Category Archives: Downtown Wichita

DCF’s ‘good move’ not so good for downtown

finneybldgMany are still shaking their heads over the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ decision, expected for a year and finally confirmed last week, to exit the Finney State Office Building and move to 2601 S. Oliver in 2015. That will mean 550 fewer workers in a downtown that needs more. DCF will no longer be centrally located and accessible via multiple bus routes. The state will be paying $13 a square foot at the facility the U.S. Postal Service is vacating, instead of the $6 the city offered the Brownback administration to try to keep state agencies and their more than 700 employees in the Finney building. Yes, the place badly needs work, but the city had offered to do a $6 million renovation as well. Yet a DCF spokeswoman characterized this as an “all-around good move.”

Union Station TIF deserves public hearing

unionstation1Though Wichita’s downtown reinvention is ongoing, bringing more people and activity to the city’s core, Union Station remains on the to-redo list. The Wichita City Council should take the opportunity on Tuesday’s agenda to set an Oct. 7 public hearing for the establishment of a tax increment financing district to help get the historic property’s overhaul underway. Old urban train stations have proved challenging to redevelop nationally. But owner Gary Oborny’s $54 million plan seems realistic – 275,000 square feet of historic renovation and new construction mixing retail, restaurants and office space. It’s the kind of development needed to further enliven the key corridor between Old Town and the Intrust Bank Arena. And the pay-as-you-go basis for the TIF-funded improvements means “the city assumes no financial risk for the project,” according to city documents. One political aside: Within 30 days of any council approval of the TIF district, the Sedgwick County Commission as well as the USD 259 school board would be asked to approve or veto it. The time frame presumably would dodge any hard-right turn the County Commission might take in the November general election, because those elected won’t be sworn in until January.

So much for 20-year partnership on Finney building

finneybldgThe Brownback administration’s frustrating decision to bail on the city-owned Finney State Office Building is moving forward, though the lease doesn’t expire until Sept. 30. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services will join the Kansas Corporation Commission, the Kansas Department of Labor and the state Board of Indigents’ Defense Services in the former Ryan International Airlines building at 266 N. Main while the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Human Rights Commission will go to the Garvey Center – which at least keeps these agencies downtown. Meanwhile, the Kansas Department for Children and Families reportedly wants a 96,000-square-feet site the U.S. Postal Service is closing at 2601 S. Oliver. That means DCF’s more than 550 employees will no longer be working downtown and the agency’s low-income clients will have to adjust to an office that isn’t centrally located or accessible by multiple bus routes. Mayor Carl Brewer lobbied the governor personally to try to save the 20-year city-state partnership by offering a $6 million renovation and a deep discount on rent. He told The Eagle editorial board last week that “we’re disappointed at the fact that they chose not to stay” at the Finney building and said the goal now was to keep it from sitting empty.

No more limbo for old Macy’s parking garage

macysgarageDowntown revitalization took another crucial step forward with the Wichita City Council’s approval last week of a $6.85 million plan to repair and reopen the old Macy’s parking garage at Market and William. Getting the deteriorating structure out of legal and financial limbo and back in service will boost the downtown community, and be a plus as state agencies exit the Finney State Office Building and the city seeks a new future for the property.

Tear gas in Old Town targeted usual trouble spot

After all the measures by the Wichita Police Department and City Hall to address the shootings and other trouble in Old Town, including recent ordinance changes, it was discouraging to see things reach the point that police used tear gas to disperse a crowd. In another incident, a confrontation between a nightclub patron and a bouncer ended with the patron’s hospitalization for a broken nose and multiple lacerations. Four new surveillance cameras, paid for by business owners, should help police efforts in the nightlife district. But it’s important to note that Old Town’s problems continue to involve mostly the 200 block of North Mosley and the early morning hours when bars close – meaning the public safety problem, though serious, is also isolated.

Downtown Wichita events show drawing power

Wichita’s reputation for being a hard place to draw a crowd is at serious risk. Exploration Place’s exhibition of “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination” attracted more than 57,000 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day, behind only its earlier “Titanic” and “Our Body: The Universe Within” exhibitions. And Theatre League’s four-week run of Disney’s “The Lion King” at Century II during September made Wichita history for drawing 60,000 people and grossing $4.3 million (compared with the 45,000 who saw the 24-performance run of “Wicked” in 2009). Meanwhile, the Intrust Bank Arena came in 33rd in the country and 67th in the world in third-quarter year-to-date attendance on Pollstar’s ranking of Top 200 Arena Venues, with nearly 125,000 tickets sold. Such numbers demonstrate the size and buying power of the south-central Kansas audience, when presented with what it sees as a compelling reason to come and spend money in downtown Wichita on a traveling show.

