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What will Wichita’s riverfront look like in 100 years? The next several months could tell

Aerial view of Century II

A look at Century II from the air. While the city of Wichita grapples with what to do with the aging Century II – either renovate or scrap and start over, we take a drone flight over the 48-year-old building that opened in 1969. (Video By Bo Rader
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A look at Century II from the air. While the city of Wichita grapples with what to do with the aging Century II – either renovate or scrap and start over, we take a drone flight over the 48-year-old building that opened in 1969. (Video By Bo Rader

A coalition of Wichita booster organizations has embarked on a project to plan for the next century of the Arkansas River corridor downtown.

Unlike earlier studies that have focused on individual projects or buildings, the goal is to take a broader look at how existing and future development can fit together along the river, representatives of five community organizations said in a joint interview with The Eagle on Thursday.

The future of Century II with its boxy convention hall and iconic blue-domed theaters, the abandoned Central Library, gathering spaces along the river and the pedestrian bridge to the new $75 million west bank baseball stadium — all that will be fodder for the planning process.

“Riverfront development takes thousands of years to come into existence as the little pieces of water come off the mountains,” said Jon Rolph, co-chairman of the Greater Wichita Partnership board. “We have this river that is at the center of our city and the west bank right there and the east bank is really at the heart of our community.”

“We feel the weight of that once every 100 years (planning process), you want to do it right,” he said, adding that the goal is development that will be “transformative and something we can be proud of for generations.”

While downtown has been the subject of decades of study, the new effort will focus on synthesizing all that data into a comprehensive recommendation for the riverbank and how to connect it to nearby neighborhoods.

Joe Tigert, incoming chairman of Downtown Wichita, said he has seen significant improvement over the past decade that’s translated into civic pride.

“That energy, that’s huge,” he said. “You come down on a Saturday and there’s people all over the place. . . .You can’t go anywhere without seeing the Wichita flag. I think a lot of that is because of downtown’s transformation and I think we’ve only just begun.”

The five organizations — Downtown Wichita, Greater Wichita Partnership, Visit Wichita, Wichita Community Foundation, and the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce — are expected to fund a significant portion of the plan, which they’re calling the “Riverfront Legacy Master Plan.” Public funding from the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County is also expected.

“This is measure-twice, cut-once scenario,” said Evan Rosell, spokesman for Project Wichita. “We’ve got this one riverbank here, and this is something we want to get right so that we can harness the 100-year generational power of this.

“We named this the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan because this is both looking backward . . . but also writing a legacy forward that stands on the shoulders of that innovation.”

The group has not yet decided on the scope of its study. It expects to hire an outside planning agency to assemble the recommendation.

Leaders of all five organizations hearkened back to Project Downtown, a similar public-private planning effort to envision the future of downtown that was released in 2010.

“We’ve had success with Project Downtown,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership. “We can easily point back to to say, ‘Remember as a community where we were in 2009, when we were casting the vision for the next 15 years?’ and look at what has come to fruition.”

The master plan is expected to build on all previously commissioned Century II studies and draw conclusions.

It follows the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee’s February recommendation to City Council that the city should immediately start developing a master plan for development on the east and west banks of the Arkansas River.

The groups are also expected to solicit feedback from various community organizations and neighborhood groups.

“It’s critical that the community participate and have a sense of this process,” Rolph said. “It cannot feel like the private sector and these organizations came together and we’re telling everybody how it should be.”

The group aims to complete the master plan in an unspecified number of months.

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Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.
Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.
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