Literally, it’s known as “the pit.”
Figuratively, the hole in the ground along Douglas Avenue between Main and Market has been the pits – a sore spot in the revitalization of the heart of downtown.
“That comes up quite a bit,” says Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
He says lots of people know the site, “perhaps not for the best reasons right now.”
That’s about to change.
A $146,025 Knight Foundation Fund grant, administered through the Wichita Community Foundation, will create a pop-up park at the site.
Developers of the River Vista Residences, which is on the west bank of the Arkansas River south of First Street, will donate dirt from their project to fill in the pit and help create a temporary park. It will have room for three food trucks and offer colorful, moveable seating to attract visitors for dining and fair-weather events such as movies on the wall of the Caldwell-Murdock building next door.
“It’s a creative solution for where we are today,” Fluhr says.
He and everyone else involved would prefer to see a new building there, though.
“We’ve always had the vision of a Class A building down there,” says Michael Ramsey, who plans to eventually develop the site with Robert Eyster.
The two have teamed on other downtown projects, such as creating living and works spaces at the Zelman Lofts, the Lux and the Renfro.
Eyster and Ramsey purchased the Douglas Avenue property three years ago from developer Kelly Donham, who had planned a hotel and conference center.
Donham’s contemporary design for his project faced opposition, but the Wichita City Council approved his plans in 2007, and he got as far as demolition at the site before selling it.
Eyster and Ramsey then planned their own hotel and parking garage. Ramsey says real estate development is a fluid thing, though, and they’ve had to respond to changes in the market.
For instance, since their purchase of the property, the nearby Ambassador Hotel has opened along Douglas, and there’s going to be increased parking with the renovation of the former Macy’s garage around the corner at William and Market.
In the intervening years, Eyster and Ramsey moved on to their Lux project and reconsidered what to do with their Douglas space.
“We’ve been through several different scenarios,” Ramsey says.
Whatever the use, he says there’s a glass ceiling on new Class A construction downtown right now.
“It hasn’t been that we haven’t been engaged with that,” Ramsey says.
“It’s just not here yet,” he says. “There’s so many moving parts with that.”
Ramsey and Eyster also plan upgrades to their Merrill Lynch building at 100 S. Market, where they plan such things as a new facade before getting new occupants for the space.
Fluhr says downtown has seen $300 million in development in the last four years, and there’s $175 million planned for the Douglas corridor next year with projects such as Exchange Place and River Vista.
“It’s all about city building,” he says. “It’s the alignment of things that happen.”
Fluhr says it’s the same with the pop-up park.
“It’s just a great, collaborative effort.”
Courtney Looney, communications manager with the Community Foundation, says the Knight Foundation is “really looking at sense of place” when funding projects.
“They’re just looking at ways to bring anybody and everybody together,” she says.
Looney says the park will accomplish that.
“It’s going to be fun.”
The plan is even after Eyster and Ramsey are ready to build, the park can continue to be a community gathering spot – just somewhere else.
“This is something that we can just plug into other vacant lots,” Ramsey says. “We’ve really been doing our homework on this.”
Instead of having plants in the ground, greenery will be in raised planters, making it easy to one day move.
“The land is way too important to … put a full-time, long-term pop-up park there,” Ramsey says.
Fluhr says the success of the park will depend on programming, which the development corporation will run.
“You have to purposely activate the park,” he says.
Ramsey says there’s a bigger overall responsibility for the park from users. He’s already been engaging people at businesses surrounding the future park, and he says they’re showing interest.
“In order for this to work, we all have to have skin in the game,” Ramsey says.
There’s money built into the grant in case the movable furniture is stolen.
“Not that we’re encouraging that,” says Carol Nazar, director of donor and grant making services at the Community Foundation.
“We have money built in for people who are irresponsible,” Ramsey says. “That’s just part of doing business.”
There will be lights strung across the top of the park. Nazar says the entire theme is somewhat European.
“The opportunities are boundless, really,” Fluhr says of utilizing the park.
He says he wants the predictability of food trucks every day, but he likes the idea of different ones for rotating cuisines.
Eyster and Ramsey will do preliminary site work to ready the ground for dirt in the first quarter. The park should take about three months to build. The goal is to have it ready for spring.
While Fluhr says he hopes to see a building go up “certainly within the next couple of years,” he says the park will accomplish a lot in the meantime.
“We feel like this is a real integral step in building toward that opportunity. … It shows the creativity of our community and what we can do,” he says.
“If you see a hole in the ground, you see failure,” Nazar says. “If you’re looking at this park, you see success.”