Ten years ago, Elizabeth Stevenson looked out at the neighborhood where a downtown arena would soon be built and told an Eagle reporter that one day it could be the “Paris of the Midwest.”
What she and many others envisioned was a pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhood of quaint shops, chic eateries and an active arts district, supported by tens of thousands of visitors who would be coming downtown for sporting events and concerts.
It hasn’t exactly turned out that way.
Today, five years after the opening of the Intrust Bank Arena, most of the immediate neighborhood looks much like it did in 2004 when Stevenson was interviewed in The Eagle.
With the exception of a small artists’ colony along Commerce Street, it’s still the same mix of light industrial businesses interspersed with numerous boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, dotted with “for sale” and “for lease” signs.
“I think the intentions of the arena were to sort of revitalize this, maybe not the Commerce Street Art District specifically, but this kind of area just above Kellogg, below Douglas,” said Stevenson, an architectural consultant and co-founder of the Fisch Haus art gallery. “I think the economy has not been doing super well and I think the arena itself, perhaps there are no direct large-scale, sort-of-exciting developments that have come out of that that I can think of.”
The economy has been the decisive factor in the lack of urban renewal following development of the arena, said Assistant Sedgwick County Manager Ron Holt, who has been the county’s point man on the project since its inception.
The promise of new business that would spring up around a major arena was one of the key selling points in the “Yea” campaign that won a public vote for a 30-month, 1 percent countywide sales tax to build the arena.
Holt acknowledges that renewal around the arena hasn’t been what was expected or hoped for.
The big problem was that the arena opened in January of 2010, right in the middle of a national economic crisis. “It’s been slow going, I think, because of the downturn,” Holt said.
He remains hopeful.
“I think we’re slowly beginning to see some things starting to happen in that area,” he said.
And while it’s impossible to quantify, it’s obvious from the flocks of arena fans who go to and from Old Town before and after games that it’s had an impact on business there, Holt said.
Sedgwick County voters approved the arena in 2004, and county commissioners selected the site late the following year. In January 2006, the area where it would be built – bounded by Broadway on the west, Washington on the east, Douglas on the north and Kellogg on the south – had a total tax appraisal value of $62 million.
Today, the appraised value of property in that quadrant is $257.8 million, an increase of nearly $196 million, according to Sedgwick County Appraiser’s Office records.
Of that increase, $161 million is the arena itself. That means the rest of the area gained about $35 million in value over an eight-year period. Tax records show that the values began rising while the arena was under construction.
However, major development, including the new city-subsidized Ambassador Hotel, has occurred primarily at the edges of the neighborhood, closer to Old Town and the business core area than to the $205 million arena.
Quiet at night
The closest commercial building to the arena, adjacent to the VIP parking lot on the northeast side, boasts a new restaurant, Lou’s Charcuteria and Cocktails, in the space where Jetty’s Pizza went out of business in September.
The Hungry Heart & Whole Brewing Co. recently opened in a space vacated by the former Walker’s Bar & Venue. Neither Jetty’s nor Walker’s lasted a year.
For now, Lou’s and Hungry Heart are the closest eating and drinking establishments around the arena. Those two establishments’ nearest neighbors are a computer-repair shop and a heating-and-air business.
Less than a block north of the arena, the 60,000-square-foot former Spaghetti Works building looms over the neighborhood, empty for the past 10 years since the restaurant closed.
The artists’ dilemma
The most noticeable vitality in the area is the Commerce Street Art District, a row of art spaces and lofts just south of the arena.
But the people who make the art say it’s more a case of coexistence than partnership.
“They’re two entities that can certainly cohabit peacefully, but there’s not much of sort of a huge advantageous relationship there,” Stevenson said. “I don’t think they care we’re here and they don’t really affect us in any way.”
In general, the art spaces are closed well before the crowds start coming for nighttime shows at the Intrust. And even if they did stay open, it probably wouldn’t do anybody a whole lot of good, Stevenson said.
“They’re coming to watch hockey. They’re not going to stop in and buy a painting,” Stevenson said. “And we’re not that kind of art district (that relies on casual foot traffic). We have no intention of being sort of the Santa Fe glass-blower type of area.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. That stuff works awesome in lots and lots of different cities, but that’s just not our game down here.”
John Ernatt, owner of the Diver art studio and gallery, said other than the arena itself, he hasn’t noticed much change in the neighborhood in the daytime, when there’s little if anything going on at the arena.
He said that’s fine with him. He picked the site in 1998 because it was quiet and he could concentrate on his work, and he had feared the arena would change that.
