WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The Wichita City Council took action Tuesday to get development going again around Riverfront Stadium. But Council members had a lot of questions before they voted because their one vote was going to approve two agreements.
In 2022, Wichita Riverfront LP (WRLP) had an agreement to develop the land into a hotel, offices, parking garage and retail space, but it did not happen.
Agreement 1: Land goes to EPC
The first agreement involved WRLP agreeing to sell the City three parcels of the land for the same price it originally paid — $1 an acre.
Wichita is selling the land to EPC Real Estate Group for the same $1 an acre. The land is highlighted in yellow on the map.
EPC will build a hotel on the land bordering the river. The rest of EPC’s plans include an apartment complex, a parking garage and creating 10,000 square feet of retail space. The biggest difference between EPC’s plan and the original WRLP plan is apartments instead of office buildings.
“The office market is not what it used to be,” Assistant City Manager Troy Anderson told the Council. “There is a high demand for multi-family residential.”
Jeff Fluhr, president of Greater Wichita Partnership and Downtown Wichita, told the Council that the biomedical campus it approved for downtown Wichita two weeks ago will need residential housing.
“From that project alone, 1,300 additional units are needed in our core,” he said. “If you look at the overall demand for residential in downtown today, it approaches 4,300 units.”
The agreement with EPC says that after substantial completion of the parking garage, the City of Wichita will purchase the garage to ease parking problems. But the City would lease some of the parking stalls to the hotel and apartment complex.
Agreement 2: WRLP
The second agreement involves WRLP getting to develop two pieces of land north of Riverfront Stadium and having the option to buy a lot north of the Drury Hotel.
Anderson said WRLP previously purchased the two lots north of the stadium. He said with the agreement, WRLP will be free and clear of any development requirements.
Jordan Kobritz with Wichita Riverfront Limited Partnership said they are not sure what development will happen on those two north lots but said it will happen sooner rather than later.
“Just seemed like at the end of the day, this was the best path forward that would accomplish what the original goals were in 2019,” said Kobritz.
He added they hit multiple bumps in the road after an agreement with EPC in 2022.
“Shortly after that development agreement was signed in 2022, financial markets changed considerably, inflation increased substantially, and supply chain issues became more severe,” said Kobritz.
As for the option to buy the land north of the Drury Hotel, WRLP has until August 2029 to decide if it wants to buy it. If it buys the land, the purchase price is $1 million.
That land is also free of any development requirements.
Council questions: Delano parking promise
City Council Member Jeff Blubaugh asked WRLP if it would honor a promise made by the late Lou Schwechheimer, the visionary behind Riverfront Stadium and the Wind Surge MiLB team. He said the promise was to provide 75 parking spaces for Delano businesses.
“This is for Hatman Jack’s, The Monarch, Hayes, everybody right in there,” Blubaugh said. “We, Lou, speaking on the group’s behalf at that time, made the commitment that they would not lose their parking back there, and now with these parcels being sold, how do we ensure that? How do we guarantee that?”
“I do recall there were some commitments that were made. I think some of them were a bit outrageous, inaccurate, unenforceable, and impractical,” Kobritz said. “At this point, statements that Lou made on behalf of himself, maybe on behalf of the ball club, WRLP can’t comply with all of those.”
Kobritz said the businesses in Delano have benefitted from the increased traffic the Wind Surge and Riverfront Stadium have brought to the area.
Blubaugh said he plans to find a way to preserve those spots, he said he is upset the council didn’t put that into writing at Tuesday’s meeting.
“You can’t be disingenuous to the folks that have been here and grown their businesses well before we had a new ballpark,” said Blubaugh.
He added he is hopeful for EPC to take over.
“I think that is a step in the right direction. I think it is a lot better step than putting offices around there around the ballpark. I guess I’m becoming very impatient. The public is becoming very impatient, and we want to see some development down there,” said Blubaugh.
Council questions: $1 an acre
Several City Council members said people in their districts want to know why the City is selling prime land for $1 an acre.
Assistant City Manager Anderson defended the decision.
“This is an investment into seeing a $100 million project come up out of the ground, and the return on that investment … some $40 million worth of revenue is an incredible return on that investment,” he said.
Council Member Brandon Johnson said people have asked him if they could purchase the land if they show up with $1. He asked Anderson what metrics the City uses to determine who gets that price.
Anderson said cities across the nation convey land for less than market value. The cities weigh what they will get in the long run.
“We may be selling land for $1 an acre, but in exchange, we’re getting a $100 million development,” he said. “We’re getting a luxury hotel. We’re getting multi-family residential apartments. We’re getting additional retail, all to support the debt service obligation associated with the ballpark.”
Anderson said if the City tried to sell prime land at market value, it would not be able to put development requirements on the land.
Council questions: Losing green space on the river
City Council Member Maggie Ballard said some people in her district have asked why the City can’t leave the riverfront as a green space for everyone to enjoy. She asked what kind of money is at stake if the City does not sell the hotel tract of land.
City Manager Bob Layton said taking the hotel development out of the plan would impact the money coming to the City from the other riverfront developments and shift the debt service obligations from the stadium project to the general taxpayer.
“That would be a significant change in the way that we would fund the debt service and would not represent the original intent of this project, and that is that the development would help pay for the construction of the stadium along with the state revenue that we received,” Layton said. “There was a lot of discussion about a riverfront view at the time that the development was proposed, and the Council at that time determined that in exchange for the development of this piece, we would still leave a window to the river north of this area.”
Anderson said everything between McLean Boulevard and the river, from north of the hotel to Douglas Avenue, is being left as green space.
When Ballard asked if he could put a dollar figure on what amount the City could lose if the hotel is no longer included, Anderson said he would guess something at or above $15 million.
Wind Surge Involvement
The Minor League Baseball team is no longer directly involved with the project after being sold to Diamond Baseball Holdings (DBH) in December 2022.
The Wind Surge President, Jay Miller, said things are going smoothly with the new ownership, and they are excited to see what will happen with development around the stadium.
“I think from DBH’s standpoint, you know, whether we are involved or not, I think they would love to at least be at the table to hear some of the things that are happening because directly what happens down here does affect us,” said Miller.
Ultimately, the City Council voted 6-1 in favor of the agreements. Blubaugh was the lone no-vote.
“We need to keep these types of developments going so that we can pay off the ballpark and not have to worry about the taxpayers fitting the bill in the end, so finding a way to move forward was so important,” said Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple.
Anderson said construction will begin in 2024, and the City will likely see completion in 2026.