On February 19, members of the Yellowbrick Street Team took to the sidewalks of downtown Wichita to launch our latest project: Vortex
What We Lost is a public art installation highlighting the detrimental effect of decades of auto-oriented planning and regulation on the urban fabric by contrasting historical images of beautiful buildings downtown with their current conditions - often as surface or structured parking.
From its boom years in the 1880s through the 1920s, Wichita constructed some of the most grand and architecturally-significant buildings in the Plains. Most importantly, these buildings fit the unique context of Wichita and complemented the greater urban fabric. Wichita's downtown was dense, vibrant, and full of life through the first half of the 20th Century.
After World War II, like in many American cities, Wichita adopted a system of laws, regulations, investments, and incentives that promoted suburban development in a car-centric model. As Wichitans became increasingly dependent on automobiles, demand for parking exploded; to accommodate this demand, the city and private property owners began demolishing smaller, "fabric" buildings to provide for car parking.
The increased availability of parking and miles of new roadways further increased dependence on the private automobile, while dispersing growth and development further out along the urban fringe. In fact, Wichita grew much faster spatially than demographically, leaving vacant buildings and hollowing out the core city in favor of new buildings for homes and businesses in the outskirt areas; approximately 84% of Wichita's current land area was developed post-World War II - a 525% increase in developed land area, despite only a 225% increase in population.
Demolishing downtown buildings, while simultaneously tilting the playing field toward sprawl development through regulations and public investments, accelerated the flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s. By the 1980s, downtown Wichita was moribund and largely disinvested, a growing haven for drugs and crime. The value of downtown buildings continued to decline, with rents no longer lucrative enough to invest in maintenance and occupancy rates too low to spur development. Many buildings, though still architecturally and historically significant, deteriorated past the point of redevelopment and many more were rendered economically obsolete, with property taxes and carrying costs of a vacant building outweighing the value of the building. Neglected buildings were demolished during Urban Renewal, which served only to accelerate decline by sapping the vibrancy and aesthetic appeal of downtown.
By the time we, like cities across the country, realized the failings of the Suburban Experiment, we had thoroughly hollowed out our downtown and surrounding commercial areas. Today, 39.6% of developable land in downtown Wichita is surface parking.
Next time you walk past empty parking lot after empty parking lot downtown, it's worth remembering what we lost.