Old Town working on its security

The absence of gunfire in Old Town has been a welcome change after four straight weekends of reports of shots fired. Police are treating the trouble with the seriousness it deserves and stepping up their presence in the nightlife district. Their attention is especially focused on the key hours of 12:30 to 2:30 a.m. on weekends, around the time the bars close, and in one block of North Mosley. Police, city officials and business owners will hold another meeting Friday to work toward a long-term plan for Old Town security. Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz told The Eagle editorial board Thursday that changes in how police enforce the curfew, address loitering and handle traffic may be part of the strategy, along with some “tweaking” of ordinances. But he also stressed that “statistically, nothing has changed over the last two or three years in Old Town – it’s a safe area” – but that “we have some very specific times and geography to talk about.” A poll by SurveyUSA, sponsored by KWCH, Channel 12, showed why it’s important to be aggressive about the issue: 82 percent of those polled Tuesday said they’d heard of the string of shootings, and 62 percent said they’d be less likely to visit Old Town because of them. According to KAKE, Channel 10, the shootings also have inspired a tasteless T-shirt.

Interest in downtown housing is encouraging

It’s encouraging that three successful Wichita developers are all considering apartment projects downtown. Jack DeBoer, Steve Clark and Colby Sandlian see downtown’s potential and recognize the importance of getting more people living and working there. “Downtown needs more housing, plain and simple,” DeBoer told The Eagle. “If we get more people downtown, the rest of it will follow, and it will not happen in the reverse.” One concern is Clark’s contention that the city needs to tear down old buildings. Though it can be easier to build from scratch, and there may be some buildings that aren’t worth saving, the city needs to be careful not to lose the character and historic value of downtown.

Strong start to year at arena’s box office

Congratulations to Intrust Bank Arena for ranking 19th among U.S. arenas for first-quarter ticket sales and 43rd worldwide, according to Pollstar magazine. The arena’s March 16 concert by Jason Aldean, with a crowd of 13,882, also came in at No. 5 in the world for arenas with 10,001-15,000 seats between March 7 and April 4, as ranked by Venues Today’s Hot Tickets report. The strong start in 2012 for Sedgwick County’s 2-year-old downtown arena is particularly encouraging given the rough patches of 2011. Now, if only the arena’s SMG management team could coax promoters into bringing more diverse acts to Wichita. For example, Kansas City’s Sprint Center (seventh worldwide in the first quarter) hosted Drake and Radiohead last month, and the upcoming acts at Tulsa’s BOK Center (37th worldwide) include the Black Keys, Van Halen, LMFAO and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Important wins for Romney; hotel tax loses big

Tuesday was a big election day. Mitt Romney won easily in Arizona and eked out a win in Michigan. That doesn’t leave the race any more settled heading toward Super Tuesday. But if Romney had lost in Michigan, his home state, his candidacy would have been in trouble. Wichita voters also overwhelmingly rejected a city-approved incentive that would have allowed a new downtown hotel to keep a portion of the city’s guest tax that it collects. John Todd, one of the leaders of the group opposing the incentive, said of the vote result: “I think the citizens are waking up. They’re tired of giving away incentives to developers – not only for downtown but all over town.”

Historic credit fuels redevelopment, creates jobs

The historic preservation tax credit has been pivotal in redeveloping downtown Wichita, including such projects as the Drury Broadview Hotel. Most of these projects wouldn’t have happened without the tax credit, because restoring historic buildings can be cost-prohibitive. And those renovations created jobs and increased property values. Since 2001, the tax-credit program has created 15,000 jobs and $700 million in investment in Kansas, according to supporters. That’s why the city of Wichita and others testified last week against Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to eliminate the credit. Lowering overall taxes, as Brownback proposes, won’t save historic buildings or fuel downtown redevelopment the way the targeted credit has.

Time needed to decipher hotel ballot question

Wichita City Council members had hoped to get the public vote on the Ambassador Hotel project over with as soon as possible. But there is nothing wrong with giving the community the time to understand and debate the issue, which is whether the developers should get 75 percent of the guest tax to be paid by the hotel’s guests over 15 years, estimated to be $2.25 million. As the Feb. 28 date allows Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman to get ready for the election, the first under the state’s new voter-ID law, it will allow voters to familiarize themselves with the arguments and decipher the convoluted and confusing ballot question. Worded to meet legal requirements, the ballot question is: Shall Charter Ordinance 216 entitled: ‘A charter ordinance amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax’ take effect?” For supporters of a vibrant downtown, the answer will be “yes.”

