Pettaway neighborhood revitalization underway in downtown area
January 17-23, 2022
By Chloe McGehee
At the corner of 21st and Rock Street in downtown Little Rock, the center of the Pettaway neighborhood is now under construction.
What the community is building is Pettaway Square, a new commercial district to accompany the revitalization and growth of the historic neighborhood that loosely includes segments of Roosevelt Avenue, Main Street, Arkansas Highway 630, and I-30, where downtown construction is underway.
Heading the movement is Michael Orndorff, who moved to Pettaway in 2014 and started building homes on empty lots. In 2017, Orndorff and others in the community started looking into commercial opportunities for the neighborhood, new funding and Pettaway Square was born.
Orndorff said Pettaway already had a history of commercial success and promise. It used to only be a commercial district and has four standing structures already with a few active businesses inside. Orndorff saw the potential for a small business district. Building up the historic community was slow-moving at first, especially with not many local homeowners wanting to move there.
“We built five houses in 2015 and got off to a rough start,” Orndorff said. “We couldn’t sell houses [and] couldn’t rent houses. We had to Airbnb them, we had to trick people to come to our neighborhood because the reputation that we did have was a bad one. We had to overcome that and build a new perception.”
Also, a lot had to be done to make Pettaway a desirable place for new people to move into. Only six blocks from the SoMa neighborhood, it had a good location but needed some work, Orndorff explained. The community planted trees all around, repaired the sidewalks that run through the community, and built houses that were inviting on the exterior. They also did work on neighboring roads such as Rock Street, where they are building new houses and repairing a lot of the same things as in Pettaway. Now, Orndorff estimates he has built 40 plus houses in the neighborhood, not including Pettaway Square and other commercial buildings.
Pettaway also has congested foot and vehicular traffic, which Orndorff knows is not always desirable for everyone.
“Initially everyone wanted to live north of 17th Street, well now everybody wants to be north of 21st Street,” Orndorff said. “You have to work through and overcome that. North of 17th wasn’t always nice, like somebody was that person who made us feel comfortable, and we need [people] to be that person. A lot of people just aren’t willing, and that’s totally fine with us. That’s a trial we have to face.”
The main reasons Orndorff believes people started to see the value in Pettaway was because of the unique community, diversity of people and businesses, and location. It is also close to the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, downtown’s SoMa, the River Market district and connected to MacArthur Park.
“I am proud of how tight-knit the community is,”
Orndorff said. “[People] just want relationships, so in almost every case we put a big front porch, and we put garages in the back. We don’t build privacy fences. I want community to happen more naturally as people are coming home and going back and forth to their car, as they’re walking their kids to school, or if they’re just going for a walk.”
Despite the promise and strength of the community, the inner-city neighborhood had to face many trials to get back to where it is today. The pandemic, supply issues and inflation as well as theft have affected the project. None of this deterred the community, as Pettaway Square is on track to open within a year, Orndorff hopes.
“I didn’t have any experience doing commercial, so I didn’t actually know what to expect. Next thing you know, there’s a pandemic and everybody acted irrationally, including myself. Everything costs double, everything is impossible to get ahold of. [Plants] couldn’t find labor because everyone was out with COVID.”
Orndorff added: “Tariffs were put in place and some plants shut down. Now demand has increased. It’s been tough. I’m going to wait 16 weeks on my garage doors, something I would normally expect to be either in stock or two weeks out. I’m having to make mistakes. I said I made 1000 mistakes the other day, but that’s just the mistakes I know about. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but no one else is coming. We have to do it because no one else is going to do it. And we’ll do it the right way.”
Orndorff has a lot more plans for the future of the neighborhood once Pettaway Square is complete. This includes developing the three other corner lots around the square and building smaller homes to accommodate lower-income families. The Pettaway neighborhood already has some of this development, Orndorff explained, including a thriving tiny-house scene.
“So, you have this ecosystem, this super-efficient type ecosystem [in Pettaway Square] and then you have six storefronts that hopefully are supporting this micro ecosystem,” Orndorff said. “In addition to that, there’s some office spaces that are already rented out and then there are going to be eight apartments.”
“I have a one-year-old and I have a three-year-old and for me, it’s important that they are raised in an environment where they see people starting businesses and running businesses in their neighborhood,” Orndorff continued. “I like the efficiency of it; that we’re going to be able to walk to the space and go to farmers markets in the actual square. I think that we will be a destination and my hope is if we’re really successful, won’t be a destination for long: this will just see how people decide to develop every neighborhood. Every neighborhood needs to be walkable. Every neighborhood needs to be developed in a way that puts people first and not cars. Keep that money as local as you can for as long as you can. This is just a sustainable way to live.”
Currently, Pettaway Square is set to have a microbrewery, a coffee shop and a yoga studio when it opens, along with hosting food trucks outside. Orndorff emphasized the importance of small and local businesses in the square, something many in the community are passionate about.
“It’s definitely possible all across Arkansas. You know this is just a small-town value where we get away from developing in a way that only caters to big box stores because how do I identify with that?” Orndorff said. “We want a place worth caring about. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to build, not a Walmart that turns into a Burlington that turns into a skating rink that future generations don’t care about. I hope that we’re building a place that is worth caring about and is worth protecting and preserving.”
1. Construction has begun in downtown Little Rock on the new Pettaway Square, a new commercial district to accompany the revitalization and growth of the historic inner-city neighborhood. (Photo by Dero Sanford of ThinkDero Photography)
2.Artist rendering for the Pettaway Square development in downtown Little Rock. Project, which is on schedule to be completed next year, will include a microbrewery, a coffee shop, and a yoga studio, along with space to host food truck vendors. (Artist mock-up from Michael Orndorff.)