Bill Warren – movie theater builder and vocal protector of Century II – says high-ranking city officials have told him that one option is to turn the interior of the iconic building into a parking garage.
“It’s such a valuable building. It’s a landmark,” Warren said. Architects who designed Century II took inspiration from the architectural giant – Frank Lloyd Wright.
“You’re going to make it into a parking garage?” Warren said this week, his rising voice tinged with disgust. “I think the city is trying to commit cultural genocide here. That is beyond stupid.”
With a signature round blue roof, the building has served as Wichita’s convention and performing arts center for nearly five decades.
To Warren, turning it into a parking garage would be an insult to history and architecture.
But Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said turning the building into a parking garage is just one of the ideas that has been thrown out there. “We’re just trying to think outside the box.”
There has been no real discussion of options, and it’s way too early to know what will happen with Century II, Longwell said.
“It would be absolutely a falsehood to say” that city leaders are advocating any single option, that “this is what we ought to do,” the mayor said.
City Manager Robert Layton said there has been brainstorming about Century II but wouldn’t comment on whether that includes the idea of turning the structure into a parking garage.
Warren wouldn’t identify the officials who told him of the parking-garage option. “I’m not trying to make this personal,” he said.
‘Looking at all options’
According to the mayor, some of the key questions are: What’s the best way to save Century II, and what are different uses for it?
What’s clear, he said, is that although it could still serve as a performing arts center, it no longer works as a convention center. Round buildings don’t fit conventions because most conventions work on a grid system, not a circular layout, Longwell explained. “So we lose out on a vast majority of opportunities because of a lack of convention space … laid out properly.” The current ceiling, he said, also creates problems because heights aren’t uniform and there are too many obstructions that block the view of convention displays.
Warren argues that Century II’s interior can be modified to maintain its convention role. “It can be converted to a convention showplace,” and still preserve interior features including flooring, decor and spaciousness, he said.
For Longwell, another key question is: If you remove the convention function, “How do you save the design that everybody wants to save? So we’re looking at all options, primarily with the focus of how do we better utilize Century II?”
The ideas floated so far don’t amount to any “deep discussion being held in a dark room,” Longwell said. “There is no organized discussion at the city level at this point. There’s just ideas floated.”
The public, he said, will be invited into an eventual discussion about the building. There’s no time frame for that yet. Meanwhile, a consultant is gathering information on all options, he said.
‘Watching pretty closely’
Layton, the city manager, said the task for him, the mayor and council members is “how do we bring this project to a conclusion?” And what can the city afford?
The consultant is considering a number of options, among them a public-private project that could include development in the area of a convention center, Layton said.
The consultant, California-based Arup Advisory Inc., is about two-thirds into the review. The consulting contract is for $294,000.
A city staff team communicates with the consultant by conference call once a week. “We’re trying to be creative but also outside the box,” Layton said.
The team is trying to be respectful of the history and architecture of Century II while also considering its “business viability,” Layton said.
Many people have concluded that the city is going to tear down Century II and “start from scratch,” he said. “That will have the highest capital cost (of the options), and that will be very challenging in terms of our ability to meet that cost,” Layton said.
Preliminary estimates range from roughly $250 million for remodeling existing facilities to as much as $500 million for leveling Century II and building new structures. The consultant will present revised estimates.
“I have no idea what the final” choice will be, Layton said. But it would be “really unfair at this point to speculate about any option.”
“I don’t want to stifle brainstorming, either.
“This is something the community is watching pretty closely. I understand the importance of this to the community.”
The public will have chances “for voices to be heard throughout the community,” and there will be more than one public hearing, he said.
Referring to Warren and his concerns about Century II, Layton said: “I appreciate his passion on the issue.”
Warren said he is preparing to begin an advertising campaign next week with radio spots advocating for saving Century II “and saving taxpayer money in the process.”
Ghost of the Miller
Warren, now 68, was once a young man working as manager of the historic Miller Theater in downtown Wichita. The Miller, which opened in 1922, “was considered one of the most luxurious theaters west of the Mississippi at the time,” he said.
In his memory, he can still see it: “Two-thousand seats, three-tier balcony, huge two-story entryway, marble stairs with a huge chandelier.
“I mean, it was an unbelievable theater.”
But then, Warren said, “The bank tore it down for a stupid parking garage.” Warren was there for the Miller’s last night in 1970, about a year after Century II was erected.
Turning the interior of Century II into a parking garage would be a similar sin, Warren said. “I think it damages the city.”