Cargill’s decision last year to build a new $60 million headquarters in downtown Wichita was a benchmark moment for the city’s core, says Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership.
But it’s just one of many that have had a significant impact on the area over the last decade. Fluhr thinks all those that came before helped Cargill choose downtown.
“They were looking to place themselves in an area with a high degree of vibrancy,” he said. “Putting themselves in the hub was important to them.”
Over the past decade, about $1 billion — 60 percent of that from private sources — has been invested in the one-square-mile area, according to the Downtown Development Corp., part of the organization headed by Fluhr. There’s been a mix of new construction and redevelopment of old buildings and a surge in residents moving to the area, businesses operating there and the amenities offered.
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The progress hasn’t been without hiccups. A pair of out-of-town developers known as the “Minnesota Guys” at one time controlled about 1 million square feet of downtown space, promoting projects that never came to fruition. The city’s economy recovered slower than the nation’s.
But more than 50 projects have been completed since the adoption of the Project Downtown plan in 2010. Two dozen more are underway or planned.
Fluhr says a couple of factors account for the success, starting with community buy-in to create the plan. “You really had an alignment of the public sector and private sector to see something happen.”
The plan focused on meeting pent-up demands of the market rather than a “wish list” of attractive, well-intended ideas, he said. That helped attract private investment.
“It really is making the unknown known,” Fluhr said. “The private sector wants predictability.”
Demographic changes have also played a role. Millennials — described as the generations born between the early 1980s and early 2000s — are increasingly in a position to make or dictate business decisions. “Their thought process is urban,” Fluhr said. “Part of their brand is where they’re at. They want that cool space.”
Scott Knebel, the city of Wichita’s point person on downtown development, likes the demographics explanation, too. “There’s some demographic changes in the country that are leading younger people as well as people reaching retirement age to want an urban lifestyle … a multifamily home where they can walk to things.”
But they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do it here, he added, “absent the kind of vision and investment that’s been made in the downtown area — the improvements to the river, Old Town, the streets.”
Here are snapshots of some key improvements:
Block One: Block One — a stretch of Douglas between Broadway and Topeka — is a prime example of how public and private funds have been used together, Fluhr said. On the north side of the block, a private developer turned the former Union National Bank building into The Ambassador Hotel, a 117-room boutique hotel, at a cost of some $22 million. The Kansas Health Foundation, located next door, built an $8.6 million expansion for the Kansas Leadership Center. The city, meanwhile, spent $7.57 million on a 300-stall parking garage to be used by both on the south side of the block. The block “went from 90 percent dormant to 90 percent occupied,” Fluhr said.
Union Station: The first phase of the Union Station project — actually a redevelopment of three buildings — is complete, with restaurants, offices, a salon and coffee shop filling the old Rock Island Depot and Grand and Patrick Hotel building. Developer Gary Oborny is now in the process of finding tenants for the terminal and freight buildings, as well as new food kiosks that have been constructed outside. The stately old train station, now fronted by a new plaza along Douglas, is seen as a key connector between Old Town and the rest of downtown, including Intrust Bank Arena.
CorTen Building: Developers transformed an office building that wasn’t going to win any architectural awards into one that just might at Market and Douglas. The building’s new name comes from the rusted steel material used to remodel its exterior, which will take on an attractive patina with age. The remodel included adding windows to the east side, which looks onto Reflection Square park with its soda fountain sculpture. The building, commanding some of the highest rates in the market, attracted some new commercial tenants to downtown. It’s also an example of owners Michael Ramsey and Robert Eyster “cultivating” a tenant, the CBD design firm, in its move from the Zelman Building (which they also own) to a larger space in the CorTen Building, Fluhr said.
Zelman Building: The historic building at Douglas and St. Francis — which was divided into lofts, office space and retail space — epitomizes mixed-used development, one of the hottest trends in urban living because of the sense of energy it creates, Fluhr said. The LUX, an even bigger project by Ramsey and Eyster, is mixed-use as well, and it helped sell the idea to other developers that small living units are viable in Wichita.
William and Market parking garage: Garages may not be the sexiest aspect of development, but they are a key component for any employer locating in the area. The city took over the former Macy’s Corp. parking garage in 2013 and reopened it last year, spending more than $9 million to repair it. The owners of the High Touch technology services company said its ability to stay downtown depended on the nine-story, 435-space garage. The owners of vacant properties in the area said it would help them develop those spaces as well.
Robert D. Love Downtown YMCA: The YMCA’s sparkling $23 million, 110,000-square-foot building opened in 2012. It quickly proved a hit, drawing more than twice as many users a day as the facility it replaced and complementing three other nearby landmarks — the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Sedgwick County Courthouse and U.S. Courthouse.
Cargill: The agribusiness giant’s announcement in December that it would build a new complex on Douglas just across from Old Town for its protein operations is the latest major good news for downtown. The four-story, 188,000-square-foot building will have room for up to 950 employees. It will be built on the current site of the Wichita Eagle, which is moving to Old Town Square.
Although other sites were considered, company officials said employees wanted the business to be located in a place where they can live, work and play. Fluhr said certain features of the design, like an outdoor terrace and ground-level windows in conference rooms, will help the building blend into downtown and vice versa.