Downtown Wichita gathering spaces that don’t destroy a park

Wichita doesn’t need to ruin a park for economic development, as there are other areas that would work and need development.

One of the reasons for the redesign of Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita is to increase economic development. A city council agenda held, “These recommendations include opening up the park to provide for increased walking and public activity as well as to encourage development adjacent to the park.” 1

Other city documents say the redesign of the small downtown Wichita park is to, “create a continuous flex space for multi-use; i.e. Tai Chai, as well as other passive use activities including but not limited to weddings, concerts, performances, films, special celebrations and parties as well as quiet contemplation.” 2

In other documents city officials have promoted the need for gathering space before and after events at Intrust Bank Arena.

All this is fine. But current plans call for the destruction of an existing park and its transformation into this new design.

But there’s no need to destroy an existing park in order to meet the goals of the city. There is a lot of vacant and underutilized land immediately south and west of the arena. Any of this could be transformed to what the city wants. Development of these areas would possibly help fulfill the promise of the arena as a driver for economic development and growth.

Today, 12 years after the identification of the arena’s site and seven years after its opening, there is little activity around the arena to its west and south. Five years ago the Wichita Eagle noted the lack of growth in the area.

“Ten years ago, Elizabeth Stevenson looked out at the neighborhood where a downtown arena would soon be built and told an Eagle reporter that one day it could be the ‘Paris of the Midwest.’ What she and many others envisioned was a pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhood of quaint shops, chic eateries and an active arts district, supported by tens of thousands of visitors who would be coming downtown for sporting events and concerts. It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. Today, five years after the opening of the Intrust Bank Arena, most of the immediate neighborhood looks much like it did in 2004 when Stevenson was interviewed in The Eagle. With the exception of a small artists’ colony along Commerce Street, it’s still the same mix of light industrial businesses interspersed with numerous boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, dotted with ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs.” 3

Since then, not much has changed. The area surrounding the arena is largely vacant. Except for Commerce Street, that is, and the businesses located there don’t want to pay their share of property taxes.4

On the other hand, the area around Naftzger Park is developing. The city points to Old Town as a success, and now promotes the “Douglas Corridor” as an area where city policies have produced growth, with more yet to come as Cargill and a call center move to a location near Naftzger Park.

But the areas on the other side of the arena are not growing. Doing something to jump-start development in that stagnant area could help downtown growth. Paying attention to that area would fulfill past promises and projections, and increase the credibility of Wichita’s leaders.

Nearby are photographs of the area surrounding the arena to the east and west. Click photos for larger versions.

Intrust Bank Arena and environs, with areas for development outlined and numbered. Image courtesy Google.
In area 1, across Emporia Street from the arena, a former used car lot is unused. A vacant lot is to its immediate west.
Area 3 is the block diagonally south and west from the arena. It is vacant land except for parking and a work-release facility.
More of area 3.
Area 4 is directly across Waterman Street to the south of the arena. It holds a parking lot along with abandoned and underutilized buildings.
Abandoned buildings on St. Francis Street, within pitching distance of the arena. Could this area be used for gatherings?

What was said

Following, a few quotes from civic leaders in 2005.

“On the brink of spending $55 million to renovate the Kansas Coliseum, the community saw the wisdom of investing that kind of money instead in downtown Wichita, where it could spur development, lure conventions and enhance Old Town and the planned WaterWalk development. The action on behalf of an arena has offered the strongest signal in years that Wichita, booming fringes and all, still wants a vibrant, functional downtown. 5

Imagine sports fans and concertgoers flocking to restaurants and shops in a lively, distinctive district surrounding Wichita’s new downtown entertainment arena. Can the 15,000-seat venue be the Pied Piper of economic development? City officials hope so.

“It will have a profound change,” Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans said. He envisions a modern, sophisticated district, home to a four-star hotel, apartment buildings, high-end retailers, a Cajun restaurant – maybe a Hard Rock Cafe. “The things happening downtown are going to change downtown Wichita for the 21st century,” he said.

