Last Friday, Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, addressed members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. His topic was the future of downtown Wichita and its revitalization.
“It’s very important that we have a downtown that is very clear and very concise on where it wants to go,” he said. He likened the development of downtown to the planning of an automobile trip, so that we don’t make major investments that we later regret.
The potential of increased private investment is an important goal for downtown. Predictability will help the private sector invest, he said.
As to the importance of downtown, he said that is where the distinctive quality of a city is found — its history, cultural arts, and other institutions that represent the community. Tourism is another goal of a revitalized downtown Wichita, along with an improved perception in the global market as a great place to do business.
Old Town is an example of success in Wichita, he said, an example of what can be done when people are creative and purposeful. He said that Wichita’s transit center, being located near the new Intrust Bank Arena, provides the potential to use mass transit.
As to the economics of downtown Wichita redevelopment, he showed a chart, nearly a year old, that compares public and private investment in downtown over the past ten years. The two amounts are nearly equal to each other. Fluhr said that Goody Clancy, the firm hired to to plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita, has offered the opinion that the way Wichita has measured investment in downtown — using capital investment only — is not an accurate picture. We should also take into account companies that may have moved into the downtown area because of the improvements that have been made. What types of jobs have been created, and what is the spin-off from them?
Addressing the WaterWalk project, he said that an important event took place last November, when people started moving in to the residential building. Now we see human activity in the development. The landscaping is being installed at this time.
Along Douglas, Fluhr said that gaps in the buildings are a problem. We need to bring storefronts back to downtown. This creates an atmosphere of walkability, which helps to bring residential back to downtown, an important thing he said we must continue to work on.
Mentioning the Q-Line, the free trolley bus service, Fluhr said that “we’ll literally have a couple thousand people that can be on this thing in a given night.”
Besides downtown, Fluhr said that they’re also looking at “first-ring” neighborhoods, the areas that surround downtown. In response to a question, he said we need a healthy city throughout. The first-ring neighborhoods may provide housing that is more affordable than in downtown proper.
In comparing the planning of downtown Wichita to a car trip, Fluhr made the same presumption that Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams made when she compared downtown planning to planning her lessons as a schoolteacher. The planning of even a small portion of a city is an immensely more complicated task. That these two figures make such comparisons leads me to believe that we don’t understand the monumental scope of the task we’ve decided to undertake.
Regarding predictability being important to private sector investors: the planning process right now has created huge uncertainty as to the future of downtown. Who is likely to invest in downtown at this time, when so much is up in the air?
Further, the potential use of eminent domain to take property creates uncertainty, too. This is why it is important for the city to swear off the use of eminent domain, and even the threat of its use.
There’s also this concern I have about the predictability Fluhr said is needed for private investment to flourish: For the future to be certain, someone has to enforce the plans that have been made. All the methods that government has to enforce or encourage human behavior lead to loss of economic freedom: incentives, grants, tax abatements, subsidies, regulation, zoning, eminent domain, preferred treatment. All are contrary to economic freedom.
It’s also troubling that now we’re going to be measuring the economic impact of public investment in a new way, using — if I can read between the lines a bit — things like “multipliers” and other economic development jargon and devices to exaggerate the impact of public investment. It’s important to remember that when left to their own devices, Wichitans have made investments that have produced tremendous economic impact with their own multiplier effects. These investments, however, have not always been made in the politically-favored downtown area. Instead, they’re been made where people wanted them to be made, so their economic impact, in terms of creating wealth and things that people really want, has been greater than if directed by government planners.
As to the Q-Line claim of thousands of riders in a night, I hope Fluhr meant the potential capacity of the Q-Line system, as its actual ridership is much less and very expensive on a per-rider basis. See Wichita’s Q-Line an expensive ride for ridership numbers, which have been less than 1,500 per month.
It’s impossible not to appreciate Mr. Fluhr’s enthusiasm for his work and his genuine concern and vision for the future of downtown Wichita. I’m concerned, however, that Fluhr and the downtown Wichita revitalization boosters — let’s call them the “planners” — have fallen victim to what Randal O’Toole and others call the design fallacy.
O’Toole explains in his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future:
These planners are guilty of believing the design fallacy, the notion that architectural design is a major determinant in shaping human behavior. While design does play a role at the margins of certain things — for example, certain patterns can make housing more vulnerable to crime — the effects that planners project are often highly exaggerated.
Later O’Toole writes:
The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan. … Problems such as these stem from the design fallacy that is shared by so many planners and the architects who inspire them.
Do the Wichita planners suffer from the design fallacy? Fluhr mentioned “engagement of the river” as he has in past talks. Referring to a conversion of an old school building into residential use, he used language like “a dynamic living space in a renovated school,” “each of the units is unique,” and “taking distinctive architecture to us and bringing it to new use.”
Referring to our Carnegie Library, he said that its architecture is unique to Wichita, and wouldn’t be found in other cities. Projects like this, along with the Broadview Hotel and Union Station, should “remain in our fabric” as part of the “distinctive qualities that make us who we are.”
This focus on the architecture of buildings in a city is characteristic of past talks by Fluhr. So yes, I believe that he and the planners are influenced by the design fallacy. It’s something we’ll have to watch out for as we proceed with the planning process.