Special Reports

Downtown Wichita's development direction will soon be clear

City officials on Tuesday will roll out a $600 million redevelopment plan for downtown Wichita, with $500 million of that coming from private investors over the next decade.

Project Downtown, Boston-based consultant Goody Clancy's 15-year blueprint to revitalize downtown Wichita, will be unveiled at a 4 p.m. Tuesday open house in the Bank of America building atrium.

The blueprint is built on a business plan for market-based redevelopment, including strict guidelines for public investments downtown to move the Wichita City Council away from its longtime penchant of handing out money to private developers.

The consultants estimate that between $75 million and $100 million in public investment, largely in infrastructure, transit and other direct public-benefit items, will be required over the next 15 years to complement the projected half-billion dollars in private money downtown.

It's unclear where the city will get all of the money to fund the landscaping, parks, street improvements and parking garages over the next decade, but city officials have already applied for a $24.5 million federal grant.

The grant would be used to convert downtown's one-way streets to two-way, provide on-street parking, build bike lanes and expand the Q trolley line in downtown.

"The city, when it determines a rational investment, should be making it in something that ultimately belongs to the city, to the people," lead consultant David Dixon said.

"Public investments aren't grants. They're investments. There's a long-term benefit to building a parking structure, fixing up a park, fixing up a street grade by planting trees."

Dixon was clear: There will be enough private development downtown to repay taxpayers for the public investments through increases in the tax base.

"Taxpayers won't be out a thing," he said.

Wichita's economic turmoil — Cessna layoffs and Hawker Beechcraft's threat to leave town — is a "perfect time," Dixon said, to begin cultivating new non-manufacturing businesses downtown.

"There could never be a more important time to revitalize a downtown than when a region is shifting to a reduced reliance on manufacturing," Dixon said.

"A very strong case can be made that the next generation of educated and skilled workers who are essential to write the next chapter in this region's economy are tied to your downtown."

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said the plan is "something the city has long needed.

"This is the opportunity all of us have been waiting on to get some form of a direction for downtown," Brewer said.

"People have given us their ideas, their direction. They've told us what they like and dislike, and we've incorporated all these ideas, these dreams that individuals have presented. And now it's been laid out into a blueprint of the direction we want to go."

The project's goal is to create a downtown full of first-floor restaurants and shops within walking distance of new apartments filled with retirees and young downtown workers.

The new attractions will fill in around several existing downtown destinations, such as Old Town, Intrust Bank Arena, and the work now being down on the riverfront near the Drury Broadview.

Market demand

The study identifies "solid demand" over the next 10 years for:

* 1,500 housing units including lofts, apartments, townhomes and live/work spaces

* 220,000 to 480,000 square feet of office space, including 50,000 to 80,000 square feet of premium office space, more affordable office space and convenient public parking

* 250 to 400 new hotel rooms located in several hotels close to Century II, city amenities and transit

* Retail niches targeting dining, nightlife and entertainment

Prudent public investment

The plan also pushes the City Council further from its historically loose policy of handing out tax incentives to private business developers.

The city's new public investment criteria will emphasize:

* Making the most of existing public investments by "connecting the dots" downtown. For example, the city could make Douglas a more inviting street to walk along, encouraging people to walk from Old Town to the arena.

* Encouraging development near downtown's existing assets, where investment in parks, public entertainment destination, parking and other development has already stimulated some private investment.

* Spending public money on streets, parks, landscaping and parking in stages as private developments occurs or as Goody Clancy's Ben Carlson put it, "Build it as they come, not build it and hope they come."

"There have already been great results in Wichita. The arena has been a great success," Carlson said.

"But the attitude shouldn't be 'build it and they will come.' It should be 'let's build it when they come.' Let's talk to the investors... and meet their needs, remove the obstacles in their way."

* Spending public money on projects that bring lasting public benefits, such as parks and public parking.

"Don't pay for things the public cannot directly use," Dixon said.

* Bringing clarity and predictability to the evaluation process for downtown development. That begins, Dixon and Carlson said, with clear eligibility criteria for developers, such as experience, expertise and financial capacity.

And the same specifics stand for potential downtown projects, which they say should be evaluated on location, uses and design that must encourage further private investment and increase vitality downtown.

These changes are essential to the master plan's success, Dixon said, "so it will have credibility. So it will be supportable. More importantly, so it will be effective.

"Cities and the public sector have been investing in supporting development as long as I've been alive," Dixon said. "Out in the suburbs, in rural areas, in downtowns, in different areas and different ways. That's always been part of the picture.

"So, in 2010 going forward in downtown Wichita, it's a matter of understanding what's effective and a good investment strategy for the city."

Brewer said his council is ready to go forward with the tighter public investment criteria.

"I'm very comfortable with the approach they've laid out," the mayor said.

Invite private initiative

The plan calls for a one-stop shop out of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. offices on Douglas for developers, the centerpiece of what consultants call a large and ongoing communication and marketing effort.

At the one-stop shop, business prospects will find information on market opportunity, finance sources, project approval criteria, potential partnerships and a real-time available-property database.

Those finance sources are evolving, said Jeff Fluhr, president of the WDDC, and likely will include a low-interest loan fund driven by local lenders that's similar to a program that has succeeded in Louisville.

The one-stop shop is part of a larger and broader communication effort that consultants say is essential to the plan's success.

It's likely that Fluhr's four-person staff will grow as implementation of the comprehensive plan begins, he said.

Funding for that growth isn't nailed down, but the downtown development group is investigating several private funding sources.

"What we've been doing with this plan is a strategic business plan for this organization, laying the groundwork to take care of those responsibilities," Fluhr said.

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