Politics & Government

New stadium to bring big changes to Wichita’s McLean Boulevard

Wichita’s new stadium and the commercial development planned around it will trigger a chain reaction that could affect how you get around on the west side of the Arkansas River downtown.

Part of the stadium project will include narrowing McLean Boulevard, now a four-lane arterial street that runs along the riverbank, between the river and what used to be Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

The men who will lead the design and building of the new ball park said nothing’s set in stone yet, but they do have a plan in the works to narrow McLean to one lane in each direction. And the street will be configured so it could be closed on game days and for special events.

It is unlikely that the street will be eliminated, as was shown in an early concept sketch of the stadium.

“We anticipate that McLean will continue to go all the way through from north to south … forever,” said Don Barnum of DLR Group, the company that will have the lead in designing the stadium.

But it’s likely it will be quite a different street — maybe even realigned — and more commerce-friendly than it is now.

The part of the street that will undergo the most change will be the stadium-adjacent segment between Maple on the south and Douglas to the north.

The current plan is to take it down from from the existing four lanes to two lanes and possibly move it slightly to the west. That would create space for bars, restaurants and other private retail development.

“We anticipate that it (McLean) will be more of a pedestrian-friendly environment as it passes through, instead of the high-speed kind of trafficway that it is now, so that it can allow people to engage with the retail development that will be there and the entertainment development that will be on potentially both sides of it, the ball park side and the river side,” Barnum said.

That would dramatically alter the traffic patterns in the area.

McLean is the only four-lane, two-way, north-south boulevard between Seneca, about a half-mile to the west, and Broadway, about the same distance to the east. It is a key link between south Wichita and destinations including the burgeoning Delano business district, the Advance Learning Library, and Exploration Place.

Motorists who use McLean regularly said they’re concerned, but hoping the city will be able accommodate the businesses and still maintain a reasonable traffic flow.

“It’s nice to be able to drive all the way along the river without having any interruptions,” said Larry Sutterfield of south Wichita. “Going into the downtown area, it’s nice to have straight through streets without having to joggle back and forth to different streets to try to get where you’re going.”

For now, he said he’s putting the potential changes to McLean in the same basket as Exploration Place, where local officials first talked about rerouting McLean; and the Waterwalk project that straddles the river and was supposed to include a lot of river-focused businesses. Neither of those things happened.

“It could turn out to be a good thing and it could turn out to be a bad thing,” said Larry Sutterfield. “The city makes their changes. They gotta do what they gotta do.”

Bob Crager, who works for a local glass-repair company, said he understands the need to make space for businesses. He said he thinks keeping it four lanes would be optimal, but two would be better than none.

“Going to two lane is really going to slow down traffic,” Crager said. “It’s a fairly used road with four-lane now. They have to keep it at least a two-lane. They can’t take all the traffic away.”

The city desperately needs commercial development to succeed around the stadium.

The increased property tax from those businesses, plus an extra sales tax on purchases made in the stadium area, will be a key source of funding to pay back the tens of millions of dollars that the city’s borrowing to build the new ball park.

The ball park, yet to be named, will become the home field for a Triple-A Minor League baseball team, also yet to be named.

The city is getting a team to move from New Orleans, where it is currently named the Baby Cakes. The franchise is a farm team for the Major League Miami Marlins and is scheduled to throw out its first pitch in Wichita in April 2020.

The name Baby Cakes, a spinoff from the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition known as the “king cake,” won’t survive the move to Wichita because it wouldn’t make any sense here.

City Council member Jeff Blubaugh, who represents the area, said he’s committed to keeping McLean open.

“But I don’t know what a typical ball game is going to look like. We’ve already heard this theme that new ball fields don’t have a lot of parking,” he said. “I don’t know what that flow’s going to look like. I would hope that McLean would still be as usable and not backing anybody up if it’s only two lanes.

“I would like to see the ability if we ever want to roadblock it off during Riverfest or maybe Delano St. Patrick’s Day or some special event.”

Michael O’Donnell, who represents the area on the Sedgwick County Commission, doesn’t get a vote on what to do with McLean. But he said he’s monitoring developments to make sure his constituents can still get where they want to go without having to take a long detour around the stadium.

“I want to see more development down in the Delano area” and that’s not going to be a problem “as long as there is the correct and appropriate infrastructure to handle all the traffic,” he said.

O’Donnell said he’s heard the city might widen Sycamore Street, just west of the stadium, to carry some of the north-south through traffic.

At present, Sycamore is one lane either direction with a turn lane in the middle of the street.

He said it’s a good candidate for widening because it links to a freeway off-ramp just north of Kellogg.

But, he said, it does have a choke point, a decorative roundabout at the corner of Sycamore and Douglas that might need to be moved to another corner or removed if the street is to carry more traffic.

O’Donnell, a former City Council member, said he gets a lot of calls about the plans for around the stadium and so far, “I keep telling them I think the city is going to do this correctly.”

“This is a legacy project” for Mayor Jeff Longwell, who led the charge to bring back Major League-affiliated baseball, and the council members who have worked with him on it, O’Donnell said.

He said they understand the importance of doing it right, because whatever gets built in the next year and half will be pa for decades to come.

“I don’t see them screwing this up,” O’Donnell said.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.