There has been much talk of late about how Wichita is losing its “commons.” That’s not the word usually used, to be sure. Instead, when Wichitans mourn Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, express frustration at the closing of the Palace Theater or watch with concern the changes at Naftzger Park, they talk about how these were sites of fond memories, how they found and strengthened friendships at and through them, how in these places people could come together, interact, learn, engage in commerce and have fun. To see them change or close is felt as a loss of something once commonly held, but perhaps no longer.
In a society where private property is basic to public life, the language of the commons is rare. Still, it’s not just public parks, Riverfest, open-source software or the Ogallala Aquifer that can be considered “common” possessions. There are ways to describe those places, events and things — including those which exist through privately owned businesses — that people lovingly organize their lives around, and thus sometimes feel a claim to. But when claimants conflict, owners regularly hold all the cards (as the noble but thus-far failed attempts to keep the Starlite Drive-In alive demonstrate).
Of course, private ownership doesn’t always close off common resources and opportunities. Many owners build their businesses in ways that maximize openness to the public (consider Wichita’s independent bookstores), and the mingling of private investment with public goods is sometimes necessary. But still, a city that cares about its quality of life must attend to how certain business proposals and development decisions can have unexpectedly negative impacts on the commons, and, when necessary, be willing to use creative means to limit those effects.
Soon, the City Council will have the opportunity to weigh in on a private decision with potential commons-harmful consequences: the fate of the building on Douglas that for a decade housed Mead’s Corner, a beloved coffeehouse ministry.
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Mead’s was as good an example of a business that was also a commons as you can imagine. Unfortunately, it was forced to close when the property owner raised rents higher than First United Methodist could pay. When a local businesswoman developed plans to continue the coffee tradition in that location, it turned out that ownership of the building had changed, and the new owner — a development company which has been a driving force in the controversial redesign of Naftzger Park, just a block away — put that plan aside.
Now the proposal is to raze the building and construct a four-story commercial and residential complex in its place. Everyone likes new construction, right? Except the Historic Preservation Board has voted against the proposal, citing the disruption it would pose to the architectural integrity of the East Douglas Historic district. The Council can go ahead and give approval (which would include a property tax break to the developer and a community improvement district sales tax to help defray costs) anyway, but I hope they don’t — not, at least, without some commitments from the developers in question.
You can’t bring back Mead’s, of course. When common places are lost, they usually don’t return; instead, people organize their lives otherwise, and make different memories. But the cost of such changes can be large. So one should, I think, use whatever means available — and a historic preservation board is certainly one such — to slow things down and impress upon owners just how needed, how rare, and how worthy of public support the common spaces they legally possess truly are. If a developer is more interested in rapid growth than commons-tending, well, that’s their choice, but it shouldn’t be one that gets an easy pass from those who represent us all.
Dr. Russell Fox is a political science professor at Friends University.