Residents helping revive downtown

It used to seem as if there were more statues of people downtown than actual human beings. But that has been changing, and the number of people living downtown could double in coming years — which is important to reviving downtown and growing our city.

Wichita currently has about 1,000 housing units downtown. That number could increase to 2,000 in the next five to seven years, says David Dixon of Goody Clancy, a Boston-based consulting firm the city hired to develop a downtown master plan.

One reason for this growth is changing demographics, Dixon told The Eagle editorial board, noting that 63 percent of households in Wichita are composed of only one or two people.

Some of those households are empty nesters who want to downsize. But another big market is young professionals interested in living in older buildings, walking to work and enjoying the dynamism of a downtown.

Having a vibrant downtown with attractive housing options — particularly affordable rentals — is a big help in recruiting young professionals to move to Wichita, according to human resources directors of area companies. And our city's ability to attract and retain young adults is key to its future growth.

Laurie Volk, a consultant who researched our housing market, said at a public meeting that Wichita's downtown has a number of assets in its favor. Unlike many downtowns, Wichita hasn't torn down most of its historic buildings. It also has more cultural, dining and entertainment options than many communities.

"I can't tell you how many downtowns would kill to have a movie theater," she said.

One challenge facing downtown, she said, is a misconception about lack of parking — though that may be changing, as people attend events at Intrust Bank Arena and realize how much parking is available.

It can also be difficult for developers to acquire properties downtown, because many of the older buildings have multiple owners.

Another concern is that there aren't enough interesting walking areas downtown. The more walkable, lively and vital a downtown, the more it can take advantage of the demographic trends, Dixon said.

But Wichita is fortunate that it has laid the groundwork for growth downtown, and that there already is considerable momentum.

The success of Old Town pioneer David Burk proved that downtown has a strong residential potential. As a result, other developers, including the "Minnesota Guys," the WaterWalk partnership, and David Farha — who is nearing completion of apartment units in the Commerce Arts District — had confidence to enter the market.

"There is already energy," Mayor Carl Brewer told the editorial board. And though there is still much work to be done, as Brewer observed, "we're well on our way."