Keeper of the Plans

Rusty railroad tracks transformed into high-tech sculpture downtown

This stage area was completed as part of the construction of a new parking lot for Commerce Street. To the left are “Railgrass” sculptures.
This stage area was completed as part of the construction of a new parking lot for Commerce Street. To the left are “Railgrass” sculptures. Courtesy

The telltale rumble of trains rolling down the tracks is a familiar sound in the Commerce Street Art District.

But now, rather than being treated as an annoyance, trains are being celebrated on Commerce, which is immediately adjacent to three railroad tracks downtown.

Parents have begun taking their kids to Commerce Street to “train-watch,” say longtime residents on the block. Overhead, hundreds of amber LED lights shine from the “railgrass,” sculptures created from the old railroad tracks that once dominated the area.

It’s all part of a major transformation recently completed on the east side of Commerce Street.

“The context of the trains has changed,” said Kent Williams, a longtime Fisch Haus artist. “It took some of the chaos of back here away.”

A paved parking lot – with a mix of public and private parking stalls – has replaced what was once “just rough rocks, potholes, big piles of dirt ... and the occasional couch,” said Stephen Atwood, a Commerce Street artist.

“It was just a big mud hole for the longest time, and now there’s people walking dogs, skateboarders and bicyclists,” said John Ernatt, co-owner of the Diver Studio. “It’s just a huge improvement, and I think it will keep getting better, too.”

But this being Commerce – an artist’s enclave – it’s not just a parking lot.

Williams – who has a history of designing public art projects in Wichita – spearheaded the project. In 1997, Williams designed the pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River near McLean/Central.

A concrete stage has been built into the lot, as well as multiple “urban oases” – sitting areas in what would otherwise be more parking stalls. Then, of course, the lighted “railgrass” sculptures tower over the area.

The project fills a functional need for more parking in the area, but is designed with an eye for aesthetics, Williams said.

“We said, as a neighborhood, (more parking) is great but ... what if we took 10 percent of the spaces and commit that to human spaces?” he said. “All these improvements equate to 12 parking spots, which is about 10 percent of the overall parking.

“It’s just a place for people.”

David Farha, the developer behind the Finn Lofts project, originally bought the land from the railroads to be converted into a parking lot. Then it became a partnership with the City of Wichita and the neighborhood.

Eventually, the city plans on doing major repairs on Commerce, but it needed a way for business owners and residents to access the buildings when Commerce is shut down.

This is the solution, Farha said.

Williams said it’s “a nice example of the old artist core in this neighborhood working with the new development energy in this neighborhood.”

“Some say it’s gentrification and it’s a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing if people work together to create quality places and amenities as their goal,” he said.

Some details about the project’s aesthetics:

The most striking feature of the project is the “railgrass” installation – sculptures crafted from rusty railroad tracks that previously ran through the area. The tracks are installed vertically into the ground in groupings of 5 near the stage and 15 near Waterman, and a curved metal top is affixed to each post. On each of the “railgrass” poles, there are 93 amber LED lights.

“Railgrass” lights up at night: A motion-sensor near the tracks can detect when trains are passing through. When they do, the “railgrass” flashes.

A lone burr oak tree planted near the stage is the focus of the whole project. It’s planted so that, one day, it will shade the entire stage area.

Sections of green concrete in front of the stage are painted to represent a stylized version of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway logo, which itself was likely appropriated from a trans-cultural sign symbolizing the earth.

The burr oak planted near the stage, as well as trees planted in the “urban oases,” provides a refreshing respite from the otherwise entirely concrete-and-rock landscape (consistent with the “earth” theme). Lines of poetry from Nick Jaina and Carter Revard – a poet of Osage descent – are cut into a metal grate below the burr oak tree.

Williams said future upgrades are planned for the space – including a weather-proof roof on top of the stage.

“We hope that it serves the people living here and visiting here in a way that just brings people together to celebrate this place: the arts, the trains and the people that are defining this neighborhood now,” he said. “It’s really an interesting time of growth.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt