by Rebecca White
KWCH Eyewitness News
October 12, 2012
"Very early on, in the 1880's, Old Town was actually the warehouse district, sometimes called the warehouse and jobbing district," says Wichita State University Public History Program Director, Jay Price.
In its earliest years, Wichita was based around the railroad system. The original train stations - Rock Island, Santa Fe and Frisco - were built close together. To the east of the tracks was the warehouse district.
"It's really where goods were stored," says Price. "Broomcorn to make brooms, manufacturing goods, vegetables, groceries were stored there. It was a regional distribution hub. That's why there are utilitarian buildings in Old Town."
Downtown Douglas was the main business district, but the warehouse neighborhood was the support network that made everything run.
"The objects in stores on Douglas, Broadway or Main came to Wichita on a train that were off-loaded and stored in a warehouse in Old Town," says Price.
The area continued to be a thriving commercial center until the 1960's when the railroads fell into decline as businesses found new ways to ship products.
"By the 1950's, we got a better road network," says Price. "The interstate highways allowed trucking to develop. So we shifted from a rail-based to a trucking-based transportation system for goods and services."
Grocery stores first began to move to the suburbs and other businesses followed. The warehouse district began to go into decline and crime rose in the area.
"It was very seedy, there was not much there to keep it going," says Price. "Once the warehouses moved out, there was nothing. It became abandoned. Even Douglas becomes pretty seedy, especially around the Eaton Hotel."
"Wichita went through what a lot of other communities experienced, their main businesses moved out to the suburbs," says Dave Burk, a major developer in Old Town.
Burk and business partner Rich Vilet created Marketplace Properties and led a public private partnership with the City of Wichita in the late 1980's to redevelop the warehouse district into what is know as Old Town today.
"In 1987, I became interested in the Old Town warehouse area just because it had maintained a lot of the old warehouses without urban renewal coming in and tearing down a lot of the buildings," says Burk. "It was the only place in Wichita that still had the integrity of many buildings side by side that were built in the 1880's through the 1930's."
"Redevelopment of downtowns across the country started in the 80 and 90's when people started tiring of the suburban idea," says Price. "The suburbs were not all they were cracked up to be."
Price says there was also a generational factor as young people looked to move back to the heart of U.S. cities.
"For the World War II generation, the ideal is the 50's ranch style suburb with the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids," says Price. "For the baby boomers, it's more like 'let's have a unique experience.' But for Generation X, you see the grunge movement in the 90's. It's urban, it's gritty. You're living in the warehouses, your repurposing them. It also coincides with a major movement of historic preservation."
"Fortunately our timing was just right," Burk said. "The city council and Mayor Bob Knight wanted to stem the tide of people leaving downtown for the suburbs so the time was right for a public private partnership."
In 1991 Burke opened their first redeveloped building, Larkspur, followed by Heroes and River City Brewery. "We were off and running," says Burk.
The city updated roads and sidewalks; provided free public parking and invested $27 million over the past 20 years. Over $111 million in private dollars have been invested in developing Old Town according to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. Wichita officials estimate property values in the Old Town area have increased by more than $40 million.
Burk says his vision for Old Town has largely been realized with a neighborhood that offers restaurants, bars, offices, entertainment, movie theaters, hotels, condos and apartments.
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