Government & Politics

Beyond the Capitol: Topeka wants its downtown to go from blah to bling

Kansas Avenue, the “Main Street” through downtown Topeka, is undergoing a major renovation.
Kansas Avenue, the “Main Street” through downtown Topeka, is undergoing a major renovation.

Visitors to the spectacularly refurbished Kansas Capitol marvel at the historic limestone masterpiece — its dramatic rotunda, the vibrant wall and ceiling murals, the ornate gold leaf and copper details.

Then they go outside, walk a block or two beyond the statehouse grounds downtown and think better of it.

Many go back to their cars and head home. Hard to blame them.

Downtown Topeka looks like a long time ago, but not in a good way — more of a bedraggled, tired, lots-of-people-left kind of way.

That’s all about to change, downtown advocates say, which is good news for tourists and school groups, many from the Kansas City area, who have flocked to the Capitol after renovations were completed last year. More than 100,000 have visited the statehouse so far in 2015.

Construction up and down Kansas Avenue, downtown’s “Main Street” just a block from the Capitol grounds, is evidence something big is about to happen.

“It’s the rebirth of downtown,” said Vince Frye confidently. He’s the president of Downtown Topeka Inc., which has helped shepherd a long-awaited, much-anticipated makeover.

As the city completes about $5.7 million in street, sidewalk, lighting and utility work from Sixth to 10th streets — including replacing decrepit pipes and lines more than 75 years old — the flashy makeover projects are beginning: eight “pocket parks,” pavilions, fountains, two steel street arches that evoke railroad bridges and the city’s railroad origins, a series of bronze history medallions and life-size statues of notable Topekans.

To pay for the Kansas Avenue amenities, Frye said, more than $3.1 million was raised from corporate and individual donors. The parks and pavilions have company sponsors, including Mars, Westar Energy and Capitol Federal.

For years, dozens of neglected buildings with storefronts and office space, many owned by out-of-towners, sat empty. It’s a prominent avenue that should mimic the vibrancy of Massachusetts Street in Lawrence but doesn’t. As in so many cities, Topeka’s downtown fell victim to mall building and retail sprawl.

Downtown boosters say the extensive infrastructure and streetscape project will lure retailers and restaurateurs. Some 25,000 workers, many associated with state government, have offices within blocks.

“We’ve had 22 buildings purchased on Kansas Avenue alone, all by local investors,” Frye said. “Malls went through their phase, and now people are coming back to the core.”

With the renovated Kansas Capitol just a block away, long-neglected downtown Topeka needed a redo of its own.

Several restoration projects are underway downtown and more are being planned, including the Jayhawk State Theatre, a 1926 movie and vaudeville palace, and Constitution Hall, a historic structure from 1855. The 1930s U.S. Post Office and Court House, site of the Brown v. Board of Education trial, is for sale and needs a plan, Frye said.

Next up: locating the best spot for a wide plaza, room for a stage and a water feature, Frye said. Downtown is already the spot for many festivals and events — the Capital City Jazz & Food Truck Festival is coming up Saturday — but also needed is “a gathering place,” he said, akin to the KC Live block in Kansas City’s Power & Light District.

In 2008, thousands of residents participated in a community “visioning process,” with the conclusion that a revitalized downtown, a “dynamic core,” was the top priority, said John Hunter, executive director of the organization that began the process, Heartland Visioning.

Before the Kansas Avenue project was the development of the NOTO Arts District, a two-block area north of downtown across the Kansas River, Hunter said.

A formerly run-down area, it’s now home to more than 30 businesses and 30 artists. NOTO is short for north Topeka.

“Now we have more than 2,500 people there for First Friday art walks, with the artists, antique dealers and musicians,” Hunter said. “It’s a carnival-like atmosphere.”

In the works, Hunter said, is a Kansas River levee system upgrade for flood control and purchasing properties for a riverfront park on the north side of the river near the Great Overland Station, a 1920s Union Pacific railroad station.

Kansas Avenue will be completed in the spring, and many of the other projects should be finished within three years, Hunter said.

“It’s huge for Topeka,” he said. “It’s going to change the entire face of the community.”

Also high on the agenda, Frye said, is making downtown an attractive residential community.

“We get calls all the time from people who want to live downtown,” Frye said. “The demand far exceeds the supply of lofts and apartments downtown.”

Back in 1978, Stephen Smith located his photography studio, Stephen Smith Images, on Kansas Avenue when downtown was an active place.

Smith never wanted to move his business to a mall or a strip shopping center, so he stuck it out along with some other downtown stalwarts, such as Briman’s Leading Jewelers and Wolfe’s Camera, through the lean years.

A few years ago, he and his wife, Edie, marketing and membership director at Downtown Topeka Inc., went all in. With their children grown, they sold their home in southwest Topeka and converted the studio’s second floor into a loft living space.

They exposed the brick and stone walls and kept a painted sign they uncovered, “restaurant” in all capital letters. A metal spiral staircase leads to a roof patio with a bird’s-eye, full-length view of Kansas Avenue.

“Good timing,” he said about the loft conversion. “I’m just excited for the future of downtown.”

So is Mayor Larry Wolgast. Watch for announcements of new downtown businesses “within the next month,” he said.

“All of this is coming together,” Wolgast said, “and it will bring a feeling of pride to the community.”

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld