Change For A Corridor: Development Along Little Rock's Kanis Rd.

May 15, 2015

Apartments being constructed along Kanis Road
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

    

As Little Rock continues to see a steady development pattern toward the north west corner of the city, the rapid expansion along one corridor, Kanis Road, has brought pause to some area residents and developers who've been at odds.

In January of this year, the Little Rock City Planning Commission considered two proposals for multi-family apartment units along Kanis Rd.

Chi was proposing Phase 2 of that development and said construction on the units would be accompanied by hundreds of thousands of dollars in infrastructure improvements.

“Because in the past it has experienced a lot of, not neglect, but it's been relatively undeveloped and property values have been stagnant and has not seen a lot of improvement until recently,” he told the 13 member commission.

But the proposals faced a largely negative response by area residents who said plans still would not address major concerns about infrastructure, like the crumbling but oft-traveled two-lane Kanis Road.

The planning commission unanimously denied Chi and Rowan Development the permits to build the units. But the prospect of further development remains.

“Little Rock's never been a real high growth market, but it's a growing market, steadily growing. And I think it will continue to march out to the west-central and northwest, because that's where the available land is,” said Ted Bailey, a consultant with the Multi-Family Group.

Bailey analyzes the regional demand for apartment buildings. Talking at a local coffee shop, he says the demand for medium to high end apartments is especially high for millennials, who are increasingly less likely to buy single-family homes.

“Trying to get a mortgage nowadays, it's a little tougher process. Even though some lenders are starting to loosen their standards. So it's harder to qualify for a loan. It's harder to come up with a down-payment, because their paying back student debt. The economy has hurt them. They've been hurt more than other age groups. And plus, they have a propensity to lease anyway,” he said.

Cathi Watkins and Jena McDonnell
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

At the corner of Cooper Orbit and Kanis, work is underway on a 168-unit apartment complex called Panther Branch. Its approval mobilized those who felt the city was approving unheedful development too quickly.

“We don't want our property values to go down because it's cement city on Kanis and you can't get into our homes or out of our homes. So we're just trying to work with what's happening and be a little more realistic,” said Jena McDonnell is the president of the Woods Hole Property Owners Association.

She and Cathi Watkins of the Spring Valley Manor Neighborhood have been working on plans for a special zoning code requiring 'low-impact' residential and commercial structures, also known as a Design Overlay District. It would be established with the hope of maintaining as much of the natural character of the land as possible.

“The land already has curves. It has soil. It has soil that's growing plants now, so that's good soil. Why scrape it off and put it back? If you keep that soil, if you keep the plants, it could actually be more cost effective,” said Watkins.

On a tour of the neighborhood, they point out the area's infrastructure needs, like wider roads and traffic signals.

City code requires developers to improve land immediately adjacent to their property. But the city, with idling sales tax revenue and lack of support for development impact fees, seems unlikely to devote enough spending to infrastructure in the near future.

“Developing a corridor is a little bit like growing a plant,” said Jacob Chi.

Jacob Chi presents development plans before the Little Rock City Planning Commission in January.
Credit littlerock.org

Chi says he understands developers have to adhere to a delicate balance between catering to demand for housing and improving the land.

“You have to sow the seed first to get things going in order for development to occur the way it's supposed to,” he said.

Chi says it’s irresponsible of residents to think they can affect the nature of development without actually owning the land.

Others, like City Director Lance Hines, who represents a large part of the corridor, worry that over- regulating the area will have a negative effect on real estate investment.

But Cathi Watkins says, whatever happens along the corridor will have repercussions in neighboring areas.

“So if development is coming then we need it to be something we can live with because we're here for the long term. This neighborhood was built fifty years ago. And you can see it's still beautiful. We still take care of it.”

Watkins says the Design Overlay District may be the way to keep up that tradition.

For now, though, developers of the Kanis Corridor, who had previously been involved in meetings with citizens planning the Design Overlay District have recently stopped participating in the meetings. But those area residents hope that they can convince them to come back to what will likely be a months-long drafting process.