Guest post by J. Thomas Johnson
“You can’t be a suburb of nothing.” I’m not sure who to attribute that quote to but it was pretty relevant to Downtown Wichita prior to the 2010 adoption of Project Downtown – The Master Plan for Wichita. With the plan serving as the template for downtown revitalization, almost $500 million has been invested in the core area. A total of $1.2 billion has been invested during the last 10 years.
Successful downtowns have a number of characteristics in common. Chief among them is a high percentage of the so-called “creative class,” those in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment. Wichita is no exception.
New housing, almost 600 units since 2010 and another 725 units in development, new “hip” destinations and entertainment options and proximity to employment have led to the in-migration of empty-nester and millennial households. Together, they contribute to a new and exciting environment, revived civic pride and heighten momentum among the development community that has resulted in a significant transformation of Wichita’s center city.
Wichita’s downtown is defined by four distinct but intertwined areas comprised of Old Town, the Central Business District (CBD), the Delano District and the Douglas Design District, each enhancing downtown’s “sense of place” in its own unique way.
Initial downtown redevelopment efforts got underway in the middle 1980s with Old Town, a 20-block warehouse neighborhood located just northeast of the core area that was once 70 percent vacant. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was named one of the American Planning Association’s Great Neighborhoods, complete with brick-lined streets, loft residences, hotels, public plazas and thriving dining and entertainment establishments that offer something every night of the week, all contributing to the area’s identity as downtown’s hot spot.
Old Town continues to evolve and mature. The last remaining developable property, a 30,000-squre-foot warehouse building, was recently purchased by an out-of-state developer who is marketing it as a mixed-use development. The same developer is also pursuing an agreement with the city for the redevelopment of the former 200,000-square-foot Finney State Office Building in the CBD.
Activity is now flowing south and beginning to fill the void between Old Town and Intrust Bank Arena, the city’s 15,000-seat multipurpose facility that opened in 2010.
The renovation of one of downtown Wichita’s most iconic structures is now underway. The $54 million redevelopment and expansion of the downtown Union Station campus includes the Wichita historic train station, Rock Island depot and baggage facility and the former Wichita Grand Hotel, now converted to office and retail, which has reached 100 percent occupancy. Just south of the arena, the Commerce Street Arts District is getting a makeover with additional parking, streetscape improvements and light sculptures.
Most recently, things got even more exciting as Cargill announced it will be relocating the headquarters for its Protein Group to the former Wichita Eagle site just east of Union Station. The existing building will be demolished and Cargill will build an estimated 200,000-square-foot campus for its 800 employees. When complete, the campus will dramatically alter the streetscape of Douglas Avenue, downtown Wichita’s main arterial.
This project spurred speculation regarding the new location for the Wichita Eagle. One rumored location is the 40,000-square-foot former Henry’s department store that has been closed since 1984. If that becomes the site, then it will become the final piece of Block 1, a project that was started back in 2012 and includes the Ambassador Hotel, a 270-space city parking garage, the Kansas Health Foundation and the Kansas Leadership Center. There are a number of competing locations for the Eagle, including Old Town.
Other significant projects in the core area include the Douglas, a 240-unit apartment renovation and parking garage, which just opened its first phase. The conversion of the former Commerce Plaza office into a Hilton Garden Inn is underway. The renovations of the former Market Centre office building and Broadway Auto Park into apartments are getting off the ground. Plans to turn the former Spaghetti Works building into a work-live-play mixed-use project and the former USD 259 Administrative Center into the 90- unit Water Street Lofts are on the drawing board.
These and other high-profile projects are complemented by a number of smaller office renovations, pop-up parks, parking garage renovations and streetscape improvements that appeal to the owners and employees of entrepreneurial businesses in technology, advertising, media and information services who have been primarily responsible for the absorption of the new “cool space” offices and living units.
The Delano District, just west across the river from the CBD, sprang up as a cowtown at the end of the Chisholm Trail and quickly gained a reputation as a place where trail-weary cowboys could take their rest and recreation in the many saloons and brothels. Today, Delano is home to dozens of unique shops, art galleries and restaurants, and will be the future home of Wichita’s new $33 million Advanced Learning Library and River Vista, a $35 million apartment and riverfront development.
In the near future, a new project will emerge on the Delano Catalyst site, identified in Project Downtown, as two developers are competing for the right to develop a seven-acre mixed-use project. Very early in the planning stages, but no less important, are discussions regarding a possible $40 million to $50 million renovation of Lawrence Dumont Stadium, the city’s aging baseball park on the Arkansas River. To be funded by Star Bonds, it will include a restaurant, bar and entertainment area, and will open up some other exciting opportunities along the riverfront.
The Douglas Design District is a three-mile stretch of more than 300 locally owned businesses that extends from Old Town to and through the College Hill area. This design-oriented corridor is fast becoming one of the trendiest districts in the city. Community-inspired retail, reflecting local culture and products, comprises a significant percentage of new businesses in the Douglas Design District. Lincoln Heights, Clifton Square and the marquee businesses at Douglas and Hillside are among the city’s most popular commercial centers. Complementing the commercial orientation is new residential development. The city is evaluating proposals for the former Parkstone area that includes an apartment and retail mixed-use development, which will complement the neighborhood.
While there remain some challenges, Wichita’s downtown is a vital part of the community’s economic development strategy, and city leaders have recognized its importance in attracting and retaining talent and businesses. This is due in no small part to the efforts of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the foresight of the mayor and the city manager’s office to name a downtown revitalization manager as the point man for the downtown redevelopment effort.
Wichita’s urban core exemplifies economic vitality and is well-positioned to foster interest among local and regional users, investors and developers. There remain a number of well-located buildings with character looking for a second life and ground up development sites waiting for the right opportunity.
Thomas Johnson is president of Wichita, Kansas-based NAI Martens.