DOWNTOWN: Years In the Making
A new, three-lane street has replaced the previous five-lane road. Mid-block crosswalks and an impressive archway help promote increased foot traffic on wider sidewalks complete with new streetlights. Eight pocket parks welcome pedestrians with seating areas and gathering spaces. Artwork, light features and sculptures of famous Topekans welcome longtime inhabitants and curious visitors alike.
But what you can see is only half of the project. What you can’t see is the new water main that replaced the 100-year-old one that had been there before, as well as an updated storm water infrastructure. Running under the street are new utility lines that service the 90-plus addresses on that stretch of road.
While these improvements along the avenue began taking shape this past year, the downtown Topeka makeover has been years in the making.
Searching for change
Topeka had been looking for decades at ways to revitalize the community and create real growth. The Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce sponsored numerous intercity visits to observe communities such as, Springfield, Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Des Moines, which had successfully rejuvenated their downtown spaces.
Scott Gales, president of Architect One, was part of the group who visited these communities. He said it quickly became apparent that Topeka was actually in a much better starting place than most of the cities they toured had been in initially.
“We just had this mental block that it couldn’t happen in Topeka,” Gales said. “As a group we recognized that we love living here. That we should have an amazing downtown because Topeka is a great place to live and work.”
Proponents for a revitalized downtown quickly came to realize that without a common vision in place, nothing would probably ever change. In stepped Heartland Visioning to help the community find its vision for Topeka. The organization held numerous community meetings to identify and prioritize areas that residents felt could be improved to make Topeka a better place to live and work. The overwhelming consensus: A vibrant downtown.
“A groundswell of enthusiasm followed those meetings,” said William Beteta, executive director of Heartland Visioning at the time. “People across the community, from different generations and professions, said ‘yes’ this is what we want.”
Unfortunately, enthusiasm alone wasn’t enough to move a project of this magnitude forward. So a year passed with no discernible progress.
That all changed after a 2008 strategic planning meeting when more than 100 people gathered to investigate various options to improve downtown Topeka. The group broke out into smaller workgroups, each tasked with a different issue to address. Scott Gales, Architect One; Mike Morse, Kansas Commercial Real Estate Services; Neil Dobler, Bartlett & West; William Beteta, Heartland Visioning; and Vince Frye, Downtown Topeka Inc. found themselves tasked with the issue of office space downtown.
They took about five minutes to talk about the lack of office space and decided nothing could be done about that problem until the larger issues of infrastructure and dying businesses were resolved. The first priority, to them it seemed, was the road.
From there, the conversation turned to “what if.”
What if we can convince the City to redo the street?
What would the road look like?
What if we did something fun with the road?
They discussed what they had seen in other communities and determined that every vibrant downtown they had encountered was focused around local restaurants and retail shops. Gales began drawing sketches on the back of napkins, and, by the end of the session, their presentation to the rest of the group outlined their idea for a downtown with a meandering avenue and a variety of gathering spaces.
“At the time, we didn’t really know what it meant, but we knew we were building excitement for transforming downtown,” Gales said.
Gales and Morse did dozens of presentations to organizations all across the community to present the ideas behind a revitalized downtown.
“How do you get others to come to Topeka to buy in, if you don’t buy in yourself?” they asked.
People started talking about the possibilities. Excitement began to grow, and then the city grabbed onto the idea, hiring a design firm to come up with a concept that included replacing the utilities under the street (some of it 80 years old).
The City knew it could help with the infrastructure, which came with a hefty price tag of almost $5 million, but that taxpayers weren’t going to be willing to pay another $2 million for sculptures and playground areas. So when it was presented to City Council, it didn’t pass. Gales said that was a devastating blow because several years had already gone into this effort.
A few days after the proposal had failed to pass a council vote, Gales received a call from Mayor Bill Bunten. Bunten, who was in his last year, told Gales, “I have decided I’m not going to retire without passing this. What is it going to take to get it done?” The group came back together and said, “Are we really going to let this die again?” The answer was a resounding NO! They knew the answer to their dilemma would have to come from the private sector. The City was ready to step up and do its part; now would private businesses come on board to make the vision of a revitalized downtown a reality? Gales said it was just a matter of asking for their help.
The formation of the Downtown Topeka Foundation facilitated a coalition that was responsible for raising private dollars. Over the next several months, they enlisted donations from numerous private companies who committed a staggering $3.4 million. Their investment would fund the proposed pocket parks and visual improvements above the street if the City would commit to updating the infrastructure as originally planned.
