REVITALIZING DOWNTOWN: the key place to start is adding housing

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Since November Matt Wetli and his strategy team, based out of St. Louis, have been studying the Capital City. Working to come up with ways to lead the revitalization of downtown Topeka.

The area studied includes the general area around Kansas Avenue, Van Buren Street, the Kansas River Front, and NOTO Districts.

From an outsider looking in, Wetli said it’s something people should be excited about.

“If you had come to Topeka 5 to 6 years ago your impression would have been one thing about the downtown, and when you come now and see all the investment that’s taken place,” Wetli said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people where it’s changed their attitudes about downtown Topeka and what’s possible.”

Wetli presented the findings to city and county leaders on Tuesday.

Between data and comparisons of other downtowns across the country, there’s 10 strategy recommendations his team came up with to get more people downtown.

The numbers in the study say that the downtown area could support 900 more new or rehabbed housing units over the next 10 to 12 years. 300,000 square feet of new or rehabbed office space, and at least 200 more hotel rooms. Along with 690,000 square feet of retail spaces, which Wetli says is about what it currently has.

Wetli stressed this is not a master plan. This is an avenue for leaders to go and to invest in to create a successful revitalization. 

The 10 strategies are long-term goals and investments, but the one that sticks out the most, and one that Wetli said would make the most sense to start with is more housing.

“That’s going to make this place feel like a real neighborhood, make it feel really vibrant,” he said.

Wetli shared trends in other downtowns. Showing that Kansas City had a 39% growth in its downtown population from 2010 to 2018, versus a 7% growth in metro areas. Chattanooga in Tennessee grew 14% compared to 7%. 

Councilwoman Karen Hiller said it’s interesting because that’s not a new idea.

“It was a really great mix of what they obviously heard from people telling them that we had thought of before that were some hopes and dreams, but then also some really fresh ideas from other cities that we haven’t thought of before,” Hiller said. 

Other ideas for downtown includes a grocery store, a hotel, and maybe another convention center. But the strategy team said it is really important to be patient and work toward a common goal.

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