Wichita planning firm hopefuls make pitch

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.


8 thoughts on “Wichita planning firm hopefuls make pitch”

  1. I read the article in the Wichita Eagle today about these four firm’s proposals and was distressed. No one mentioned the past development downtown failures in this article. This included the four firms as well as the Wichitans present at this meeting.

    In contrast, look at the unintentional but relatively benign neglect by local government of the far west and east sides of Wichita during the last decade. In these perimeter areas, where the development has been large, successful, and the firm’s located there have grown there despite high business property taxes is the location where this community has really been “revitalized.” In contrast, a huge and unknown amount of perhaps more than $1/2 billion has been spent by various levels of government in downtown Wichita since the last “downtown redevelopment plan” was approved almost two decades ago. In that two decades the private sector downtown continues to stagnate despite a few, isolated success stories. This assertion is proved by the fact that the downtown taxing district’s property tax revenue that funds this downtown entity that brought these four firms to town has not grown in the last decade.

    The perimeter growth in Wichita did not need TIF district business subsidies; did not involve taxpayer funded business–like the money losing Hyatt Hotel; did not involve taxpayer funded “grants” to politically influential developers; but did require financial “skin in the game” by market oriented developers who were facing loses if their development plans to meet consumers’ needs failed. The developments downtown seem to flounder if the taxpayers’ money is unavailable. In this model, the profits are privatized to the politically favored developers and the loses land in taxpayers’ laps. That is a rotten model that hasn’t worked in the past in downtown
    Wichita but like Einstein warned about the stupidity of repeating the same failed actions time-after-time and expecting a different result. Wichitans can never subsidize downtown too much.

    In downtown Wichita, nothing ever truly fails. If you don’t believe me, just drive by the East Bank’s residential building after dark and see how few lights ever come on for that heavily subsidized project. Mr. Weeks said that this was a model of “success” according to one of the four firms–this will surely be the firm that is selected for the next downtown plan.

  2. Wichitator – I am confused what heavily subsidized east bank residential building are you talking about?? I am the closest residential building to the east bank (250 Douglas Place 26 story former Holiday Inn) and I was done with private money and all 143 apartments are full and we have a wait list.
    Bob – I remember the remark you referred to and the presenter actually said waterfront (not Waterwalk) was a success referring to the public investments to date all the river. We need to see who is selected and what they propose before we can classify them as “same old”. Hopefully we can count on your participation in this project. We need everyone’s input.
    THANKS

  3. Alf Nucifora was paid “big bucks” by Mayor Knight to develop a plan for downtown Wichita. Why do we need to waste additional taxpayer’s dollars in another plan? What is the role of Visioneering Wichita?

  4. Ruben – the internet is a great place to get answers! In checking I see Alf Nucifora is a consultant hired in 2002 to do a study on tourism for Wichita. I could not locate how much he was paid.
    As for Visioneering it is a group that promotes the entire MSA region. They have several goals but all deal with making the metroplex a more desirable area for companies to relocate or stay in. As to why do we need a new plan. We do not have a comprehensive plan for all of Downtown. We have had lots of plans over the years for several different areas of downtown and the City. This plan will connect all the plans and take us well into the future.

  5. Ruben – the internet is a great place to get answers! In checking I see Alf Nucifora is a consultant hired in 2002 to do a study on tourism for Wichita. I could not locate how much he was paid.
    As for Visioneering it is a group that promotes the entire MSA region. They have several goals but all deal with making the metroplex a more desirable area for companies to relocate or stay in. As to why do we need a new plan. We do not have a comprehensive plan for all of Downtown. We have had lots of plans over the years for several different areas of downtown and the City. This plan will connect all the plans and take us well into the future.

  6. I went to all the meetings for this including 3 of the presentations for these groups. Wouldn’t you know it of all 4 to choose from they pick the clunker. The steering group must have gotten some information we didn’t in the presentation. The people chosen seemed unprepared, unorganized, and very “old school” with their cardboard easels and glue stick pasted pictures. They obviously wowed the right people with the little trick of taking a cell phone picture and sending it to a computer,( my 14 year old and her friends could teach these people a thing or two). All these groups admitted that the real plan would come from us at public meetings. Yea like that will happen! I went to the mayor’s meetings stood up gave some great ideas and got promptly dismissed. The real reason these people got the job was that they are willing to go through the motions and indorse the Mayor and the DDDC. play book including more new TIF’S and lots of CIP funds. We have $450
    million in downtown redevelopment so far tax payers hold onto your wallet they are just getting started. There are plenty of us local businessmen that would gladly work with them and invest just given the chance to inject a little common sense.

  7. Craig – Hope to see you at the first of the public meeting to be conducted by Goody Clancy and WDDC. If you give me a call I will be sure you get the notices. Everyones participation will be welcomed.
    Larry Weber
    Garvey Center

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