Aerial tour of shipping container mall
He could have built a standard strip center, the kind common on street corners all over Wichita.
It would have been cheaper, says local developer Michael Ramsey. And it certainly would have been easier to pull off.
But Ramsey, whose Bokeh Development is known for its eye-catching projects that transform old downtown buildings into hip destination residences and commercial hotspots, said that’s not his style. He had a bigger idea for the corner of Central and Volutsia, an idea that would not only give young entrepreneurs an affordable way to get their start but also would be unusual enough that it would get people talking.
Ramsey, the man behind high profile downtown rehab projects such as The Lux apartments, the Cor-Ten offices, and the new parking-garage-turned-apartments Broadway Autopark, is the visionary behind the unusual looking project that’s been taking shape in an unexpected neighborhood. For months, passersby have watched as a lot at Central and Volutsia has become filled with rusty shipping containers stacked on top of each other every which way.
He’s calling it Revolutsia, and by mid-summer, it will be an inviting, open-air hub of restaurant and retail activity, and it will be Wichita’s first foray into the shipping container mall trend that’s been catching on in big cities all over the country.
“If we build a strip mall there, we’d get a check cashing place or something that doesn’t benefit that neighborhood, and what have we done?” Ramsey said. “Nobody would come to it. No one would walk to it. We’ve got plenty of those things.”
Gathering the right team to put the unusual spot together, Ramsey said, was key to confronting the type of challenges that come up when you’re doing something different, something people aren’t used to.
His next big challenge, he said, is getting Wichita to understand what exactly Revolutsia is – and how to use it.
Extending the seasons
Shipping container malls have become a thing all over the country, and high-profile versions have been constructed in cities such as San Francisco and Las Vegas. There’s a huge one in Seoul, South Korea, and they’re popular in London, too.
Closer to Wichita, Tulsa opened a shipping container center called The Boxyard in 2016, and it’s home to a children’s clothing store, a coffee shop, a Mexican restaurant and an ice cream shop. In Oklahoma City, a shipping container development called OKSea houses a bakery, a juice bar and a popular hot dog and burger restaurant.
Drawings and video of what Revolutsia will look like when it’s finished show something Wichita hasn’t seen before. It’s an open-air, two-story center that’s anchored by the charming stone cottage that’s long sat on the edge of the property. It was important to him, Ramsey said, to incorporate that cottage into the project.
The 36 stacked containers, which will be painted shades of gray, white and green that match the cottage, will eventually hold 12 to 15 businesses and will be arranged in a square behind the cottage. In the center will be a courtyard with umbrella-covered tables and a big gas fire pit. Large decks will be built outside the containers, including several second-level decks filled with tables and chairs.
Mature trees that were preserved on the site will provide shade. Lights will be strung overhead in the courtyard, where developers envision people meeting up for adult beverages and to listen to live music.
The containers are all 8 feet wide and 9 feet tall, and the majority are 40 feet long. Many of the businesses will take over at least two shipping containers, and some are set up as two-story spaces with spiral staircases. Most businesses will have between 320 and 640 square feet of space.
One of the shipping containers is situated vertically to house an elevator. The center will be ADA compliant.
Ramsey said he wants Revolutsia to be an all-season destination, and in colder months, the center will have outdoor heaters. The upper-level decks will help trap heat in the courtyard, and the square shape of the center should provide a natural barrier from crazy Kansas wind.
“We wanted to extend the seasons in Kansas,” Ramsey said. “We need to be out more.”
Starting a business at Revolutsia will be far more affordable than starting a brick-and-mortar shop because the cost of the restrooms, the courtyard and other amenities will all be shared by the tenants, who otherwise would be responsible for all those costs on their own, Ramsey said.
Krista Racine of J.P. Weigand is leasing the spaces, and so far, she said, Revoutsia is about half-full. The tenants, which will be revealed soon, are an even mix of retail, restaurants and service businesses.
“It’s the perfect way for small business owners and our local entrepreneurs to join into the brick and mortar format,” Racine said. “Our city is so based around entrepreneurship, and we’ve had so many really cool businesses start here. We’re really catering toward those smaller local tenants with these small places.”
Shipping containers as shelter
Shipping container malls became popular, Ramsey said, during the economic downturn. Goods would be shipped from overseas in the sturdy, waterproof containers.
