Now the second fastest shrinking city in the U.S., Pine Bluff, Arkansas is reinvesting in its downtown through development of housing and allied public works projects that support the renewal of an urban living option in the Arkansas Delta. Recalling the city’s beginning as a river port (the river moved creating an oxbow lake), this new waterfront reconnects the downtown to its lakefront through a Bridge and Wharf Complex that absorbs a set of existing motley structures.
From Piers to Loops and the Promenade
Existing lakefront infrastructure functions like a cul-de-sac, failing to invite the spontaneity and vitality intrinsic to downtown streets. The new Saracen Wharf integrates existing pavilions and fishing piers into interconnected loops that eliminate the conventional dead-end experience of piers. The existing pavilions were built for single functions and holiday events. Loops, alternatively, urbanize the lakefront, intensifying overlaps among additional programmatic development being introduced to the lakefront—some informally. New programs include a Floating Lawn, Boathouse, Beach with kayak and paddle boat launch, Boardwalk, Pavilions for retail and food vendors, and a Ferris Wheel on a Wharf that recalls the promenade architecturale. The Floating Lawn, an unexpected topographic foil wedged between boardwalks, deepens the depth of experience sought in the promenade concept with its constructed views, changing vistas, and multiple experiences contingent on one’s movement.
In this new lakeside urbanism, the Wharf-and-Bridge armature extends the vitality of the downtown street to the lakefront. The Pedestrian/Bicycle Bridge provides a downtown link to the lakefront severed by the five-lane Martha Mitchell Expressway. The Bridge also functions as a gateway signaling entry to downtown, while its northern point memorializes the role of Chief Saracen in Pine Bluff’s early development, incorporating statuary and earthworks into infrastructure. The state highway is transformed into a boulevard to extend the gateway effect for downtown.
The Informal City: Grammar of the Interstitial
Acknowledging limited area resources (2017 median household income is $36,828—the fourth poorest metro area in the U.S.), the new public space complex is designed as a kind of hipster slum, accommodating non-local populations moving into downtown seeking urban experiences and economic opportunities. Complementing the more proprietous spaces of the legacy downtown, the Wharf complex constitutes a more informal and rawer urbanism than traditional Main Street renovations with lower start-up costs. Urban-scaled pavilions frame and shelter retail venues housed in retrofitted shipping containers. The metal-framed Porch Pavilion with suspended sun shades and hanging landscapes houses food and drinking venues, while the wood-framed Lamella Pavilion houses galleries for rotating arts and crafts exhibits. Despite local ordinances, the complex invites the curation of space with legacy urban memorabilia, furniture, and container gardens to enhance stakeholder ownership and visitor stickiness. The Wharf and Floating Lawn sponsor diverse activities including large and intimate gatherings, and passive and active recreational ventures alike. Importantly, the informal provides an adaptive and innovative enclave within the formal, indicating a gap in the formal spaces of urbanism when the latter is not serving the needs of its stakeholders.
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and one of a few university-based teaching offices in the United States dedicated to delivering urban design work. Originated in 1995, the center advances creative development in Arkansas through design, research, and education solutions. Nationally recognized in public-interest design, the center has its own downtown facilities and 5-6 professional design/planning staff, some who also teach. Beyond the focus on urban projects, UACDC has developed eight place-making platforms to shape civic design and public policy at state and municipal levels. These interdisciplinary platforms include 'missing middle housing,' 'agricultural urbanism,' 'transit-oriented development,' 'context-sensitive street design,' 'watershed urbanism,' 'big box urbanism,' 'smart growth,' and 'low impact development,' vocabularies which are locally articulated but hold universal currency.