Saturday, October 10, 2009

When Economic Development Isn't Development at All: A Case Study from Hillcrest in Little Rock

No one has asked me for my take on a little tempest in a teapot brewing lately in my neighborhood. But since I posted a comment about it today at the Arkansas Times website and my comment was apparently censored (as in, not even uploaded), and since I sometimes react to censorship by pushing against it, I’m going to make a brief statement about the controversy on this blog.

This will probably be of no interest at all to those who don’t live in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock, unless you happen to be tracking the responses of historic neighborhoods to developments that, in the view of some residents, threaten the historic character of the neighborhood. Hillcrest is the first suburb of Little Rock, an area of cottages (and a few imposing houses) in various styles built from the turn of the 20th century into the first decades of the century. The neighborhood grew as the city’s first streetcar made travel possible up from the lower areas along the river in which the old city was founded. Literally up, since Hillcrest is built on higher land away from the river in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.

My family came here in 1947 when my mother and her siblings moved into town with their mother from a small town downriver. The war years had opened up the job market for women, and my mother and her four sisters wanted to be in the center of action, such action as there was in Arkansas. Little Rock afforded them opportunities for teaching and secretarial work that were scarce-to-non-existent in small-town and rural Arkansas.

When my parents married, they also settled in Hillcrest for a number of years, since my mother was exceptionally attached to her mother and insisted on living within a several-block radius from her, whenever that was possible. I grew up here until my father had had enough of the proximity to my grandmother and my mother’s siblings, and moved us to south Arkansas where he had been raised.

And then I came back here when my mother’s need for care in the final years of her life required that I do so. I came home to provide the care she needed as she approached death. And since I’m back here and have an interest in seeing the community thrive, I served for a year or so on its neighborhood residents’ association board several years back. That experience thoroughly familiarized me with the gamut of issues now being discussed all over again, as a new economic venture is being proposed in the neighborhood.

To be specific: what’s being proposed is a restaurant that would have a patio, which would be open late into the evening. As well as I understand the concept, it will be what’s now being called a “wine bar” in chic areas of the country—a place devoted, for the most part, to late-night drinks with a smattering of nibbles. I think the promoters are talking about wine and tapas.

This proposed development is eliciting a surprising amount of controversy in our neighborhood association’s blog, as well as in the latest issue of the statewide paper, the Arkansas Times. The discussion seems to fall into two main camps.

There are those for whom new developments pose the threat of altering the historic character of the neighborhood in an incremental way: open the door here, and something else will follow, something even more threatening to the neighborhood. And there are those for whom “development” in and of itself seems an attractive concept, something that tends normally to enhance a neighborhood and not threaten its historic character.

This is a mixed neighborhood, in that its main street, a winding boulevard that was originally the streetcar’s path up the hill, is lined with all kinds of shops, from grocery stores to small boutiques to pet clinics and restaurants, a garden center, and a post office. Theoretically, one more new restaurant shouldn’t tip the balance, and the location of this one is an empty spot in a renovated old ice house building that most of us would like to see full of stores and restaurants.

So it’s hard, on the surface, to understand what is causing the furor. At first glance, it seems to be all about the neighbors whose houses will abut most closely onto the wine-and-tapas patio, and who have legitimate concerns about having their privacy invaded, their houses surrounded by cars, and an ongoing party during the night in their back yards.

But I am coming to think there’s more to this controversy than meets the eye. And that’s what engages my interest and makes me want to speak out about it.

This is about more than one new development. It’s about one in a series of developments that have been foisted on the neighborhood in recent years which, cumulatively, do pose a very real threat to the “balance” of the neighborhood. In fact, in the more affluent old suburb up the hill from us, Pulaski Heights, we can see at close hand precisely what will happen to our community if we’re not vigilant and if we don’t push back hard against the “developers” who claim they are coming into our little neighborhood to do us a favor, while their real motive is to put money into their pockets.