But getting the containers inspected and insured for a trip back to where they came from was an expensive process. Just buying a new container was more affordable, and there became a glut of used containers available.
Suddenly, builders were piling them up for shopping centers, apartment buildings and individual businesses.
“That drove down the price, and people began to be able to explore using them for other things,” Ramsey said. “You could get shipping containers for a few hundred bucks. You can’t do that anymore.”
Ramsey said he first heard about shipping container malls from his nephew, who had been urging him for years to consider building one. He’d toyed with the idea, but it wasn’t until he came across the property at Central and Volutsia that he thought seriously about going for it.
“It’s in an incredibly cool little neighborhood that is going through some transitional stuff, and we thought that there would be a great opportunity to bring in some retail, some restaurants and maybe a little commercial stuff,” he said. “But I think in order to do that, in order to get people to come to that area, we would need some kind of a hook.”
The shipping containers were the hook, but to pioneer such a development to Wichita, he’d need a team of people who could help him figure out how to physically pull it off. He turned to Shelden Architecture and his longtime builder, Ted Farha of Farha Construction.
“Everybody looks at a bunch of shipping containers and thinks, ‘Boy, that’d be really cheap to build,’” Farha said. “But basically, the containers are the shells, and you still have to put in insulation and drywall and electrical and plumbing and heating and air. ... You have to figure out what makes sense and what works to, in the end, build a strong building that’s cost-effective and cool looking. That’s a challenge.”
Once his team was put together, Ramsey said, he had a few more hurdles to clear. One was getting the city on board, and last summer, Bokeh had to get approval from the District Advisory Board and the Wichita City Council to change the zoning for the area from limited commercial to planned unit.
The change, which was eventually approved, gave him the ability to build up to the property line along Central and open with fewer parking places than would normally be required. Ramsey and his team told the city that the development would increase walk-ability in the neighborhood and draw people on foot from nearby Wesley Medical Center, by bus to the fancy new bus stop that will be built right in front of the development on Central, and by bike, taking advantage of the bike share station that also will be set up in front of Revolutsia. Recently, the city erected a high-tech new crosswalk that will deliver pedestrians safely across Central right into the entrance of the development.
There were some skeptics in the city when the shipping container idea was first brought up, said Scott Knebel, who works with the city planning department and was a point person for the Revolutsia developers. But the project seemed like the right one for the property.
“We were certainly willing to give it a shot,” he said. “I think we’re probably going to see more of this. I know some other developments are looking to use that kind of construction in their projects.”
A neighborhood in transition
Ramsey said he’s always been interested in developing “transitional areas,” and Central and Volutsia is one of them. A half a mile to the east is Central and Hillside, which has Wesley, several fast-food restaurants, and a couple of busy strip centers, including a Central-facing project that is home to Wichita’s newest Starbucks.
But Revolutsia’s immediate surroundings aren’t quite there yet. Across the street is a liquor store, a cell phone store, a massage parlor and a jam-packed retail shop with treasures spilling onto the sidewalk. Behind the site is one block of residential housing, and all around it are vacant commercial spaces.
Getting people to pay attention would require a special project, Ramsey said.
“The whole idea is to develop some kind of hook that gets people’s interest there,” he said.
Parking is likely to be the biggest issue. A development of that size would usually require 30 spaces, but the city cleared Revolutsia to open with 10. Ramsey also purchased the lot directly to the west for overflow parking, he said. But he’s hoping that Wichita will not only give a new type of development a try but also a new way of getting to it – via foot, bike or bus.
Someday, he said, Wichita has to give up its reliance on front-row parking.
“The big thing naysayers are going to talk about is probably the walk-ability aspect,” Ramsey said. “It’s not going to be as high, is what the negative people will say. ... But we’re trying to thoughtfully engage, trying to thoughtfully bring about more pedestrian walking into that area.”
Dan Gensch, who leads the Shelden Architecture team designing the project, predicted that within a year, large groups of people would be making plans to meet at Revolutsia to enjoy drinks and live music in the courtyard. Gensch, who has children, said he also thinks it will be a hit with young families, who are in need of places where they can take their children and let them run around.
Revolutsia, he said, also will be a solid step in the eventual goal of making Central Avenue a Wichita destination.
“We saw it happen with Douglas, and you kind of expected it to happen with Douglas,” he said. “Wichita is transforming, and in the next 10 years you are going to see this happen with Central.”