Downtown Bentonville loses sleepy image as growth draws crowds

BENTONVILLE — The city’s downtown is growing rapidly.

Multi-storey buildings are under construction. New shops and restaurants continue to appear in and around the town center square. Events like the Farmer’s Market draw large crowds.

It’s a far cry from the sleepy downtown of less than 15 years ago.

“The plaza was closing at 5 p.m.,” said David Wright, the city’s director of parks and recreation since 2008. “That was the joke. It was perception. You had no trouble finding a parking space in the square. The opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011 certainly spurred development, but other moves taken years earlier also laid the groundwork for a downtown boom, according to Wright.

The downtown area is now an eclectic mix of housing and businesses. He even has the creation of a skyline as the Ledger and Peloton office buildings — both less than two blocks from the square — near completion. Both will include parking decks, and Peloton will feature an overhead bridge that connects it to its parking deck next to the Walmart Neighborhood Market.

These changes have been accompanied by steep increases in real estate prices, leading some to worry about the affordability of living in the area.

Last fall, City Council established the Housing Affordability Task Force to examine the availability and affordability of housing across the city. The group met four times.

“Housing in general is critical infrastructure, and the intent of the committee is simply to consider all available options,” said Bill Burckart, a city council member who is also a member of the committee. “We believe there are housing options at all price points downtown.” Money from a 2007 bond issue was a spark for the town centre, paying for work that included adding red brick sidewalks, improving pedestrian crossings around the square and upgrading roads , Wright said.

“We made it safe and walkable. It was an initial investment. Town centers across the country are dying, but ours is thriving,” he said.

Wright told then-Mayor Bob McCaslin that the city was teetering and missing with its downtown landscaping efforts. Wright wanted to change the mindset of everyday landscaping to think of the square as a public garden instead.

“The square has a real sense of place. The square is Benton-ville’s living room,” Wright said.

Jeff Mores and his family moved to Bentonville in February 2007 from Minneapolis when his wife, Tammy, took a job at Walmart. He said they immediately fell in love with the downtown’s retrograde charm, but it was very different from what it is today.

“A large office supply store that spanned most of the block where Table Mesa Bistro now stands had just closed,” he said. “So this block was empty. The only restaurant on – or even near – the plaza that I can remember was The Station, right next to Walton’s 5&10. But the bones of success were already there, he said. The city had just redone the streetscape. Downtown Bentonville Inc. had started building the Farmers Market and hosting events like First Fridays.

“Coming from big cities where everything is so spread out, it was exciting to see the community come together,” Mores said. “There was so much potential just waiting to happen with downtown Bentonville. And we could see it.

A CONSTRUCTION BOOM

Downtown has seen a building boom since 2012, with more than 300 residential and commercial building permits issued just in a two-block area around the square in the past 10 years or so, according to Jake Feemster, head of the construction and fire safety division. .

Bentonville’s population grew from 35,301 to 54,164 – a growth rate of 53% – from 2010 to 2020.

Ropeswing Hospitality Group, a company backed by Steuart and Tom Walton, has opened several downtown businesses in recent years, including Press-room and The Preacher’s Son restaurants and the Record event venue.

“What our community has created here is a lifestyle – filled with unique outdoor, cultural and artistic experiences and year-round adventures like horseback riding, flying, running, hiking, art seeking and more – and downtown Bentonville is the hub for it,” said Krista Cupp, Vice President of Community Affairs for Runway Group.

“People want what we have, to be in this amazing place to live, work and play. We know we still have a lot of work to do; growth and change can feel overwhelming, but the opportunity they create for us to build together is remarkable. We all have a role to play in making this a welcoming and vibrant community for all. It’s a collaborative effort.” The 21c Museum Hotel, just northeast of the square, has opened in 2013. It is a 104-room boutique hotel, contemporary art museum, cultural center and The Hive restaurant, according to its website.

A neighborhood market opened to the northwest of the square in 2015. Thaden School, a private school for students in grades 6-12, opened in 2017 to the southeast of the center- town, on what was once the Benton County Fairgrounds.

The public library at 405 S. Main St. is also planning an expansion. Updated plans show a 22,975 square foot addition to the existing 38,500 square foot building.

A $3.1 million project that opened this year added 5,500 square feet to the historic 28,000 square foot county courthouse.

Tyler Overstreet, director of planning services, said the variable that signals the health of downtown development is the mix of development types.

The Bentonville Community Plan emphasizes the importance of thoughtful growth while prioritizing a sense of place, community character and quality of life. Developments that vary in scale, density and land use show movement towards these goals, he said. The plan is the official overall plan for the city.

There are more than 100 businesses in and around the downtown plaza, according to Downtown Bentonville Inc.

Downtown Bentonville Inc. took over management of the long-established Bentonville Farmers’ Market 20 years ago.

New events have been created. First Fridays, which was launched in 2007, draws 6,000 to 8,000 people to downtown each month from April to November, Heath said.

Parks have also flourished downtown. Over the past decade, the city has renovated Dave Peel Park on Central Avenue and built Lawrence Plaza and the Downtown Activity Center. The Razorback Greenway also runs through downtown.

The Quilt of Parks project began as an effort to improve existing city center parks and plazas by adding new green spaces, plazas and gardens and putting them together in a cohesive, pedestrian-friendly way.

BIGGER BUILDINGS, MORE PARKING

The Planning Commission in November 2020 approved the large-scale development of the Peloton office building.

The property is located at 215 NW A St., southwest of the Church of the Nazarene in Benton-ville and directly west of the previously approved Peloton parking garage. The site is 1.27 acres, according to planning documents. Plans call for the construction of a 175,000 square foot office building.

The Walton Family Foundation will have offices in the building.

At the August Benton County Quorum Court Committee of the Whole meeting, Mike Brown of District No. 3 Off-Street Parking Development announced that a parking deck would be constructed on the district property across the street. from the Benton County Administration Building on East Central Avenue. The Municipal Improvement District is not governed by the city or county. County employees now use this area for parking. Work on the parking lot has not yet started.

The Ledger building is a six-story bicycle structure designed with a wide view of downtown, according to its website.

The 230,000 square foot building will offer custom and private offices, co-working spaces and bookable spaces, according to its website. There will also be a parking deck associated with the building. Municipal employees will use the first floor of the terrace for their parking needs.

Developer Josh Kyles said the ledger should be done this year.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. It continues to grow and influence the regional economy. Museum officials also announced a 100,000 square foot expansion last year. A new car park is also being built at the museum.

Diane Carroll, director of communications and marketing for the museum, said the parking lot has 800 parking spaces. The project is about 50% complete. Pre-construction work on the expansion is underway, she said.

Crystal Bridges’ investment in the area continued with the February 2020 opening of Momentary, a 63,000 square foot multidisciplinary contemporary art space in what was once a Kraft Foods factory. The Momentary is approximately 1.5 miles from Crystal Bridges, near the 8th Street Market and along the Razorback Greenway.

A three-level car park at the Momentary with about 600 spaces opened in January, said Momentary public relations manager Angel Horne. The parking deck is part of the first phase of a development project south of Momentary, according to planning documents. Phase two plans include a multi-family housing development with 50 residential units and a small art gallery.

Walmart’s new home office is just on the outskirts of downtown. It will occupy approximately 350 acres on the east side of J Street between Central Avenue and 14th Street. Plans include 12 office buildings, as well as amenity buildings, parking lots and surface land. The development will be built in phases, according to a Walmart webpage.

David H. Henry