Tension has been brewing in the 600 block of East Douglas.
The block is the site of Gallery Alley, a pop-up park that opened last May and was intended to be a one-year pilot project. Last week, Downtown Wichita announced it would extend Gallery Alley’s stay in downtown for another six months.
The park is beloved by many Wichitans — but not all of its neighbors are as keen on it.
Loft dwellers who live on both sides of the narrow alley say Downtown Wichita has ignored their concerns that the alley is loud and creates traffic issues. They say the downtown development group never asked for their opinion before installing — or extending — Gallery Alley.
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Downtown Wichita, in response, said it worked extensively with both adjacent property owners throughout the process of planning Gallery Alley — and put the onus of communicating the project on the landlords.
“Coming up on the one-year anniversary, there’s a lot of excitement around this project. … We sat down with the adjacent property owners, who were supportive of us continuing that,” said Jason Gregory, executive vice president of Downtown Wichita. “In those conversations, they never brought up anybody having any opposition.”
The alley is part of Downtown Wichita's ongoing efforts to make downtown more livable — a place to work, play and live.
But what happens when efforts to make downtown a hip place to play make it less livable? And how much say do downtown renters have as project ideas are hatched and the neighborhood changes around them?
What is Gallery Alley?
Gallery Alley was the brainchild of Alex Pemberton, who at the time was Downtown Wichita's director of special projects (Pemberton is no longer with the group). He brought the idea from Yellowbrick Street Team, which is known for its guerrilla placemaking projects, which rarely seek permission from the city.
Downtown Wichita received a $66,504 grant from the Knight Foundation, administered by the Wichita Community Foundation, to make it happen. The owners of the two adjacent buildings, Mike Ramsey (of the Renfro Lofts, 614 E. Douglas) and Ken Stoppel (of the Old Town Apartments, 618 E. Douglas) signed a temporary right-of-way use permit to allow the project to happen.
The aim was to activate the alley with a temporary placemaking effort. The alley is barely wide enough for a single car to fit through, and it’s no more than 200 feet long — yet hundreds have crammed into the alley at its peak capacity.
It's a pop-up park that features local art, music and has pastel-colored bistro sets for people to eat at and congregate. Its highlight is a large sculpture of a spider, created by local sculptor Mike Miller.
It opened to public acclaim a year ago, as a slate of local bands played to an alley packed with young people on Final Friday. The party got so raucous that fans started diving off the stage and crowdsurfing.
The following night, local artisans Javan Andrew and Olivia Grant hosted a free screening of the movie “The Breakfast Club” in the alley. The pair continued to show films in the alley through the summer.
The opening weekend was extolled by locals (and The Eagle) as emblematic of the youthful energy of the city and of a changing downtown.
Not all of the neighbors were amused.
Soon after, amplified concerts were banned in the alley. Downtown Wichita at the time cited neighbors’ concerns as the reason for the ban.
Testy relations with the neighbors on occasion spilled over to other events in the alley.
Andrew, co-host of the “Movie in the Alley” series, said a neighbor once “threatened us and our volunteers physically while cleaning the alley after a film.”
“Liv, myself and volunteers helping with the event had a few run-ins with displeased residents who had concerns about the noise and the amount of traffic we were bringing to the alley,” Andrew wrote in an email to the Eagle. “We once even had a resident put his stereo in the window and play music loudly to interrupt … the film.”
As the weather cooled down in the fall, official programming in the alley tapered off.
But last week Gregory said Downtown Wichita is looking to plan events in the alley again — triggering bad memories of that first weekend, residents say.
Why are neighbors upset?
Oliver Figueroa has lived in the same apartment at 618 E. Douglas for more than 14 years.
He said when events are happening in the alley, “you cannot hear yourself think in your own apartment.”
“I know we live in an entertainment district, but nobody that lives in these apartments, when they moved in, moved in knowing that right outside the window was going to be a venue for loud music or movies,” he said. “You live there because you’re adjacent to the entertainment, not right on top of it.”
Tori Deatherage has lived in the Old Town Apartments, 618 E. Douglas, for close to two years now.
A young professional, Deatherage walks to her business four blocks to the east every day and hangs out at places in the downtown area.
She liked the Old Town Apartments because they were “tucked away,” yet still along Douglas downtown.
