Department of Transportation Grant of $548,492 Aims to Revitalize Pine Bluff

A Google Earth image shows the Jefferson Square Shopping Center on Highway 63B in Pine Bluff, located across the highway from the South-Central Neighborhood.
Google Earth

A Google Earth image shows the Jefferson Square Shopping Center on Highway 63B in Pine Bluff, located across the highway from the South-Central Neighborhood.

Pine Bluff was once the cultural and economic center of the Arkansas Delta before the departure of its manufacturing base in the 1980s. Over a century ago, the city had the fourth highest rate of Black wealth in urban America behind Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and New York City.  

In 2021, Pine Bluff was designated America’s “fasting shrinking city,” according to U.S. Census data, having experienced a 16% population decline in the previous two years.  

One solution to reversing course in this historically vibrant Arkansas city is to strategically invest in repairing neighborhoods.  

To that end, a project team co-led by the U of A Community Design Center and Go Forward Pine Bluff has been awarded a $548,492 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2024 Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhood Grant Program. The Pine Bluff project is one of 132 planning or capital projects to be funded through $3.33 billion in grant awards in the 2024 program, and the only one from Arkansas.  

Project partners for “Neighborhood Revitalization through Retrofit of Highway 63B in America's Fastest Shrinking City: Pine Bluff, Arkansas” also include the City of Pine Bluff, the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, Arkansas Department of Transportation, the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency and NOB A+D (Architecture + Design), the only female minority-owned architecture firm in Arkansas. 

The U of A Community Design Center is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. This collaborative project demonstrates the school’s commitment to the university’s larger land-grant mission and to serving the citizens of the state through design. 

The planning study supports revitalization of the 280-block historic South-Central downtown neighborhood through the context-sensitive retrofit of Arkansas State Highway 63B, a five-lane arterial road. The oversized corridor and the scale of its auto-centric land uses — now mostly large abandoned dead zones — accelerated economic decline in this African American neighborhood due to corridor desertification rather than congestion. Scenario planning will explore options in right-sizing a 1.2-mile segment of this low-trafficked corridor as an active transportation network spine with urban infill land-use improvements between the downtown business district and the city’s largest employment center to the south, the Jefferson Regional Medical Center. 

Pine Bluff is shrinking while its region is growing and prospering. The city’s population in 2023 was 38,866, down from its peak population of 57,074 in 1990. Over 95% of the Arkansas State Highway 63B corridor’s area (facility and fronting land uses) is impervious surface, a “shade desert” subjecting residents to injurious heat impacts. Harms from speeding, urban heat island effect, stormwater pollution, flooding, lack of equitable access and residential property value decline are due to corridor desertification, not congestion. 

“The Reconnecting Communities Grant is a great opportunity to use urban design — driven by an ethos of repair — in creating high-quality living environments for populations that have suffered the downstream impacts of auto-dominated planning,” said Steve Luoni, director of the U of A Community Design Center. “Our partnership with GFPB, the city and neighborhood residents will focus on a context-sensitive street approach that combines pattern language in art, architecture, landscape architecture and urban design. The arterial will be rethought as a place-based destination — like in ‘the tradition of great streets’ — without compromising traffic services.  

“Pattern languages include ‘Living Streets’ (pedestrian-oriented streets that deliver non-traffic services including art and socializing), ecologically based stormwater management (green infrastructure), streets modulated as rooms (such as plazas and squares) and development of property frontage standards that support good corridor form,” Luoni added. “Eighty percent of all next-generation design commissions for buildings, landscapes and infrastructure will involve rehabilitation. More than ‘smart cities’ and its fetishization of data, this ethos of repair will drive the economic, ecological and social innovation necessary in building prosperous and equitable places.”  

Luoni is also a Distinguished Professor and the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies in the Fay Jones School. 

ABOUT THE PINE BLUFF PROJECT 

This planning initiative will align improvements with the interests of South-Central residents and its business community. Planning challenges involve design within the context of rural small-city shrinkage, including co-creation of a redevelopment plan with socio-economically disadvantaged residents.  

The work will also address long-term citywide capacity challenges through regional partnerships emphasizing collaborative and distributed leadership beyond this planning project. This federal grant supports the coalition’s multiple revitalization initiatives underway and led by Go Forward Pine Bluff, a nonprofit of professional community development staff dedicated to revitalizing Pine Bluff in partnership with the city. 

In 2020, Go Forward Pine Bluff and the city, in partnership with two area banks and nonprofits, enacted an equity stabilization and poverty reduction program that offers South-Central neighborhood residents 30-year, 100% mortgage financing to boost homeownership. Known as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), this neighborhood investment program assists working households whose earnings exceed the federal poverty level but are less than the area’s cost of living. 

Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, described the award as inspiring. 

“Our dedicated team has worked hard to establish strategic plans and bring funding to the city of Pine Bluff,” Watley said. “This grant works in tandem with our ALICE homeownership initiative to repair neighborhoods through human and financial investments. Success begets success, and the half-million-dollar award adds to the more than $20 million in private and philanthropic funds raised to complement a 2017 sales tax increase. For Go Forward Pine Bluff, it keeps the fire burning to continue making a difference in Pine Bluff. We look forward to working with NOB A+D, the U of A Community Design Center and the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency.”  

The planning initiative will consist of four areas: Community-based Engagement Program: Stakeholder Sessions and Design Workshops; Highway Frontage Quality Assessment; Context-Sensitive Street Plan for State Highway 63B; and Housing Plan and Urban Design Retrofit of Target Highway Properties.  

Allied initiatives for this plan include implementation of an internationally award-winning downtown revitalization plan: Re-Live Downtown Pine Bluff (2018) prepared by Go Forward Pine Bluff and the U of A Community Design Center. The downtown revitalization plan builds upon the Go Forward Pine Bluff Strategic Plan (2016-2017) focused on reimaging the city through four community pillars — education, economic development, government and infrastructure, and quality of life.  

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington added, “The city of Pine Bluff is realizing public and private investments at a record high. Our ability to submit a competitive application and be included as one of the 132 national awards speaks to the progress we are making in this community. Thank you to all the working partners and the U.S. Department of Transportation for believing in Pine Bluff.”  

ABOUT THE FEDERAL GRANT PROGRAM 

The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded more than $3.3 billion this year via its Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhood Access and Equity discretionary grant program to 132 infrastructure projects in 41 states and the District of Columbia. 

Grants seek to “reconnect” communities cut off in the past by transportation infrastructure, leaving such neighborhoods in many cases bereft of direct access to schools, jobs, medical offices and places of worship. For more information, visit the program website.  

About the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design: The Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas houses undergraduate professional design programs of architecture, landscape architecture and interior architecture and design together with a liberal studies program. The school also offers a Master of Design Studies, with concentrations in health and wellness design, resiliency design, integrated wood design, and retail and hospitality design. The DesignIntelligence 2019 School Rankings Survey listed the school among the most hired from architecture, landscape architecture and interior design schools, ranking 10th, 14th and eighth, respectively, as well as 28th among most admired architecture schools. 

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research and Economic Development News.  

Contacts

Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design
479-575-4704, mparks17@uark.edu

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