August 7, 2014

Parking garage key to downtown-area rebirth

The hulking gray parking garage at William and Market streets downtown is in such terrible shape that chunks of concrete are falling from it.

The hulking gray parking garage at William and Market streets downtown is in such terrible shape that chunks of concrete are falling from it.

The garage anchors several blocks of aging buildings, most empty or soon to be empty.

In other words: the area’s loaded with potential.

The city’s renovation of the 550-space garage for the former Macy’s store, set for completion in late April, will spark a dramatic rebirth of several blocks of downtown Wichita, say the owners of nearby buildings.

Eby Construction has already moved equipment to the site for the nearly $10 million project. Work will start next week. In some spots, workers will jackhammer out and re-pour new concrete. In other areas, they will patch existing concrete, while a surface coat will be applied in other spots. The city had already blocked off the sidewalk and a lane of traffic because of safety concerns.

The garage is a construction project, but it’s also an economic development tool. It is one of the reasons that technology services company High Touch moved downtown to 110 S. Main several years ago. And when the garage closed, it made life at the company – already difficult because the elevators weren’t reliable – harder. The company had to scramble to find additional parking; employees walked farther to their cars.

During this time, the company evaluated its future in Wichita, and ultimately the company’s employee-owners decided that downtown Wichita was the place they wanted to stay. The company bought the building and is repairing its systems.

With the reopening of the garage, which is a city-owned facility, High Touch will get 180 spaces, leaving about 370 in the garage open to lease.

“In the long-term,” said High Touch CEO Wayne Chambers, “our presence here is very much dependent on the garage.”

Telling the story

Across the street at Sutton Place, 209 E. William, Abdul Arif is counting on the garage reopening to revive his 11-story building.

Once part of the portfolio of downtown buildings bought by Minnesota developers, the building is about half vacant. Arif, an attorney with an office on the first floor, has big dreams for the place.

He envisions a building full of office workers. But that won’t happen unless they have a place to park.

“In our marketing efforts, we are telling the story of the garage and that incentivizes the potential tenants, so the garage is a real momentum builder,” he said.

Sutton Place has an elevated walkway to the garage.

Arif and his partners have already started to renovate in anticipation of the garage reopening. They have renovated the former penthouse on the 11th floor and will start work on the 10th floor to turn it into an event space, for parties and receptions, in time for Thanksgiving.

He said that because space in the building was financially distressed, he and his partners are getting it at a discount. That means, he said, he can charge below market rents.

The potential for development already has prompted Greg Whitaker to open Ninja Mobile in retail space in Sutton Place facing Market Street. The store opened last week to repair cellphones, tablets, gaming systems and laptop computers.

It’s a bit of a pain to park right now and may get worse with the construction.

“That’s why we priced everything so cheap,” Whitaker said.

On the northwest corner of the intersection, Tom McAndrews, sales and marketing director of the fledgling Sterling CNG, said the company has thousands of square feet of space that would be perfect for offices, even a co-working space.

“This is this great spot, and it sits right between two of the busiest buildings in Wichita – Century II and the arena.”

Reopening the garage will change the calculus on what else gets built downtown, said Michael Ramsey, who with Robert Eyster, has redeveloped several downtown buildings, most notably the Lux, a seven-story mixed use redevelopment at First and Market.

The two own several buildings and lots in the Market and Douglas area, including the infamous pit on East Douglas between Main and Market streets.

Without nearby parking, Ramsey said, they would have developed the space as a two- or three-story residential building with parking in the basement. But with parking available nearby, it might make more sense to build a bigger, more expensive Class A commercial building, he said.

“The whole thing hinges on this,” he said of the parking garage. “There are a lot of pent-up projects that are looking toward that garage.”

William Street

Although providing parking may be necessary to redevelopment, it can’t guarantee it. After all, the parking deck was open until just a year ago, and the area still drifted toward dereliction.

The intersection and elsewhere along William will redevelop and fill up as the redevelopment in the downtown as a whole continues, said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.

He sees that as happening right now. Momentum is building along Douglas and First Street with a series of redevelopment projects. It’s now, he said, about to spread south to William Street.

What William Street has going for it, he said, is not just the one parking garage at Market Street, but two other, newer, city-owned garages at William and Topeka. Between the three, there are nearly 1,500 covered parking spaces within four blocks.

Fluhr acknowledged that people in Wichita are usually reluctant to walk more than a block or two to work or shop, but he thinks that if the street is inviting enough, people will walk farther.

Last month, Anita Siemer announced she would move her Al’s Old & New Book Store to newly built space under one of the parking garages on William.

She said she sees tons of foot traffic walk by and hopes that will translate into a lot more redevelopment.

“I’d love to see a coffee shop come in next door,” she said.

The biggest wild card in the redevelopment of the street is the more than 300,000-square-foot Finney State Office Building, which currently houses the Kansas Department for Children and Families, at the northeast corner of William and Market. The state office workers lease 475 spaces in one of the parking garages at William and Topeka.

The state isn’t happy with the building, but has signed a lease to remain there until July 1, 2015, with a series of one-month options through the end of the 2015, while it searches for new space.

Developers and building owners in the area are both afraid and excited by the prospect of a building that large coming on the market, depending on whether it competes with them or complements them.

While the amount of demand for downtown office space is likely to be sluggish over the next few years, converting some of the older office buildings to apartments and condominiums has cracked open a potentially huge new market for the space, Fluhr said. And with more residents downtown comes the likelihood of more retail and services.

Fluhr said that the redevelopment of downtown is gaining momentum.

“It’s migrating to the north and to the south of Douglas,” he said. “It’s happening. It takes time, but it’s happening.”

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