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Area of St. Francis Street seeing business renewal downtown

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 5:38 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, June 26, 2014, at 8:42 a.m.

Photos

Revitalization of North St. Francis Street

Revitalization of North St. Francis Street

Warren Tandoc first spotted it a couple of years ago when the coffee entrepreneur was driving his food truck downtown.

“I thought if I was going to have a brick-and-mortar version of what I was doing, that would be it,” Tandoc said.

That “it” became reality a year ago for Tandoc, who, with his wife, Ann, owns Espresso to Go Go at 102 N. St. Francis.

Tandoc sold his truck and opened Espresso to Go Go, where he has a front-row view of the transformation that has taken place over the past couple of years – especially in the two-block section of St. Francis between Douglas and Second.

“Things are changing so rapidly down there, and it’s really becoming like a hot spot,” Tandoc said.

The renewed St. Francis area is the product of private and public efforts.

Over the past couple of years, new businesses have come into the area besides Espresso to Go Go. They include Lifeboat Creative, Cassandra Bryan Design, Mr. Diggs Dwelling Co. and Bite Me BBQ. And just in the past couple of months, Live at 215 Performance Theatre – which also houses the once-defunct Loony Bin comedy club – opened at 215 N. St. Francis.

And that doesn’t include other projects that were underway before then, such as the Zelman Lofts apartments – in the same building that houses Espresso to Go Go, Cassandra Bryan Design and Lifeboat Creative – or Jay Maxwell’s Pixius building at 301 N. St. Francis, which he bought in 2011 for the headquarters of his wireless broadband Internet service provider and renovated and moved into a year later.

The transformation of the two-block area can be tied, in part, to the construction of Intrust Bank Arena, which is about three blocks south, officials said.

The presence of the downtown arena made that short stretch of St. Francis a “connector” between Old Town and the 15,000-seat entertainment and sports venue.

“If you look, it’s a connector both from a vehicular standpoint and a pedestrian one,” said Jeff Fluhr, Wichita Downtown Development Corp. president.

Scott Knebel, downtown revitalization manager for the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, said it was important to have that connector street running north and south instead of just south. Also, he said, for revitalization of that section of St. Francis, there needed to be more parking. Making that area a two-way road opened up more parking on the street by creating angled spaces on both sides.

“I think it’s proven to be well-received,” he said. “The number of vacant storefronts certainly outnumbered the number of occupied storefronts before we did the project. Certainly the number that are occupied (now) well outnumber the vacant storefronts.”

Coleman Lockett had been looking for a place to move his 8-year-old Bite Me BBQ restaurant after he sold his West Kellogg location to make way for highway expansion.

Lockett, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Becky, and daughter Mercedes, said they had been scouting locations in northwest and downtown Wichita.

“The more we heard about downtown and the energy they were putting into Project Downtown, we just decided to look downtown and found this building,” he said, adding that he and his wife live on the second floor of the building where their restaurant is.

He said he was also attracted to the area because of the proximity of the arena to his business as well as tax credits that were available for renovating the building. The Locketts purchased the building in 2011 and moved in the following year.

Bite Me BBQ has also benefited from the improvements made to the street and sidewalks.

“We’re very happy,” he said. “I actually believe, in all sincerity, that we bought at a perfect time. The only way it would have been better is if we had bought before the arena was built. We could not be happier with the way business has progressed down here.”

But, Knebel said, converting a one-way street to two-way and adding a few more parking spaces can’t fully explain why the 100 and 200 blocks of North St. Francis are more vibrant today.

There were other public projects in the area that have helped, including the addition of a county-owned parking area and adjoining urban park as well as enhanced landscaping that included the addition of trees, brick crosswalks, bicycle stands, park benches and decorative streetlamps.

“I don’t know that it’s all attributable to the street project,” he said. “All the things going on downtown make that area more viable … including the Intrust Bank Arena.”

Sedgwick County, which owned the land and the former Coleman Co. factory on the southeast corner of Second and St. Francis, turned the property into a 287-space public parking lot. The Wichita Rotary Club, through its foundation, contributed $300,000 for the construction of an urban park, including a Rotary Time Tower sculpture and winding brick wall marking the organization’s 100 years.

“Clearly because we were the downtown Rotary Club, we wanted to be downtown,” said Sheryl Wohlford, president of Automation Plus and who also was president of Wichita Rotary when the park was dedicated and was involved in its planning. “It just was one of those projects where the stars all aligned.”

Moving north?

Maxwell was attracted to the area because of improvements on St. Francis and the city’s willingness to work with him on relocating Pixius to the building he renovated at 301 N. St. Francis.

“That whole block has been a nice, little corridor,” Maxwell said.

“I just wish the whole project extended all the way (north) to Central,” he added. “I’d love for them to take it to Central.”

Knebel said there currently are no plans to continue the St. Francis improvements two blocks to the north.

“A lot of what we do is react, in a way, to the private sector and what their projects are,” he said.

Fluhr, of the downtown development group, said it’s not impossible to see improvements on St. Francis or other downtown streets extending north in the future.

“As you continue to see investments made going north, I do think there becomes an opportunity to see improvements to the north and hitting Central,” Fluhr said.

He added that Central is an “important connector” to the city and county government buildings downtown.

Fluhr said there are also projects that still could come along the two-block stretch of St. Francis. He said the downtown master plan envisions construction of a parking garage at the former Coleman factory site. He noted that Old Town developer Dave Burk also has plans eventually for the vacant ground that he purchased late last year at the northeast corner of Second and St. Francis.

“I think Old Town is coming under the bridge and expanding to the west,” Burk said of his reasons for purchasing the 1.37-acre lot.

Burk said he’s still working out exactly what he will do there.

“It’s a nice street, and having that north property is a good location for something,” he said. “I just haven’t figured out what will work.”

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.

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