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Eagle editorial: Delay project vote

  • Published Tuesday, August 6, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Both strong proposals to build an apartment complex on the west bank of the Arkansas River offer name developers and a potential boost to downtown’s renewal. Too bad the request for proposal process is casting a cloud over the important project.

Because developing downtown carries complications not seen on the city’s fringes, both proposals call for public incentives such as tax-increment financing and sales tax and revenue bond funds to develop the site, the southeast corner of McLean Boulevard and Second Street.

The Riv, proposed by a group led by Steve Clark, would be a four-story, $17.8 million complex including 82 one-bedroom and 58 two-bedroom apartments and amenities. Last week the Riv sweetened its plan with $1 million to help build a boathouse for Wichita Festivals and the Wichita State University rowing team, and $500,000 toward the regional medical simulation center planned at First and Waco. The development group wants the five acres for free.

The $24.7 million River Vista apartments – developed by George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren – would have 85 one-bedroom and 51 two-bedroom units and 18 two-bedroom loft units, as well as a boat and bike rental facility with access to the river and storage for rowing shells. The group proposes to pay $100,000 for the site.

Both scored well on the downtown development incentives policy matrix that’s meant to take the subjectivity out of such public-private deals, though River Vista has the edge going in to Tuesday’s possible council vote.

In a letter to City Manager Robert Layton last week, Clark made some serious accusations, including that the city had backed away from treating his group as the “preferred developers” and allowed its preliminary plans to be misappropriated by a competing bidder. Layton disputed Clark’s claims, saying he has full confidence in city staff’s work on the proposals.

But it is a concern, as expressed by Mayor Carl Brewer, that the city’s request for proposals went out after Clark’s “plan was presented and different individuals saw what his plan was.”

The city at least could have done a better job of communicating with Clark’s group and managing expectations over a two-year process, to ensure the playing field was level and the process was fair. Concern will deepen if the council votes before Clark’s updated proposal has been vetted by city staff.

Delaying the vote to ensure the decision is the right one seems justified.

Both proposals have the potential to enhance downtown and, with the construction of Value Place Apartments farther south, jump-start residential development on the river’s west bank – a dream going back decades. But this defining project risks furthering the impression that doing business with City Hall is a thankless hassle.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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