Politics & Government

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

Mark Roland visits Naftzger Memorial Park in downtown Wichita nearly every day. A plan to renovate the park would replace the grass with artificial turf and provide space for live music and other events.
Mark Roland visits Naftzger Memorial Park in downtown Wichita nearly every day. A plan to renovate the park would replace the grass with artificial turf and provide space for live music and other events. The Wichita Eagle

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

1976 The city puts in six blocks of streetscaping to help jump-start the Old Town concept: old-fashioned lampposts, benches, trash barrels with a “turn of the century motif.”

1979 The city finishes tearing down the Salvation Army men’s shelter and builds Naftzger Memorial Park in its place, in part with a $100,000 donation from the Naftzger family. Several are quoted saying that this will be the end of transients in the area, and the city steps up enforcement of a loitering ordinance to help.

1980 The city’s Urban Renewal Agency disbands, partly because it couldn’t work out a deal with property owners to buy Old Town land for redevelopment.

1981 One Old Town property owner talks about waking up transients in alleys and pushing them on their way.

1982 One Eaton Hotel resident says no one could pay him enough to walk through Naftzger Park.

1980-1983 Some developers renovate low-rent hotels into loft-style apartments and help form the Old Town Association. The association hires its own security officer during the holiday shopping season.

1983 The Naftzger family publicly declares the park a failure for not ridding the area of transients.

1983 The city tries to decrease the hours the park is open, citing maintenance. It’s also an attempt to discourage the homeless.

1983 The Old Town Association starts a feud with Phil Kassebaum over who is to blame for the lack of development at the Eaton Hotel. Kassebaum had promised to redevelop it when he purchased it, but the improvements were largely cosmetic.

1987 By 1987 the Eaton is so poorly taken care of that only 89 of the original 134 rooms can be rented.

1989 Kassebaum puts the Eaton up for sale.

1990 Some of the first public references to the public calling Naftzger Park “wino park” appear in The Wichita Eagle.

1993 Kassebaum announces a deal with an architect to redevelop the Eaton.

1994 City leaders want to prevent the Eaton from being broken up from other Old Town development land, but the IRS seizes property in the hotel after delinquent tax payments.

1996 A downtown beat officer collects signatures for a proposal to make arrests for consumption or possession of alcohol in city parks.

1997 The Eaton is put up for auction, and the city wins the bid for $365,000. It gives tours to developers where they see sewage going down the walls.

1998 The officer starts enforcing the new ordinance to prevent drinking in the park.

1998 By the end of the year, all residents have been evicted from the Eaton.

1998-1999 In order to prevent crimes, the city removes the park’s large gates and cuts back bushes and trees. It again reports that it is stepping up enforcement of vagrancy, jaywalking and loitering.

1999 Prostitutes allegedly expose themselves to a bus full of schoolchildren passing by. The city removes benches, tables and more shrubs. Neighborhood Watch signs are posted.

1999 The city starts charging churches who feed the homeless in the park $25. Some of the churches paid the fee and did it anyway, others refused to pay and tried to be caught. The city quickly dropped the fee.

2000 Naftzger Park is closed for redevelopment, including installing armrests on benches to make them harder to lie down on.

2000 Eaton redevelopment starts, after years (and decades) of delay. It opens at the end of the year. About 25 affordable units sell almost right away, but only about half of the expensive, market-rate apartments.

2005-2006 Two deaths occur in the park, a homicide and a homeless man who died from heat exposure.

2010 Improvements for Naftzger Park are included in the downtown redevelopment master plan. No progress is made.

2013-2014 Reports of more deaths, beatings, stabbings, fights and robberies.

2016 The city’s park director says the city needs to change the demographics of the park.

2017 The city announces a $1.5 million plan to renovate the park and put on live music events in order to spiff up the park for the NCAA March Madness tournament at Intrust Bank Arena in 2018.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle