The Little Rock Technology Park Authority board of directors on Wednesday (Dec. 20) selected WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock to handle the design and planning of the unfinanced second phase of the downtown startup village.
The decision to select WER Architects, formerly known as Witsell Evans Rasco, comes one week after the seven-person Tech Park directors heard pitches from the local design firm and two other Little Rock architect companies, Polk Stanley Wilcox, and Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson (WD&D), selected as finalists from a beginning pool of six companies.
With five board members ranking WER as the best choice to lead the next stage of the downtown technology incubator, Tech Park Chairman John Burgess said he believes the authority’s decision centered around the firm’s expertise in research and wet/dry lab space design, a key feature of the authority’s request for proposal.
WER company executives did not immediately return phone calls seeking comments for this story. The Little Rock architect firm, which also opened in office in Northwest Arkansas a year ago, designed Little Rock-based grid operator Southwest Power Pool’s $62 million corporate campus in 2012 and Southern Arkansas University’s $17 million Science Center in Magnolia in 2011.
This week, Tech Park directors made the unusual decision of not holding a public meeting to select or announce the winner, instead opting to discuss the pros and cons of the three finalists during a conference call on Tuesday and then ranking and selecting the winning agency by casting their votes online.
At the authority’s Dec. 13 meeting, Tech Park directors watched three 30-minute presentations from executives representing Little Rock-based firms WER, Polk Stanley and WD&D, the same group that the led design and planning of the $30 million-plus Phase One development.
Five of the board members, Burgess, Nancy Gray, Jay Chesshir, Kevin Zaffaroni and Dickson Flake, ranked WER as their top choice to come up with the design of the next stage of the city-financed project first developed in 2011 to lure established IT companies, startups, knowledge-based firms and entrepreneurs to Little Rock’s Creative Corridor.
According to emails provided by Tech Park Executive Director Brent Birch, none of the directors offered any reasoning behind their selection of WER, whose main offices in downtown Little Rock are located blocks away from the Tech Park.
“As far as why board members voted as they did, you will have to contact them directly,” Birch said.
Tech Park board members C.J. Duvall and Darrin Williams were the only directors who did not make WER their number one choice. Both ranked WD&D as the better option to lead the next stage of the downtown development, mainly based on their experience in design the Tech Park’s current offices and knowledge of adjacent structures.
Duvall, in an email to Birch, offered some background on why WD&D stood out above the other firms.
“While I have great appreciation for the robust and beautiful portfolio of work presented by Polk Stanley and WER, I elect to remain with WD&D based upon the fact that we have an existing smooth working relationship them,” said Duvall, a former Alltel Corp. executive. “The fact that WD&D is the smaller of the firms yet possess the capacity to serve us would speak to the culture of our city as a place where small businesses can compete in the regional economy of Central Arkansas.”
According to the request for qualifications (RFQ) for the project, phase 2 of the six-phase includes development a new 17,500-square-foot building between the Channel 7 building ta Fourth and Main Streets and the Tech Park headquarters at 417 Main St.
“It is the task of the design team to develop a plan for phase 2, which will accommodate the current and future requirements of the Little Rock Technology Park and which is sensitive to the building design and immediate neighborhood,” the RFQ states. “The exterior of the Phase 2 building should be compatible with the existing Main Street image.”
The bid proposal also said the design team should be prepared to demonstrate how the proposed building could be adapted for usage by technology firms ranging in size from a single employee to an entire floor.
Two years ago, WD&D was selected by the Tech Park directors to design the authority’s current multi-tenant, 38,000-square-foot facility located at the center of the downtown district on Main Street. The downtown development was accelerated in 2011 after Little Rock taxpayers approved a $22.5 million sales tax referendum to finance the project.
Early next year, the Tech Park board is expected to issue an RFP for a construction manager for the next phase of the downtown tech village. Little Rock-based East Harding Inc. was the construction manager for Phase One of the downtown development.
Last week, Birch said once an architectural rendering of phase 2 is completed and the authority works with the design firm and construction manager to finalize total costs for the second phase of the city’s startup incubator, the Tech Park will then craft a financing plan for the project.