Would a business tax make the Douglas Design District better?

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the location of Cleveland Street.

A dispute is simmering over what the future will look like in one of Wichita’s trendiest areas.

City engineers plan to add medians, wider sidewalks and planters to the Douglas Design District, which stretches from Washington to just west of Oliver.

Supporters of proposed enhancements say they’ll help the rapidly growing area strengthen its identity and mirror Delano in becoming a trendy destination location.

But opposition has blossomed from more than two dozen businesses in the area who say they don’t support the proposed changes. Supporters of the proposed enhancement say at least some of the opposition reflects the “culture of ‘no’” that analyst James Chung cited as a key reason Wichita’s economy has stagnated for decades while similar cities have flourished.

“We’re telling that we’re going to come in and put planters and trees and make this more beautiful, and we’re going to make it more safe and put in more lighting and parking — and you don’t want that? I can’t even fathom this,” said Janelle King, president of the Douglas Design District’s board of directors.

Some opponents to the plan don’t want anything to change at all.

“We love Douglas the way it is,” said Bob Boewe, who owns the Spice Merchant at 1300 E. Douglas.

He said he gets more than 200 customers a day parking at the curb in front of his business — 400 on Saturdays — and “they need convenient curbside parking.”

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, he specifically objected to the installation of flower beds in front of his business.

“If somebody pulls up to park and you’ve got a garden plot there, does the passenger open the door and step into the flower bed?” he said. “They (Douglas Design District) talk about making this into a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly area. We think some of them are smoking something that’s not legal in Kansas yet.”

Many in the opposition group say they’re not against improvements — they just don’t like what’s being proposed.

“There isn’t a single business that doesn’t want to see this get better,” said Tim Devlin of Devlin Motors at 1611 E. Douglas. “They don’t want to be affected by bad designs.”

Opponents don’t like the addition of medians and the narrowing of the lanes that are proposed, saying it will make it difficult for large trucks to make turns onto side streets and deliver needed supplies.

They don’t like the curb extensions proposed for intersections along Douglas, saying large trucks will be damaging them because they can’t complete turns.

“You’ll see big, black tire marks over the curb,” said Jeff Breault of R&J Liquor at Douglas and Hillside.

Narrower lanes, lower speed limits and a steady diet of large trucks struggling to navigate the area will hurt business, Breault said.

“If Douglas becomes a clogged up mess and you can’t get through there, you’’re not going to go through there,” he said.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a planning committee to explore the creation of a business improvement district for the area. Among the committee’s tasks is formalizing the boundaries of the district. One proposal has the district stretching from Washington to about Oliver and from Central to Kellogg.

A BID provides for the administration and financing of new and extended services to businesses within the district and is paid for by a mandatory fee levied by the city on businesses within the district.

At present, the design district group is privately funded with member donations, said Scott Knebel of the Planning Department.

Under state law, the business improvement district tax could only be spent on improvements within the district and couldn’t be diverted to other areas or general city functions.

The planning process is projected to take a few months, officials say.

“None of us want to be insensitive that change is uncomfortable, and sometimes really difficult to embrace,” Renee Duxler, secretary of the design district and a candidate for County Commission, said in a prepared statement.

We realize that there is an older guard of very experienced business and property owners that don’t see all of these changes as being the best benefit to the District.,” she said. “I’m confident that we can come to some middle ground in all of this, however. Everyone is as invested and opinionated as much as they are because they care about the district and want it to be successful. “

The two sides have much more in common than they realize, King said. Both, for instance, have questions about how the trees and planters proposed for the district will be maintained.

Council members had a lot of questions about how a mandatory design district fee would work.

Apparently the tax would be charged to each business, not each business property like it is in the similar self-supporting municipal improvement district that pays for extra city services in the downtown core.

And that could be a problem for people who technically operate more than one business out of the same storefront.

Other questions were raised about communication between the city, the Douglas Design District group and the dissenting business owners.

The business owners said they’ve been largely ignored by the design district board, while board members said they’ve reached out to little effect.

The council can enact the district on its own and the only way to overturn that decision would be to gather protest signatures of more than 50 percent of the business owners in the area — and nobody knows how many that would be.

Boundaries are another issue. Right now, the Douglas Design District is generally considered to include everything along Douglas between Washington and Cleveland, a small street just west of Hydraulic. The southern boundary is Kellogg and the northern boundary is Second Street.

That takes in a lot of businesses that are well off of Douglas, don’t depend on that street traffic, and would benefit little, if at all, from changes to the main drag.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said those are the kind of questions he wants to see handled by the planning committee, which is why he voted to support it.

He acknowledged there are questions and expressed reluctance to increase taxes on businesses if they don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth.

But he emphasized that the planning committee is an exploratory body and without it, there would be no way of knowing if the business improvement district is a good or bad idea.

“We should never be afraid of having those conversations if we can truly make our city a better city,” Longwell said. “If there’s an opportunity here, let’s explore it. If it doesn’t come to fruition, then simply it doesn’t come to fruition.”