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Sidelined By The Pandemic, Work On A Plan For Wichita's Riverfront Could Resume This Year

Olin and Populous
A rendering of the recommended plan for Wichita's downtown riverfront was released last year.

One year ago this week, hundreds of people gathered on the Newman University campus for the "big reveal" of a new plan to redevelop Wichita’s downtown riverfront.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW/File photo
KMUW/File photo
A crowd watches a presentation on the new Riverfront Legacy Master Plan last January. Not long after, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the U.S.

The international design firm Populous promised a "bold vision" for what the east bank of the river might look like: The billion-dollar Riverfront Legacy Master Plan contained 17 major projects, including a new performing arts center and a new convention center. There would be 12 acres of green space, and a pedestrian bridge to connect the east bank to the new baseball stadium and other development on the west bank.

A year later, the downtown riverfront remains unchanged.

Six days after the unveiling, the first COVID-19 case in the United States was confirmed. The pandemic that followed devastated the Wichita economy.

Nine months of work by coalition members who helped develop the plan — at a cost of about $700,000 in public and private funds — was lost amid concerns about the community’s health and layoffs in the aviation industry.

"We know we've lost momentum," said Shelly Prichard, president and CEO of the Wichita Community Foundation and a member of the coalition.

But, she added, "I have every confidence that Wichitans will be ready for this discussion again."

The big question is when. The pandemic continues to rage, even as the first phase of vaccinations began this month.

The city’s unemployment rate is nearly 8%, double a year ago.

And one of the plan’s most contentious issues — knocking down Century II — remains.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW/File photo
KMUW/File photo
A view of the east bank of the Arkansas River.

City Council member Brandon Johnson was the city’s representative on the coalition. He said fixing the Wichita economy is the city's top priority, but he wants discussions about the riverfront plan to resume this year.

"For me, the quicker we can get to this in … a way that's not economically risky, the better for Wichita," Johnson said. "Because if we have a brand new riverfront in the next three to four years, and the economy overall here and around here is starting to do better, we've already laid the groundwork."

Prichard agrees.

"Number one right now, and I think in everybody's world, is people's health and then the economy, and probably those two things really work in tandem," she said. "And then we'll work on those things.

"But … we're certainly not going to abandon this discussion."

Related: The Range talks to coalition member Darryl Kelly about the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan

People opposed to the original plan aren’t as anxious to revisit it. They argue the coalition’s community engagement process lacked transparency and led to a predetermined outcome — namely knocking down Century II.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW/File photo
KMUW/File photo
A $1 billion plan for Wichita's riverfront includes tearing down Century II.

John Todd describes himself as a community activist. He helped gather 17,000 signatures in a petition drive to force a public vote on the future of Century II. A judge later dismissed the petition after the city challenged it in court.

Todd said the group is not opposed to progress, but insists on good government.

"I don't believe that the Save Century II people are trying to impede anything, but we're interested in transparency," he said. "And since they are city-owned buildings, will likely involve city incentives and financing of some sort — like they did when they voted to build the first Century II — I believe that [people] have the right to have a say in these things.

"I don't think that's unfair."

Todd said he would like to see the planning process start over, with more involvement from those interested in preserving and repurposing Century II and the former library building next door. And he would like a public vote on the final plan.

"So if you want to get support for the people, let them be a part of voting for these kinds of things," he said.

One unforeseen benefit to the delay is that it has allowed the coalition to take a step back and see what lasting changes the pandemic might make. The convention industry could be altered permanently, which means a traditional convention space might not make sense.

And COVID-19 has modified how people work and companies operate. Prichard said that could be incorporated into the plan.

"Most offices have proven that you can work in a different place," she said. "And so maybe there's a whole outdoor work-from-home … in the riverfront area kind of deal that I think COVID has helped us see."

"I think this has really shifted, and we can be really open-minded about what kind of space that can be."

The coalition has not formally met since the process was put on hold last year, although some members have had informal discussions. And there is no official timeline for it to start meeting again, although spokesman Evan Rosell thinks that will happen this year.

Prichard also is confident that the work of engaging the community to develop a plan will resume in 2021.

She says a vibrant downtown is too important for Wichita’s future, especially when it comes to attracting young talent and keeping talent already here.

"There's just certain things Wichita’s going to have to keep doing, and activating that river is one of them," she said. "Maybe it looks different than it did last January, but I think there's many of us in town … committed to continue that work.

"And I think the citizens and the economy are going to demand it."

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.