Little Rock’s East Village on the rise
January 29 - February 4, 2018
Story by Becca Bona
Successful neighborhood revitalization relies on teamwork. From private investors and committed businesses, to engaged residents and a strong community, East Village is the up-and-coming neighborhood in Little Rock.
Choosing a home base: Cromwell & The Paint Factory
One hundred and thirty years ago, Cromwell Architects Engineers was operating in a small office downtown. In 1975, Mr. Cromwell wanted to move to an area of downtown that needed some TLC. He wanted to prove that it was possible to make a positive impact in a place by becoming a staunch part of it.
After the building at 101 South Spring Street was built, a myriad of development ensued over the years – including the renovation of the Old State House, the eventual construction of the Stephens Building, and the construction of the Little Rock Marriot, then-known as the Excelsior Hotel. On top of that, the Capital Hotel was renovated, and eventually, the Chamber and Convention Centers were built, paving the way for a vibrant area. The recent renovation of Robinson Auditorium provided a prime opportunity for Cromwell to make a move – literally.
“We had a generational opportunity to sell this building,” says Dan Fowler, Director of Finance and Business Development for the firm. “With that opportunity came responsibility to do something to reinvest in the community and do some positive things for Little Rock and Central Arkansas.”
Downtown was home base. “We had no intentions of leaving, so we looked west and east – east is where we ended up,” says Fowler.
Cromwell landed at 1300 East 6th Street – a prime location in an area of the city that needed some fresh investment, life, and activity.
The firm purchased the building, which was originally built in 1947 and finished in ‘49. Designed as a paint factory for a company called Stebbins & Roberts – the producers of Sterling Paint, the current iteration of the building consists of the old warehouse and distribution offices, as the majority of the actual production factory was torn down over the years.
The 50,000 square foot building will serve a variety of purposes, housing the firm on the first floor, as well as Cathead’s Diner – a collaboration between local chef Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks. The second floor consists of 16 industrial apartments known as 12 Star Flats – with one of the best views of the downtown skyline.
Considering the history of the space, the firm dubbed the building the Paint Factory, and commissioned a mural exhibiting the industrial vibe of the East Village by local artist Jose Hernandez on the eastern-most wall.
“It’s a real testament to the industrial feel of the neighborhood as a whole,” says Fowler. The project could be complete as soon as February, with apartments available for rent.
Beyond the Paint Factory, Fowler and the firm have been heavily involved with the East Village as a whole. “My job is to lead the development of the Paint Factory, yes,” explains Fowler, “but also to work with our development partners Moses Tucker to really develop the area and build visibility.”
East Little Rock: Warehouse district gains momentum
Bordered by 1-30, the Arkansas River, the Little Rock National Airport, and 9th Street, the area now known as the East Village was home to those working small subsidy farms in the low-lying bottom land east of Little Rock as far back as the early 1800s.
East Little Rock gained industrial traction thanks to the proximity of the river, along with the very active Missouri Pacific and Rock Island Railroads that were prime in the late 1800s.
Businesses like the Southern Ice Company, a furniture warehouse, Darragh Building Supplies – which is still there today – and the Stebbins & Roberts Paint Factory, among others, all called the area home all before 1950.
The area was alive and well as an industrial anchor point, but as businesses closed or relocated, became home to many open lots and spaces, priming the pump for new businesses to move in.
“What we’ve done,” explains Fowler, “is really try to set the tone for the quality, character, the feel […] that really make a place unique, and makes a place a place, not just a collection of buildings. We’re trying to build a neighborhood.”
Such a goal wouldn’t be possible without an influx of activity in the early 2000s. The Clinton Presidential Center was completed in 2001, and in 2006, Heifer International Headquarters followed suit.
The area was ideal to Heifer for a couple of reasons – “[We] specifically chose the East Village area (before it was called that) because it was near downtown, adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center and it would allow for room to grow,” says Tom Spinnato, Director of Facilities Management & Global Properties.
