Pause to answer some questions on Naftzger Park

A homeless woman spends time at Naftzger Park on Wednesday afternoon.
A homeless woman spends time at Naftzger Park on Wednesday afternoon. The Wichita Eagle

“Stop, look and listen” has long been sound advice for drivers at railroad crossings. Now it seems like great advice for city leaders and developers involved with the Naftzger Park project.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton said this week that the project to redesign the park, located for 38 years at Douglas and St. Francis, would slow down and probably not be ready for the NCAA Tournament that’s coming to nearby Intrust Bank Arena in mid-March.

He’s right that it’s OK if the project isn’t ready by tipoff, or even to a point where it can host a fan festival that will take place outside the arena during the tournament.

Let’s face it, this project was moving too fast without a clear vision or purpose. Initial funding was approved by the City Council less than four months ago, and the first public meetings with the newly hired landscape architects were in late July.

It is a process that is much too speedy to decide how to change a charming downtown park. This is the perfect opportunity to stop, look at the park and listen to everyone involved.

It appeared the park was put on the fast track because it had to be done by the NCAA Tournament. The city’s own request for proposals indicated a desire to “move swiftly” to “be utilized during the tournament.”

That wasn’t the only reason, Layton acknowledged, but it became the perception.

“The fact that we have a 2018 tournament, it seemed as if that was a good kickoff event for a more active, urbanized park,” Layton told The Eagle’s Dion Lefler. “As we’ve got into the discussions, it became apparent we maybe needed to slow down a little bit and make sure this is a park that’s embraced by the community and specifically the prime users downtown.”

This much is clear: A redesigned Naftzger Park doesn’t have to be done by mid-March. City leaders, developers, downtown park users and anyone with an opinion about the park should take a deep breath – much like a basketball player before a big free throw.

Then they – together and building a consensus – should answer these questions:

▪ Is a redesign needed? Naftzger is full of natural beauty with a pond, gazebo and brick sidewalks. Sprucing up is in order, and there’s been enough resistance from the community to ask if a new design is what the area needs. Neighborhood residents should be heard first and foremost.

▪ If a redesign is still the plan, are neighborhood residents being heard on the layout? Public meetings and the city’s Design Council have shown resistance to four concepts from architects.

▪ And the question many have, and no one seems to want to tackle: What about the homeless? Homeless people have spent time on that piece of land for more than 50 years, long before the park was built.

Their presence doesn’t promote a positive image of our city and makes some people reluctant to use the park. It’s not realistic to think a redesign of the park will address those issues. Even if the homeless are somehow forced from the park, it simply moves the problem somewhere else.

We all want fewer homeless people in Wichita, which would mean fewer homeless in the park. But let’s address that publicly. It’s a needed discussion.

Layton and the city made the right decision to acknowledge a redesigned Naftzger Park won’t be ready for the NCAAs. Now that the timeline is longer, it’s time those most heavily involved talk with the public about what the park should be and reach a consensus about how to get there. Homeless patrons or not? Keep many features of the park, or not?

Talk about it without the sound of basketballs bouncing in the background.