Naftzger Park re-envisioned as a flexible, ‘vibrant open space’ downtown



After a five-month pause, city officials are moving forward rapidly with a redesign of Naftzger Park to create a new place for downtowners to play.

City staff has narrowed four possible designs down to a single plan, which includes an open space for concerts and activities, a stage, an open-air pavilion and a dog run. There will be a skim fountain and water jets, native plant box gardens, parking space for food trucks, and tables and chairs for working or eating outside. Part of the open space will be artificial turf.

“It all adds up to a very, kind of a vibrant open space that’s got the flexibility that it needs to accommodate just about anything you can imagine you want to happen here,” said the chief designer, Thomas Balsley of the New York firm SWA/Balsley.

The plan envisions removal of the brick walls, pond and gazebo that are now the park’s most prominent features.

The redesigned park will be an open concept with few, if any areas out of public view from the surrounding streets.

It will have no public restrooms, for security and law-enforcement reasons, City Manager Robert Layton said. The nearest will be at Old Town, about two blocks to the northeast.

City officials and Balsley unveiled the final plan at a meeting with Wichita Eagle reporters and editors before taking it to a public showing Wednesday evening.

“I like it because I think that park needs to be cleaned up. Any improvement will help the downtown area. We need to move forward,” said Debbie Wattenbarger, manager of the Eaton Place apartments to the west.

It will go to at least three city committees on Thursday, the Design Review Board, the Park Board and the Historic Preservation Board.

City staff is planning to bring the plan to the City Council for approval on April 10, Layton said.

The city had originally hoped to have the park up and running for the NCAA basketball tournament held in Wichita last week, but the plan was put on hold in the face of community questions and delays in financing for the developers of adjacent commercial space.

The park will be rebuilt in connection with redevelopment of the vacant building that used to house the Spaghetti Works restaurant, and 50,000 to 60,000 square feet of new development planned for the parking lot east of the park.

The first phase will cost $1.5 million. Officials said they’re not sure how much of the plan they’ll be able to fulfill with those dollars. They are counting on future tax revenue from the new commercial property and apartments to finish the plan.

The park will be used to host small concerts and similar outdoor activities. Both the city and the developer of the neighboring commercial property will have the right to stage events in the park, officials said.

One sticking point in previous discussions has been how the changes will affect the homeless. The current park, with its picnic tables and shade trees, has long been a resting place for homeless and jobless people who gather there.

Balsley said his company designed the park to serve the whole spectrum of city residents, from downtown lawyers and residents of upscale loft apartments to the homeless people who use it now.

In previous parks the company has designed, “we’ve managed to carve out a public space that is still inclusive and makes them (homeless people) feel comfortable,” he said. “I think if in the end it was a park without the homeless, I would almost consider it to be a failure because it would mean we hadn’t created that inclusive stage.”

Mostly, he wanted to design a park that people would use, he said.

“That’s how we measure our success,” Balsley said. “How many fannies there are in the seats, and kind of a cross section that they represent of a city or a community.”

The plan will be considered at 10 a.m. Thursday by the Historic Preservation Board. That meeting will take place at the Metropolitan Area Planning Department office at 271 W. 3rd St., Wichita.

From there it goes to an 11:30 a.m. meeting of the Design Review Board, at Room 101A of the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center, 225 W. Douglas, Wichita.

The Board of Park Commissioners will take it up at 3 p.m. in the 11th floor conference room at City Hall, 455 N. Main, Wichita.

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle