Fayetteville council delays parking deck decision again

Depot Lot / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

It will be at least another two weeks before City Council members decide where people will park once the Walton Arts Center parking lot is gone.

The council on Tuesday tabled a resolution of intent to build a new parking deck on what’s known as the Depot Lot, a privately-owned parking lot at the northwest corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue.

It was the second meeting in a row that the council put off the decision, which was first delayed in mid-December after hours of debate. Tuesday’s meeting also included several hours of discussion, and lasted until nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday.

The upcoming Cultural Arts Corridor project includes redeveloping the existing parking lot at West Avenue and Dickson Street across from the Walton Arts Center into a civic plaza, so the question is where to build replacement parking for the 298 parking spaces that will be lost. Voters last April approved a bond measure that included $10 million for a new parking deck, and stipulated that construction on the civic plaza could not begin until a new deck is built and ready for use.

Options narrowed

The Depot Lot was one of three locations up for consideration for the deck, along with the city-owned East Lot next to Kingfish on School Avenue, and the site currently home to Nadine Baum Studios across from TheatreSquared at the corner of Spring Street and West Avenue.

The Nadine Baum site was removed from consideration Tuesday, but not without a lengthy debate that first began last month.

City staff said the property, which is jointly owned by the city and University of Arkansas, won’t work unless the city replaces the building somewhere nearby. The cost of replacement, staff said, could potentially double the price of the project, making it financially unfeasible.

Several members of the Fayetteville Housing Authority in December asked the council allowing the FHA to partner in the development of residential and commercial space in liner buildings if a deck were built on the Nadine Baum site. A partnership with a non-profit like the FHA, they said, could bring low-cost capital and allow for the construction of mixed-income housing units. The members requested a stakeholders meeting to explore the idea, but after meeting with representatives from the city, UA, and Walton Arts Center on Monday, there was no mutual interest in the idea.

City Attorney Kit Williams told the council he doesn’t believe the city can legally use bond funds to help build public housing units as part of the parking deck project.

“No matter how much the City Council may like and want to support public housing, the Arts Corridor Improvement Bonds may not be used for this purpose,” he wrote in Dec. 19 memo. “Please also remember that the Supreme Court has often held that a government may not do something indirectly which it cannot do directly. Therefore, the city should not try to finesse our lack of authority to use this bond revenue to support public housing.”

Update: Evelyn Rios Stafford, vice chair of the FHA, reached out to the Flyer to offer some clarification about the FHA’s intent. Stafford included a Dec. 20 letter to Mayor Jordan from the FHA in response to Williams’ memo. “While (Williams) is correct that the city cannot legally use bond funds to help build public housing units, his memo did not address what the FHA was actually proposing,” said Stafford. The FHA’s intent, she said, was to create liner buildings that would have commercial space, creative maker space, and 52 mixed-income housing units, not public housing.

Council member Kyle Smith, who’d previously proposed a resolution encouraging the council to consider all three locations, backed off that idea Tuesday in light of the stakeholders meeting. His amended resolution passed 7-1, effectively removing the Nadine Baum site from consideration. Council Member Teresa Turk voted against.

Depot Lot proposal

Mayor Jordan’s staff have negotiated an agreement to purchase a portion of the Depot Lot from Greg House’s Fayetteville Depot, LLC and the Bank of Fayetteville. The purchase would also include a land swap that would give House 0.2 acres to build a three-story, mixed-use building on the north end of the planned civic plaza across Dickson Street.

City staff said they prefer the Depot Lot because it has the highest potential for including mixed-use structures that could bring in significant property and sales tax revenues. The East Lot, they said, is too small for much more than just a deck.

Conceptual parking deck project layout on the Depot Lot / City of Fayetteville

The estimated cost to build a deck on the Depot Lot is $9.9 million, which includes the proposed land acquisition fees. Building on the East Lot would also be about $9.9 million, staff said.

A conceptual drawing shows a 400-space parking deck, a 9,600-square-foot liner building, and a 100-room hotel with a bank on the Depot Lot. All of the buildings on the west side of the lot – including Arsaga’s at the Depot – would be preserved.

Arsaga’s owner Cary Arsaga told the Flyer in October he was worried about the future of his restaurant if the deck were to be built in the Depot Lot.

“I feel like it could destroy my business if it was hidden behind a parking deck,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to be trying to operate there during construction.”

Sterling Hamilton, a commercial real estate agent with Sage Partners who negotiated a letter of intent between House and the city, said the plan is to minimize the impact of the project on Arsaga’s and even mentioned compensating the restaurant during construction.

Joe Fennel, who owns Bordinos, said he prefers the Depot Lot. He said he knows the proposal makes the Arsaga family uncomfortable, and as a fellow business owner, he understands those concerns. But, he said he trusts the mayor and Sterling Hamilton when they say their plan is to ensure the best possible outcome for Arsaga’s.

Several residents have spoken against the proposal. Some cited concerns about having a parking deck overshadowing Arsaga’s. Others said they’re uncomfortable with buying land using public money and then conveying some of that to a private developer.

Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said he favors the Depot Lot because it presents more opportunity for economic development.

Several council members said they’re more comfortable with the Depot Lot proposal after seeing the concept plan, but wanted more time to consider the idea, and asked when more details of the project would be available.

Susan Norton, the mayor’s newly appointed chief of staff, said the current proposal is just a resolution of intent to proceed with the agreement. Specific design details, she said, would come in separate city agenda items.

The council voted 8-0 to table the resolution for another two weeks. The discussion will continue Jan. 21.