Dueling visions for the future of tiny Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita emerged from an often-contentious public comment meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd Thursday night.
The 1-acre park on the southeast corner of Douglas and St. Francis is controversial because it is a gathering space for homeless people, and Wichita City Council member Janet Miller said at the meeting that she regularly hears from people who don’t feel safe at the park because of that.
Thursday’s gathering provided a stage for people who want a revitalized park to remain a refuge for the homeless — and also those who want a space that appeals instead to the young professionals and tourists who are increasingly filling downtown Wichita.
“Magic happened here tonight,” said Thomas Balsley of SWA/Balsley Landscape Architects, the company the City Council hired last week to redesign the park.
Balsley said he was pleased to see so many people come and offer their opinions, words echoed later by City Council member Lavonta Williams.
The session was designed to gather input from the public about what it would like to see in a redesigned park. But even before those conversations began, one downtown business owner said he’d been told the decisions have already been made about what will be done with the park.
That ignited an argument among people in the crowd, prompting Williams to step in and urge them to let the presentation continue.
The city is planning to spend about $1.5 million to rebuild the park before the NCAA basketball tournament comes to the city in March 2018. The City Council recently expanded a special taxing district downtown to raise the money to pay for it.
One thing the crowd agreed on was that the mature trees and water that help define the park should be incorporated into any new design. When it came to listing threats, poor lighting and poor sight lines were mentioned frequently.
“Intoxicated, dangerous people,” one man added.
“You didn’t have to say that,” another responded.
“They come into my store — that’s why I’m saying it,” the first man countered.
Several people in the crowd Thursday night expressed concern that the project would be used as an excuse to displace the homeless, but Balsley said their goal will be to develop a park design that excludes no one.
Christina Calhoun, who lives and works downtown, said it would be wrong to design the new park to cater to one group or another. To do so, she said, would be a missed opportunity to let different groups learn from each other.
Williams said she wasn’t surprised more than 100 people jammed into the offices of Downtown Wichita for the meeting.
“So many people are so involved and love Naftzger Park,” she said.
They may be invested “for different reasons,” she added, but that interest should help fuel the process.
Those fearful that the homeless will be booted from the new Naftzger Park need not worry, she added.
“We’re going to find a way to have a balance there,” she said.
The architects were chosen in part because of their track record of developing downtown parks that include the homeless, she said.
The new park will have a different shape regardless of the ultimate design: a strip of land on the east edge of the park will be given to the developer who actually owns it.
A piece of parking lot on the south edge of the park will be incorporated into the new design, because it’s already considered part of the park. The two land parcels are about the same size, officials said.
A second public comment session will be held at the Downtown Wichita offices Friday morning, beginning at 7:30. The architects will take the input from those sessions to begin formulating concepts for the new design.
Pastor Jon Gordon, who works extensively with the homeless, urged the architects to find ways to meet with homeless residents to get their input on the park’s design. They could find them at the Lord’s Diner in the evenings or United Methodist Open Door in the mornings, he said.
In an interview as the session was wrapping up, City Manager Robert Layton stressed “there are no preconceived notions at all” as to what the park’s design will be.
“They understand the desire to keep the nature and essence of the park,” Layton said of the architects.
The city has “an aggressive timetable” to have the work done by spring, he said. But that’s not set in concrete.
“If the process doesn’t allow us to do it, it doesn’t allow us to do it,” Layton said.