Communities debate futures of iconic buildings

Julie Doll
Special to Gannett Kansas

From coast to coast, some of the more historic buildings and structures that helped define American cities in the 20th century were razed in the name of progress.

Others were saved by residents who appreciated their role in shaping their communities.

In Kansas, such facilities as Century II in Wichita are at risk of being demolished.

It’s been interesting to watch the different approaches taken by leaders in Wichita and Garden City about what to do with aging icons that no longer serve the community as well they might.

In Wichita, the 50-year-old Century II has been deemed subpar as a convention and performing arts center. City leaders appear ready to tear it down. Many area residents – already stung by questionable arrangements and land deals that are part of a stadium project across the river – oppose tearing down the iconic facility.

The Riverfront Legacy plan is not a done deal, but several officials have pretty much declared Century II must go. Their goal was signaled early, as their public engagement effort was an ineptly disguised campaign to tear down Century II.

In Garden City, the big pool – nearly 100 years old and once advertised as the world’s largest, free, municipal, concrete swimming pool – is leaking like crazy and failing to draw crowds as it once did.

Garden City leaders asked the public in several ways to give their opinions. They offered surveys and meeting to gather input. They threw around different options – smaller neighborhood pools, splash parks, leaving the pool and fixing the leaks, creating a fancier pool with new features.

City residents responded, and recently the city commission voted to rebuild the pool complex with significant changes. It no longer will be one giant pool, but it keeps in place the idea of a gathering place for all of the city’s kids and families.

Not everyone in the community agrees with the city’s decision.

That’s understandable. Any decision about spending money or getting rid of something that characterizes your community is going to create dissent.

That certainly was true in Seattle, Washington, in the 1960s. That’s when residents revolted after learning of developers’ plans to demolish Pike Place Market. Opponents forced a public vote in 1971, and residents approved a plan to turn the area into an historic district and maintain the market, which is now popular among Seattle residents and tourists.

On the other end of the country, the story of New York’s Grand Central Station is similar.

In the 1970s, developers planned to demolish the historic train station to make way for a bigger building. Opposition was substantial. Even Jackie Kennedy Onassis lobbied for Grand Central’s preservation.

Developers and opponents fought not only a public relations war, but also a legal one. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled cities could protect historic buildings. Today, about 750,000 train and subway riders use the station every day.

Lots of buildings and facilities in our cities help define who and what we are as a community.

That doesn’t mean every old building warrants protection, or that it’s always financially feasible to renovate. But structures that helped build the character of a community should be given special consideration. Recent building projects along Wichita’s riverfront leave big doubts that the city will gain more than it loses if it tears down Century II.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.