Carrie Rengers

The Douglas officially debuts with April 13 grand opening

UPDATED – For almost a decade, it was the development that wouldn’t develop.

The Exchange Place project – the plan was to renovate the Exchange Place and Bitting buildings at Douglas and Market, knock down the Michigan and Lerner buildings and build a new building – was a Real Development concept. That’s all it ever was, though, because the so-called Minnesota Guys couldn’t get financing for it.

“We worked on it for nine years for all kinds of iterations,” says Dave Wells, president of Key Construction. “And then, thank God, John stepped in and made it happen.”

Even once Arizona developer John McWilliams became involved and the Minnesota Guys went away, it wasn’t easy.

“I was asked to step in and help a lender out,” McWilliams says. “I like a challenge, and it was certainly a challenge.”

There were layers of complications at the nearly $38 million development, including a Housing and Urban Development-guaranteed loan and state and federal historic tax credits.

Now, though, the buildings – collectively known as The Douglas – have been transformed, and so has a crucial stretch of downtown Wichita, Wells says.

“It’s a huge deal for downtown,” he says.

“It’s right on Douglas. I mean, good God, it’s the gateway to the city, and we had these old, abandoned buildings.”

Chris Beasley, Key’s vice president, says the deterioration at 1915 Exchange Place and the 1911 Bitting building was advancing.

“It was approaching the critical point,” he says. “At some point, they were going to become a huge liability.”

Wells says the redevelopment “fills a blighted area that’s been a place where the copper thieves and the unsavory have hung out for years and years.”

The 11-story Bitting building, also previously known as the Oil Trade Center, on the northwest corner of Douglas and Market now has 66 apartments. There’s commercial space on the first floor, and there’s a previously existing parking garage to the west of the building.

The nine-story Exchange Place on the northeast corner, which had a major addition and renovation in 1956, now has 139 apartments.

There’s a new parking garage and apartment building where the Lerner and Michigan buildings had been. The five-story building has 35 apartments in addition to a 290-stall parking garage, which includes more than 60 public parking spaces. The rooftop amenity deck has grills, fire pits and a shallow pool for lounging.

“I don’t think there’s (anyplace) that compares to the amenities we have,” McWilliams says.

He says there were functional issues with automated parking and a restaurant the Minnesota Guys had planned.

McWilliams and Key solved some issues by nixing the restaurant and changing the parking.

If the previous automated system had a failure, potentially no one would have been able to get a car out.

“I think all your tenants would be so upset they’d just leave,” McWilliams says. “We went to a very simple stacked parking system.”

If tenants call ahead, a valet will have their cars waiting.

“It’s as close as you can get to having door-side parking,” Wells says. “It’s really cool looking.”

McWilliams says he wishes the whole project could have been in one building.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge, but as it’s turned out, I think there’s enough tenants that are going to want to be in a quieter building,” he says of the former Bitting building, which is farther from the amenities deck and more private.

Studios start at $690. Rents go up to $2,550 for 3-bedroom penthouse units.

There are 42 leases so far, which McWilliams says is good for this time of year.

“Our units are as good as you’ll see in any market,” he says.

The national Greystar firm is handling leasing for The Douglas.

“They brought a level that you just don’t find in Wichita,” Wells says. “So right off the bat, we were able to garner a lot of different ideas.”

Wells says floor plans and features make most units different, especially because of the historic nature of two of the buildings.

Some units have old railings out of the Michigan and Lerner buildings.

“There’s just some very unique spaces,” McWilliams says.

Spangenberg Phillips Tice Architecture was the architect on the project.

McWilliams and Key want to partner on other projects.

“We’ve looked at a couple of others, and we hope to continue to do that,” McWilliams says.

“We love historic renovation,” Wells says.

He says it’s been fun to show off the buildings, especially to accountants, lawyers, oilmen and others who used to work there.

“It’s amazing how many people in Wichita actually used to work in the building,” Wells says.

There will be a public unveiling with a grand opening from 4 to 7 p.m. on April 13, though tours are available at other times as well.

Wells says there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

“The Douglas just finished off a huge momentum,” he says of downtown revitalization. “There’s really no big, dark holes that need something.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers