Special Reports

Group of Wichitans helps create downtown's future

A man stops to look at a detail on the railroad overpass on east Douglas in downtown Wichita. Research has shown that underpasses present a psychological barrier to pedestrian traffic.
A man stops to look at a detail on the railroad overpass on east Douglas in downtown Wichita. Research has shown that underpasses present a psychological barrier to pedestrian traffic. The Wichita Eagle

About 130 people — community activists, civic leaders, elected officials, business representatives, downtown residents and others — showed up Saturday to help craft the future of downtown Wichita.

It's likely to include what one consultant called "a series of wonderful districts" that value Wichita's history and build on it, especially along or near Douglas.

Using lists, keypad votes, stickers, building blocks and other tools, the participants suggested the housing, retail, office space, entertainment, public transit, parks and other elements they want downtown.

The daylong gathering at the Wichita Art Museum was part of a months-long process being led by Goody Clancy, a consulting firm hired by the city to create a vision that can be implemented over 10 to 20 years.

"Be bold," Mayor Carl Brewer encouraged the group at the beginning of the day. "Don't stay within your comfort zone."

The day began with Goody Clancy team members noting what Wichita already has — and where opportunities are.

Downtown includes special places, they said: the Arkansas River, Old Town, the Commerce Street Art District, the Intrust Bank Arena.

It has 5 million square feet of office space, and only 5 percent of the highest-class of space is vacant. "This is an economic development issue. We're full," said Sarah Woodworth, one of the consultants. "We really see this as an opportunity."

Occupancy rates show there's room for another hotel, she said, and Marriott, which has plans for a new hotel at WaterWalk, has figured that out.

Downtown doesn't have the residents or office space to support "mass market" shopping, but it does have successful retailers and room for more, said consultant Mike Berne.

Successful retail would cater to a young, single residents interested in vintage clothing and beer and to more-established residents who want unique clothing and wine, he said.

Working in groups of about a dozen, participants used colored paper, markers, tiny blocks and other tools to start designing their vision of downtown based on a map of what's there now. Each map was presented to the group as a whole at the end of the day.

The maps and other information from Saturday's session will be on the downtown master planning Web site soon.

Nearly all the maps focused on making Douglas a focal point and building along it to connect Old Town to the river. The Commerce Street Art District, WaterWalk, the Intrust Bank Arena neighborhood and Delano also were important parts of the maps, with retail, housing and office space filling in areas where vacant buildings and parking lots now exist.

Until now, the Goody Clancy team has been doing more listening than talking, said David Dixon, principal for Goody Clancy. Now, it's time for the consultants to translate what they've heard into a realistic, achievable framework, then bring it back to Wichita to ask, "Did we get it right?"

He estimated the framework will be ready for presentation by mid- to late April and will include a visualization showing "which buildings we think can and will be reused," where parking will be, what improvements should be made to Douglas, how the Commerce Street Art District might look and other details.

What he saw Saturday, he said, showed Wichitans value "what history has left you, and what you choose to do with it."

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