Downtown is changing for the better

Downtown’s revival over the past five years has been impressive.
Downtown’s revival over the past five years has been impressive. The Wichita Eagle

People can and do gripe about the public tools that have coaxed along downtown redevelopment, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

An annual progress report released last week by the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. needed no spin to impress, and downtown’s revival over the past five years spoke for itself to the hundreds of thousands of people who just enjoyed the Wichita River Festival.

And as the downtown master plan promised, private money and ideas have taken the lead. Among the best parts of the report, which was presented to the Wichita City Council Tuesday:

•  Of the more than $321 million of investment in the past five years, 84 percent was by the private sector.

▪  Completed development projects total 47, and another 15 are planned or under construction.

•  Appraised real property value was $822.8 million in 2014, up from $630.5 million in 2010.

▪  More than 425 residential units opened downtown from 2010 through 2014, and another 550 involving five more projects are planned or under construction. Nearly 60 percent of the 1,872 downtown denizens moved there since 2010.

▪  Seven major projects worth $180 million are advancing on Douglas, the defining corridor for downtown, including the long-awaited renovations of Union Station, Exchange Place and the Bitting Building.

Jeff Fluhr, WDDC’s president, may have made the most impact in his council presentation with a then-and-now show of key downtown transformations including “Block One” (Ambassador Hotel, Kansas Leadership Center), the new downtown YMCA, the Cargill Innovation Center, and the dozen new businesses and park along St. Francis.

As Mayor Jeff Longwell said: “It is exciting to see, and there’s much, much more to come.”

Because of the message it conveys, what’s going on downtown is just as key to the local economy’s improving health as efforts including the Greater Wichita Partnership, the 10-county Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, the area export plan and Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus.

Some big downtown questions remain: When will the outdated Central Library get a new facility, which has been planned for Second and McLean for years but deferred for fiscal concerns? What is the city going to do about Century II, which will still serve Music Theatre Wichita and its audiences well when its season opens this week but isn’t very marketable as a 21st-century convention venue? What’s to become of the Finney State Office Building, which the state is leaving? Those who anticipated that lots of residential projects would lead to lots of new retail are still waiting, and still driving a good distance to buy groceries.

Because the redevelopment has come one project at a time, downtown still has a way to go to be as welcoming and walkable overall as promised five years ago. That’s when the editorial board pined for “a downtown worthy of the community’s time, attention, investment and pride.”

But with the help of sustained political will – which has survived three municipal elections – and some great partnerships involving an array of developers and business owners, downtown is changing block by block for the better.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman