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Kirk Seminoff: Open Streets ICT becomes Wichita’s instant hit

The first sign that Open Streets ICT was going to be special Sunday was square dancers alamande lefting to Earth Wind and Fire’s classic, “September.”

Don’t see that every day.

You also don’t see thousands of Wichitans biking and walking along Douglas Avenue, traveling a main thoroughfare in a way most have never traveled it.

The first Open Streets ICT – closing traffic through College Hill, Old Town, downtown and Delano to encourage activity and fitness – was a success.

It brought together a lot of the things we do well in Wichita. Block party, 5K race, bike ride, River Fest, food trucks and art festival laid out over 4.1 miles.

It was free, too – always a good selling point.

Troy Houtman covered the route a few times on his bike with a critical eye.

Houtman is the city’s Park and Recreation director. (Don’t feed him a Ron Swanson “Parks and Recreation” line, he’s heard them all.) Open Streets ICT was his baby, and he was nervous when he didn’t see many people at the noon opening ceremony.

“Then 15 minutes later,” he said, “it seemed like the streets just flooded with people.”

Houtman estimates 18,000 to 20,000 people participated. His lasting memory will be an elderly woman pushing her husband in a wheelchair down Douglas’ double-yellow stripe.

“I stopped and talked to them and gave them a T-shirt,” Houtman said. “They said they felt freedom going down the middle of Douglas in his wheelchair.”

It was that kind of liberating day. Restaurants were full, food trucks sold out, families got off their bikes to watch murals being painted. You could keep to yourself, meet friends or make new ones.

As usual with first-time events, improvements can be made. Some bicyclists went too fast in and out of pedestrian traffic (and get off my lawn!). Walkers sometimes veered into bike traffic.

Houtman expects to create “dismount zones” next year, where cyclists walk bikes in busy areas.

A problem Houtman enjoyed? “We finished at 4 and people weren’t leaving,” he said. “They wanted to stay. That’s one thing we’ll try to address next year, probably going an hour longer.”

Next year? Why can’t we do this again next month?

Well, hold on, Houtman said. Sunday took two years to plan, and though Act II won’t need as much, it will need sponsors and new money coming in. Open Streets received a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, and Houtman said the event cost $10,000 to $15,000, not including in-kind gifts.

A wrap-up meeting next week will go over Open Streets and start to look at next year.

“I think it can be an annual event for one or two more years,” Houtman said. “Then if the success is that powerful, we can explore how often.”

Douglas seemed like the perfect street. Few homeowners and apartment dwellers along the route were trapped by the closing, and the route’s hubs – College Hill Park, East High, Union Station, Kennedy Plaza and the West End – were natural stopping places.

Houtman said other streets may be an option. A few business owners along Douglas had reservations ahead of Sunday, but he hopes the turnout convinced them it’s worth it.

“It really brought east and west, north and south together,” Houtman said. “Everybody was there. The diversity with all kinds of people was just great.”

It’s an event that will grow and remain special. Wichitans have shown their street smarts.