He said the lack of significant development around the arena is about timing.
“The time when people get off work until the time they start a show is a pretty small window,” Ernatt said. “They don’t have time to come down here and have a drink and mill around and be part of the neighborhood.”
The biggest change he’s seen has been that “anybody who has a little bit of dirt has been selling it for a parking lot.”
Possibly the most visible sign of improvement outside the arena itself are newly painted parking-space lines along Commerce. The bright white lines on the brick street stand out in a place where just about every other painted line has a 40-year fade.
“Your tax dollars at work,” Ernatt quipped to his neighbor, Pat Peppard, who owns the Loft at 420, a rental venue for parties and events.
Peppard said a part of her business has been booming since the arena opened.
“It’s impacted me very well,” she said. “I own that parking lot over there.”
“Over there” is the site of the aptly named Front Row Parking, directly across Waterman from the Intrust and about as close as you can park without a VIP pass or a handicapped placard.
Peppard can charge $10 to $25 a night for parking, depending on who’s playing the arena.
At the north end of the arts district at Commerce and Waterman, RSA Marketing Services is finishing up the redevelopment of a commercial building for its 25 staffers, plus space for rental tenants soon to be announced. At the south end, a Denver developer has bought an old industrial building to redevelop into more lofts and arts spaces.
The one problem that the artists do have is that the property taxes on their block have started to go up dramatically.
“I just got a big hike that I’m not happy about,” Peppard said.
The artists fear that the district is starting to see what planners call the “SoHo effect.” It draws its name from a New York City neighborhood that artists made hip and trendy, and then found themselves pushed out of by rapidly rising property values.
Stevenson said the artists’ neighborhood association has contacted state lawmakers to try to get a cap on their taxes so they can afford to stay.
On Tuesday, the Wichita City Council made that part of its annual agenda for the legislative session that starts Jan. 12. The city attorney’s office is drafting the bill, said Dale Goter, the city’s statehouse lobbyist.
Less than a block west of the arts district on Saint Francis, the scene is much different.
There, Lee and Pat Thompson have run the Al Wellman auto body and repair shop since 1998.
Pat Thompson said the arena has brought two positives for their area.
First, having the arena around has brought more police presence. “It’s cleaned up a lot of the violence in the area,” said Pat Thompson. “They patrol it more.”
Second, like Peppard, they’re able to rent out their business’ 48 parking spaces to arena-goers.
But she said parking remains a problem. There’s simply not enough to support the arena and any kind of restaurant and shopping development.
The Thompsons’ business is certainly one of the oldest, and possibly the oldest, body shop in Wichita. But it’s surrounded on both sides by vacant, boarded-up buildings.
“We survive,” Lee Thompson said. But despite promises from the city government that improvements are coming, not much has actually happened, he said.
“They keep talking about change, but they haven’t changed anything yet,” he said. “We’ve still got the buildings falling down around us and the boarded-up buildings, and a lot of that is since the arena.”
He said he’s kind of in a holding pattern on improving his business until he sees some changes for the better in the neighborhood.
“If I saw the infrastructure coming along, the streets and stuff, it would make sense to improve your place,” he said.
The city is planning to make some changes on St. Francis, said Scott Knebel, downtown planner for the city.
The street, now one-way south, will be restriped for two-way traffic and parking spaces. Long term, the city is planning some street reconstruction and landscaping on St. Francis, in conjunction with improving the arts district, Knebel said.
Reasons to hope
Despite the slow pace of renewal to now, Holt said he thinks the area is nearing a “tipping point” when improvement will start to come.
He cited the two new restaurants as the kind of development that could bring some activity to the area.
Also, the city is in the process of a $9.7 million renovation of a dilapidated parking garage at 215 S. Market, which will add 550 parking spaces to the area. The garage once served the downtown Macy’s store, which went out of business in the mid-1980s and is now the Finney State Office Building.
But the real catalyst in Holt’s view is a $54 million plan to redevelop the elegant and historic ‑ but vacant ‑ Union Station building on Douglas into a mixed use campus of homes and shops.
The project’s backers recently announced a number of business tenants they’ve signed, including several office users and an Indian restaurant. Also planned are a coffeehouse and a smoothie bar.
Knebel said the city will supply a 470-stall parking garage to serve the development and realign streets and sidewalks in the development.
Holt said even though it’s on the other side of the railroad tracks from the arena, the Union Station project could finally supply the vital missing link between Old Town and the arena area.
“This could be the point where things really start to come together,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or email@example.com.