Rebirth of downtown can be seen in craft beer, cappuccino, trendy apartments and more

BikeShareICT started a bike rental program downtown in 2017.
BikeShareICT started a bike rental program downtown in 2017. The Wichita Eagle

Editor’s note: Cindy Claycomb represents the Sixth District. The district was incorrect in the original version.

No offense to her friends who live in other parts of Wichita, but City Councilwoman Cindy Claycomb believes downtown neighborhoods play a special role in defining a city.

“When people travel and come to a city, they don’t usually go to the suburbs to see what the feel of the city is like,” said Claycomb, whose Sixth District encompasses downtown. “The suburbs look like everybody else’s suburbs. Your downtown is really the heart of your city. That’s where visitors understand what your city is like.”

And by that measure, downtown boosters say, the city’s core sends a message that Wichita is a vibrant, creative, fun place.

On a 15-block stretch of Douglas, for instance, you can get a craft beer or cappuccino, rent a condo or deluxe hotel room, buy a dress or piece of original art. You can go to work or hop on a “shared” bicycle, sit down to a picnic or high-end meal, listen to live music or feel the south wind whip up the Arkansas River. Surrounding streets offer similar experiences.

Wichita’s downtown has not been reinvigorated overnight. But, in a way, that’s made the progress more meaningful as private individuals, government entities and hybrids of both have reclaimed the area one building at a time.

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership and Downtown Wichita, believes several characteristics of the city’s downtown qualify as “authentic,” if not unique. One is the Old Town area, where downtown development began. After 30 years of stops, starts, hits and misses, the former warehouse district today is a thriving mix of residential, retail, office and entertainment spaces, many in red brick buildings that qualify for historic designations.

“We’ve done it as good or better than anybody else,” he said. “You build on an asset like that.”

Something similar has been done with buildings to the west, north and south of Old Town in recent years. These are not-as-old structures with charms of their own, such as The Lux, a seven-story, mid-modern office building at First and Market that’s been renovated into luxury apartments (with coffee and ice cream shops conveniently located at ground level). Or even more striking, the transformation of a former parking garage at Broadway and English into 44 hip apartments, also anchored by commercial space on the first floor. Union Station plaza, the Ambassador Hotel, the Flats 324 and the Finn Lofts on Commerce Street are a few more re-imaginings of old buildings.

There’s been stylish ground-up construction as well, such as the Corner 365 apartments at First and Waco and the soon-to-open Hilton Garden Inn on Douglas. But the willingness to bring parts of the city’s past into the present is definitely one trait of downtown.

Downtown boosters believe the area offers a lot more, including:

▪ Work-friendly environment. Newer generations of professionals and creatives mix their work and private lives more than their predecessors. They want a coffee shop, gift shop, dry cleaner or corner brewpub within easy reach of their workspace. The mixed-use nature of downtown Wichita caters to that, which is one reason a big employer like Cargill chose to build its new $60 million headquarters on Douglas Avenue. The same goes for the Martin Pringle law firm’s recent decision to invest in a new building just down the street.

“A lot of this is driven by talent,” Fluhr said. “They want to be downtown or close to it.”

▪ The Arkansas River. After decades of failing to fully utilize the city’s most prominent natural feature, the river is being embraced in a way it hasn’t since the vintage postcard days when canoes were rented from an old boathouse and Wichitans flocked to an amusement park on one of its sandbars. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars sprucing up the Keeper of the Plains statue, bike paths and other features of the riverfront over the past 15 years. This year, the opening of River Vista apartments on the Arkansas will mark the first new residential development there in even longer.

Boat and bike rentals will also be offered at the apartments. “Just having all those people on the river, it will add to the vitality of downtown,” Councilwoman Claycomb said.

“It’s an authentic riverfront,” Fluhr said, noting that San Antonio created its well-known Riverwalk from a drainage channel, while Oklahoma City dug its Bricktown Canal from scratch. “It’s an incredible vantage point,” Fluhr said of the Arkansas. “From a visitor’s standpoint, it’s really unique. Seeing yourself out in a kayak, that just changes your whole perspective of a place.”

And there’s quite a bit more happening on the river, from the opening of the city’s new $33 million Advanced Learning Center library this spring to the Hyatt Regency’s plans to create a new restaurant overlooking the Arkansas.

▪ Community buy-in. To Fluhr and others associated with the Downtown Wichita organization, some of the most exciting things happening downtown are those they had nothing to do with. Fluhr mentioned the showing of movies in Gallery Alley – an outdoor art gallery along Douglas – by “a group of citizens that just wanted to do that.”

Property owners and businesspeople just to the east of downtown proper have banded together to create the Douglas Avenue Design District, while those to the west, across the Arkansas River, are organized into a neighborhood association for the historic Delano area. The result is two miles of inviting streetfront that “flows together,” Fluhr said.

“We are the right size for people to get involved,” said Jaimie Garnett of the Greater Wichita Partnership. “Whatever your passion is, you can get involved with it.”

Downtown Wichita is paying tribute to those involved in downtown’s renaissance with a campaign called “Possibility People.”

“What you want is everybody to take pride in that,” Claycomb said. “This is our downtown.”