This past Tuesday and Wednesday, the four planning firms that were selected as finalists for the master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita made their public presentations. I was able to attend three of the presentations.
In his opening remarks to the Tuesday session, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said that tonight is an important night for our community. He said that the revitalization effort is about more than just downtown, but about all of us. “Downtown is our front porch.” We must come together as a community in this effort.
Studies of other cities, he said, show that downtown revitalization leads to more jobs, tourism, increased property values, and increased satisfaction and pride in our city.
“Feet on the street,” the mayor said, means that everything people want can be provided in a walkable area.
The planning firms and their representatives are all immensely confident in their capabilities and proud of their past achievements. Most use grand language — “dynamic,” “bold plan, “innovative,” “forward-looking.”
Community engagement is important, all firms said. So is the public-private partnership. Leveraging public investment with private investment was always mentioned.
Transit — including public transit — was emphasized by the firms. One firm promoted “bicycle-oriented development.” In a nod to the green revolution — whether that’s a good idea or not — “sustainability” was often mentioned, with one firm having an expert in just that on its panel of presenters.
There was actually some distinction between the presenting forms. One makes use of a charrette, which is a period of intense design activity. Another firm said it doesn’t use this practice.
For one firm, the presenter said that the firm had been in Wichita for three months gathering information and meeting with Wichitans.
The presentations and the printed proposals are full of grand and attractive images of the firms’ projects in other cities. One firm, in its presentation, showed several images of parts of downtown Wichita where there was a vacant lot or other empty space. Then, said the presenter, imagine if it looked like this! And the empty space would be filled in with attractive buildings of immense size and scale.
Sometimes the presenters said things that made me wonder about their actual knowledge of Wichita. One said that because Wichita has such a stable economy, it is attractive to outside investors. While it’s true that our housing market has been relatively stable — we never had the huge run-up in prices and then a crash — it a common compliant that Wichita is too dependent on aviation, and that we need to diversify our local economy.
Another presenter, and I am not kidding, praised the WaterWalk development as an example of a Wichita success. I also learned that we must prepare — at least according to one firm — for the return of passenger rail service to Wichita.
I was surprised that most of the planning firms used a variety of experts in different fields — economics and economic development, transit, planning, architecture, sustainability, civil engineering, traffic, and transit are some of the examples. One firm had partnered with local experts.
Each firm presented for about an hour, with time for just a few questions from the selection committee.
Going forward, the selection committee will select one firm to recommend to the Wichita city council. The target date for this is tomorrow. Then, it’s thought that on October 13 the city council will make the selection — or maybe choose none of the firms.
Since the city council has the final say, I was surprised that only council member Lavonta Williams attended, besides, of course, Mayor Brewer.
After the steering committee makes its recommendation, I plan to examine that firm’s proposal more closely. We also need to take a look at the results of their previous projects. For example, were they financed through tax increment financing (TIF) districts, and how are those districts performing? What other type of public subsidy was necessary to make the projects work (or not)? Was eminent domain used to transfer property from one person to another, just because the new owner would pay more in taxes? If there was rezoning, was it done with overlays that respected existing property use rights?
These are some of the questions that we’ll want to get answers to. These are the important things I learned about during my trip to Anaheim’s Platinum Triangle development. Will Wichita pursue a freedom-friendly planning process as used there?
In addition, we need to decide whether we want to plan at all, at least in the comprehensive way that the planning firms are promoting. A book I recently read, The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, presents evidence of the harm that centralized government planning causes. Listening to the presentations, I recognized the firms were planning to use many of the dangerous practices and beliefs mentioned in this book.