Whatever happens with Century II, don’t sell off Wichita’s riverfront

The first shots in the Battle of the Blue Roof may have been fired Tuesday, when an advisory committee proposed building a new performing arts center in downtown Wichita.

Committee leaders said their proposal has no bearing on Century II, the city’s 50-year-old convention and performing arts center, but it’s hard to imagine it won’t. Building a new performing arts center would mean finding “alternative use options” for Century II or the property on which it stands — and that could be a tough task.

Regardless which way the building debate goes from here, we implore city leaders to pledge one thing clearly and decisively:

Wichita’s precious downtown riverfront should not be sold off to the highest bidder.

One option floated in recent years is to give private developers as much as 30 acres of land around Century II, and then use revenue from those retail projects to fund at least some of a new or renovated performing arts center.

That’s the concept being employed for a new baseball stadium going up on the west bank of the Arkansas River. Preliminary renderings show swaths of the riverfront being carved out for the Riverfront Village commercial development, which would generate new sales tax and property tax revenue to help finance the stadium, city leaders have said.

Private development can indeed boost civic projects, but it’s critical that leaders preserve some property along the river for public use.

In its report to the Wichita City Council on Tuesday, the advisory committee noted that options for renovating or repurposing Century II should include “transforming the current site into a flexible and engaging outdoor community gathering space.”

We concur, and would remind city leaders to work on behalf of all their constituents — not just deep-pocketed developers — when considering the future of prime land along the river.

River Vista, a $38 million riverbank apartment project, has transformed the west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and First Street. Developers made necessary and impressive improvements to the public river walk along that stretch, including new lighting, landscaping and a lighted boat dock, but the four-story complex also blocks what could have been a stunning view from the terrace of Wichita’s new downtown library.

Similarly, plans for the new downtown ball park complex show restaurants, rooftop bars and other businesses along the river, along with a pedestrian bridge and public-access areas. But it’s still unclear what the ratio of public to private spaces will be, even as construction has started.

And then there’s WaterWalk, a public-private partnership with dismal results: After 15 years and $41 million in taxpayer subsidies for the development between Waterman and the Kellogg freeway, the city of Wichita has a vacant Gander Mountain store, a scattering of office and residential units, a parking garage and dancing fountains.

As leaders consider another signature project for Wichita’s core area — whatever the project, timeline or funding stream — they should remain mindful of the need for public spaces.