Renovations downtown look to build foundation for area’s future


courtesy of Vince Frye

A picture of concept art for Clayton Financial Services’ pocket park on S Kansas Ave. While Clayton Financial’s park will feature aspects such a life-sized chess, other will feature an array of fountains, statues, and light displays.

Topeka’s downtown, typically seen as the epicenter of corporate business and government in the capital city, is undergoing substantial renovations to make the area a lively local business and entertainment scene.


“In 2008, the community came together in a visioning process,” Vince Frye, CEO of Downtown Topeka Inc., said. “There were thousands of people who met over months. They decided what they wanted as priorities for this community and the number one priority was a revitalized downtown.”


Since 2014, the city has been actively renovating the infrastructure of downtown Topeka, replacing pavement, as well as water and gas lines more than half a century old. The renovations, financed with a public/private partnership, including approximately $5,000,000 of public funding, are coming to a close, meaning that about $3,000,000 of privately-funded renovations will be coming to downtown. The renovations will give downtown a new sort of character, adding statues and other street art such as pocket parks.


“A pocket park is an area that is 20 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet long in front of a business or on the sidewalk,” Frye said. “They will have areas for music to be performed. We are putting in sculptures of famous Topekans, so some [pocket parks] could have those.”


The pocket parks will illustrate parts of Topeka as well, as they were designed by different local companies.


“Anybody that contributed a significant amount of money had the right to design their own pocket park based upon their brand as a company, so we have eight of those,” said Frye. “Fidelity State Bank and Mars Chocolate in the 600 block, Capitol Federal and Hills in the 700 block, Westar and Bartlett & West in the 800 block, and Security Benefit and Burlington Northern Santa Fe in the 900 block.”


The pocket parks, as well as statues and other art being placed downtown, may be some of the most noticeable changes to Kansas Ave., but the shift in business downtown is expected to be even bigger.


“I think we will see a lot of new restaurants, new retail,” said Frye. “All of the buildings that you see that are empty now are all sold and they are all sold to local Topekans and every one of those [buildings] has an exciting plan that we hope to announce soon. We have investors who want to see downtown flourish. They have great plans for the buildings to make it happen.”


‘Great plans’ have come from more than just investors in this process. In fact, the push for a better downtown has been an effort of the community. As mentioned earlier, the project has been funded by both public and private sector money, totaling out to about $8,000,000 of funding.


“[The funding partnership] shows that if people want something, they can make it happen,” said Frye. “This is a perfect example of a public/private partnership. The city did what they could do with the money that was available and the private sector stepped up and said ‘We will work with you to make it even better.’ And so I think it shows that the community wants to grow. It wants progress.”


Part of the continuing progress downtown means sustaining the buzz. That may mean holding some 35 events Downtown Topeka Inc. has come up with, including First Friday Concerts, Brewfests, and even a Jazz Fest. One of the biggest aspects of continual progress though may lie in Topeka’s youth.


“Probably the most important thing with this whole project is retaining our young people,” Frye said. “It’s important because, you know, I’ll get to enjoy it for a period of time but [young Topekans] hopefully can enjoy it for an entire lifetime and build upon it, so we want to keep [young people] in Topeka.”


Ultimately Frye, like many other Topekans, hopes to see a shift in the type of downtown Topeka has.

“We’ll have restaurants, we’ll have unique retail, and we will see people at night and on weekends,” Frye said. “We will see people walking up and down the streets with their children enjoying the fountains, looking at the statues, learning who we are as a community because of the history [we’ll] have displayed. It’ll change dramatically because it will be a gathering spot.”