PopUp looks on Main
SOMA organizer discusses the design vision for the neighborhood and community involvement.
James Meyer is a project designer with Witsell Evans Rasco Architects/Planners and associate director of the American Institute of Architects Arkansas Chapter. He is the marketing and public relations chair for studioMAIN.
Q: For those who may have missed the buzz over the last year or so, let me start by asking you to tell me a little about studioMAIN. What is it, in a nutshell, and what does the group do?
A: StudioMAIN is a public outreach and community design center that works toward educating the general public about the role of good design in their daily lives and advocates the positive effects good design provides to cities and communities.
We function as a design collaboration between all parts of the design and construction industries, including architects, landscape architects, urban designers, contractors and artists. Our hope is that studioMAIN will provide a place for people to learn more about some of the great design efforts in our city, and to be an incubator for even better ideas about the future of our city.
A key part of our mission is to foster collaboration and encourage multi-disciplinary partnerships between the design fields and other civic institutions. We feel this is a critical endeavor to help develop the future leaders of our city and institutions, and promote a better built environment.
Q: Part of your mission involves hosting exhibits in your office on South Main, right? And I’m told you have an exhibit schedule for the year already? Can you share details?
A: Yep, for the past year we have been hosting monthly exhibitions on local design and issues as part of the city’s Second Friday Art Nights, and have gotten lots of positive feedback. Thanks to this community input we have been able to craft a full and exciting schedule for this year.
In February we will have our Year-in-Review exhibit, which will be a great way for folks who missed some of last year’s exhibits to get caught up. In March, we will be holding a book fundraiser for the DLRCDC and the Pettaway Park Masterplan manual. In April we will hold a memorial exhibition for Rick Redden, a local architect who passed away last year after making incredible contributions to our downtown. In honor of the Arkansas Arts Center’s Bauhaus exhibit this summer, we will have an exhibit of buildings in Arkansas that were influenced by the Bauhaus style. June will bring us a juried student competition from the Fay Jones School of Architecture, and in July we will be exhibiting furniture by UALR Applied Design students. In August we will have a public showing of the finalists for the Envision Little Rock competition. We will hold another PopUp public planning and input in September. An exhibition about transportation called Bikes, Rails and Trails will be seen in October. We will host the Arkansas Design Awards in November showing works from local architects, landscape architects and interior designers. We will finish the year up with an event celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Nolen Masterplan for Little Rock.
Outside of our Second Fridays there are several events we hope to contribute to again, such as the Little Rock Film Festival. It’s definitely going to be a busy year.
Q: You mentioned there’s another PopUp event coming in the not too distant future. What can you tell me about that and the plans for it? What may be the same or different this time around?
A: PopUp Main Street gave us a wonderful opportunity to create a full-scale test for a “complete street” design that folks have been talking about in Little Rock for years. The City of Little Rock and Create Little Rock have been great partners for us with this event. We hope to keep this partnership of experimentation and placemaking going, and hold another PopUp event this year as well.
We are just beginning our process for the next PopUp event. Main Street, Seventh Street, Second Street and the Argenta area have all been mentioned as possible locations. We will have a few exploratory and organizing meetings before selecting the final location, and then we will start holding our public input and design sessions again in August of this year. We tentatively plan to hold the actual event in October or November.
Q: Speaking of plans, studioMAIN, in conjunction with the city and Keep Little Rock Beautiful, is hosting a design contest called Envision Little Rock. What’s that all about?
A: The Envision Little Rock competition is inspired by the 1913 masterplan for Little Rock that was created by renowned landscape architect John Nolen. Many of the components of this plan are things we still talk about and work on today. The particular portion that got our creative juices going was his proposal to convert Capitol Avenue into a “Pennsylvania Avenue for Little Rock,” with the State Capitol on the western edge and a train station on the east.
We loved this idea, but the train station was never built. Today, Capitol Avenue is one of the nicer streets downtown, with the Capitol building at the west end, but the east end just sort of dies into Interstate 30. So we started asking, how could we follow John Nolan’s plan and build a grand eastern terminus to Capitol Ave and a new gateway into Little Rock, and the Envision Little Rock competition was born. We have over $5,000 in prize money that will be awarded to professional, student and public winners later this year. The registration forms can be found on our website, and entrants have until March 1 to turn them in. Expect to hear much more about this in the coming months!
Q: Back in November, you guys sort of temporarily redesigned a stretch of about three city blocks with PopUp Main Street, including redrawing traffic lines seemingly overnight. I don’t suppose you’d care to take over the 430-630 overhaul? Could you guys fix that the same way?
A: Ha, sure, why not? Give us a bunch of trees and duct tape, a few adult libations, a free weekend or two, and I figure we could fix just about anything!
Q: Seriously, though, it seems like the suggestions were well received. I understand the city is in the process of making some of those features — like bike lanes — permanent? I assume you had some input with that? Anything else in the works that you know about?
A: We have had a great response to PopUp Main Street from both the public and the city. The folks at Public Works were very supportive and helpful during our design phase. It is our understanding that South Main Street will have permanent bike lanes installed, and will go down to two lanes of traffic with a dedicated center turn lane. We are really excited to see this become a reality, and look forward to its installation in the early part of this year!
Q: And what about you personally? As a Little Rocker (and in the architecture field, no less), what is your vision for the future of the capital city? What key thing do you think is missing or needs improvement?
A: The future for Little Rock is bright. We have a self-sufficient economy, a well-connected city structure, and the time is right for growth downtown. One of the largest recent trends in successful cities is re-densification, and with the plethora of surface parking downtown, Little Rock is full of opportunity.
One of the things that has surprised me the most over the last year is the sheer amount of people who are striving to do everything they can to improve our city. We founded studioMAIN to help build partnerships between these groups and build the critical mass that is needed to get things done. Everything Little Rock needs to succeed is here, we just need to take advantage of it.