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What Wichita can still learn from other cities’ riverfronts

Bricktown, part of Oklahoma City’s downtown revitalization program, features restaurants and shops, with water taxis offering rides on a canal through the middle of downtown.
Bricktown, part of Oklahoma City’s downtown revitalization program, features restaurants and shops, with water taxis offering rides on a canal through the middle of downtown. The Wichita Eagle

Although Wichita’s waterfront has become a premier attraction in the city, “I don’t know if there ever is an endgame,” said Jason Gregory, the executive vice president of Downtown Wichita. “There is always the next thing to build upon.”

When Chattanooga, Tenn., announced that Volkswagen was opening a factory there in 2011, the city didn’t make the announcement at city hall or where the factory would stand: Officials made it on the banks of its Riverfront development, with its condos, restaurants, walking paths and aquarium, which has come to symbolize the progress and success of the city.

Wichita has hired consultants over the past few decades coming up with designs and ideas for what the city should do with its waterfront. Past ideas have included casinos and giant amphitheaters on the banks of the Arkansas River, metallic cattle sculptures and a giant Ferris wheel along its banks.

Although many of these ideas have fallen out of favor, the city is still looking at what its next steps will be, including potentially rebuilding Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. But as it has often done in the past, it will look toward other cities for ideas.

Here are a few notable ideas Wichita might be wise to consider.

Waterfalls. Although waterfalls are expensive to build, Spokane, Wash., has focused its riparian beauty on a giant waterfall.

Music. Cincinnati, renowned for its riverfront development, has piped-in music, which a local school for the blind apparently will come to listen to during lunch.

More parks. Louisville’s 85-acre park near the river has given the city a distinctive character.

Aquarium. Wichita already has a children’s museum, but Chattanooga and Dubuque, Iowa, have both found success by building a museum for aquatic creatures right into the riverbank.

Skateboarding park. Davenport, Iowa, has made an extra effort to bring out youths with its 1980s-inspired jumping park.

Historical re-enactments. Wilmington, N.C., stages a special mock pirate ship invasion, which calls attention to the historical character of its riverfront.

The renewed focus at the “Keeper of the Plains” a decade ago was a great addition to Wichita, Gregory said, because it gives the city an intangible sense of identity, which can’t be captured just by the number of people who visit the river or the amount of money businesses generate.

Rivers can give communities their identity.

“That’s what you think of when you think of Louisville, Kentucky, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, ” Gregory said.

So Wichita would have to adapt the ideas of other cities to what makes the Arkansas River unique, according to Jeffrey Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership. One of the main advantages Wichita has is the river flows right through the center of the city, he said.

“It’s the olive branch between the east and the west side,” Gregory said. “It’s got that very natural flowing form.”

“You want a public space that is spontaneously activated,” Fluhr said. “It’s not necessarily programmed, that’s the thing that a river brings.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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