Pulaski Heights is the old-money area of the city. It contains, I suspect, a higher percentage of neoconservative voters than Hillcrest, which is a Democratic, liberal bastion, does. Unlike Hillcrest, Pulaski Heights has generally resisted ordinances or proposals that would limit what any property owner wants to do with his or her property.

As a result, what was once a sleepy, charming neighborhood with a mix of small early 20th-century cottages and grand mansions is now rapidly turning into an architectural nightmare, as “developers” tear down the cottages and build garish, godawful new McMansions on the small lots. Some of these McMansions have zero lot lines. The house literally covers the entire span of the lot. Invariably, when these monstrosities go up, beautiful old trees are cut down to make room for them.

There’s a stalwart core group in Hillcrest that has resisted this kind of development for years now, and they’ve been somewhat successful in getting a few mild ordinances enacted to limit the kind of development that can take place in our neighborhood. But this resistance has come at a steep price: each time a new development comes along, there’s another line drawn in the sand, with developers pushing as hard as they can against the limitations on what they want to do in order to put money into their pockets. And there is, indeed, an incremental effect as these developers push slightly beyond the limits over and over again.

While I was sitting on the neighborhood association board, a group of developers proposed to tear down a set of somewhat decrepit houses in an area bordering one of several beautiful parks in the neighborhood, and to build “tasteful” mini-McMansions on the razed lots. Some stout advocates of resistance fought hard against this development on the grounds that the new houses would be out of character (larger than and in newer styles than local houses), and would also pose ecological threats to the park against which they’re built.

Despite this resistance, the proposal to build the houses passed the neighborhood association and then got city approval, though there were some serious red flags about the proposal that should have been warning signs of what was to come, had we only paid attention to them. For instance, in the hearing at the neighborhood association regarding the development, the developers were curiously unable to give us any concrete pictures of or plans for the buildings to be erected. We were essentially asked to sign a blank check, as we voted on the new development.

And when we did so, we found we’d signed a fool’s check, since the buildings turned out to be larger—higher and wider—than we’d been assured they would be. And at that point, it was too late to do anything to change things, and our representative on the city council, whose real base lies in the no-holds-barred-develop-anything Pulaski Heights neighborhood, did nothing to support the neighborhood as it complained about violations of our neighborhood association’s regulations by the developers.

I should have known what was coming when I observed the body language of the developers the evening of the hearing with the neighborhood association. I arrived early that evening and held the door for them. Not one of them offered me even a hint of thanks as I performed that service for them. They were clearly people without couth, people who were all about their own profit and everyone else be damned. All walked through the door haughtily and angrily, as if a thing and not a person were holding the door for them. And I even knew one of these folks personally—she grew up in the same town in which I grew up.

These were people out for money, nothing more, nothing less. And I should have known it by their lack of any grace as they met with representatives of the community they were offering to “develop,” but in which they don’t live, and asked us to sign a blank check for the developmental favor they wanted to do for us that evening.

For me, that experience was an eye-opening experience, and because of it, I’m entirely on the side of those now standing against the new development in our neighborhood. I’m tired, frankly, of seeing folks whose motive is profit pure and simple posture as saviors of the community in which I live—a neighborhood in which they themselves don’t even deign to live.

I’m tired of being told that the latest watering hole for young singles with disposable income (the one now being considered is one in a series that has opened here in recent months) is good for me, though I don’t have the slightest interest in noshing high-priced nibbles as I knock back high-priced cocktails with local singles. I recognize, of course, that that demographic needs its “venues,” and I don’t oppose places that try to meet that demographic need.

What concerns me is the absurd pretense of real-estate developers who masquerade as restaurateurs, and who try to convince me that they are all about 1) purveying gourmet tidbits to culture-deprived yokels, 2) and that I stand in need of their said high-class eats to learn a bit of sophistication, and that 3) this is all about their concern for my neighborhood and enhancing its culture.

It’s not. It’s all about money. And money is just not a good enough motive to permit someone to disrupt the character of an historic community, solely for his or her own profit.