Fate of Century II still undecided

John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services, explains problems with the aging Century II. (Dec. 23, 2016)
John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services, explains problems with the aging Century II. (Dec. 23, 2016) File photo

The future of one of Wichita’s most beloved – yet slowly aging – buildings is still in flux.

Both city leaders and members of Wichita’s arts and convention industries have discussed the need for new, or at least significantly overhauled, facilities for years now.

City leaders said late last year that the fate of Century II will be a topic of discussion in 2017, though there hasn’t been much in the way of concrete discussion in the first two months of the year.

John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services, said late last year the city plans to present its years of research into the issue to the public in late spring or summer of this year.

There will be a period of public discussion and public comment after the presentation, and from that feedback, the City Council will weigh in on what should be done with the nearly-half-century-old building.

Those options range from doing nothing to the building other than standard maintenance to significantly renovating and rehabbing the current building to razing it and building new.

If the people opt for one of those latter options, it would be a major project, likely to cost far more than the $196 million the county spent to build Intrust Bank Arena.

A look back at Century II over its nearly half-century existence, as seen by Eagle photographers. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

Here’s essentially why Century II is becoming inadequate.

▪ The round design of the building, in its current configuration, causes problems. Century II is like a giant pie subdivided into different halls. That design leaves little in the way of backstage space, as the pie – or hall – narrows closer to its center. This also creates issues for conventions, as most national conventions design floorplans on a rectangular grid, not on a curve.

▪ The halls are not sound-proof. The way Century II is designed, if a lot of noise is being made in one hall, that noise can easily percolate into an adjacent hall. Century II’s halls are divided by a thin vinyl layer in the walls, according to D’Angelo, and those walls don’t extend all the way to the roof. Consequently, sound travels not only through the walls but over them, too, D’Angelo said.

▪ Loading sets in and out is laborious. Century II’s loading ramp was designed in the 1960s, when standard-length semitrailer trucks were 44 feet long. Now semis are about 53 feet long, and at that length, they cannot negotiate the curve of the loading ramp or fit in the loading elevator. Traveling productions such as “Wicked” or “Kinky Boots” have to park their semis on Douglas and back in via Kennedy Plaza. Stage hands unload equipment and wheel all the pieces through the Exhibition Hall to get to the Concert Hall.

▪ The building is simply aging. It often has heating and air-conditioning problems, which, because of a decades-old design and the concrete nature of the building, are often hard to address. Elevators have been known to break down.

▪ It isn’t able to attract as many conventions because of its lack of prime floor space. The Bob Brown Expo Hall, added in 1986, provides the most contiguous rectangular floor space in the facility. But some of that facility is under lower ceilings than most conventions prefer.

Here are some possible options for Century II, arranged from least costly to most expensive. Similar projects in comparable cities have cost anywhere from $250 million to $500 million.

▪ Make major renovations to the existing facilities without adding new space. This would improve Century II’s operations but likely wouldn’t bring its performing arts and convention spaces up to national standards.

▪ Retool the current Century II building as a convention center and build a separate performing arts facility elsewhere. Or, conversely, retool Century II entirely as a performing arts center and build a new convention center elsewhere. One location that could work is the roughly block-long parking lot where the Allis Hotel once stood at Broadway and William in downtown Wichita. That’s about three blocks east of Century II.

▪ Raze Century II, build a new convention center on the same land and build a new performing arts facility elsewhere, perhaps at the Broadway and William location. This option may include a new parking garage. D’Angelo said any plan like this would retain connections with the Hyatt Regency Wichita.

▪ Raze Century II and build a new combined performing arts and convention center on the same land. It’s possible new elevated parking could be constructed. D’Angelo said any plan like this would also retain connections with the Hyatt Regency Wichita.