Heifer reclaimed an industrial waste space and rehabilitated it to make it clean and useable. “We invested in green technologies and were awarded the first-ever Platinum LEED certification in Arkansas,” he continues, “We are grateful to our neighbors, both new and old who want to contribute positively to this neighborhood.”
This caused a spark, that although upset by the hiccups of the 2007-8 economic crisis, was enough to gain momentum, as Fowler says, “Around that time, you started to see people really looking in the area, asking, ‘Property is freeing up, what is going to happen here?’”
In 2010, the activity prickled when Rocktown Distillery opened their doors – although the company now has plans to relocate to the South Main area – their entry was enough to pave the way for Lost Forty Brewing and Rebel Kettle Brewing Co.
Fowler calls those in this wave of new businesses pioneers, saying, “It’s an edgy neighborhood, but businesses are willing to come for the right reasons and right experiences.”
Now a fixture in the area, Lost Forty has seen plenty of changes since opening in 2014 – “At that time, our immediate area was mostly occupied by warehouse spaces, large industrial spaces, and business-to-business storefronts. We were excited to join Rock Town Distillery in exposing the craft of our locally made product by bringing guests into the very place of production,” explains Amber Brewer, Branding and Marketing Director for Yellow Rock Concepts – the proprietary group behind Lost Forty.
Lost Forty has high hopes for the continued development of the East Village, as Brewer continues, “Watching this truly wonderful industrial part of Little Rock with such a rich history grow as a result of local investment and out of love for the revitalization of downtown is thrilling.”
The team behind Rebel Kettle was directed to the East Village through Realtor David Carpenter. Co-owner Jason Polk says that his wife Kim was the one who with the vision – even before the East Village had a collective identity – “She said this is going to be an area of development – Heifer International and the Clinton Center aren’t going anywhere.”
A community grew quickly between neighbors, as Polk says, “The guys from Heifer were our first customers. […] Lost Forty would bring things over to help out when we were first trying to get our equipment running – we all have good relationships.”
As far as the future goes, Polk believes in his team, and the working together of business owners, investors and residents who call the area home. “I believe in the vision that Josh Davis, John Lee, and the team has for Rebel Kettle. […] I think with Moses Tucker, Cromwell, and even eStem’s new project – what all that brings will just continue to help the area grow.”
The investment continues not only on the commercial side, but on the residential side, as well. Lauren Frederick of Haybar Properties says, “We are investors in the East Village. I represent the owners – Bryan Hosto and Hank Kelley – who have recently purchased 405 Shall, which is the former Ace Glass building […] We’re huge players in the residential neighborhood, and we are strong advocates for getting the entire neighborhood revitalized.”
New kids on the block
Looking at other revitalization projects in Central Arkansas like the River Market, Argenta Arts District, and Southside Main Street, Fowler says, “Our Central Arkansas community over the last ten, twenty years […] has shown a huge interest in authentic experiences.”
East Village even before it was “East Village” was a “cultural institution” on its own, rich in history, industry, and production. The introduction of eStem’s new campus in the July of 2018 – more than doubling their student capacity with a new elementary and junior high – will have a direct impact on the area.
Dr. John Bacon, eStem CEO, says, “Our faculty, staff, students, and parents are looking forward to belonging to another dynamic community in Little Rock, and we are proud to be among the first wave of this redevelopment.”
The charter school has a history of becoming a part of their surrounding neighborhood as seen at their downtown and university district campuses, as Bacon continues, “We are confident that opening new schools in the East Village will prove beneficial for our students and the community alike.”
With all the action on Shall Street and beyond – the future redevelopment of Ace Glass, the soon-vacant Rock Town Distillery building, and the hopeful completion of Rock City Marina, Fowler believes that the area will grow fast.
“What I want people to know about East Village is that when we get there, it will be unlike anything that we have seen anywhere in Central Arkansas. I think it will be the coolest area that this city has.”
Cromwell Architects Engineers will soon be headquartered at 1300 East 6th Street, aka, The Paint Factory. (Photo by Susan Fowler)
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cromwell moved to their Spring Street location upon opening 130 years ago. It has been edited to indicate a correct timeline.