“At first we were asking the city to fund everything,” Dobler said. “Once people realized that the private sector needed to play a role as well, everything just seemed to come together.” Jim Colson, who had just come on board as City Manager, embraced the idea and pushed the City to go forward with the project.
Buying into the vision
Once plans for a renovated downtown began to come to fruition, local investors began to sit up and take notice. Suddenly, buildings that had been sitting empty on Kansas Avenue for decades were being snatched off the market.
“Local investors purchased more than 22 buildings in downtown Topeka in recent years,” said Vince Frye, president and CEO or Downtown Topeka Inc. “Many of the buildings are already being renovated into office space, but several of the buildings on South Kansas Avenue will be repurposed depending on how the downtown area continues to evolve.”
One of the local investors in the mix, Cody Foster, said he jumped on the opportunity to play a role in the success of downtown Topeka. A big-picture thinker, Foster recognized the importance of an anchor business that could serve as a catalyst to create even more growth downtown.
Foster’s anchor? A six-story, multimillion dollar boutique hotel occupying the four historic structures of 912, 916, 918 and 920 South Kansas Avenue.
“Downtown Topeka needs a hotel,” Foster said. It is a great location and should be a fantastic space to hold events.”
The Cyrus Hotel and Holliday Public House, named after the founder of Topeka, Cyrus K. Holliday, will have 106 rooms, 10,000 square feet of event space, a rooftop garden and an upscale restaurant. Foster said he plans to keep the historic façade of the original buildings and add a tower to the back half.
Foster’s vision for downtown doesn’t end with the hotel. He has also purchased several other properties along Kansas Avenue that he hopes to house multiple restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.
“I think Topeka has a ton of great things going for it,” Foster said. “The one thing missing is an “entertainment district.” I hope to help create that downtown.”
Foster admits he has his concerns. Uncertainty about the success of the revitalization efforts plagues many of his decisions. But he isn’t letting that stop him from moving forward with his ideas.
“Somebody has to do it,” Foster said. “We are going into it understanding that we might not make a dime for a few years.”
Foster said he believes that Topekans will coalesce behind the downtown revitalization and, as a result, the end result will be worth the risk.
“I fundamentally believe that if you invest in great people, you will have great businesses,” Foster said. “Eventually the businesses will make money.”
Taking it to the next level
Like Foster, Jim Klausman and Butch Eaton, co-owners of Midwest Health, also saw a promising opportunity in downtown Topeka.
The business partners had already made an investment in downtown a decade earlier. They renovated the historic Dibble Building at 6th and Quincy that now houses Senior Rx Care Pharmacy. They also invested in a restaurant project in the old Ray Beers building with some other partners. Unfortunately, that endeavor failed.
“It didn’t do well because downtown wasn’t ready at that point,” Klausman said.
Having opened a retirement facility in Manhattan, Kansas, Klausman and Eaton had seen firsthand how that community had turned its downtown into a thriving gathering place with bustling businesses and a vibrant nightlife. They also visited Tulsa and Oklahoma City, which had seen similar success with revitalizing their downtowns.
“We’ve been to several other cities that have had depressed downtowns and saw the changes they were able to make in their communities once people bought into the idea,” Klausman said.
When the City committed to updating the infrastructure, and the private sector put up the funding for the above ground improvements, the reality of a revitalized downtown started to take shape.
As smart businessmen are apt to do, Klausman and Eaton took a leap of faith and invested in the future of downtown Topeka by purchasing several vacant properties. “We saw opportunity and the pricing was right,” Klausman said. “It was a pretty depressed area at the time, so it was affordable investment.”
At this time, the partners don’t have a plan for every location, but are actively talking to people about the possibility of moving several businesses downtown.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we think there are plenty of opportunities down there,” Klausman said.
Beteta said this downtown revitalization effort has given him a new appreciation for the amount of time it takes for these projects to happen. As the head of Heartland Visioning, Beteta was part of the first conversation. Now, as business development manager for Schendel Lawn and Landscape, he gets to help put on the finishing touches as well.
“Being able to bookend the physical component of this project is beyond rewarding,” Beteta said.
Gales shares that sentiment. As someone who has been working tirelessly for the past decade to bring about real change downtown, his dream is finally coming true.
“It’s going to be amazing for the next generation or two to have this space downtown,” Gales said.
The momentum seems to have shifted for downtown. It may have taken years to get to this point, but with the help of motivated investors, resolute business owners and supportive patrons, downtown Topeka is moving full steam ahead.