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Consultants surprised at downtown progress

Tuesday, February 5 2013 12:00 AM

Consultants surprised at downtown progress

Written by: Jerry Siebenmark, The Wichita Eagle 

It’s been two years since David Dixon was last in downtown Wichita.

“It’s literally impressive,” he said of the progress on downtown revitalization since he was last in town.

Dixon, principal in charge of planning and design for Boston-based Goody Clancy, the city’s consultant to the downtown master plan, was one of several downtown and city officials meeting with the Eagle’s editorial board on Monday.

They were there to talk about the progress of downtown development since the Wichita City Council adopted the downtown master plan in December 2010.

Jeff Fluhr, president of Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said that in 2012 there were $10.7 million in public projects completed, including the fountains at WaterWalk, the parking garage in the Block One redevelopment project and the streetscape of St. Francis between Douglas and Second streets. In that same period, Fluhr said, $84.1 million in 17 downtown projects started by the private sector were completed, including the Ambassador Hotel, the Robert D. Love Downtown YMCA and the Renfro apartments.

The information is part of the 2012 Project Downtown annual report that Fluhr will present at the city council meeting on Tuesday.

Dixon and Benjamin Carlson, an associate at Goody Clancy, said one of the more striking aspects of the projects occurring downtown was the amount of residential development in the area, and they referred to apartment projects such as the Lux at First and Market, in the former KG&E headquarters .

More surprising, Dixon said, are plans for new residential construction in the downtown area, such as Builders Inc.’s Corner 365, a 36-unit apartment building that the owner of the Garvey Center is constructing at First and Waco. Dixon said it’s a milestone of sorts when a downtown can attract new residential construction. In addition to Corner 365, the four-acre WaterWalk Apartments project at the southwest corner of Maple and McLean also will be new construction.

“It means downtown has reached the threshold that the market doesn’t need historic tax credits,” Dixon said. “When they’ll pay the costs of new construction, that means the market has arrived.

“I’m surprised it’s happened this soon, to be direct,” he said.

Dixon added with the pace of residential projects downtown, he thinks there could easily be 5,000 people living there in the next five years. Fluhr said he estimates the current number of downtown residents at about 3,000.

More downtown residents will help draw businesses that will fill in the parts of downtown slated for redevelopment with restaurants and, eventually, retailers. But they likely won’t be big-box retailers or the department stores that once filled many downtown Wichita buildings, Dixon and Carlson said. More likely they will be niche retailers as well as convenience stores. Perhaps, they said, even a supermarket will appear, once critical mass in downtown residential is achieved.

“There’s real interest (from retailers) when you hit a certain threshold,” Dixon said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said in the meeting that the progress on the execution of the downtown master plan is meeting his expectations. But, he added, downtown officials can’t let up because “I’ve told you before that we’re about 20 years behind” in revitalizing downtown.

But “it’s happening, and I think it’s surprising a lot of people in the community who never thought it would happen,” Brewer said.

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