Special Reports

City aims to improve on '89 plan for downtown

File photo

Last time the city rolled out a big plan to turn downtown Wichita into a fun place to live, work, play and generate new tax dollars, it followed through on many of its ideas.

The Boathouse was built. The Hyatt rose. A transit center emerged. Trolleys began circulating. Old Town grew and evolved. Main Street got a grand entrance at the feet of the Kellogg flyover. The Arkansas River banks improved.

As the city embarks on a new plan over the next several months, it hopes to capitalize on that — and succeed where the past plan faltered.

For example, the 1989 plan cost several times more than the $21.1 million of taxpayer cash initially estimated.

It never fulfilled its goal of having private investment far outstrip taxpayers' share.

And many of its goals remain issues today, most notably parking.

Planning officials say the new plan aims to be more realistic about costs, focus less on public improvements and more on attracting private dollars, and get a much better handle on parking.

When Dallas-based RTKL Associates made its final presentation of a new downtown plan back in 1989, a crowd of about 100 at Century II Expo Hall heard what people are hearing today: Master plans aren't the be-all, end-all. They are a flexible road map.

And then they heard a massive redevelopment plan.

1989 projects realized

Many of the projects were completed:

* The plan called for a boathouse and marina that would be part of the WaterWalk development, and it envisioned water taxis that would boat people to the Old Cowtown Museum and Sim Park.

Just a few years ago, WaterWalk developers proposed tearing down the Boathouse to make way for a $12 million corporate headquarters. A vocal campaign saved it, and it has since been handed over for the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame to use.

* The plan sought a downtown hotel near Century II.

That led to the city-owned Hyatt Regency.

* Plans to redevelop Old Town had been under way for years. This plan sought zoning rules that would encourage development of entertainment and housing in Old Town. That area has continued to grow.

* The plan called for a Main Street gateway, where there are now elevated sculptures.

* A central location for bus transfers was sought at Main and William. It happened a few blocks over at Topeka and William.

* The plan said a trolley system should be created to link areas of the city. The free Q-line now circulates and is expanding.

* Eaton Hotel was seen as a new place for retail. It has attracted some businesses, though some have left.

* The plan also called for a multi-use arena that could host Wichita State University basketball games, concerts and other events. Most of that is achieved through Intrust Bank Arena.

1989 projects stalled

But other ideas stalled.

* A William Street retail center was sought as an area flush with merchants. It's now home to a restaurant and a coffeeshop.

* The WaterWalk idea has changed several times. The development has attracted some businesses, but has failed to meet expectations. It recently changed management.

Scott Knebel, a city planner who started his career with the city in 1993, said he recalls seeing the study's cost estimates while assembling plans to pay for the projects.

It was clear, immediately, the estimates were low, he said.

"That is critical," he said. "That's one of the things that we're focusing on in our (requests to the consultant). It's trying to have market realities reflected in this plan."

The parking issue

Local government is just now on the cusp of achieving the parking management system envisioned 20 years ago.

The city and Wichita Downtown Development Corp. plan to start a major public education campaign that aims to show people there is plenty of parking for Intrust Bank Arena and other parts of downtown.

The thousands of spots spread throughout downtown include some on the street, some in public garages, and up to about 4,000 private spots that will open for major arena events.

George Ablah, a prominent real estate developer who was a leader on the steering committee in 1989, foresaw a parking problem — and still sees it.

He said the old rules of development were "location, location, location, location." Now it's "location, parking, no social problems, location."

He said he suggested that the city buy vacant and blighted buildings, tear them down and use the land for parking.

Development would follow, he said.

But that didn't happen.

"We would have had a booming area," he said. "I could be wrong. But we didn't do it, so we can't prove it."

Jeff Fluhr, president of the WDDC, said the perception that there is no parking is often in the eye of the beholder.

"I think if you're not a frequent visitor, sometimes you have this anxiety about 'Where do I go?' " he said.

That's why he thinks it's key to listen to what people say makes them uncomfortable and try to address it.

The rest is getting parking information to people on paper, over the Internet and through phones, he said.

Hindsight

Looking back, former Mayor Bob Knight thinks the 1989 plan was a success, though he acknowledged the city is still looking for some of the same things: excitement, business and parking.

He said he never believed the costs cited in studies. What's important, he said, is that it put the city on the right path.

"I can look back now and, whether people agree or disagree, there was a lot accomplished out of that," he said.

In his 20-plus years in City Hall, he said, downtown was always important.

In his time, it was about reversing the downward trend that had businesses fleeing to lower taxes and easier access to the growing suburbs.

Today, it's more about housing and entertainment, he said.

"Regardless of what they accomplish now, it's going to be revisited in 10 or 15 years by another group of citizens that will be emerging in leadership positions," he said. "Cities evolve. Things change. The city changes."

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