Dressing Up Downtown
We have commissioned studies, held meetings, hired consultants and engaged in spirited debate. Plans and proposals have cropped up periodically, but nothing ever materialized. Those plans were filed away and forgotten. Now once again, we hear about a new plan to revitalize downtown Topeka. So what makes this time any different?
The most significant difference is the influx of private capital into the equation. While the city has agreed to pick up the $5.8 million price tag for infrastructure improvements to S.
Kansas Avenue between 6th and 10th Street, nongovernmental organizations have pledged more than $2.1 million to enhance the esthetic appearance above ground.
Vince Frye, president and chief executive director of Downtown Topeka Inc., said the combination of public and private funding makes perfect sense.
“The infrastructure must be replaced anyway,” Frye said. “Why not take advantage of those repairs and make it look pretty as well.”
According to Doug Whitacre, Public Works Director, Kansas Avenue is in dire need repairs. From a streetscape standpoint it hasn’t been updated since the 1980s and the utilities under the street haven’t been updated for more than 100 years.
“This project will bring positive benefits in the form of economic development, public-private partnership and making our downtown an inviting destination spot for pedestrians,” Whitacre said
The End Result
The water, sewer, gas and electric utilities below ground in the four-block area of S. Kansas Avenue will be replaced and conduit for high-speed fiber will be installed. Above ground, new lighting will illuminate the new three-lane street with 11-foot sidewalks on each side.
Private funds will pay for decorative arches across the street and a series of eight pocket parks to visually enhance the pedestrian areas and provide pavilions where people can relax.
Bartlett & West is funding one of those pocket parks even though their offices are not located downtown. Keith Warta, president, says the company wants to be part of transforming downtown because it is the heart of Topeka and our community needs a vibrant downtown to be healthy.
“As an area employer, it is a mission-critical challenge to get the right resources on board,” Warta said. “Research shows that a dynamic downtown can be the swing factor when talented, in-demand people consider their futures.”Warta says they want their pocket park to be memorable. They want to create a unique experience, with distinctive art, which is integrated into lighting technology in a hands-on interactive way that represents Kansas.
“Our park will incorporate a lighting sequence that will mimic the changing colors of a Kansas sunset and will have varying topography and native grasses consistent with the Kansas Flint Hills,” Warta said.
Frye says the excitement about the downtown revitalization is already reaping rewards.
“Within the last year, nine buildings have been purchased on Kansas Avenue by people who see investment potential,” Frye said. “Some of these buildings have not been used in years.”
Pocket Park Investors:
Bartlett & West
Hill’s Pet Nutrition
$5.8 Million Infrastructure Improvements:
Street & Sidewalk Pavement
Street Lighting & Power
Hi-Speed Fiber (conduit will be installed)
Water Service (new mains will be sized so that individual buildings have flexibility for future redevelopment)
The base infrastructure improvements allow for future addition of public and private amenities, including landscaping, streetscape, sculpture art and lighting.
New gas mains are being installed separately but concurrently by KGS, but that is NOT part of the $5.8M public project.
Sending Mixed Messages
At the same time the City is preparing to begin work on $5.8 million in infrastructure improvements to revitalize downtown and private investors have committed an additional $2 million to dress up curb appeal, funding that has traditionally helped downtown businesses finance building improvements has been cut.
The City Council had previously removed the program funding from its budget knowing that GO Topeka would add the item to its 2014 budget. JEDO board members however voted in December to remove the $100,000 earmarked by GO Topeka for the DTI grant program. So neither budget included funding for the DTI grants.
County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, who voted to keep the DTI grant funding in the JEDO budget, says the cut is unfortunate at a time when there seems to be some momentum behind the downtown project.
“I felt this small piece of funding would be government’s way of playing a small role in business development downtown,” Buhler said.
Since 2001, the DTI grant program has helped fund permanent improvements to buildings in the Business Improvement District.
Grant Recipients in the past 3 years:
The Merchant (913 S. Kansas)
Luipita’s Mexican Restaurant (732 S. Kansas)
Gray Horse Farms (renovation of 618 S. Kansas)
Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association of Kansa (Renovation of 115 E. 8th)
Elk’s Building Partners, LLC
Mayking Cakes and Confections
Z2, LLC (Former Asay’s Sporting Goods building at 909 SE Quincy)
Architect One, LLC (relocation to 906 S. Kansas Ave.)
Lamp Development, LLC (expansion of 534 S. Kansas Ave.)
HTK Architects (relocation to 900 S. Kansas Ave.)