Guest Commentary

Was Naftzger Park built on private land? Not exactly

On the most recent installment of the KPTS program “Call the Mayor: Wichita,” a caller asked Mayor Jeff Longwell why a private development was being built on land previously occupied by Naftzger Park, a public park in Downtown Wichita. The mayor replied, “when our city fathers put in that park years ago, they put the park in on private development land.” He added that the city “had to change the boundaries of the park because someone obviously couldn’t read a survey when that park went in some 40 or 50 years ago.”

This claim — that the public park was erroneously built on privately owned land — has been one of the most common arguments offered by city officials in favor of their strategy to bulldoze Naftzger Park and rebuild it on a new footprint. This argument has been voiced repeatedly by elected officials and city staff during City Council meetings and public hearings. As the developers of the Spaghetti Works property have begun to build a new mixed-use development there, the city has maintained that it must fix that previous error and restore the developers’ property rights by relinquishing Naftzger Park’s eastern edge.

The claim that Naftzger Park was built on private land is wrong, however, and it epitomizes the disregard for history and due diligence that has characterized much of the city’s disjointed effort to overhaul this key public downtown space.

Naftzger Park was originally created in the late 1970s as an urban renewal project. It was envisioned as a charming piece of green space that would serve as a downtown magnet for middle-class residents and visitors, and its old-fashioned motif was specifically designed to serve as a key element of the city’s emerging “Old Town” district.

Before the creation of Naftzger Park, the block bounded by Douglas, St. Francis, William, and the railroad tracks contained many establishments that city leaders believed were detrimental to progress downtown. So between 1976 and 1977, the Wichita Urban Renewal Agency acquired every property on the block. Many of these properties were demolished to make way for Naftzger Park. But the buildings that were not immediately leveled were nevertheless owned by the city. Thus, when Naftzger Park was constructed, every square inch was built on publicly owned land.

However, the physical boundaries of the new park did extend over the borders of individual parcels of city-owned land. Just east of the park were two buildings that Wichita had purchased from the Salvation Army. City leaders thought that those buildings could be refurbished into new, fashionable properties that would front onto the new park and attract new middle-class residents. In photographs of the park’s opening, the Salvation Army buildings are clearly visible, still standing.

Ultimately, though, the Salvation Army buildings were deemed unsalvageable. The building facing Douglas Avenue was demolished in 1980, and the warehouse behind it was destroyed in a massive fire later that year. Not wanting to contend with the difficulty of figuring out what to do with those now-vacant properties, the city sold the former Salvation Army parcels—which by this point included portions of Naftzger Park—to private owners in 1981. In fact, after investing over $550,000 in those parcels in 1977, Wichita sold them four years later for $186,500. Within a matter of months, that land had been turned into the parking lot that sat east of Naftzger Park for over three decades.

As a result, small areas on the eastern edge of the park did, indeed, sit on privately owned land. But it was not because the park was built on private land; instead, it was because Wichita sold parts of its own public park to private owners for far less than it had paid for the land just a few years earlier.

Knowing this, in 1985 the then-owner of the lot to the east of Naftzger Park granted an easement to the Wichita Board of Park Commissioners to make use of the pieces of private property that the park occupied, as well as the Douglas street front, for the purpose of erecting a new brick and iron fence. Through all of the property transfers that took place in the ensuing decades, that easement was never terminated, and the public’s right to use that space was never challenged. Although portions of the park did occupy some private land, it was private land that had for decades been officially loaned to the city to put toward the public goals of recreation and urban beautification. At least, that was the case until the new development team decided that it wanted that land back for the new “Spaghetti Works District,” at which point the easement was terminated in 2018.

When city officials argue that destroying and rebuilding Naftzger Park was necessary, in part, because their predecessors mistakenly built the public park on private land, they are not being truthful. Among other questions surrounding the demolition of that important public space, then, Wichitans deserve to know why their leaders were so eager to relinquish the public access to this land that they had been entitled to for decades.

Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.