Special Reports

Wichita's downtown short on 'walkable' appeal

If you've ever wandered through the East Village in New York City, North Beach in San Francisco or even the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, you probably know what "walkable urbanity" is — even if you didn't know you knew it.

At its core, the concept just means a safe, attractive walking environment where there's plenty to see and do.

You can find this a few hours away on Mass Street in Lawrence or in Bricktown in Oklahoma City.

Wichita has sparks of it in Old Town, Delano and on Douglas.

But city leaders, many young professionals and downtown business leaders want more.

They want more feet on the street. More cafes and restaurants that spill into the sidewalk. More public art to catch the eye. More of the type of magnetism that pulls people down the street for blocks.

"Downtowns just thrive a lot more when you can feel comfortable and safe and have fun while you're walking," said Ben Carlson, a senior urban designer with Goody Clancy, the Boston-based firm crafting a 20-year revitalization plan for Wichita. "It's a simple idea. But it really makes a huge difference."

Wichita has a few hurdles to pass.

Besides Old Town, Delano and a few blocks of Douglas, downtown lacks the ground-level retail to fill streets with wandering shoppers and businesspeople. Those feet on the street create energy and are what help many people feel safe, since people tend to look out for one another.

Of course, Wichita is smaller.

As Carlson put it: "There's only so much retail demand to go around."

The consultants plan to prepare retail, commercial and residential market studies.

"That will bring another level of reality as to what we can do," Carlson said.

Some early thoughts

Ben Andrews, 20, and Mariah Corn, 20, pushed their 15-month-old daughter down William in a stroller.

They had been job hunting.

Both say they wish they had more reasons to be downtown.

But they said downtown doesn't offer much to do outside of bars, which they're not old enough for and wouldn't bring their daughter to anyway.

"When you walk by half the buildings and they're empty, it's not a favorable thing," Corn said.

"It's kind of blah down here," Andrews added.

They said they don't think downtown is safe at night outside of Old Town. And they don't feel Old Town has much to offer a young couple with a little girl. They're looking for family-friendly places.

"There's just really nothing to do but drink downtown," Corn said.

Andrews said he remembers his mom and grandma taking him downtown to go shopping when he was a kid.

"Downtown is more for businesspeople these days," he said.

Others, who responded to The Eagle via the microblog Twitter, also focused on storefronts and streets.

@DelanoWichita said: "In Delano (which only gets called "downtown" when they want our attractions) we push for @completestreets, among other things."

Complete streets are streets designed for safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.

@MadMcCullough said: "Outdoor cafes. (Not inside squirrelly fences so change that ordinance.) = Good people watching. = More walkable."

@Cox_Will wrote: "I think just having similar stores grouped together would help a lot. To me, having more lighting would be a huge factor also."

It's true that a lot of retail has left downtown, often for lower taxes, cheaper development and proximity to populous subdivisions in northeast and northwest Wichita.

But many other aspects have improved.

Linda Case, who recently moved to Kansas City with her husband but was back in town this week, said that Wichita's theatrical and musical scene is strong and that the city has exceptionally nice museums and attractions without the traffic of a larger city.

"I think Wichita is one of the best-kept secrets," she said at the corner of Douglas and Water, near the Garvey Center. "Kansas City is cool. But we really like Wichita."

She said she has never felt unsafe downtown, though she's mostly there during the day.

Case said the city should focus on the future — the young people.

"Somehow, we have to try to create something to bring them down here," she said. That might mean completing WaterWalk with more retail and expanding the development of Old Town, she said.

She said she lived in New York and Los Angeles before returning to Wichita.

She wouldn't be in Kansas City if it weren't for her family, she said.

Wichita will always be attractive to her, she said.

"I miss it."