Last week Boston planning firm Goody Clancy presented its master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. As this plan is now part of the political landscape in Wichita, we ought to take a critical look at some of its components.
A theme repeated over and over is that downtown development in Wichita will succeed as downtown becomes more walkable. Walkability is a component of the “new urbanist” school of city planning, which calls for compact, walkable cities and neighborhoods. Underlying new urbanism is a hostility towards suburban lifestyles and the automobile. We see the bias against automobiles in the plans for increased use of transit downtown. And at one time Goody Clancy said we have too much parking in downtown Wichita, although they seem to have deemphasized that finding.
But people love their cars. They provide unparalleled mobility and freedom. Business owners, if they have experience in new urbanist neighborhoods, know this too.
Recently I toured Baldwin Park, a development in Orlando, Florida that uses new urbanist design. Regarding the automobile, new urbanism means that cars are kept out of sight and mind as much as possible. Homes do not have their garages in the front. Instead, garages are at the rear of homes, and access is through alleyways. Similarly, businesses will have parking located behind the store, with the main entrance on the street, where it is thought there will be much pedestrian traffic.
In Baldwin Park, there’s a Publix grocery store, which is a very nice chain of supermarkets in the South. But our tour guide — the developer of Baldwin Park — told us that Publix insisted on having the main entrance to the store at the rear, where the parking lot is. No dummies, the Publix store owners. They know that people want to drive to the grocery store.
I also toured Celebration, Florida, another new urbanist community with emphasis on walkability. But on a pleasant Florida afternoon, there was a long line of parents in cars waiting to pick up children as school let out.
Returning to Wichita: in January Goody Clancy presented preliminary findings in Wichita. As part of the presentation, principal David Dixon said that this planning effort is grounded in data and hard analysis. As an example, Dixon promoted Walk Score as a measure of the value we place in downtown. Walk score, according to its website, “calculates the walkability of an address based on the distance from your house to nearby amenities. Walk Score measures how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle — not how pretty the area is for walking.”
I’ve found that the walk scores are not credible measures. The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise.” Examination of the results, however, leads us to have little confidence in this measure.
For example, an important “amenity” — that’s a favorite word of planners — that should be nearby is a grocery store. The details for the walk score indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. Those familiar with the area will also know that the nearest grocery is several miles away.
For a nearby library, it lists Robert F. Walters Digital Library, which is a specialized geological library costing $1,500 per year to use — over the internet.
For a drug store, it lists Rx Doctor’s Choice, which is a specialty retailer selling oral chelation treatments — by mail order. It’s nothing at all like a general-purpose drug store. One of those is nowhere nearby.
These results are pure junk. Wichitans should draw one of several conclusions. First, if Dixon believes the Walk Score website results are credible, it casts a huge and dark shadow of doubt over the entirety of the information Goody Clancy is giving Wichita. What else in the plan is based on such obviously trashy data and analysis?
Second, if Dixon sells this junk to Wichitans without investigating its credibility, it means that he has no credibility. And if he believes it’s credible, that’s a problem, too.
Finally, if Wichitans — and I’m speaking particularly of Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leadership — believe this nonsense, it means we’ll believe anything. Heaven help us in this case.