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Plan for Union Station: A place to work, dine, maybe catch a train

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, at 6:13 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, at 9:59 a.m.

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Union Station timeline

1910 – The railroads agree to pay $2.5 million for construction of Union Station and elevated tracks at Kellogg, Douglas, First and Second.

July 29, 1912 – Union Station groundbreaking

March 7, 1914 – Building dedication. Union Station is designed by Louis S. Curtiss in the Beaux Arts style. It is built to accommodate 20 trains an hour.

March 8, 1914 – First ticket is sold to F.W. (Woody) Hockaday, local car and tire dealer and mapmaker.

Sept. 26, 1919 – 100,000 Kansans gather downtown near Union Station to hear President Woodrow Wilson speak. But during the night, between Pueblo, Colo., and Wichita, Wilson suffers a partial stroke and no one from Wichita sees him.

1920 – A million train tickets are purchased.

1937 – Fred Harvey Dining Room closes.

1962 – Remodelers lower the ceiling and replace wooden benches with metal chairs with orange, blue and yellow cushions.

1969 – Station closes for the first time for part of the night.

1975 – Wichita Urban Renewal Agency purchases the station and adjoining Rock Island Depot.

1975-1982 – City and federal governments spend $4 million to preserve the station for new uses. The building sits empty.

December 1982 – Multimedia Cablevision purchases Union Station.

2004 – Union Station is placed on the Kansas and National Register of Historic Places.

Gary Oborny and Chad Stafford have a vision to create a lot of foot traffic around Wichita’s historic front door: Union Station.

And within a year, they hope that the first workers and diners will start hovering around the 1914 train depot they acquired Friday from Cox Communications.

The developers, who have built retail and office space around Wichita and in the Midwest, are already at work crafting a plan for Wichitans to work, play and dine at – and eventually maybe even catch a train from – the longtime railroad hub.

Oborny wants the property to become an important connector downtown between Old Town and Intrust Bank Arena, a place where downtown residents can work and where entertainment consumers can come to eat and shop before a ballgame or concert at the arena.

“I think the entire community identifies with Union Station,” Oborny said. “So I think when you talk about this property, it already has a very strong location identifier. And second, we tend to look at properties that drag out over time so you have a very motivated seller, a seller that enables us to get in at the right price.”

Oborny’s Occidental Management is no stranger to downtown, owning the historic Occidental Hotel, the city’s oldest commercial property. He also has owned downtown buildings in the past.

The Union Station plan includes a heavy office emphasis, including a variety of sizes and spaces designed to cater to every type of tenant who wants a downtown base. Current plans could accommodate up to 15 office tenants, with a larger tenant fronting the terminal facility on Douglas.

Preliminary architectural plans would retain the marble-adorned interior while maximizing natural lighting through large windows. Using joint break areas, the developers also hope to retain many of the classic features of the building, including the Fred Harvey Dining Room that operated until 1937 in the terminal.

And then, they plan to craft two “metro-style” restaurants, one higher-end and one casual, with one in the old Rock Island baggage depot once home to Tanya’s Soup Kitchen and another on the first floor of the old Grand Hotel just east of the depot, once home to Cox Business.

“We’re looking to service people who are working downtown, and also tap into dinner and the after-hours situation around here,” Oborny said. “Downtown, I think you need to be successful at lunchtime and you need to be successful at dinnertime, and we’re going to find a solid restaurant operator who can do that.”

The remainder of the old hotel’s first floor will be retail, with more office space – much with the classic exposed duct work motif of Old Town – included.

Oborny and Stafford have made no commitments to seek state or city tax incentives, although a proposed tunnel under the railroad tracks to create walkability – a theme of Project Downtown, the city’s master plan – would appear to qualify for city incentives.

“We’re still evaluating those at this point,” Oborny said, “the values of tax credits versus the flexibility we gain by not utilizing them.”

“We’re still evaluating the project at this point, looking at the numbers. I think that the city is very motivated to see this project succeed. I think there certainly are a lot of supporters for the project, and I think this is a project that will certainly return value to the city.”

The train terminal has about 75,000 square feet of space, but Oborny said the terminal complex has multiple expansion possibilities that could raise the total square footage of the campus to 250,000 square feet.

“You know us,” he said, chuckling. “We’ll start here, and we’ll see where the market takes us.”

The deal also includes the current home of Cox’s downtown Wichita sales office, which will remain under a lease agreement.

Occidental is a diversified firm established by Oborny in 1997. Beginning with the Bristol Square retail project in 2000, the company is best known for its conversion of the Northrock 6 theater building into office space. The company also operates EcoGen, an alternative energy development firm.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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