Developers seek to establish Urban Land Institute chapter in Northwest Arkansas

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 435 views 

Jeremy Hudson is excited about the interest from other Northwest Arkansas developers, lenders and builders in establishing a local chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for responsible use of land and creating and sustaining thriving communities.

The Oklahoma Chapter visited Northwest Arkansas on April 28-29 touring walkable communities in Fayetteville and Bentonville downtown or near-downtown areas and real estate professionals from both states convened for a luncheon at 21C on Friday (April 29) to discuss how and why the region could benefit from becoming an ULI affiliate.

Hudson, CEO of Specialized Real Estate Group in Fayetteville, said gauging interest was the first step in establishing a local chapter or by becoming an affiliate and why the group invited the Oklahoma groups (Tulsa and Oklahoma City) to the region to discuss the prospects.

“From what I have seen so far it looks as if there is plenty of folks interested in moving forward with this effort,” he added. “The next step will be to decide how we want join ULI as a chapter or just affiliate. From there we will create a steering committee and then begin implementing some programming,”

Daniel Hintz, CEO of Velocity Group, said there is already good collaboration in patches across the region but ULI could help bring more awareness about creating great places and increase the cohesiveness among developers, lenders, nonprofits and cities in Northwest Arkansas.

The keynote speaker for the ULI luncheon was Ed McMahon, who made the trip from Washington, D.C., where he serves on the ULI advisory board for sustainable communities. McMahon applauded Northwest Arkansas for the work already happening to increase quality of life for area residents. He said cities that invest in trail infrastructure like the Razorback Greenway are positioning themselves for growth because those are the amenities Millennials and Boomers are seeking.

“For years we built communities around cars and that just yield more cars. All the years I have lived in Washington, D.C. they continue to widen Interstate 95 and it’s never enough. It’s kind of like trying to solve obesity by letting out your belt time and time again. It’s not getting to the root of the problem,” McMahon said.

He said cities that build more bike trails connected to commerce and business districts are giving their residents a transportation choice. And communities that embraced mixed-use construction that allow more walking and biking from place to place are a model to follow.

McMahon said cities built around biking and pedestrians get more bikes and walkers. He said 52% of Americans want to live in an area where they don’t have to use their car for every trip they make. Bicycling is the fastest growing form of transportation in the U.S. growing at roughly 60% annually. Millennials are one of the catalysts behind the rapid growth, according to McMahon. He said an interesting thing happened in the small country of Holland over the past three decades as they begin building more bicycle trails around the city of Amsterdam. Today 46% of people in that country commute to work on bicycles because they say it’s the cheapest, easiest and most efficient way to get around, according to McMahon.

“That has not always been the case, before they had the bike trails they were a car-oriented society,” he said.

Trail infrastructure is also much cheaper than roadways. In Birmingham, Ala., McMahon said the city is trying to build an outer beltway at a cost of $100 million per mile with a total cost projection of $2 billion. Portland, Ore., has built a 300-mile network of bike lanes, bike trails and bike boulevards for a total cost of $60 million, which is close to the cost of 1 urban mile of highway.

“We know that trails for bikes and pedestrians have a positive economic impact as well as promoting for healthier and greener lifestyles. On this trip we have heard about eight new development projects along the Razorback Greenway in Fayetteville alone,” McMahon said.

He said economic growth is also happening around trail systems like the interconnected bike beltway through Minneapolis. He said the northern city is not known for good weather, but they have a new bike trail that’s dubbed America’s first bicycle freeway. It is three lanes, each 10-feet wide, one for bike traffic coming into downtown and one for bicycles leaving downtown and a separate lane for pedestrians. The city plows this beltway in the winter and McMahon said 4,200 people a day ride their bikes into downtown Minneapolis.

“There are 11 new multifamily development projects under development along with the beltway,” McMahon said. “There are clearly economic opportunities around investing in walkable communities connected to commerce and business districts with bike trails. Cities and suburbs  across the country are doing just that.”

McMahon said he’s been coming to Northwest Arkansas off and on for two decades and progressive growth in the downtown areas of the region has been transformational – especially in Bentonville.

“I remember coming to Bentonville in 1990s and there were mostly strip-center type office buildings surrounding the downtown area. The only distinctive thing on the square was the Walton Five and Dime Museum,” he told Talk Business & Politics.

McMahon said downtown Bentonville is now almost unrecognizable from that time and has become a gathering place for food, arts and entertainment all within walking distance of many businesses, homes and schools.