Revitalizing Topeka

Meet Jeff!

  • Age 28
  • Lifelong Topekan
  • 2009 Graduate of K-State
  • Finishing MBA at Washburn in May 2016
  • Works at Westar Energy

Jeff’s curiosity for the city’s lack of growth led him to do a research paper on downtown and urban development for his MBA. I was able to read through his 46 page analysis and loved it so much I asked him to share a snippet with the general audience. He discusses research, opinions, opportunities, and challenges. Enjoy! - Kristen 

What does it mean to revitalize?

To revitalize is to impart new life or vigor to, to restore to an active or fresh condition. Synonyms related to the word include: recreate, rejuvenate, refresh, repair, and revive. This sounds like just what our city needs. People have a very negative image of our city, our city needs to rejuvenate itself into something that both residents and visitors will enjoy and be proud of.

Kansas Avenue Project
One approach to revitalization right now is the current project on Kansas Avenue and improving our downtown. In order to create further development opportunities infrastructure has to be the first thing addressed. According to Doug Whitacre, Public Works Director, Kansas Avenue was in need of repairs badly. 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 first step of infrastructure is nearly done!

Why focus on downtown?
Many critics question the value of putting money into downtown. To me, your downtown is your heart and center, a strong core represents a strong city overall. In Topeka, there are over 25,000 people employed downtown, each working 40+ hours per week. The financial center of our city as well as our state capitol is in downtown.

Denver Donwtown
Downtown Denver, CO

• What do experts say about downtowns? “Picture in your mind a city you have visited. You are probably not thinking of the suburbs, shopping malls, or industrial parks, you are picturing the downtown area. It is where a city defines itself, and it is the prism through which the outside world views the city. Downtown is a city’s heart, so if a city is to thrive, its heart must be strong. A downtown with a large commercial, office, and residential base will contribute significantly to the tax rolls of the city with the effect of reducing the tax burden on residents in the city’s neighborhoods, helping residents throughout the city save money” says Rick Baker, in the book A Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor’s Approach to Urban Revitalization that Can Work Anywhere. Baker, who is the former mayor of St. Petersburg FL, helped revitalize their downtown and reduce crime significantly.

Case for riverfront
Just like downtown, there will be plenty of critics who claim this would be a waste of money; however a revitalized waterfront could be a crucial part for this city’s rebirth. Not all cities can say that they have the luxury of being along a major river. And, water tends to be an attraction for people of all ages. The riverfront has been referred to as a “game changer” in terms of helping to form opinions of Detroit from the perspective of the visitor and residents. “The riverfront has evolved beyond a physical asset, and is now both a community in itself, and an asset to the entire downtown area.” The potential for recreational attraction exists here as well as another potential way to improve this city’s quality of life and image as people travel by it every day.

branson landing MO
Branson Landing Branson, MO

Riverfront Iowa
Riverfront Des Moines, IA

Challenges
Taking an objective approach to revitalization, there are no doubt multiple challenges to work around in Topeka:

• Layout: The layout of our city seems awkward and segmented. Walkability to me is a major issue. Downtown is by the river but frankly isn’t in extremely close walking distance. Downtown also lacks a catalyst, something to act as an anchor to draw people consistently. The Expocentre could be that, but the problem is you can’t walk there from downtown like you can to arenas in Kansas City, Wichita or Des Moines. When people come from out of town to events, they all go to Wanamaker to eat, shop and stay. Hopefully the proposed downtown plaza, if implemented correctly, can act as some sort of anchor to help draw people consistently.Ice Rink AZ
Ice Rink, Pheonix, AZ

• Urban Sprawl: This is characterized by low-density development patterns and development spreading further out from the city’s core. The City Of Topeka Planning Department had some interesting comments on this in their latest Land Use report: “when development is compact and supports a higher population density, the cost of infrastructure and the benefit of services are both spread out over the higher population which can help keep a lid on taxes. Fire and police stations, which have coverage areas based on distance can cover and protect more people without having to create new stations. And, more people are adjacent to or could benefit from new or improved infrastructure projects. With lower population densities, the benefits and impacts from these services or improvements are spread out and the impact is lost; net operating costs, however, remains the same and revenues are lower. There are fixed on-going operational costs that must be paid by taxpayers whether a fire station has 10 or 100 calls, or if a water line built for 100 people serves only 10. In Topeka, the overall city population density has decreased while the total land area increased dramatically, a 7% increase in population compared to 65% increase in land area! Suburban residential location increases the distance between home and destination (e.g., job), increases the reliance on automobiles, and minimizes walking. Topeka and Shawnee County in recent numbers came in at 56 healthiest out of 105 counties in Kansas, with obesity and sedentary lifestyles being main contributor. The hope with a strong core is that the negative effects of urban sprawl can be neutralized and more residents can rely more on walking to get to places than driving. This active lifestyle could really improve the health of those in the area and community. The bike share program is already a great example of opportunities to shift lifestyles.

• Lack of housing and residents living downtown: Besides low income, there are minimal housing options in the downtown district. The hope is a new downtown with new businesses and eventually more recreation near the river will draw interest. In order for downtown to really take the next step and not be a ghost town on nights and weekends, there has to be a consistent base of people living there within walking distance. And, people often complain that parking is an issue downtown. One way to fix that is provide more housing for people downtown. This gets into the argument, do you first need people to attract events and businesses or the other way around? To me, a balanced mix of both is ideal. Quality of life is important, and the riverfront development is aiming to help with that.

Why Millennials are so critical going forward
This age group according to research, commonly referred to as people born between 1980 and 2000 is now the largest generation with over 80 million people, and it is expected by 2025 they will make up 75% of the global workforce.. The same study showed Millennials greatly value walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, public transportation, and retail and entertainment options. Millennials expressed a higher level of dissatisfaction with their communities and local housing options than people in other demographics did. They say that neighborhoods lack convenient outdoor spaces to run, walk, bike, and exercise. In addition, they believe that both traffic and crime make it unsafe to walk.” The most telling statistic perhaps however is that more than 60 percent of millennials want to live in areas where they can use their cars less. “Though they are living wherever they can afford, the report found, millennials ‘remain steadfast’ in their preference for an urban lifestyle. While 83 percent said they own a car, many said they preferred walkable communities, different options for getting around and easy access to shopping and entertainment”

Looking forward
Our downtown is starting to take shape and hopefully it will lead to many great businesses and attractions down the road. Instead of having two movie theatres on one side of town, how about build a new fork and fine IMAX theatre downtown? Or how about a comedy club? Perhaps a brewery or nice sports bars?

To me, revitalization and development is all about momentum. All it takes is a little to get more people on board and believe and keep pushing the ball forward. The private investment with improving the streetscaping and aesthetics is a good thing. You need to have local corporations invested in order for it to work because it shows people and businesses care about positive change. I’m almost 29 and if I’m going to settle down here I want a city to be proud of. I would love a beautiful revitalized riverfront that you can see while driving down I-70 instead of old empty buildings, or have a downtown that is lit up during Christmas time like the Plaza in Kansas City, or an outdoor amphitheater along the river with summer concerts like Starlight or Sandstone. I could easily pick up and move to Kansas City for a better paying job and have ample opportunities to go do fun things. However, Topeka has an opportunity to improve. Growing up here, my family and friends living here, I sort of have pride in this city. When people talk down on it, it sort of motivates me to help make it better, even if that entails doing simple research or writing a blog. If other cities can have these things, why can’t we?

Jeff
Jeff and his wife Lindsey

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