Politics & Government

Century II in limbo as planners craft riverfront proposals for apartments, offices

Planners working on redevelopment scenarios for the east bank of the Arkansas River say they will present some proposals that preserve the roundhouse at Century II, and some where it will be torn down.

But none of those proposals will recommend continuing to use it as the city’s performing arts center.

Planners expect to recommend that the city build a new convention center and a new performance center and maybe convert Century II, which now serves both functions, for some other use.

“We all know that Century II has some challenges and one of the biggest questions is what do you do with that?” said Todd Voth, senior principal of Populous, the consulting firm hired to replan the area. “We’re going to look at options that keep Century II and repurpose it and we’re going to look at options that take it away.”

Voth’s company is heading up the replanning of the project area, which includes the Century II complex, the former downtown library and the WaterWalk development, which has chronically underperformed City Hall’s expectations that it would breathe new life into the east bank.

The “River Legacy Master Plan” is being funded with $700,000 — $200,000 from city and county government and $500,000 from a constellation of private and quasi-public groups with an interest in downtown development.

“The whole notion is to take a look at a broad range of options that give you the possibilities, that show you (what) the various responses are to those options,” Voth said. “And in the end, the city, the community, has to make a decision about what’s best for all of you.”

Populous and its partners have been gathering public input for several months in various forms and planner Amber Luther said some themes have emerged.

“We know we need some kind of public open space,” Luther said. “That might actually be two different types of public open space, one that’s considered more of a park; one that’s considered more of like an event plaza or something that you can actually have power and water running to for community use.”

Preliminary forecasts are for six to eight acres of public open space, four to six acres rentable space.

Another emerging certainty is that the site will have to include businesses that can generate money to pay for whatever public improvements are made.

“Gone are the days when we can build a public building and not think about how we maintain it,” Luther said. “Or build a big public park and not think about how we program it.

“And so how do fund those types of things? You have to create something on the site that’s an economic engine.”

That economic engine is envisioned to have four pistons: apartments, office space, retail and hotels.

Since 2010, about 1,200 new apartments have been developed downtown, according to research gathered for the master plan.

Those include new construction such as the 202-unit River Vista project on the west riverbank, and conversion projects like the 106-unit Colorado Derby Lofts in the building that was formerly the administrative headquarters of the Wichita school district.

RCLCO, Populous’ real estate partner in the plan, forecasts demand for 3,200 more apartments by 2030.

The plan projects there will be market demand for 850,000 square feet of office space, 670,000 square feet of “high quality” retail and 420 more hotel rooms.

The riverfront is ideal for office buildings because there are large vacant spaces, said Erin Talkington, principal of RCLCO. “It’s hard to build them on small infill parcels,” she said.

When you talk about downtown retail, “It really means food, entertainment and services,” Talkington said. “Those are kind of the core food groups.”

The hotel component will be a little tougher to crack.

Occupancy of existing hotels is OK from Monday through Thursday, ranging from 69 to 78 percent. However, that drops way off on weekends with Friday-through-Monday occupancy of 45-63 percent.

The planners’ hope is the riverbank plan will generate enough recreational activity that people might stay an extra day because there’s more to do than attend a business meeting or come to a show downtown and drive home.

“The biggest opportunity is to really expand the leisure market,” Talkington said. “You can’t build for just the two days of the week (Tuesday and Wednesday) that are really well-occupied.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

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.