Pine Bluff officials aim to reinvigorate the city’s downtown through a plan they’ll implement over 14 to 21 years.

Go Forward Pine Bluff, a nonprofit that is working to improve the area, has partnered with the city to execute the strategy. It will center on reviving neighborhoods in the largely deserted downtown, said Ryan Watley, chief executive officer for Go Forward Pine Bluff.

The theory is that once Pine Bluff gets more people living downtown, it will be able to support the kind of lifestyle that Pine Bluff once offered.

The city announced the plan Thursday evening at a crowded Community Theater.

GFPB’s Ryan Watley

“I want to tell you now if you want a before and after picture, you better hurry, get your cameras out and go take a picture of downtown Pine Bluff because building by building, step by step, piece of the puzzle by piece of the puzzle, it is changing,” Mayor Shirley Washington said.

The city’s Urban Renewal Agency, which focuses on developing Pine Bluff, is working on incentive programs to help people move to downtown and expand downtown businesses, said Maurice Taggart, the executive director of the agency.

Building neighborhoods where people want to live is the goal. Downtown Pine Bluff had seven residential units per acre in 1918, and now has fewer than one residential unit per acre, said Steve Luoni, the director of the Community Design Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Go Forward Pine Bluff hired Luoni to develop an initiative for Pine Bluff’s future.

Complimenting the residentialization of downtown Pine Bluff are the development of signature projects which include an art walk celebrating the delta’s music heritage, a new theatre row on 2nd Avenue that features a new cinema and café, an expanded waterfront offering new amenities particularly the floating lawn and lastly the downtown band stand. These projects compliment the proposed downtown neighborhoods and ultimately respond to the citizens of Pine Bluff’s desire for cultural content, entertainment and recreation. Importantly, the unique placemaking features are connected through enhanced streetscapes with a bicycle network.

The center has worked on projects throughout the nation and Arkansas, including creating a strategy to revitalize Little Rock’s downtown, which Luoni said he regards as one of his greatest successes.

Luoni and his staff started by talking to more than 200 Pine Bluff residents about what they want for the city.

He said he heard answers like “downtown is the front porch of any town.” People said they want an art center, a bustling downtown and a business district.

Luoni laid out a plan that focuses on seven areas of downtown and creating neighborhoods within those areas. The architects created plans for multifamily housing to utilize the most space and attract people from the growing Little Rock metropolitan area, Luoni said.

The units, which ranged from duplexes to apartment complexes, were designed with ample green space, and a terrace, porch or balcony for every home.

City officials will be able to take those plans to area developers.

Watley said Go Forward Pine Bluff will focus on the neighborhoods first, then move to build a movie theater and an art walk to highlight Delta musicians.

Linda Leak and Sharon Hardman sat together in the audience and listened to the plans. The ideas reminded Leak, who is from California, of how Emeryville, Calif. worked to improve its city. But she said she didn’t realize that it might take 20 years for Pine Bluff’s plan to be realized and for the city to prosper as it once did.

Hardman is a baby boomer and said she remembers when people had trouble driving downtown because so many people crowded the streets.

“It’s a rich city, which we all know,” Hardman said, heralding Pine Bluff’s culture.

Pine Bluff is not alone in its inability to keep its downtown vibrant, Luoni said. He compared Pine Bluff to a doughnut, meaning the downtown is hollowed out while people live on the edges. Detroit is a prime example of that.

Once the downtown is thriving again, Luoni said he thinks the rest of Pine Bluff will follow.