Douglas plan is a nod to street's past

Wichitans will get their first look this week at a step back into Douglas's past, a remake that evokes memories of its history as a vibrant, walkable business pathway.

But time still remains for the public to weigh in on Douglas' future.

City officials and consultants will roll out an artist's conception of what Douglas might look like during a 5:30 p.m. public meeting Wednesday at the Drury Plaza Broadview, 400 W. Douglas.

A final public meeting will be announced in late September or early October to view and comment on a final design plan.

The Douglas drawings are based on the public's preferences since a July 27 open house at Century II: A broad market-driven remake of downtown's major commerce street from McLean to Washington, featuring 1950s-style medians tailored to the street's various districts, including Century II, the financial district and Old Town.

"What the public is asking us for thus far is kind of a return to the past," Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams said. "We don't have all of the information and the survey's not done, obviously, but from the initial talking in the meetings I've been in, the public doesn't want a great amount of change."

Using an online voting database and the July 27 open house, more than 300 residents told city officials that they want medians back in the middle of Douglas, a serpentine brick median that was a prime feature of the street from the 1950s until its removal about 20 years ago.

Despite several high-cost options that included wider sidewalks, narrowed driving lanes and relocated storm sewers, a majority of the public clearly favors more cosmetic tweaks for a relatively inexpensive alternative.

"Just make some modifications, add some landscaping for shade and also from a walkability standpoint, make it easier to cross Douglas," said Scott Knebel, the city's downtown revitalization manager.

The proposed medians "make it easier to accomplish both of those," he said.

"There's area to plant more trees, and it also shortens the cross for people by providing a refuge to wait for the next light and cross the next half of the street... Right now, we have nothing but a place for you to stand and decide if you really want to be there."

The public shouldn't expect a boilerplate design down Douglas, Knebel said.

Instead, the initial plan tailors the medians and streetscapes to traffic in each of the three distinct business districts along Douglas that connect Delano on the west with the Douglas Design District on the east.

Britt Palmberg of Design Workshop, the Colorado-based consultant working on the Douglas project, said the medians will be just one element of a broader design to help foster business growth downtown.

"I think that the term 'back to the future,' back to the vitality of the street, is what people are clearly in favor of," he said. "But there's a lot more to what we're doing than just the medians — streetscapes, parking, things like that."

The market will decide when and where implementation of the Douglas remake begins, Knebel said: Work will follow new businesses that locate along the street.

"Private investment needs to drive the work," said Jason Gregory, executive vice president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.

"When there's substantial private investment downtown, then that needs to be the trigger to look at funding."

There are no cost estimates for the proposed Douglas changes, he said.

"Once we know exactly what it is we're trying to do on Douglas, the next step is to figure out how to do it," Knebel said.

Some funding options include at-large capital improvement money from the city's budget, tax increment financing — the use of future tax gains to finance improvements — and federal streetscaping grants.

Williams said the city stands ready to move ahead with whatever the public wants for Douglas.

"If this is something the public wants at large for Douglas, then we're going to move forward," she said.