At 20, Old Town district anything but old, empty

Old-timers know that Wichita’s Old Town wasn’t born in a day or even a year, making the past few days’ celebration of its 20th anniversary more random than specific. In any case, it’s now impossible to imagine a Wichita without the brick-paved entertainment district at its heart. Pioneering individuals such as David Burk, Rich Vliet, David Norris, Mary Wright and Gary Streepy, as well as former Mayor Bob Knight, deserve credit for making Old Town both the fun, creative place it is today and a galvanizing force for downtown development going forward. Of course, the $30.2 million that Wichita and Sedgwick County have invested in Old Town projects — not even counting the nearby Intrust Bank Arena — have been essential. And if not for the Gilbert and Mosley environmental cleanup deal, Old Town now might be just an old, empty part of town.

Douglas Place already a catalyst

The Wichita City Council’s 5-1 approval Tuesday of the big incentive package for the Douglas Place boutique hotel at Douglas and Broadway was sweetened by the related news of another important transformation in the works nearby — turning the former Henry’s building at Broadway and William into retail and restaurant space. That’s just the sort of synergy that Project Downtown anticipated. The 50 citizens who argued against public financing and tax breaks deserve credit for more than showing up at City Hall on a Tuesday morning: Their detailed critique of the plan raised some worthy questions, including whether council members should recuse themselves from voting on public-private partnerships with developers who have contributed to their campaigns. But in the end, the prevailing argument made to the council was the one from Wichita attorney Dick Honeyman, who chairs the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “If no incentives were necessary, something would have happened there a long time ago. . . . The proposal before you will serve as a catalyst for additional development in the future. I hope you have another dozen of these proposals to vote on in the next five or six years.”

Will public hearing be meaningless?

The planned $30 million, 117-room Ambassador hotel at Douglas Place should give Project Downtown a real boost. But critics of the proposed letter of intent on today’s Wichita City Council agenda have a point: “Endorsing a letter of intent regarding a matter, and then later on holding a public hearing on the very same matter, reduces the public hearing to a meaningless exercise,” said Bob Weeks of the Wichita Liberty website. Even City Manager Robert Layton acknowledged, “It’s definitely not our normal order.” Even though the letter of intent will be nonbinding, it risks making the Sept. 13 public hearing on tax-increment financing seem like a pointless afterthought.

Good to see sites for sale

Wichita is on the right track in putting eight city-owned downtown lots on the market last week, labeling them “catalyst sites” for the implementation of the downtown master plan. City officials will need to be choosy about the preferred buyers to ensure the development is right for downtown and the plan — especially on prized sites along the river. But this is a crucial step that will attract private dollars to downtown’s reinvention, as it gets property off the city’s books and onto the tax rolls. Let the buying begin.

Downtown plan gets City Council’s blessing

wichitadowntownTo their credit, and to the whole area’s potential benefit, the Wichita City Council and Mayor Carl Brewer came together Tuesday to unanimously adopt “Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita” as an amendment to the city-county comprehensive plan. It’s been a long, long process, with lots of naysaying along the way. The Sedgwick County Commission must adopt the blueprint as well. But the council members know that this plan, crafted by Boston’s Goody Clancy firm, has the requisite elements for success. The real test will come soon, as businesses seize their roles and citizens see results.

Food market should boost downtown

grocerybagAn often-mentioned obstacle to downtown residential development is the lack of a nearby grocery store. But that could change thanks to the Kansas Department of Commerce’s approval Monday of $2.5 million in tax-exempt bonding authority for the Exchange Market & Deli, a Real Development project at Douglas and Market. The food market should help make downtown an even more desirable housing location.

Time to act on Coleman site

colemanbldgIf Sedgwick County commissioners approve spending $600,000 this week to buy the Coleman building at Second and St. Francis, a dangerous eyesore would make way for a parking lot to serve Intrust Bank Arena and Old Town. Hard as it will be to see the historic factory come down, the priority needs to be putting the building’s neighbors out of their misery and putting in something useful at a site limited by soil and groundwater pollution. As it is, the building does nothing to honor the Coleman Co.’s proud history, and only deters downtown’s reinvention.