Downtown Development Turns Wichita Into a Destination City

Working from an ambitious development plan, private and public groups in Wichita are partnering to bring new residential, retail and commercial spaces downtown in record numbers.

Gary Wollenhaupt
On Monday, December 30, 2013 - 06:00

Jeff Fluhr has a clear vision of what Wichita will be in the next few years – and he’s doing everything he can to make that a reality.

He sees more downtown residents, some 8- to10-story mixed-use buildings, more restaurants and shops, and a fully connected, walkable downtown. He imagines more public art. A new public library. In short, a vibrant city tuned into the needs and dreams of its citizens.

“Wichita is a great city with a lot to offer,” says Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, which coordinates much of downtown’s booming growth. “Because of what the private sector is willing to do and the public sector is willing to partner on, great things are happening here.”

Fluhr points to nearly $100 million in development projects completed in 2012, and the initiation of another $112 million in projects.

The $200 million INTRUST Bank Arena, built in 2010, helped set the stage for much of the revitalization happening downtown. Since its opening several years ago, the arena has brought more than 70 businesses downtown and helped attract $194 in private investment and $39 million in public investment. In 2012 alone, concerts, entertainment and sports events at the arena brought 385,000 people to Wichita's downtown districts.

Ongoing Residential, Commercial Development

Also leading the way is downtown residential development. Since the launch of Wichita’s 20-year Project Downtown development plan in 2012, 160 residential units have been built and absorbed in the downtown area, with another 500 units coming online in the next 18 months. Contemporary spaces, like the Player Piano Lofts and Zelman Lofts, are popular with the growing population of younger urban dwellers. The Lux is repurposing a building from the 1950s into stylish apartments and first- and second-floor retail space.

Major nonresidential projects recently completed include the dramatic new $27 million Robert D. Love YMCA building and the Ambassador Hotel Wichita, which joins a new urban plaza and 500-space parking garage on Block One, where the Kansas Leadership Center was recently completed. Also bringing new life to Douglas Avenue, one of the city's main downtown thoroughfares, will be a streetscape project with pedestrian-friendly features.

Hospitality Flourishes

“The hospitality market has also been especially strong,” Fluhr says. “The new Fairfield Inn, the revamped Drury Plaza and the Ambassador are all doing very well and serving as catalysts for other projects.”

Other successes in the city's hospitality market include the Hyatt Regency on the riverfront, the Wichita Marriott and the Hotel at WaterWalk.

Fluhr credits Wichita’s successful downtown redevelopment to its foundation in a clear understanding of the city’s economy and “the local DNA.”

“We are can-do people who set their sights on something and then do it,” he says. “If you say, 'Here’s what we want to do, here is the economic story, and here is where it can take us,' this community will rally behind it. It’s quite amazing.”

Old Town, WaterWalk Draw Development

Popular Old Town, with its quaint 18th-century buildings and brick-lined streets, offers an eclectic mix of restaurants, clubs, galleries, shops and entertainment venues. It has seen a growing number of lofts, apartments and chic condos. WaterWalk, a $100 million mixed-use development along the Arkansas River, also offers shops, luxury housing, year-round arts events, concerts and celebrations at WaterWalk Place, the Hotel at WaterWalk and the Fairfield Inn & Suites.

The spectacular Fountains at WaterWalk provide an elaborate water, music and light show. And Waterfront, another mixed-use development on 25 lakefront acres on the east side of town, will welcome the city’s first Bread and Circus grocery store, operated by Whole Foods Market, in 2014.

Coming up in the next few years is a welcome renovation of Wichita’s historic Union Station into a $20 to $30 million office, restaurant and shopping complex.

“It’s a historic iconic landmark here, and we want to repurpose it for the next generation of users,” says Gary Oborny, chairman and CEO of Occidental Management Inc., the owner and developer of the property. “This will extend the downtown entertainment area even further, making it even more viable.”

More and more businesses are drawn to downtown’s growing excitement – at least a dozen every month, Fluhr says.

Howerton+White advertising agency has been downtown since 2004, renovating its vintage building to include a sheet metal slide for quick transport (and attitude adjustment) from the second to the first floor. The company wouldn’t have its “creative playground” anywhere else.

“When we located here, you didn’t see many people downtown,” says Nicole Howerton, president and cocreative director. “But now you see more people on the streets, storefronts are getting full, people are living here. There’s an energy coming back to our downtown, and it’s very exciting to be a part of that.”


Gary Wollenhaupt is a freelance writer covering economic development, travel, technology and green home building.