By Ben Carlson, Senior Urban Designer
Downtown Wichita is active! Barely 18 months after adopting a downtown master plan – created by Goody Clancy and a team of economic and transportation experts – developers, designers, new residents, growing businesses, and city staff have already achieved impressive results. Goody Clancy principal David Dixon and I recently had a chance to visit Wichita, see its progress, and meet with some of the entrepreneurs, leaders and students making further investments in their downtown.
Nearly $300 million has been invested in a variety of private development and public infrastructure projects influenced by the planning process. Nearly $100 million more was invested in 2012, and another $112 million in projects was being planned or already under construction when we visited. Downtown has added and filled 300 new housing units per year – twice the rate forecast for the plan by Laurie Volk, known nationally for her expertise in defining emerging urban housing markets. 40 businesses came to downtown in 2012, while the YMCA, Kansas Leadership Foundation and a major church built highly visible new facilities. A 14-story office building — beautiful in its 1920s heyday but decades past its prime as office space — has re-emerged as a handsome boutique hotel. Another hotel, the venerable Broadview, got a thorough renovation and added a new conference facility and outdoor terrace overlooking the Arkansas River.
I was particularly struck by how three powerful factors have driven downtown Wichita’s achievements: partnerships, demand for downtown housing, and quality design.
“Block 1” exemplifies the opportunity that comes from people working in partnership. For years prior to the downtown planning process, this prominent block stagnated for due to weak market demand, lack of parking, and animosity between two property owners. It contained that 1920s office building I mentioned above, as well as the city’s former flagship department store, also long shuttered. Our plan suggested reviving both buildings with housing or hotel uses that could take advantage of their smaller floor sizes, and providing parking that both buildings could share in a new public garage screened from pedestrian view. It also suggested that the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation (WDDC) — a champion of downtown supported by major property owners and businesses — encourage cooperation among property owners and the City on efforts of mutual interest. In a remarkably short time, people in Wichita transformed the situation on the block following just these strategies.
The WDDC brought new-generation property owners together with the City and the Kansas Leadership Foundation – which had been looking to move its headquarters and conference center, also on the block, someplace else with better parking – to forge a plan benefiting all players. The City’s commitment to building a parking structure enabled the foundation to rebuild bigger and better on-site, while providing enough capacity to attract new uses to the vacant historic buildings. The City also collaborated with the other site owners to transform a midblock alley into a pedestrian-friendly walkway and small plaza, complete with mosaic murals, that neatly pulls loading activity to the block’s interior, eliminating disruption on the sidewalks (since improving pedestrian conditions across downtown was a key goal of the final plan). All stakeholders worked together to brand the new mix of uses as “Block 1” in signage and marketing. The former department store and new ground-floor storefronts in the garage still await tenants, but whether office, housing or retail, these uses will complement the hotel and conference center by adding activity at different times of the day and week, and by making more efficient use of the block’s shared parking.
The Finn Lofts are just one of the many projects completed since approval of the downtown Plan in 2010.
Laurie Volk’s housing market analysis – which showed potential for 1,500 additional housing units over 10 years – identified housing as the most important engine of investment in downtown. For a community firmly committed to the power and principle of entrepreneurial initiative, this solid indication of market opportunity proved a cornerstone for the plan. In the three years since we reported her findings publicly, the market has borne out Laurie’s conservative projections…and then some. Dave Burke, an architect and developer whose pioneering work has shown downtown as a great place to live, rented nearly all 36 lofts in a restored player piano factory within five weeks of putting them on the market. This follows successful rent-up of nearly 90 units in a converted school that took place during the downtown planning process. Other developers have joined him in creating hundreds more units in renovated buildings. Michael Ramsey and El Dorado architects have borught a modern design sensibility and creative unit types to their renovations. Fresh from creating new units in Wichita’s funky Commerce Street Arts District, they have begun conversion of an art deco office building to a residential building designed for singles and couples with young children as well as older singles and couples. The building will boast a play terrace for kids overlooked by a higher-level terrace for adults, and a lobby that features both a coffee bar and a daycare center.
These projects share a common approach of transforming a considerable stock of obsolete office, institutional and industrial buildings into housing utilizing historic tax credits as a key funding mechanism. The Garvey Center, a mixed-use development that helped kick off downtown’s residential revival ten years ago by transforming a Holiday Inn into apartments, will soon break new ground on downtown’s first newly built housing in decades. Taking advantage of cost efficiencies created by sharing parking with adjacent office buildings, its 36 units will anchor a downtown neighborhood oriented to the Arkansas River’s extensive greenway and the city’s museum district.
Finally, excellent design – in architecture, landscape, and urbanism – has proved its value. Most striking is the YMCA’s new facility at a prominent gateway to downtown. Architects Schaeffer Johnson showcase the building’s basketball court and pool behind broad windows along two major streets. This design move has a double payoff: the display of diverse people engaged in intense activity, day and night, celebrates the Y’s mission of building community and health, and its light and high visibility makes streets safe and inviting for walking, underscoring downtown’s vitality. Several housing developments combine sensitive historic restoration with bold new architecture that reinforces Wichita’s architectural heritage while infusing it with new currency. Redesigned streetscapes reinforce the sense of place in downtown’s multiple emerging neighborhoods. Brick paving, vintage street lights and interpretive signage chronicling an industrial past reinterpret St. Francis Street as a place of small businesses, loft housing and restaurants. Along Commerce Street, artists and residents rejected new utility poles in favor of keeping their old bent ones that reflect the street’s traditional industrial character. By the end of this year, new custom-designed bus shelters will help reinforce Douglas Avenue’s emerging role as an inviting and convenient place to catch transit. The WDDC has planted its development and design center in a Douglas Avenue storefront. The center helps suburban developers, now expressing interest in working downtown, translate the design conventions they know into urban formats that welcome pedestrians and the mix of activities unique to downtown.
The success of partnerships, the self-reinforcing housing market, and high-quality design owe owes much to two leaders of the downtown master planning process. Jeff Fluhr, president of the WDDC, channels his abundant energy and charisma into connecting developers, designers, property and business owners, community leaders and other stakeholders. He understands how those connection can catalyze the opportunities that come from collaboration. WDDC daily celebrates downtown’s successes while tackling the obstacles to fully realizing downtown’s potential — for example, recruiting retail tenants to pioneer locations and untangling complex land leases. Scott Knebel, Downtown Revitalization Manager for the City of Wichita, leads efforts to establish partnerships in which the City’s investment in public infrastructure unlocks new private investment. He coordinates the City’s downtown infrastructure, transit and management operations to make sure they work together smoothly and maximize opportunity for private investors to create valuable new places downtown.
Wichita’s downtown successes have stemmed in part from community leaders’ strong interest in studying other downtowns to learn what has worked for them. As Wichitans work together to apply these lessons, they have demonstrated best practices themselves and pioneered new approaches. The city and its private- and public-sector leaders have become an impressive model for residents looking to revive downtowns and urban neighborhoods in cities across the United States.