Keeper of the Plans

Raze or renovate? Wichita to ask residents about fate of Century II

In late 2016, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell predicted Century II would be a hot discussion topic in 2017.

And was it ever.

Last year, the city was abuzz with debate: Should the iconic blue-domed Century II be razed, a newly constructed performing-arts/convention center to take its place? Or should the city just make necessary renovations to the nearly half-century-old building and preserve it as much as possible?

Realizing the intense public emotion surrounding this issue, the city has elected to spend the majority of 2018 listening to Wichitans’ opinions, according to John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services.

A Century II steering committee of sorts was announced earlier this month – and it will be led by Mary Beth Jarvis, president and CEO of Wichita Festivals.

This committee – a private, non-governmental body – will be tasked with informing the public about the research that has already been done on Century II, collecting opinions and gauging the general public’s appetite for this multimillion-dollar project.

It will operate independently from Project Wichita, another private visioneering initiative announced alongside the committee. That effort will be more wide-ranging than Century II, however.

Expect to see both small and large focus groups, as well as surveys online in 2018, D’Angelo said.

By the end of 2018 or early 2019, Wichitans will likely start seeing more discussion at the City Council level, D’Angelo said.

“I think you’ll see ‘18 really as an opportunity to make sure we understand what the public wants,” he said. “This is an emotional issue.”

Background

These discussions didn’t just materialize out of thin air.

The city has actually been studying the Century II issue for the past eight years. Various studies have been commissioned on the feasibility of a new center or of renovations to the existing building – the most recent of which was released last September.

Here’s the issue: Century II is aging, and if nothing is done, experts think it will be detrimental to the city.

Some of the specific issues with Century II:

▪ Its round design isn’t compatible with modern convention standards.

▪ The halls are not sound-proof.

▪ There is limited pre-function space both on the performing-arts side and the convention side – places to gather, mingle and perhaps shop/dine – an amenity that has become standard in venues across the country.

▪ Its concrete infrastructure suffers from the maintenance problems a nearly 50-year-old building presents. Its elevators have been known to break down, it occasionally has heating and air-conditioning issues and internet connections can be spotty.

Last year, City Manager Robert Layton recommended that the City Council keep the current Century II building, but modernize it, expand it and change the way it is managed. His suggestion came after a presentation of a study by the San Francisco-based Arup Advisory, Inc., which concluded significant renovations to Century II would likely cost the city $272 million. Razing the building and starting over was projected to cost anywhere up to $492 million.

Questions to think about

No matter what solution the city proposes, there are a few questions that need to be thoughtfully considered.

There are obviously more questions that need to asked, but here are just a few to think about:

▪ How much allegiance does Wichita have to the blue dome? Is it something you could see Wichita without? And if so, what sort of building should take its place?

▪ How will the city pay for this? Are Wichitans ready to support this project through means such as a sales tax, property tax, or hotel tax?

▪ What level of involvement should the city have with Century II? The Arup report recommended the city privatize its operations and potentially pave the way for private development on the city-owned land surrounding Century II.

▪ What would you like to see in a renovated Century II? Perhaps a restaurant, boutiques, a museum? What would happen if, say, CityArts, the city-owned art center with galleries and classrooms, was relocated to a renovated Century II?

▪ Can a renovated facility better utilize its prime riverfront location? As it is now, the convention center essentially turns it back to the Arkansas River. Could a renovated facility make use of its proximity to the Arkansas River, perhaps with walls of glass or other such means?

▪ If the current Century II could be devoted entirely to the performing arts, where could a new convention center be built? The city owns various parcels of land downtown, but building a completely new center would likely cost more.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

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