City block a ‘laboratory’ for downtown Wichita development

Work is progressing on Project Downtown’s “laboratory,” a one-square-block stretch of Douglas between Broadway and Topeka that is the site for three major downtown revitalization projects.

And a site that downtown’s marketers will show prospective developers as an example of the quality of work Wichita can do quickly.

The Ambassador Hotel is on schedule for a late 2012 opening, with framing work almost complete on the facility’s 117 rooms, including the spacious 1,500-square-foot Rockstar Suite on the 14th floor.

City contractors are at work on the adjoining 300-stall public parking garage and public park. Plans are in place for the Kansas Health Foundation’s $9 million expansion on Douglas. And Slawson officials are beginning work on a planned retail and office revitalization of the Henry’s building, one of downtown’s iconic retail structures.

It’s the first full city block of work in Project Downtown’s first 18 months, and Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said it sends a message to developers: Downtown is open for business.

“This is a laboratory,” Fluhr said. “As we move forward, we have the opportunity with this block to walk down there with developers and say, ‘Look. This is the kind of activity we’re trying to stimulate in our downtown.’ ”

Here’s an update on the projects:

Ambassador Hotel

The final framing is almost complete on the Ambassador’s 117 hotel rooms, and drywall is being finished in many of the rooms. Hotel officials have decided to run their own ground-floor restaurant and will begin hiring sales staff and a restaurant chef soon, said Michael Frimel, an executive vice president of developer Paul Coury’s Ambassador Hotel Collection and the manager of the Wichita hotel. Hiring for other jobs, including hotel management, will begin in November.

The project is still on schedule and still estimated at $22.5 million, Coury said. No cuts have been made in the wake of the February referendum vote to prevent the project from receiving $2.25 million in transient guest tax revenues from the city.

“We’re still evaluating that,” Coury said.

Its signature Rockstar Suite will include a fireplace, dining room, 11/2 baths and a small service kitchen. Frimel said the 14th floor will be marketed to a wide variety of major Wichita clients, from performers at Intrust Bank Arena to major business clients and politicians.

Health Foundation

Architectural plans for the Kansas Health Foundation were unveiled April 26 for a 36,000-square-foot, $8.6 million downtown expansion, formally named the Kansas Leadership Center and Kansas Health Foundation Conference Center.

The three-story building will be built in what is now the foundation’s parking lot on the corner of Douglas and Topeka. Preliminary plans call for groundbreaking this summer, with a year of construction. The facility will be the new statewide headquarters for the Kansas Leadership Center, an organization launched by the foundation in 2005, and will incorporate meeting rooms that will accommodate as many as 200 people.

Henry’s building

Crews are renovating the north facade of the building, installing new windows and storefront and restoring a wall, said Jerry Jones, Slawson vice president for commercial development.

The centerpiece project is a potential restaurant that could open on the building’s first floor into the new city park.

Jones said Slawson remains open to most scenarios for the historic retail building and is exploring the possibility of using historic tax credits in the renovation.

“We’re really not aggressively marketing the property right now,” Jones said. “We’re exploring development options.”

The most likely scenario will have Slawson retaining ownership of the first-floor retail area and leasing space to at least one restaurant. Then, the upper two floors would be sold to an office developer. However, Jones said the company is open to long-term leases or to selling the building entirely.

“What’s driving the construction now is the construction of that plaza,” he said. “We want to have that north wall in place and looking good by the time the Ambassador opens.”

Park and garage

The city’s piece of the block, the $7.57 million garage and park project, also is under way and on budget, according to city public works chief Alan King. The project is slated to open with the Ambassador, despite some early construction problems, including the discovery of old foundation materials and tanks on the project site.

Project’s mission

Fluhr said the projects fit the mission of Project Downtown, as designed by city officials and the project consultant, Boston-based Goody Clancy.

“This block has catalytic projects in the hotel,” he said. “You have statewide organizations bringing people to Wichita all year. You have mixed-use development with the retail and office space in the Henry’s building, all of that generating the kind of foot traffic and walkability the project seeks. You have the parking structure, which also has retail and addresses a need based on the retail, restaurant and hotel traffic.”

It’s more than Fluhr expected in the downtown master plan’s first 18 months.

“What we’re seeing in Wichita is not the norm in downtowns, especially not in this environment,” he said. “Look at the city visits we took. Chattanooga initiated Miller Plaza to demonstrate what they wanted to see happen, but it’s not an entire city block.

“Here in Wichita, we have an entire city block that will be very helpful to see the kind of momentum we’ve generated.”

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