Despite multiple objections from residents and a number of unanswered questions, Wichita city council unanimously voted today to adopt an urban infill plan.  According to the National League of Cities (NLC), urban infill is “…new development that is sited on vacant or undeveloped land within an existing community, and that is enclosed by other types of development.” NLC says the term most often refers to single-family homes in existing neighborhoods but also applies to commercial and mixed-use areas.

The Places for People Plan adopted by city council covers 62 square miles from 29th street and Ridge in west Wichita to 31st south and Rock on the east side. The vote to adopt the plan now gives the city the ability to figure out how to adopt the plan and what changes the city may need to undertake zoning and financing to make the plan happen.

“All this plan does is step up the authority for staff to explore the tools needed to implement the plan and could involve amendments to the zoning codes,” says Dale Miller, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Department (MAPD).

In reality, city council needed to approve the plan to find out what is in the plan. According to the MAPD the potential steps to achieve the plan include rezoning, a land bank, incentives such and tax incremental financing (TIFs) and capital improvement plans. There was not discussion at the city council on the potential scope of the incentives or any other funding for that matter.

The vision plan handbook for Places for People was published by the city in April 2018. Yet, numerous people speaking at Tuesday’s city council meeting had just heard about the plan that could potentially permanently change Wichita.

“I don’t think that’s right that the city can do something then throw it on us, two weeks ahead of time, when you all really made you decision on what you are going to do,” says Janet Radig. “Get more public feedback instead of just your feedback.”

Radig voiced her concern for rezoning and the potential for congestion in her neighborhood.

“I’m ok building a house, one house on an empty lot, but when you, come and build a house behind a house, if you go on the 900 block of Ohio, the 900 block of Wabash and the 900 block of Cleveland, that is already been done. And every house is empty,” says Radig.

Radig was joined in her concerns by Ellen Querner.

“If you approve a concept, you approve the methods the concept will be achieved. And the methods this concept will be achieved will be zoning changes,” says Querner.

Land bank proposal

A potential key issue regarding the execution of the Places for People plan is the creation of a land bank. MAPD’s slide show notes the potential for a land bank but the 97 page vision book for the plan does not mention a land bank once. Wichita developer John Todd opposes the creation of a land bank and he told the city council as such.

“I am not a fan of land banks. They are created by government then used by private-public partnership in land development,” says Todd. “The problems I have with it; it allows municipalities to cede power to select private organizations on how control the property”

According to the Brookings Institute, a land bank is “the process or policy by which local governments acquire surplus properties and convert them to productive use or hold them for long term strategic public purposes.” The benefit of this is to turn blighted property into tax generating properties and create affordable housing options for locals that may otherwise face barriers to the home ownership.

Yet as Todd notes private companies can do this just as well.

“I was the land bank in 1992 in Park City Kansas, we didn’t need public private partnerships to do it. My basic recommendations to you to be very careful how you set up, in fact I would ask that you not use land banks at all,” says Todd.  “I really think that private sector needs to step up. And take advantage of opportunities that are absolutely everywhere to do infill to do rehabilitation to properties.”

The Executive Director of Wichita Habitat for Humanity, Ann Fox, spoke in favor of a creation of a land bank. Specifically addressing how difficult it is to acquire infill properties in town.

“The acquisitions of property is the most difficult and challenging aspect of our work. In our community we don’t have an intentional plan for the use of abandoned properties,” says Fox.

Easing regulations to allow for better access to tax sale properties was discussed as a potential benefit of the plan, but Fox made a point of noting some of limitations of land banks.

“Eminent domain cannot be used with a land bank. It can only be used for property that would go to a tax sale or if someone doesn’t know what to do with their property,” says Fox. “We believe it would be really providential for the community to develop a land bank with private citizen participation.”

Unanswered questions 

In a 7-0 vote the city council approved the plan even with all the unknowns regarding the plan. City Manager Robert Layton attempted to assuage worry by noting that the steps for the plan need to be approved by the city council after it goes before the planning commission and various district advisory boards.

“This document is set to outline possible changes,” says Layton. “All of those needs to be approved by the council going forward.”

In closing remarks Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh (R-District 4) noted that right now the city does not have the answers to the questions Places for People will bring up, but the city wants to do something.

“Knowing the issues we have in south central Wichita right now, with blight, with houses that need to be renovated and fixed up, trying to pull back some of the regulatory things that makes some of that happen in very important.”

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