Politics & Government

Should city shoo homeless from downtown Wichita park?

People take cover under the gazebo at Naftzger Memorial Park. A proposal to renovate the park would get rid of the gazebo, pond, waterfall, benches, picnic tables and trees to basically create an artificial-turf open field where live music events could be held. (June 22, 2017)
People take cover under the gazebo at Naftzger Memorial Park. A proposal to renovate the park would get rid of the gazebo, pond, waterfall, benches, picnic tables and trees to basically create an artificial-turf open field where live music events could be held. (June 22, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

In May, Wichita proposed spending $1.5 million to renovate Naftzger Memorial Park, in downtown Wichita, near Intrust Bank Arena. The initial plan would replace the park’s grass with artificial turf and provide space for live music and other events.

Chase Billingham is excited but skeptical.

Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State University, coincidentally published a study only a week before, in the academic journal City and Community, about how Wichita has tried for more than 50 years to change the park’s reputation by pushing out the poor and the homeless. And mostly has failed.

Litany of failures

When the park originally opened in 1979, it had a gazebo, sculpture, big gates, tall trees and bushes and pleasant benches. The neighborhood, known as the city’s skid row at the time, attracted a lot of “undesirables” who frequented the Salvation Army shelter, a liquor store and tenants of the deteriorating Eaton Hotel, which was home to many poor single men. The idea was to create a space that would attract more than just the transients and homeless.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the city developed the idea of creating a new area of town called Old Town, which would remake these unpleasant sections of East Douglas into a place people wanted to visit. The park was part of that effort.

“I think people imagine that transients will be sleeping in the park on the benches,” said an Urban Renewal Agency officer in 1979 after the park opened. “I don’t think so.”

But within a few years the city admitted that the new park hadn’t changed the area’s seedy reputation. The park was intended as “a public pasture to lure private business,” The Eagle-Beacon noted at the time, but had instead become a “picturesque playground for penniless people in tattered clothes.”

That wasn’t due to a lack of effort. The city tried everything it could over the next couple of decades. It cut back the bushes and the trees, to take away shade and hiding spots. It removed the gates to create more visibility. It took out some benches and added armrests to others, so it would be harder to lie down. It cut back the hours, opening the park later and closing it sooner.

“So all the things that were designed to be the amenities to draw people in the park have been systematically removed, largely because they were making life too pleasant for homeless people in the park,” Billingham said. “But it hasn’t been successful in bringing the middle class.”

The city also stepped up enforcement of loitering and vagrancy laws. One local business owner in 1981 said he would walk through the alleys behind nearby streets, wake up the homeless and send them on their way. The city tried to beautify the street with streetlights and trash cans designed with “a turn of the century motif.”

The “final straw” for some city leaders came in 1999 when some prostitutes allegedly flashed a group of children in a school bus passing by. The city added Community Watch signs and started charging $25 to church groups who fed the homeless in the park. The church groups either paid or rebelled, and the city dropped the fees.

Eaton, liquor laws

After more than 20 years of delays, the city finally found a developer in 2000 to renovate the old Eaton Hotel across St. Francis Street from the park. It evicted the low-income men who lived in the building and built luxurious new loft apartments.

The Eaton has gone on to thrive, but the park’s reputation didn’t improve.

A law in 1972 prevented them from sending drunks to jail, so they started sending them to detox centers. It didn’t work. A beat officer in the 1990s championed a new ordinance to prevent drinking in the park. But the derogatory term “wino park” made its way from hushed conversations into the city’s papers by the early 1990s.

Billingham said the city’s selective implementation of alcohol laws has always been one of the city’s main tools to try to re-imagine its downtown.

“If we can have wine bars or open-air patios, then of course drinking in public and getting intoxicated is endorsed,” he said. “But if it’s a person drinking a beer out of a paper bag, then we discourage that.”

Lessons to be learned

The city’s attempt to foster economic development by building Naftzger park has been a failure, Billingham said. He’s hopeful that the new renovations to the park will be an improvement.

But for that to happen, he thinks, the city and its residents need to change their attitude about how economic development works: Instead of continuing the 50-year project to kick out the homeless and hoping that does the trick, the city needs to give people a reason to go to the park.

The ICT Pop-Up Urban Park, down the street, is a case in point, Billingham said. People go to the pop-up park for lunch at the food trucks, but the park is largely empty the rest of the day. When a downtown doesn’t have enough residents to generate steady traffic on its own, he said, the city needs to “activate it” with programming and give people special reasons to visit.

Although there has been some crime in and around the park (including a homicide in 2005), Billingham said the park’s reputation as a dangerous place has sunken far below the reality. He lived downtown when he moved here and visited the park with his son. He wasn’t afraid, he said, but there wasn’t much to do so he didn’t spend much time there.

The park gets used during the Downtown Chili Cookoff in September and has, at times, been used during Gay Pride events, he said. The city park department occasionally hosts family events there. The city didn’t have to kick out the homeless he said; it just needed to give other people a reason to be there too.

The City Council voted in May to add Naftzger Park to a special taxing district so money could used to redevelop the park before the city hosts the NCAA tournament in March.

“In recent times there has been a growing concern of the activities occurring in and around that park,” said Scot Rigby, assistant city manager. “Some feel because of the design, the walls and gate provide cover to those activities within the park. So the idea is how do we renovate the park to create a more safe and active environment that all Wichitans can use and feel safe.”

The initial plan shown to the council called for removal of the waterfall, pond, gazebo, benches, picnic tables, trees and brick and metal fence to essentially create a large, open artificial field, bordered on one side by trees.

Rigby said a more open design will open the park up to more activity. He envisions yoga or Frisbee during the day, jazz concerts at lunch, and radio stations hosting parties at the park before and after concerts. The park serves as a connection between Old Town and the arena, he said.

The city will get feedback during July and August and then draw up a final plan for redeveloping the park, with the hope that the first phase will be finished before the NCAA tournament in 2018.

Rigby said the park is open to everyone and he doesn’t see it as a way of addressing the problem of homelessness.

“I don’t know how exactly how you would go about getting feedback from the homeless,” he said. “We continue to work with the homeless population. … It’s simply not enough to redo a park and say that’s good. The problem won’t go away.”

Different this time?

Although Billingham is skeptical, he said, it’s difficult to predict the future. Park renovations and the hundreds of employees at the planned Cargill headquarters a block away could do what no change in laws, beautification project, private developer or city official has been able to do for 50 years: rid the intersection of St. Francis and Douglas of the ghosts of its skid row past.

But he hopes it’s not at the expense of pushing aside the city’s dispossessed.

“Some people are going to continue to live on the street no matter what,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is that public space is public space, and all people ought to have a right to exist in that space.”

Wichita’s 50-year effort to rid downtown park of homeless

This timeline was created from the events mentioned in Wichita State University sociology professor Chase Billingham’s article “Waiting for Bobos,” about Wichita’s attempt to rid the Naftzger Memorial Park / Eaton Hotel “skid row” area of undesirables at the intersection of Douglas and St. Francis.

1966 Urban Renewal Agency calls the skid row area “blighted and appropriate for urban renewal.” But community leaders hesitate to let city government take a lead role in redevelopment. Property owners place part of the blame on the transient, homeless populations for making the area seem unsafe.

1970 A corporation is formed to purchase the Eaton Hotel and other buildings on the block, with plans to restore its luxuriousness. The Eaton had largely become a cheap hotel for low-income single men.

1972 A proposal emerges to turn eastern Douglas into a new part of the city called “Old Town,” with the intersection of Douglas and St. Francis as ground zero for the project.

1975 A 1972 law prohibited prevented putting people in jail for being drunk, but landowners and city leaders blame the ruffians downtown for from deterring private investment. Police start sending them to detox centers as a new strategy to rid the area of undesirables.

Read the rest of the timeline

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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