For Bel Aire, necessity truly is the mother of invention.
In 2003, the city government bought about 2,200 acres of land to its east, thinking it would be quick to develop. It wasn’t, and the cost of holding the land has gotten pretty heavy.
The city has turned 800 acres into what promises to be a burgeoning industrial park, Sunflower Commerce Park, but city officials and their advisers are now working on something different for 600 acres framed by 45th Street to K-254 and Rock to Webb roads.
They expect the area to become mostly housing of various sorts, including apartments, but the plan also will include offices and retail space.
What makes it different is an innovative approach in which the city government develops the land using market forces.
“We can draw a lot of pretty pictures, but it has to be something the market will buy,” said Marlin Penner, president of John T. Arnold & Associates, who is advising the city.
The city, under the guidance of Penner, hired the Center for Real Estate at Wichita State University to study how much housing is needed in the future and where. Then it hired the Research Partnership to probe what kind of housing people want.
Some of the results were surprising, Penner said. Over the past two decades, Wichita has been flooded with ranch houses with two-car garages. But is that what retirees want? What about 30-year-old childless couples? People want more choices, he said, and the data will point developers to the right things to build.
Penner and city manager Ty Lasher have developed a hybrid strategy: They will approach certain developers who have a track record for certain kinds of houses, show them the proprietary research and encourage them to build a certain way.
“We’re trying to be collaborative,” Lasher said. “It’s going to be Marlin working with developers. They want to make a profit, so we need to make sure they can. If the developer wins, we win.”
This is in contrast to an earlier Bel Aire effort at innovative design.
About a decade ago, city fathers started Central Park, a development designed to look somewhat like an old Wichita neighborhood, with bungalows, porches and back alleys. The development got some interest, but it also drew opposition from the area’s larger home builders, who were philosophically opposed to government-driven housing competing with them. The city paid too much for the land, said Wess Galyon, president of the Wichita Area Builders Association, so the houses were priced too high, and the city imposed restrictions on how the houses could be built.
Not surprisingly, Galyon said, development was slow – and then the housing collapse hit and construction virtually stopped. There are still plenty of lots available.
Galyon said he supports Bel Aire’s current development plans as long as the new housing is market driven. He thinks the city is on to something with the idea of providing more housing options, he said.
The project may even grow faster than the market as a whole if they do it right, he said. Even so, it will take a long time to absorb that much housing.
“It will take a number of years to build out, no question,” Galyon said. “Mostly it will depend on the overall economy, nationwide and locally, job growth and population growth, and those aren’t very fast in this area.”