Naftzger Park may not be ready for March Madness

The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s city manager says Naftzger Park might not be ready to host a basketball-themed outdoor festival for the NCAA tournament in March. And that’s OK.

With members of the public and local design professionals questioning City Hall’s fast-track approach to rebuilding the park, “We’re probably going to slow down,” said City Manager Robert Layton.

Layton said the higher priority is to create a park that the residents of Wichita will want to use for decades to come, rather than rushing the development through for one big weekend of tourism.

“We probably won’t make the tournament and that won’t be the end of the world,” he said. “Just so we do it (the park) right.”

It’s the latest twist in what has been a strange and convoluted relationship between the small downtown park and the NCAA.

The original plan was to push forward rapidly on rebuilding the park, so it would be ready for an influx of visitors who will come to Wichita in March when the NCAA hosts the first and second rounds of the annual basketball tournament.

The March Madness tournament weekend is expected to bring in about $10 million in additional commerce for the city’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

The request for proposals seeking a park designer was explicit about Naftzger Park’s role in the NCAA weekend:

“To best showcase Wichita to all attendees, it is imperative the city and TGC (the developer of the nearby Spaghetti Works building) move swiftly to obtain services from the best and brightest to be able to design and construct a spectacular urban park which can be utilized during the tournament.”

Language like that has prompted many in the community to assume that the park was being rebuilt in service of the NCAA.

NCAA festival required

As part of its bid to land the tournament, Wichita promised to host an outdoor basketball-themed festival to entertain visitors between games. Such festivals usually include live music, vendor and promotional booths for local businesses, food trucks and basketball activities such as shooting contests and three-on-three play.

Layton acknowledged that fast-tracking the park has contributed to a public perception that it’s being rebuilt to accommodate the NCAA.

In fact, the primary reason the park is scheduled for a makeover now is that the owners of the former Spaghetti Works building are ready to develop apartments and build retail and office space just east of the park, south of Douglas alongside the BNSF railroad bridge that bisects downtown, he said. The park is frequently used by the homeless.

“The fact that we have a 2018 tournament, it seemed as if that was a good kickoff event for a more active, urbanized park,” Layton said “As we’ve got into the discussions, it became apparent we maybe needed to slow down a little bit and make sure this is a park that’s embraced by the community and specifically the prime users downtown.”

A rebuilt Naftzger Park would be an ideal place, but not the only place, to hold the festival, Layton said. The city can find other open space and/or close streets around the arena, he said.

“If we make the tournament, great,” he said of the Naftzger Park plan. “If we don’t, we had original plans before for an assembly or for a gathering space for an event or multiple events, and we can still do that. We can activate the street system. We don’t have to have Naftzger Park.”

Gazebo or not?

The festival is an important part of the tournament and potentially a big money maker for local business, because for out-of-town fans, there’s a lot of downtime during a tournament weekend.

The games are broken up into three sessions of two games each.

In Wichita’s case, the first session will be on a Thursday morning, March 15. The second session will be that evening.

The third session will be two second round games matching Thursday’s survivors.

That leaves Friday pretty much wide open for fans to partake of local entertainment.

Add to that fans who buy session tickets specifically to watch their favorite team play and don’t stay for the other games, and you’ve got thousands of people roaming the streets looking for something fun to do.

The way it is, Naftzger Park wouldn’t be suitable for holding the basketball fest. It’s not flat enough and much of the park is taken up with a pond and old-style gazebo.

All the redesigns put forth so far call for filling in the pond. The land will be bulldozed flat to create a large open area for concerts and gatherings.

Officials are leaning toward a design with a teardrop-shaped field. A decision is yet to come on whether that flat space will be planted with grass or covered with artificial turf.

The current plan for the gazebo is to move it to O.J. Watson Park, Park and Recreation Director Troy Houtman said this week.

However, that proposal encountered criticism from Sharon Fearey, a former City Council member and an influential member of the Design Council, a city board of art and design experts that will advise on the park’s aesthetics.

Fearey said moving the gazebo to Watson Park – 4 1/2 miles south of downtown – would be too hard on brides who like using it for their wedding photos.

“We ought to explore at least keeping that gazebo in this park,” Fearey said. “Having had two daughters that recently got married, yeah, they’re not going to go clear down to Watson Park for those wedding pictures and then come clear back downtown to a downtown wedding.”

A partial park?

In addition to the open field, the four proposed designs for the park all include several major elements:

▪ A dog run for residents of nearby upscale apartment that have been and will be redeveloped.

▪ A water feature consisting of ground-level water jets and a shallow “skim pad.” The fountain jets could be turned off to provide extra standing/seating space for park events, Houtman said.

▪ An open-air pavilion that could be used for small events.

▪ Café-style seating where park users would be able to eat meals and snacks from food trucks and nearby food venders.

One thing that has become clear is that all those features won’t be ready by NCAA tournament time.

But they may not have to be for the park to host the basketball fest. Some officials still hold hope that the park can be complete enough by March.

Houtman said as long as the grading work is done, the site might be suitable for the festival.

If the city decides to go with artificial turf, there’s a chance that could be done by then. If the decision is a grass field, the Parks Department could opt to hold off planting the lawn and bring in a temporary artificial surface to accommodate the basketball festival, Houtman said.

Another official who’s hoping the park will be done enough is Lavonta Williams, the City Council member who represents the area.

“I hope we have something there by March,” Williams said. “It doesn’t have to be completed, but if we have something that is usable at least by March is what I am looking for.”

Layton vows the park will be developed as soon as practical, taking into account the needs for public buy-in on the design to make it a long-term success.

The upside of the discussion of the NCAA and the park is that it has focused public interest on what had been for years a largely forgotten space.

And while he’s not pressing as hard to meet a March Madness deadline, Layton said some urgency is justified to keep that momentum going.

“I don’t want to wait too long where suddenly people don’t feel engaged in the project anymore because we waited way too long to bring the design forward,” he said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas