Wichita council members seek to delay development project after criticism

The Riv is a proposed development on the west bank of the Arkansas River on the southeast corner of First and McLean.
The Riv is a proposed development on the west bank of the Arkansas River on the southeast corner of First and McLean. HCW, LLC

The future of downtown’s biggest residential endeavor under Project Downtown remains uncertain as the Wichita City Council prepares to possibly decide the issue Tuesday.

On Monday, council members appeared to be leaning – ever so slightly – to the River Vista project proposed by Bradley Fair developer George Laham. However, there’s substantial council sentiment to delay the project for at least 30 days in the wake of written criticism from the developer of a competitng project, Steve Clark, who has accused city officials of backing off a commitment to his plan, called the Riv.

Also on Monday, the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity dealt itself into the growing controversy, holding a midafternoon news conference to demand the city auction the land rather than essentially give it away.

Council members Jeff Longwell and James Clendenin took issue with Clark’s letter, with Longwell calling it a demand for favoritism in the city’s bidding process. Clark claimed he had commitments from city officials to develop the apartment project before suddenly being confronted in March with the city’s intention to seek other proposals.

City officials, though, maintain that Clark’s representatives always understood that under urban renewal law, the city would have to issue a request for competing proposals.

Longwell said Clark wanted the city to reduce its request for proposals to a “cursory process,” something the city was never going to do.

“The RFP process should always have integrity because we use it for a variety of different reasons,” Longwell said. “Once we lose the sense that the RFP isn’t a selection process, but an obligatory process with the path already chosen, we have a major problem.

“For anyone to say our RFP process should be a simple rubber stamp is just wrong.”

Clendenin said the two projects have been thoroughly vetted, and that now the probable loser – Clark – is trying to inject confusion into the council’s vote to pressure a reversal.

“Both of them have been through the third-party vetting, scored by a third-party downtown group that includes a bank consortium,” Clendenin said.

“And if we are focusing on these two projects, and not all the peripheral stuff people are trying to throw into the mix to cloud the issue, then yes, I am ready to vote.”

Council member Janet Miller said Monday that internal documents clearly show Clark’s group should not have been surprised by the RFP. Miller said she remains open to developments Tuesday, but is leaning toward a final vote on the projects.

“I know there is a disagreement, some very different perspectives, on how this process has gone, and whether there were commitments made prior to the RFP going out,” she said. “But as I’ve gone back through the documentation, I have not come to the conclusion that this process has been necessarily flawed, as presented by some folks.

“I’m not sure what we would gain by delaying, and that’s part of the discussion I want to hear (today).”

However, Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner and council member Jeff Blubaugh said Monday they want to delay any vote – Meitzner because of growing doubts that a residential project belongs on the river; Blubaugh because of concerns about the RFP process.

The Kansas AFP officials, during their news conference, chastised the city for “essentially giving the land away” to developers. They asked the city to cancel both project proposals, get an appraisal of the land and sell it at market value.

During the Monday afternoon news conference, AFP spokesman John Todd accused City Manager Robert Layton of asking for tax hikes – although Layton has never made such a request publicly – while giving prime riverfront development land away.

“When a favored developer wants it, riverfront corridor land is not worth anything,” Todd said.

AFP spokeswoman Susan Estes also revived the group’s longstanding demand that Mayor Carl Brewer recuse himself from the vote because Brewer’s friend Dave Wells, president of Key Construction, is a partner in River Vista.

Clark’s company is proposing the Riv, a $17.8 million, 140-unit apartment complex, featuring one- and two-bedroom units ranging from 657 to 1,321 square feet. Rents would begin between $850 and $900.

The competing bid from Bradley Fair developer George Laham and his partners – Dave Burk of Marketplace Properties, Wells and Bill Warren’s Free Market Investments – is proposing River Vista Residences, a $22 million facility with 154 apartments ranging from 960 to 1,450 square feet, and 20,000 square feet of retail and office space. Rents would start at $970 a month.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle