By Barry Owens
It is a two-mile stretch of road from Oliver to Washington streets on Douglas Avenue. Not all of it is pleasant.
To walk from College Hill to Old Town is to depart from a leafy village and arrive in a brick city of charming warehouses converted to restaurants, nightclubs and lofts. But one must first journey past blighted buildings, through poorly lit areas and over a few rough patches of sidewalk to get there—with hardly a bench in site.
That a business association has formed with the goal, in part, to beautify the distance between the two locations should interest anyone who has taken the stroll, lives in the area, or does business along the corridor.
The Douglas Design District Association, an association formed in January with the aim to re-style and re-brand the corridor as a design district, will present their initial concepts for the avenue to the city planning department this month.
“When I first had the concept, it was kind of from a business point of view,” said Bill Jackson, who is owner of Abode Home on Douglas Avenue, as well as Furniture Options, which is located on the same lot.
Jackson last year noticed that there were 41 design-oriented businesses along the corridor. He began writing letters, and then meeting with other owners and soon the association was formed.
“Before long we found we weren’t talking much about design and about business, we were talking about making it a good place to live and do business,” he said. “Once we did that, all those other things would happen on their own.”
Among the group’s early concepts are to plant and sod greenery, perhaps along medians which the city would first have to build. Benches, covered bus stops, bricks excavated from beneath the avenue (which were once part of a trolley track) could be incorporated into new walkways. There could be a bike path. Special, antique-looking light posts could be installed, from which new banners could hang. And at the intersection of Douglas Avenue and Oliver Street, an arch could rise to welcome vehicle passengers and pedestrians to the Douglas Design District. At Washington Street a monument could mark the entrance to the district, as well.
It is an ambitious plan, one that remains largely in the early stages, and the million dollar questions of the cost and who will pay it have yet to be fully answered. While association members pay monthly dues, a project of such scale is likely to require additional funding.
“It is such a big project, and we have so many visions, it would just depend on how much that we can we implement,” said Jackson. “Will the city help? Are there grants to be obtained? At this point, we’re trying to get our arms around what is possible, and then we will sit down and draw up a budget.”
In the meantime, the association held its first fundraiser last month—a sale of items donated by the members.
In tents near the overpass in the parking lot of the Kansas Food Bank building on Douglas Avenue, furniture, hair care products, gift baskets, and more were on sale for the cause. “Ooh, look at this,” one woman said, gathering up a ceramic teapot. “For my collection.”
Last month Jackson and the association also reached out to Wichita State University and the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs for help.
The association gave a presentation to a masters-level planning class, and afterwards took questions and suggestions from students.
The class has been asked to review the association’s plans to date, and make further recommendations on how to implement the project—or scale it back.
“One of the big consideration is did they bite off more than they can chew?” said John Wong, who is a professor of public administration at the university.
But Jackson and others in the association are optimistic that something can be done to liven up the avenue, and that there is enough support along the corridor to make that happen.
“Douglas is at that point where if we don’t start doing some positive things, I am afraid it will erode,” said Philip Holmes, owner of World Import Gallery on Douglas in Uptown and a member of the association.
“I think the whole city should embrace it,” said Monica Smits, who along with her husband, James, is co-owner of Aspen Boutique, at Douglas Avenue and Oliver Street. Their business is also part of the association.
City Councilwoman Sue Schlapp, who represents District 2, which includes College Hill and a one-mile portion of the proposed Douglas Design District, said she could support the project up to a point.
“Anytime a group of people wants to really upgrade, I want to help in any way that I can,” she said.
But city funding for upgrades for one area can cause hard feelings in others, she said.
“‘Why is your neighborhood more important than my neighborhood? If you have it, why don’t I get it?’” she said. “So, we have to be very careful.”
Schlapp said it could be that city would consider providing funding for standard lampposts, for example, leaving the association to pay the difference if it wanted to upgrade.
“There are discussions to be had,” she said, “but it takes and effort on both sides.”
That discussion has begun about improving the avenue is enough to excite some, even those who have little to gain but a better view (and, perhaps, a bump in their property values.)
“I think it is a wonderful idea,” said Lisa Riley, an Uptown resident who was at the fund-raising sale last month. She seemed thrilled with the prospect of a more pleasant round of errands on the avenue. She shops local, she said. And she walks.
“If I wanted to shop at Wal-Mart or Target” she said. “I would move way out there.”