About 175 yellow sticky notes rested on a smartboard. The more than 100 Wichitans who scribbled thoughts Thursday evening had been heard on the topic of Naftzger Park.
“Trees,” “Great spot for photography” and “Already beautiful” were common threads on the Strengths half of the board.
“No restrooms,” “Not maintained well” and “Hard to see in” were common on the Weaknesses side.
There was a thread found on both sides, a strength and a weakness, and it reaches the heart of the challenge for city leaders as they decide how to spend up to $1.5 million on the park.
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Homeless Wichitans have taken up residence in the 1-acre park at Douglas and St. Francis for decades. It’s a centralized location that’s on one of the city’s main downtown thoroughfares, yet the homeless go largely unnoticed because of the closed-off feel of the park.
Now the city has Tax Incremental Finance district money to use to spruce up – or majorly renovate – Naftzger. The money is there seven months before the NCAA basketball tournament holds first- and second-round games a block south at Intrust Bank Arena.
More than 15,000 fans, national media and supporters of eight teams will be at Intrust . Many will spend time in Old Town beforehand for lunch, dinner and a cocktail or two. Then they’ll walk through an improved Douglas Street underpass toward the arena – and past or through Naftzger Park.
The city will decide what those fans will see. If completed in time, it undoubtedly will be a sharp-looking park. SVA/Balsley Landscape Architects boasts of innovative park designs across the country, especially in small areas such as Naftzger.
The homeless question, though, is beyond the purview of architects. It’s not beyond the city’s.
Jon Gordon, pastor for community and outreach at downtown’s City Life Church, recently spent three nights in the park with homeless patrons. He looked around the crowded meeting Thursday and realized there were only two homeless men in attendance.
Gordon thinks a newly designed park is a good idea – as long as part of it is designed with the homeless in mind.
“If you move the homeless,” he said, “frustrations are going to move with them.”
Besides, Gordon said, there’s a reason that Naftzger has been home to homeless Wichitans for so many years. It’s downtown, not far from services for the homeless. It’s public. It has shade and benches.
Short of building shelters specifically for the homeless population, moving the homeless out of Naftzger would only move them to another park, such as Riverside.
Gordon pleaded Thursday with architects and city leaders to get homeless residents’ input. City Council member Lavonta Williams, whose District 1 includes Naftzger, said it was a top priority.
It was an emotional meeting, partially because a preliminary design released last month showed the park’s trees, rocks and other amenities removed in favor of mostly artificial turf.
Park and Recreation director Troy Houtman said the preliminary drawing was “a placeholder” and no design decisions had been made.
Preliminary or not, placeholder or not, the drawing woke up many Wichitans who came to the meeting enraged at the thought of an artificial-turf park. Two representatives of New York City-based SWA/Balsley might have thought they were back home given the pointed distrust from the audience.
Still, it was a good starting point. There were millennials and seniors, downtown residents and those who live in Wichita’s outskirts, homeless advocates and those would like them moved elsewhere. They came together to be heard.
Park designers have a tough challenge. Create a park that’s inviting for all Wichitans and makes space that encourages public events – all while acknowledging the homeless who spend time there and designing a portion of the park for them.
It’s a needed compromise. Naftzger Park has been a workable space for the homeless for too long to let progress get in the way. A design that keeps them in mind is the only way to make it work.