Officials view the arena as another opportunity to coax more life into downtown. The city is hunting for a consultant to help it cash in on development opportunities surrounding the arena. 6

While Sedgwick County lays the groundwork for its 15,000-seat downtown arena, the city of Wichita is busy trying to plan for everything that will go around it. The city wants the advice and expertise of a consultant to help it develop a lively, distinctive district to jump-start — and cash in on — downtown redevelopment. 7

The arena will cause spillover development, but the city must carefully set the conditions to foster economic development, said Dave Knopick, an urban planner with Gould Evans Associates, the consultants hired to study the arena area. This includes attractive streets and public features, adequate parking, good traffic flow, zoning to bring in wanted businesses, and even deals with developers to bring in new projects. “These are once-in-a-lifetime events that have a huge impact, so you have to make the right decision to maximize the benefits,” Knopick said. …

The arena is a key part of the downtown revival, but it’s just one piece. “It’s a redeveloping area, but those changes may take place over 10 or 15 years,” Knopick said. “It won’t all just happen because the arena was built.” 8

The most exciting development: a new downtown arena. Whatever the final site selection (we vote for the east site), the reality is sinking in that this major community project will have a heavyweight impact on the core area. The naysayers said none of this could happen — in fact, they said the same thing about Old Town. It’s happening.

Things change — and sometimes change is disruptive and hard to accept. But Wichitans should be excited by what’s happening downtown.

It’s experiencing a rebirth. 9

I would like to congratulate the city leaders and the public for their insight and willingness to see the impact that the development of downtown will have for the citizens of Wichita and all of south-central Kansas. We only stand to benefit from this much-needed injection into the economy.

It is about re-energizing this community, spurring economic development, creating jobs, quality of life, encouraging tourism from around the region, and bringing money into our community.

The WaterWalk development and the downtown arena are only the beginning of the potential for downtown to flourish and continue to fuel other economic development. Wichita has an opportunity to become a viable destination stop. And these projects can help support many of the other amenities already available in the city, such as the museums along the river, the ice center, Old Town and so many other businesses and attractions. 10 Richard L. Taylor of Wichita is business manager for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Central and Western Kansas.


Notes

  1. Wichita city council agenda packet, July 18, 2017. Item IV-3.
  2. Request for Qualifications No. — FP740043. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B97azj3TSm9MQ1ZVcXVsNVQ2dkE/view.
  3. Lefler, Dion. 5 years after Intrust Bank Arena opens, little surrounding development has followed. Wichita Eagle. December 20, 2014. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article4743402.html.
  4. Riedl, Matt. Has Commerce Street become too cool for its own good? Wichita Eagle. April 8, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/keeper-of-the-plans/article143529404.html.
  5. Holman, Rhonda. AT LAST – ARENA COMING SOON TO DOWNTOWN WICHITA. Wichita Eagle, March 23, 2005.
  6. Buselt, Lori O’Toole. GROUNDS FOR CHANGE — WILL ARENA RENEW FALLOW DOWNTOWN? Wichita Eagle, May 1, 2005.
  7. Buselt, Lori O’Toole. CITY TRIES TO PLAN ARENA’S DISTRICT – — OFFICIALS ARE CONSIDERING HIRING A CONSULTANT TO HELP DEVELOP THE AREA AROUND THE NEW DOWNTOWN ARENA. Wichita Eagle, June 20, 2005.
  8. Voorhis, Dan. TUG-OF-WAR FOR ARENA — PLACEMENT WILL FAVOR OLD TOWN OR WATERWALK. Wichita Eagle, September 18, 2005.
  9. Scholfield, Randy. REBIRTH — DOWNTOWN IS PLACE TO BE. Wichita Eagle, November 7, 2005.
  10. Taylor, Richard L. DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT BENEFITS ALL. Wichita Eagle, November 15, 2005.

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