There’s plenty to see walking down Douglas in downtown Wichita: New apartment complexes. The Eaton block. The brand new Kansas Leadership Center. The Ambassador Hotel.
And pigeons. Lots of pigeons, doing what pigeons do in the dark, cold, filthy, brick-lined walkway under the railroad bridge that crosses Douglas.
Downtown developers have targeted those pigeons, figuratively, as they try to eliminate the obstacle to downtown walkability posed by the crumbling infrastructure.
They want to “activate” the foot traffic under the old railroad bridge with electronic interactive signs, art, advertisements and lighting to bring the dank walk more in line with the positive moves made by the city and investors along Douglas.
“It’s a blank canvas. These walls are a white canvas today,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., gesturing at the cracked concrete under the bridge. “As a hub downtown, this can actually become quite dynamic.”
“Oh, I’m absolutely for that,” said Mary Wright, owner of the Old Mill Tasty Shop down the block from the underpass. “I walk my neighborhood, and every so often you walk under that bridge and think about what someone not from our city must think about it. The pigeon mess is very daunting.”
Fluhr envisions a series of electronic interactive boards on the white walls underneath the bridge. Those boards could tell downtown walkers the events of the day or week and gauge their opinions on possible downtown changes. Fluhr’s group is seeking funding opportunities for the changes, with the tentative plan to proceed in 2014.
It’s a project that would retain the historic structural qualities of the bridge, while driving away the birds with an organic substance that would not harm them. The ideas come from an eclectic collection of American cities, from the electronic signage of New York to Des Moines’ successful battle against pigeons.
“I guess you could say the walkway’s already activated with two-leggers,” Fluhr said wryly, “so I can’t say we want to eliminate that. Call it a wingless activation.”
There are no immediate plans to wall off the bridge girders that serve as home to the pigeons, Fluhr said. The steel infrastructure has historic value to visitors.
Mayor Carl Brewer said he got a first-hand look at the pigeon droppings under the bridge during the recent chili cook-off downtown.
“I walked under there thinking to myself, there are some serious illnesses and health issues from messing around with that type of bacteria,” he said. “If you’re a family and you’ve got a child, say, who touches those walls or drops something on the brick, you’ve got a problem. It’s something that certainly needs our attention.”
Improving the walkway under the bridge is critical to the foundation of Project Downtown, the city’s master plan for downtown revitalization. It envisions pedestrians walking all over downtown, visiting shops, eating at restaurants, attending Intrust Bank Arena events.
And with visitors moving north and south from Old Town to the arena, and east and west along Douglas, the bridge walkway today is “a sort of an obstacle” to that walkability, Fluhr said.
“That’s what is very important to us,” Wright said, “the connection between the Washington Street area and us to walk through. That walkway has always been a barrier, I think.”
Any changes to the bridge, Brewer said, would have to come with a guarantee of no more injured pigeons at City Hall.
“You’d be surprised how often they get hit, and someone brings them to City Hall,” Brewer said. “They want them fixed, not put to sleep. If there’s a way we can protect the pigeons and clean up that walkway, that’s something I think we all will support.”