Old Town's always been an architectural metaphor for Wichita's progress. First as the bricks and mortar symbol of Wichita's burgeoning manufacturing economy in the 1880s.
And now, after two decades of redevelopment, the same bricks and mortar are the foundation of Mayor Carl Brewer's plan to revitalize downtown.
Twenty years after an architectural visionary and a real estate specialist peered into 50 acres of crumbling Wichita history and saw a destination entertainment district, Old Town is throwing a big birthday party this weekend.
It's a benchmark birthday for the architect, Dave Burk, and his real estate guy, Rich Vliet.
"Very satisfying," said Vliet, a Wichita developer. "More so than I think any of us imagined."
"We believed pretty strongly that historic areas in cities work because that's where your city started," said Burk. "It's your roots. Really no competition if you develop that area because no other area has that 100-year-old character.
"I think it's turned out pretty good."
Old Town's metamorphosis from a deteriorating core area into downtown's entertainment hub began in the early 1980s, when Vliet's Looking Glass restaurant became an inadvertent prototype for Old Town's future: home-grown destination entertainment.
"Nothing here, really," Vliet said. "I mean, Douglas was still a drag strip in those days."
Downtown celebrations had proven successful at that time, Vliet said.
"It was pretty clear that people enjoyed coming downtown, enjoyed the feel of the neighborhood," Vliet said.
At the same time, a couple of downtown merchants DEN Management's David Norris and Mary Wright, the then-new owner of the Old Mill Tasty Shop began looking in 1982 for ways to get people downtown.
"The visionary was Norris, because he was here before me," Wright said. "I just got interested because I walked in this building and just loved going here. I got captivated about keeping this going for the history of Wichita.
"Rich was already involved here because he had the Looking Glass, which was the haven of civilization here in those three blocks."
Norris was intent on developing Old Town, so he enlisted an old friend Wichita Mayor Bob Knight.
"David and Mary, they were the pioneers along with Burk and Vliet," Knight recalled. "They were the ones who had the passion for restoring this part of our community."
The passion was easy to buy into, Knight said.
"You had a part of the core area that literally was falling down," he said. "Really, the face of Wichita. More and more vacant buildings, people leaving in droves because of taxes and parking. We needed to shore that up."
Burk said developers needed help with critical infrastructure improvements in a badly dilapidated area so dilapidated that some segments of Old Town had wooden sewer pipes, Knight said.
According to city officials, Wichita and Sedgwick County have invested $30.2 million in Old Town projects.
Knight was unapologetic about the city's active financial role in revitalizing Old Town.
"Simply, the fact that this could be a real boost for the community, hopefully build a solid tax base where there was none it was a challenge, but there are always challenges downtown," he said. "It's worked out well."
The big challenge
Burk and Vliet quickly took options on several pieces of Old Town property. They targeted an old dry cleaners at 904 E. Douglas for their first project, Larkspur restaurant.
"You can put a lot of residential together so you've got a mass of people downtown who needs services like restaurants, retail, other services," Burk said.
"Or, you try to develop all that into a critical mass where people feel safe about living. And that's what we ended up doing."
There was a big problem right from the start: environmental contamination, in what was called the Gilbert & Mosley site.
Solvents from decades of industrial activity contaminated groundwater underneath downtown to the extent that the federal government threatened to make it a Superfund site.
Property owners, or the banks that loaned money on the property, could have been responsible for cleanup costs, even if they didn't cause the pollution.
The contamination halted real estate activity for almost two years, until the city agreed to take responsibility for cleaning up the pollution. The city sued some companies to recover its costs and granted certificates to others saying they wouldn't have to pay for the problems.
"Right off the bat the Larkspur building had contamination issues because it had been a dry cleaners," Burk recalled. "Basically at the time the Gilbert & Mosley project started, we became the first certificate issued by the city holding us harmless against groundwater pollution."
The contamination issue threatened Old Town's future literally before it started, Knight said.
"It took a year or two to sort it all out," he said. "Coleman at the time was the main culprit in the sense of contributing to the pollution, but there were hundreds of situations that we sorted out. It opened a path to what we have today."
Love for old buildings
Wichita entrepreneurs Gary Streepy and Bill Warren have come, gone and, in Warren's case, stuck around through Old Town's history for the same reason: They love cool places.
"The appeal? Easy. If we could jump-start Old Town, we'd have an absolutely neat entertainment district. I just loved those old buildings," said Streepy, who has left the restaurant business for interior design.
Warren wanted to help revive downtown with one of his signature upscale movie theaters even if the revival required a $6 million city loan in 2008 to stay afloat.
"Our motive was that Wichita has been good to us," Warren said. "The city thought it was important to have a theater downtown to bring people down, and we agreed."
Streepy founded Heroes, one of three restaurant concepts to survive both decades, along with Larkspur and the River City Brewery.
"That's always been my passion," Streepy said. "Keeping the old building, the elevated seating, the private booths, the ramp up to the bathrooms that was used for a forklift carrying produce. The goal was keeping the building's look and feel and mixing it up to service my clientele."
Streepy said the Old Town ambiance helped cover some of Heroes' flaws.
"It was never the greatest service in the world," he said. "Just a cool place to see and be seen. Good food, unique atmosphere."
Burk said he's happy with the results in Old Town.
"Very happy," he said. "I think we've been very successful with office space, too Airbus, Sullivan Higdon Sink, Morris Laing some major employers."
Warren thinks Old Town's best days are ahead of it when new housing matches downtown's retail and entertainment development.
"Today, our theater does well on weekends in Old Town and not so good on weekdays," he said. "The reason is more people living in suburbia than downtown. We hope that's about to change."
Streepy said Burk, his old Pasta Mill landlord on the northwest corner of Douglas and Rock Island, hit a home run with Old Town.
"It's gone far beyond what I expected. "Go and stand in front of the Warren with the neon lights, the fountains, the new construction. They've built kind of an Omaha in Old Town, with the old area, the neat warehouses, parking where you want."