan National Bank in 2014 and with it the naming rights of the tower.
Revitalizing downtown Little Rock these days is no longer about building towers. Instead, it’s infill development; polishing old buildings. It’s what Flake, Hendren, and Payne are doing now. There are many additional options for developers. For example, the two tallest buildings on Main Street – Donaghey and Boyle – stand empty and ask for restoration.
Downtown Little Rock is likely to do well in the post-pandemic economic boom. The AC by Marriott, a fantastic restoration of two buildings on Capitol Avenue, opened just before the pandemic began. It will now be able to shine. Further west on Capitol Avenue, Parth Patel has begun a multi-million dollar renovation of the historic hotel that Rockefeller named Sam Peck in 1953 in Arkansas. Patel promised a facility that “will make you proud”.
Recently, Priority1, a fast-growing, Little Rock-based logistics company, teamed up with Flake to bet on downtown. Priority1 signed a 20,618 foot lease covering the entire sixth floor of the Lyon building at 401 W. Capitol Ave. includes.
Flake is betting on more residents, more hotels, more restaurants and more corporate offices in the city center. He calls the restoration of the AP&L building “an exciting project that we believe will bring even more energy to downtown Little Rock.”
Given his decades of experience, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.