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Chase Billingham: Why the rush on Naftzger Park?

Naftzger Park.
Naftzger Park. File photo

When New York landscape architect Thomas Balsley presented his proposed designs for a refurbished Naftzger Park to a concerned crowd last week, he used one word to describe his vision for this important public space in downtown Wichita: iconic.

He’s right. That park deserves to be a truly iconic space for Wichita. And, indeed, it already is. In their effort to implement a rapid overhaul of the park for the NCAA Tournament next March, city leaders are rushing through a plan to bulldoze an area that is indelibly bound up with the history and character of the city. It is true that Naftzger Park deserves a makeover, but as we go through this process, it would be useful for city leaders to be reminded of the park’s history and its status as an iconic piece of Wichita.

The idea for a park at the southeast corner of Douglas and St. Francis was originally floated as part of a plan approved in 1972, after five years of study. That plan marked the first time that the idea of creating an “Old Town” area of Wichita was formally proposed. The park, with its Victorian — that is, “old” — theme, was envisioned as a cornerstone of Old Town.

Naftzger Park was originally designed by a Wichita architecture firm, landscaped by a Wichita designer, and decorated with art from a Wichita sculptor and a gazebo built by a local architect. The whole thing was made possible by a bequest from the Naftzger family, who for generations have served Wichita as prominent bankers and philanthropists. From original conception to final unveiling in 1979, Naftzger Park was a project seven years in the making, involving Wichitans from all walks of life.

Compare that to the current development process. It was in May that the city approved the expansion of a TIF district to fund park renovations in anticipation of the tournament. It was four weeks ago that Balsley was hired. Within two weeks, he had presented his quickly drawn designs for what Naftzger Park might look like in perpetuity. The city plans to start tearing out the existing park next month, and the park’s redesign is supposed to be completed before the tournament next March.

From approval to completion, then, the whole slapdash effort to demolish and remake Naftzger Park will take about 10 months. No serious studies have been made of park usage, pedestrian patterns, the impact of redevelopment on the city’s homeless population, or the park’s position within the broader sociohistorical context of downtown Wichita. By April, the tournament will be over and Balsley will have returned to New York, but Wichitans will have to live with this park for decades. Are we really comfortable with such a rushed process to recreate an iconic part of our city’s core?

Buried in Naftzger Park is a time capsule that is supposed to be opened in 2029. Along with other items, it contains letters that schoolchildren wrote in 1979 about what they thought Wichita would be like 50 years later. How many of those children envisioned a city so impatient to enact “progress” that it hastened the destruction of the very park where those letters are buried to impress the NCAA?

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

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