The legacy of the 1992 ‘Save the River Parks’ campaign

Arkansas Times

If not for an unlikely assortment of activists, lawyers and a poultry magnate, a highway in Riverdale would have prevented the Big Dam Bridge from being built.

Nancy Clark, a bicycler and self-proclaimed tree-hugger whose home perches on a bluff above the Arkansas River, was walking Snooky, her beagle, along the lonely Rebsamen Park Road below her home near the Murray Lock and Dam on a frosty morning in February 1988 when she noticed a row of fluttering orange pennants on either side of the trail and stretching to the west toward Interstate 430’s distant river crossing. She ducked into the Army Corps of Engineers office on the dam and asked a man what all the little flags meant.

Oh, he explained, that’s where the highway is going. A bridge will be built over yonder across Jimerson Creek and a new highway along the river will connect with Highway 10 west of Interstate 430 and run down the river to Riverdale near downtown. It would provide east-west traffic relief to Cantrell Road. People out west would get back and forth much faster to the tall towers downtown and the growing Allied Telephone corporate campus in Riverdale.

Clark felt a clutch of gloom. She walked back outside and gazed at the dense hardwood grove clustered against the river bluff and back across the meadows and parkland out to the quiet river and thought: All this solitude, so close to the city bustle, and this refuge for hikers, bicyclers and birdwatchers will be gone forever.

She had long since become an activist — she was the environmental chair of the League of Women Voters — so she spread word of what was happening. People alarmed about the riverside highway swelled to a crowd: the league, neighborhood residents, joggers, bicyclers, the Audubon Society, several lawyers, an advertising executive. They called themselves the Coalition of Friends to Save the Parks and decided to take on city hall, the Corps of Engineers, the Highway and Transportion Department and the business establishment. With the help of two federal courts, a state court and an exercised city electorate, they eventually won, both in court and at the ballot box when city voters adopted an initiated act rejecting the project. The city planned to build in spite of the citywide vote and the judicial setbacks, but Mayor Jim Dailey, a former bicycle racer, said the people had spoken and he cast the deciding vote killing the road development. The city had already built the road, but Dailey’s vote stopped pursuit of the vehicle bridge over Jimerson Creek that would have opened it to commuter traffic.

It has been 26 years since that November day. Hardly anyone, even among those who fought for the project, harbors any regret that it lost. Even without the commuter highway, and likely owing to its absence, transformative change came to the riverside, some of it in the form of development, but more as what it already was, an ecological and recreational sanctuary in the heart of the metropolitan region.

Six years after the commuter road was stopped, at the spot where the two sections of road were to be linked, work began on the Big Dam Bridge atop the Murray Lock and Dam, the longest purpose-built pedestrian and bicycle bridge in the United States. Two miles to the west, the Two Rivers Park Bridge, another pedestrian and bike span, further expanded the River Trail system, which was completed miles to the east with the conversion of the old Rock Island Railroad bridge at the Clinton Presidential Center into a pedestrian and bicycle bridge. The new Broadway Bridge, completed last year, included bicycle and pedestrian lanes that linked to the trail system on both sides of the river.

Nothing like it exists anywhere else, an 88-mile riverside trail connecting some 20 scenic and recreational parks from Little Rock and North Little Rock to Maumelle and Conway. The cities promote it as a quality-of-life attraction. The people who banded together to stop the project only recently began to assimilate the broad social impact of what their little against-all-odds political scrap had wrought.

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Riverdale, as the Little Rock side of the river between the north and south bluffs came to be called, provided one of the first great vistas recorded by explorers. Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe marveled at the 200-foot sandstone bluff on the north side as he paddled up from the Mississippi River in 1722 and claimed the territory for the French. The bluffs, the beginning of the Ouachita Plateau, were the first outcroppings the explorers encountered since leaving the Mississippi 121 miles to the southeast. Twenty million tons of the Big Rock on the north side were quarried and carried away in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the bluffs on the south remained pristine, except for the Union Pacific railroad line that hugged the bluff.

Both the top of the southern bluffs, which became known as Pulaski Heights, and the lower terrain at the foot of Cantrell Hill developed together early in the 20th century, although with some class and race dissonance. An African-American community known as West Rock sprang up at the bottom of the hill. Its residents mainly served the affluent white homes at the top. The black residents started a cemetery around Jimerson Creek three miles up the river, which was rediscovered when the city started work on the commuter road.

The first upscale development in the area was the Riverdale Country Club, whose golf course offered stunning views of the river and the Big Rock. It was developed in 1947, but flooding was a problem, as was the squalid drive through the West Rock slum. The West Rock Urban Renewal Project in the 1950s razed 91 African-American homes and other structures and made way for high-rise apartments and a food and entertainment district. The Corps of Engineers built Murray Lock and Dam, which brought flood control to the area in 1965, and in 1968 the Riverdale Country Club moved from the river out to the western edge of the city to become the Pleasant Valley Country Club, still leaving the city-owned riverside Rebsamen Park golf course. Understanding Riverdale’s huge commercial value, the Winthrop Rockefeller companies had built Pleasant Valley Country Club in exchange for the Riverdale Club property so that it could be developed.

Two miles west of the dam and Jimerson Creek, the state highway department built the Interstate 430 bridge in 1970. In 1972, the city leased land below the dam to form Murray Park, with picnic areas, playing fields and a dog park. The virgin hardwoods became a birdwatchers’ haven. Farther south, where the river widens and bends eastward toward the twin cities’ downtowns, Rockefeller’s Pleasant Valley Inc. in 1974 developed multifamily housing and office and light industrial buildings that took advantage of the sweeping river views.

It was then, in 1975, that the drive to build an east-west thoroughfare along the river began. The highway department planned to bridge Jimerson Creek and extend Rebsamen Park Road, which ran from Cantrell Road around the bluff to the dam, for the two westernmost miles to Interstate 430. It would give the burgeoning Riverdale developments a link to the city’s western precincts and relieve traffic on Cantrell Road.

Since it entailed building a bridge over Jimerson Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River, the state got a permit from the Army Engineers. Short of money, the state never built the bridge or the road, and the permit expired. Allied Telephone Co. built its seven-story headquarters on the riverfront in 1981, and as the company grew and became the global communications company called Alltel, the corporate campus expanded. Other corporations built office parks, apartments and residential developments in Riverdale. The human and vehicle population multiplied.

The city reincarnated the Rebsamen Park throughway in 1987 when it planned a $39.1 million bond issue to finance a multitude of capital improvements. Voters at a special election would have to approve the bond issue, continue two expiring levies on real and personal property, and increase the tax on real property to retire the bonds. City Director Floyd G. “Buddy” Villines, a dreamer and man of deeds in every political office he held, was the chief architect of the big capital plan.

Julius Breckling, the longtime city parks and recreation director, promoted the extension. He had always talked about a trail of parks along the river stretching from Pinnacle Mountain to downtown. Breckling thought the westward extension of Rebsamen would give people on the western side of the city ready access to Murray Park and the golf course and provide a scenic drive along the most spectacular vistas in Central Arkansas. But that part of the capital program got little attention.

City Manager Tom Dalton and all the city directors, except J.W. “Buddy” Benafield, eventually signed on to the plan and referred the bond issue to a special election in October 1987. People voted on 12 separate proposals, the first of which was some $19.7 million for major street improvements. While the ballot did not list the specific street improvements, the Rebsamen Park extension was on a list of probable projects. In addition to the major street improvements, voters would separately approve bonds for a new branch library, work on the Robinson Center Music Hall, improvements to the Arkansas Arts Center and the Museum of Science and History in MacArthur Park, park improvements, a new police precinct station in Southwest Little Rock, two fire stations, improvements to the Metrocentre Mall and a variety of other projects, including neighborhood streets.

The campaign for the 12 bond-supported programs was a symphony for civic improvement. It attracted little public opposition, except for the usual grousing about taxes and wasteful government spending. All 12 proposals passed.

When the city began to implement a few of the plans the next winter, it dawned on a few people that the street improvements included one that would affect an unusually pleasurable part of their lives. Nancy Clark seems to have been the first when she spotted the surveyor’s pennants flapping along the trail at the Murray Dam. She lived in Sherrill Heights, the neighborhood perched on the first bluff that river travelers faced coming up the Arkansas River. Sherrill Heights dwellers feel a keen purchase on the great vista and its solemnity. 

The idea of relentless speeding traffic, tailpipes and horns below their porches galvanized them.

Joining Clark and the League of Women Voters in opposition to the road were neighbors, joggers and bicyclists, led by David Gruenewald, Alice Andrews and Bob McKinney. Others got involved: Barry Haas, majordomo of the Audubon Society of Arkansas and an environmental and social activist; Ben Combs, an advertising and public relations executive whose offices were at the foot of Cantrell Hill; a couple of lawyers at the Rose Law Firm, including Webb Hubbell, a former mayor of Little Rock and a pal of Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary; Gene Pfeifer III, a businessman and bicycle enthusiast; Kenneth Gould, a law professor at UALR and bicyclist; and Scott Trotter, an energy lawyer who was chief spokesman for the coalition for a while.

Richard Allin, who wrote the popular and widely read “Our Town” column for the Arkansas Gazette and whose wife, Carol, was a park enthusiast, began to weigh in regularly against the project.

Little Rock advertised for bids for the Rebsamen Park roadwork, but in the spring the city was pressured to hold a meeting at the Rebsamen Park clubhouse where people could vent their feelings and ask questions. An overflow crowd squeezed into the clubhouse. Corps and city officials explained the roadway plans and the road’s benefits to commuters and those who frequented the parks and golf course. McKinney asked why an environmental impact statement had not been prepared as federal law required when projects had a serious effect on the environment. The project did not rise to that seriousness, they replied.

“If we connect this road to Cantrell,” Clark told the city officials, “we are going to get what every big city has, and that’s a messed-up riverfront.” She said the city had inadequately publicized that the bond money would build a riverfront road.

Opponents then were a disparate group — neighbors of the project, picnickers, bicyclers, runners, birdwatchers and others whose leisure pursuits often connected them with the river and its shoreline amenities — but they began to coalesce.

“We were getting nowhere with the city board,” McKinney recalls, “and at one meeting Director Benafield said, ‘You people need to get out of here, because this is a done deal.’ “

Villines and city parks and street employees promised that the throughway would not become a heavily traveled highway but simply a pleasurable drive. It should not discourage or endanger the recreational activity along the river, they said. Anyway, the bond vote authorized the project and it could not be stopped or the plans altered. City Attorney Mark Stodola said the city had to build the road and bridge as originally planned or be subject to a lawsuit for illegal exaction.

The city applied to the Army Engineers for a permit, which was required because Jimerson Creek was a tributary of the river. The Corps sought evaluations from the public and from state and federal agencies, including the state Highway and Transportation Department, Game and Fish Commission, Pollution Control and Ecology Commission and the Parks and Tourism Department. Parks and Tourism endorsed the project on the conditions that a 35-miles-per-hour speed limit be posted, that the vehicle lanes be distinctly separated from bicycle and pedestrian paths and that a jogging path be developed.

Opponents were not mollified. They organized as the Coalition of Friends to Save the River Parks and included bikers, the Audubon Society, Ozark Society, Sierra Club, League of Women Voters and Arkansas Wildlife Federation. They lobbied the Corps to hold a public hearing in July 1990 and about 225 people showed up. Thirty-six people spoke: 22 opposed the project, 12 supported it and two were indifferent. Written comments to the Corps heavily opposed it.

Haas, one of the most outspoken critics of the city plan, said calling the plan a “park road” was an oxymoron.

“We’re not aginners,” Haas said. “We love parks. But I’ve lived off Rebsamen Park Road. It’s a speedway already.”

The Corps commissioned an independent traffic study, which only slightly exceeded the traffic forecast in the city’s own analysis. The city said traffic on the existing Rebsamen Park Road averaged about 2,900 vehicles a day and predicted that the extension and bridge would increase it to 4,500 to 5,000 a day and ultimately to 8,000 a day. Independent consultants for the Corps estimated that traffic would increase to 9,000 vehicles a day.

The Corps, however, approved the permit and issued its formal environmental assessment, which concluded that the project would have no material impact. It appeared to precisely contradict the Corps’ earlier concerns and findings, as well as its own independent assessment that the road would significantly increase traffic through the recreational areas. That internal conflict would prove decisive.

In December, the city appropriated the money and work on the road soon began.

The Save the River Parks coalition realized that litigation and a voter petition and election would be the only ways to stop or slow the road on environmental grounds. Environmental suits on public projects like highways were costly and typically lasted for years. A concomitant strategy was to get the issue before voters in hopes they would show the government that the community did not want the road.

None of the groups had assets to pay for the litigation. Gathering signatures and running an initiative campaign also would be costly.

“That’s when a few of us got calls from Ben Combs requesting our attendance at a meeting in his office to discuss the project,” McKinney said. “We were all blown away by Ben’s announcement that a lawsuit would be filed and that an unnamed individual had agreed to pay the legal expenses.”

A neighbor of Combs on River Ridge, Donald J. Tyson, who had built Tyson Foods into a global conglomerate, invited Combs over one day to sit on his deck and talk about the issue. Tyson lived in Springdale but spent so much time in the capital that he acquired a home with a panoramic view of the river valley, which afforded him one of the loveliest scenes in the state. It was quiet back there, except for the occasional rumble of a train along the bluff’s base or the horn and chugging of a tugboat approaching the lock at Murray Dam. Tyson thought it would be terrible if city bustle replaced the pastoral scene and chased away its habitués — hikers, bikers, dog walkers and birdwatchers. Combs said litigation and/or an election would be long and costly and that Save the River Parks didn’t have the money.

“Well,” Tyson said a few days later, “let’s do both. If you’ll shoulder the referendum costs, I’ll pay for the litigation, whatever it costs — on one condition.” It was that Combs would tell no one that Tyson was funding the litigation for the suit while he was alive. He thought that his not being a primary resident of Little Rock might hurt the effort, but mainly he thought it might not go over well if a part-time resident was trying to dictate a policy for Little Rock. Tyson died in 2011.

“Without Don Tyson’s vision, certainly without his commitment, there would have been no litigation or election. His gift will endure for generations,” Combs said.

A petition campaign and environmental litigation would give their cause two chances to win. Hubbell and Brian Rosenthal at the Rose Law Firm led the litigation effort and, assisted by Jess Askew and Jack Druff, drafted the petition to place the Rebsamen Park Road issue on the November 1992 ballot.

The suit was filed in federal district court in January, just as the road construction began. It named the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, Alice B. Andrews, David F. Gruenewald, Barry H. Haas and Robert McKinney as plaintiffs, and the Corps of Engineers, the city of Little Rock and Mayor Dailey as defendants. The case was assigned to Judge George E. Howard Jr., the lone African American on the federal bench. He issued a temporary restraining order on the bridge construction until a hearing on the merits could be held.

At the hearing, Judge Howard wished to visit the place in person to familiarize himself with the terrain and conditions that the witnesses were testifying about. The trial recessed while he visited the dam and the road. He walked to Jimerson Creek, the site of the proposed bridge, where he found an old man sitting on the creek bank fishing with a cane pole. They talked for a few minutes. Hubbell couldn’t overhear them, but he wondered whether the old man said something that struck a chord with the judge. Howard mentioned in court that he had found that senior citizens and women used the area a lot.

The judge suggested that the two sides settle out of court by compromising on what exactly the road would entail — the traffic flow, strict speed limits and the like. The city said no. The road had to be built exactly as the city had outlined it in the list of street projects, with no caveats.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the Corps had not supported its own decision of record, which the federal law required it to do. The Corps’ record showed unaddressed findings on traffic and also inconsistent internal decisions on whether the permit should be issued.

The inconsistencies in the Corps’ decision-making became the critical issue. The consulting engineers that the Corps hired to study the impact of Rebsamen traffic on the riverfront had concluded that while the through traffic on the road might not be high at first, it would eventually increase to the point that it would deter recreational vehicles from using the whole riverside. The decision to issue the permit omitted even the Corps’ own recommendations on traffic limitations. The Corps’ resident engineer had recommended that the road not be built because the high commuter traffic would threaten security at the lock and dam and cause traffic problems.

In April, Judge Howard granted summary judgment that permanently enjoined the Corps from implementing its permit until an Environmental Impact Statement (a more exhaustive environmental evaluation than the Environmental Assessment) was delivered. He noted the discrepancy between the Corps’ finding of negligible environmental impact and its own earlier findings and traffic study. The city appealed to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case, as nearly all such environmental cases do, involved interpretation of a federal law that requires a hard look and a reasoned review of capital projects affecting the public’s environmental interests. The law sets a high bar for plaintiffs, because the courts typically give heavy weight to the discretion and expertise of government agencies.

“While the [Corps] might have been taking a ‘hard look,’ the [Corps] ultimately chose to ignore what it saw,” Judge Howard wrote.

The Court of Appeals took up Audubon Society of Central Arkansas v. Dailey and, on Oct. 13, 1992, unanimously upheld Howard. The city had argued that all that Judge Howard was supposed to have done under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was to be sure that the Corps of Engineers had taken all the procedural steps that the law required and that he could not substitute his judgment for the Corps’. The court disagreed. It said the Corps had to undertake the far more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement. 

It was a decision of national significance, Rosenthal said recently.

The decision had consequences for environmental litigation across the country for the next quarter-century. It has been cited favorably in 29 other federal cases. Audubon Society of Central Arkansas v. Dailey is likely to be cited again in the event a lawsuit is filed over the massive 30 Crossing project in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

The city was not deterred. It expected the Corps to undertake the EIS and it intended to complete the throughway, although it might take another year or two.

Meantime, the Save the River Parks coalition had gathered signatures on a petition asking the city to call an election and put the issue before the voters. The law required at least 6,870 valid signatures of voters. They filed 8,200 signatures with the city clerk.

On the advice of the new city attorney, Tom Carpenter, the city said the petition was invalid because it illegally challenged an administrative function that the city was required to perform under the bond ordinance. Carpenter instructed the city clerk not to count the signatures.

The coalition filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court seeking an order for the city to count the signatures and put the matter on the ballot. In September, two months before the election, Judge John Ward said the city had to count the signatures and to put the issue on the ballot if they were sufficient. The petitions were found to be sufficient and the issue was placed on the ballot, the same one with Bill Clinton for president.

The coalition made sure that the many endorsements opposing the road were publicized. The campaign promoted the idea “A chain of parks, yes; a chain of tailpipes, no.”

Fifty-five percent of the voters — 23,418 to 19,358 — said “no” to the extension of Rebsamen Park Road and its pending connections to Cantrell. Every ward except Southwest Little Rock opposed it. Some on the city board and others in the government wanted to continue the fight by following through with an Environmental Impact Statement and by building the vehicle bridge once that EIS was completed. The city board tied. Mayor Dailey, who often rode his mountain bike along the road, sided with the environmentalists. He said the public had spoken and it was time to move on. He cast the deciding “no” vote.

The city regrouped. What about building a bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the creek at riverside but designing it in such a way that it could not be used for regular vehicle traffic? Could the bridge be large enough to accommodate an ambulance or police vehicle as long as it couldn’t be used for regular through traffic? The city obtained $220,000 in federal grants and put up another $200,000 of city money for the final phases of the project. It had already spent more than $1 million on the westward extension of the road.

All the consequences of the legal and electoral victories could not have been predicted.

Villines left the city board in the winter of 1991 to become county judge, where he shortly began the long enterprise of building a spectacular pedestrian bridge across the Murray Dam over the Arkansas River, which would enhance the recreational potential of the river and begin to link all the parks along the river from the future Clinton Center to Toad Suck Park at Conway. He acknowledged later that the bridge, now so popular with hikers, bicyclists and tourists, could not have been built, at least in all its dimensions, if the Jimerson bridge had been built.

Neither could the later Two Rivers Bridge with its alluring nighttime lighting, two miles west of the Big Dam Bridge.

No one at the time factored the heavy future growth in the western reaches of the county, which increased traffic on Cantrell by threefold or more and which would have shunted more traffic to the riverside drive.

The Save the River Parks campaign and its succeeding bridge projects along the route were also factors in the conversion of the old Rock Island Bridge adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center into a pedestrian and bicycle bridge. The William J. Clinton Foundation thought the old bridge would just be a continuing eyesore, but the argument that turning it into a pedestrian and bicycle bridge would further the dream advanced by the Save the River Parks campaign prevailed.

Because of its proximity to the Big Dam Bridge, the river trails and parks on both sides of the river, Jim Jackson acquired shore property in North Little Rock downstream from the bridge and developed Riverside at Rockwater, a high-end apartment complex and marina. Environmentally conscious groups like Winrock International set up headquarters on the Little Rock side.

Pfeifer, owner of the North Business Park and an avid bicycle advocate, gave an easement to North Little Rock across more than a mile of his land along the river from the Big Dam Bridge to Burns Park for a link in the River Trail. 

The Arkansas River Trail and its dependencies — the Big Dam Bridge, Two Rivers Bridge and Park, Clinton/Rock Island Bridge, and bicycle-pedestrian lanes on the new Broadway Bridge — are the substantial and incidental benefits flowing from the closing of the road to vehicular traffic.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.