Keeper of the Plans

Could industrial warehouses replace the Starlite Drive-In?

The Starlite Drive-In notified its employees on Monday the theater is permanently closed as of Oct. 13, 2018.
The Starlite Drive-In notified its employees on Monday the theater is permanently closed as of Oct. 13, 2018. File photo

Though no one is officially saying what’s going on, an oddly specific future for Wichita’s Starlite Drive-In started to come into focus this week.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission passed a zoning request on Thursday that would allow for a wide variety of industrial and commercial uses of the drive-in land at 3900 S. Hydraulic. The zoning was approved even though no one is saying what might be built there or when.

As the land was previously zoned, it could only be used as a drive-in theater.

The zoning change is only for estate-planning purposes, Chuck Bucinksi, the owner of the drive-in, told The Eagle and at least one patron who considered starting a “Save the Starlite” campaign.

In a text message Friday, Bucinski, 36, reiterated the need for estate planning and told The Eagle that “the Starlite is open, and will continue to operate as we normally do.”

The drive-in is one of three currently operating in the state — and the only one in southern Kansas. Nationally, as of 2016, there are only about 330 drive-in theaters remaining.

Bucinski bought the Starlite Drive-In from longtime owner Jim Goble’s estate in 2016 with a $146,983.91 mortgage, according to county filings.

The property is worth $560,810, according to Sedgwick County’s 2018 appraisal.

‘Warehouse distribution center’

The Starlite Drive-In can continue operating under the new zoning, but the direction of discussions Thursday afternoon raises questions about its future.

Bucinski himself did not attend the meeting. His agent, Russ Ewy of Baughman Co., represented the case to the commission.

Baughman Co. is a local land development company.

“Although we’re asking for an expansion of industrial uses, we feel it is going to be a relatively clean industrial development if and when the Starlite ever … ceases to operate,” Ewy told the commission.

He said the group is prepared to landscape a significant amount of land along Hydraulic to help “screen” away any potential industrial development on Starlite land.

“This is going to be more of a warehouse distribution center, potentially, just based on the fact that it’s so close to the transportation network,” Ewy told the commission. “We were told that we simply didn’t want another Cornejo campus that’s just north of the highway. Very visible, very tall — you can’t help but notice that type of industrial development.”

Cornejo operates a stone yard, including a rock crusher, at 3300 S. Hydraulic.

“We’ve already promised (First Pentecostal Church) that we would offer (landscaping) in addition to some architectural controls, to make sure that we’re not having naked galvanized metal, that we’re going to have some sort of colorized buildings there that are going to be as harmonious with the general area as much as possible,” Ewy said.

The property has not sold, according to the county register of deeds office, despite the specific talks Thursday, leading neighbors to wonder what exactly is planned for that land.

Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).

Neighbors’ concerns

The Starlite Drive-In is next to the Arkansas River and is surrounded by the city’s Chapin Park to the north and mobile homes to the east.

First Pentecostal Church is adjacent to the Starlite Drive-In to the south.

Its pastor, J Marrell Cornwell, said he understands “there is a conglomerate of investors that are wanting to buy that property when it comes for sale.”

“I don’t know who they are, but they want to buy it and develop that corner for long-term investments,” Cornwell said.

He said the church has spent millions of dollars trying to beautify the neighborhood, “and we don’t want just any kind of junky business going in there.”

He said he’s brought the issue to his congregation’s attention “on numerous occasions,” and that “we’re watching this very carefully.” The church has been promised significant landscaping along Hydraulic if any development were to happen, as well as “good retail businesses” along MacArthur, including possibly a convenience store like QuikTrip, he said.

“We know that the theater is a dying proposition — it’s eventually going to close,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s developed with some beauty in sight.”

Thursday’s meeting did not sit well with Melody Stucky.

Stucky, 66, is a lifelong resident of the South City neighborhood and is current secretary of its neighborhood association.

Just across Hydraulic from the South City neighborhood is a Cornejo plant, which produces pollution and heavy truck traffic in the neighborhood, she said.

She said neighbors in the area felt the Cornejo plant was built under their noses. At neighborhood association meetings, Cornejo pitched a scaled-down version of the plant, while at later, more official meetings, the designs were different — and the association had already given its stamp of approval, she said.

She’s worried a similar situation is unfolding at the Starlite property.

“We’ve heard this before, and we are not very trusting of what comes out in the end,” Stucky said. “We have a big old rock pile, and …it’s just dirty all the time. It’s just constant dirt.”

Under the zoning change for the Starlite, an asphalt plant would be specifically disallowed, as would a salvage yard, adult entertainment establishments and night clubs/taverns.

South Wichita, especially around the Starlite area, is home to a number of concrete plants, sand pits and other heavy industrial facilities.

Just earlier this week, the Wichita City Council voted to allow a sand and gravel pit to more than double its footprint in south Wichita, despite neighbors’ concerns.

About eight years ago, the City of Wichita converted an old landfill just north of the Starlite Drive-In to the 190-acre Chapin Park — a “beautiful park,” Stucky said.

She and other south-side neighbors “just want something good” for the Starlite property, she said.

“We just don’t want the south end of town to continue to be used as a dumping ground for businesses that don’t fit in Eastborough or Tallgrass or anyplace else,” Stucky said.

What’s next?

Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin, whose district includes the Starlite Drive-In, said Friday he was unaware of what’s planned at the theater, saying “they have been very secretive about what they’re doing over there.”

Clendenin said he’s heard from constituents who are “extremely concerned about any industrial use there.”

The zoning matter goes to his District Advisory Board on Aug. 1.

“Normally they get very cranky when someone comes to re-zone something without a specific plan in mind,” Clendenin said. “It’ll be interesting to see how they react at that meeting.”

The application for the Starlite zoning change cost $2,245.

Following the planning commission’s 9-2 vote to approve the Starlite zoning request, it goes to the District III Advisory Board. The Wichita City Council has the final say in the matter.

When Wichita's drive-in transitioned to digital projectors in 2013, the film reels went away. Starlite owner Chuck Bucinski shows how the Starlite plays movies now. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

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