But that apartment feels less tucked away now, she said, as the alley is just below her bedroom window.
“Somebody standing up there in the apartment could probably hear our conversation word for word,” she said, standing in the alley. “I don’t think people realize how bad the brick echoes.”
Her neighbor, Figueroa, said the tenants of the complex “pay good money to live here, and we can’t even enjoy our solitude or entertaining friends” because of the noise.
There are 10 units in the Old Town Apartments complex. Across the alley, there are 20 units at the Renfro Lofts.
“There's traffic, people like to rev their engines under the bridge super-loud, trains come by — it's just part of living in the city, and we get that. But we also didn't know that (Gallery Alley) was part of it when we moved here,” Deatherage said.
From its onset, the project rankled some nearby property owners — who were notified it would be happening shortly before construction began.
John Kindel owns the buildings currently occupied by Barleycorn's and Third Place Brewing, as well as an unpaved parking lot behind the buildings.
Since Gallery Alley has been in place, semitrailer trucks delivering to neighboring businesses often drive through his parking lot, as well as other private lots, to unload, he said.
"They kept saying it’s an underutilized alley — this was a heavily used alley,” he said. “It seems like a neat and trendy concept, but there’s unintended consequences of a lot of things.”
At times, there have been as many as three semis backed up in the lot, Kindel said. They can also occasionally block in residents' cars.
Steve Klepacki works as a sales associate at PURE Workplace Solutions, an office furniture store on the block.
He said the Gallery Alley project was "not very well-planned, period."
"I literally hate it," Klepacki said. "I just think that they got some money, wanted to spend it and just rammed it through."
He said Gallery Alley causes plenty of traffic jams in the congested parking area behind the buildings — where PURE has 12 parking spots — though the alley is seldom used outside of special events.
"It just seems like a strange deal how they got it put through there and it was kind of hush-hush quiet that they were running it through," Klepacki said. "My owner was never contacted, John Kindel was never contacted — we just threw up our hands and said, 'OK, I guess we don't have a choice.'
"Most people just didn't see why."
Kindel said he and Stoppel, who both own private parking lots behind the buildings, are considering roping off their lots to prevent semis from driving over them to deliver.
“It’s a strangely configured parking area back there with limited access at best,” he said. “They said it was a hazardous alley. I think the hazard of the alley is small compared to what will happen once Ken Stoppel blocks off his lot and I block mine off, when the semis don’t have a place to turn around, and they have to back out into First Street.”
Downtown Wichita's extension of its temporary right-of-way permit means Gallery Alley will stay for another six months — a decision neighbors say they found out about first from The Eagle.
After that, the owners of the two adjacent buildings — Ramsey and Stoppel — are considering vacating the alley, essentially permanently closing it off to vehicular traffic.
Whether Gallery Alley would stay permanently remains to be seen.
"We're so early in the process that, you know, we haven't even really discussed it," said Ramsey, whose Bokeh Development company owns the Renfro Lofts. "We wouldn't do anything like that without getting lots of feedback."
Stoppel, the owner of the Old Town Apartments building, concedes he hasn't had much personal involvement with the alley but said he supports the concept.
"I’m all for ramping up the neighborhood and making things better, cooler, and attracting more attention," Stoppel said. "I’ve never been opposed to change as far as that goes.
"I do know, when it comes to anything that has to do with art or entertainment or anything that's somewhat chic, the great idea is the easy part. It's selling it and getting everybody to march to the beat of a certain drum that's difficult. You always have that handful of people that would rather not do anything or spend any money."
Gregory, with Downtown Wichita, said the downtown development group’s “door is open” to anyone with complaints.
“This project has been a huge success from the public standpoint,” he said. “The input we’ve received from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. If there are any negative responses from folks, we want to hear about it, or thoughts about how we can make it better.”
At the end of Gallery Alley’s one-year pilot, there was to be a series of public engagement charrettes with those affected by the alley. Residents say they have heard of no such events planned.
They’re not necessarily opposed to the concept of the alley, they say — they just wish they had a voice in the matter.
"I think it was a great concept, and I can see that there were good intentions there," Deatherage said. “(Downtown Wichita’s) goal is to bring people downtown for work, for play and for living. I’m their biggest advocate — I work and I live downtown, but it’s like they almost forget that we’re here once they have you.”