This article is the second in a three-part series on the aftermath of a fatal traffic collision in Wichita, Kansas by strong citizen Alex Pemberton, and inspired by key Strong Towns ideas. Read part 1 here and part 2 hereThis essay was originally published on the Yellowbrick Street Team blog and is republished here with permission.

Anyone with familiarity of the City of Wichita's financial position should understand that there is something deeply amiss; we can't provide a level of service that competes with our peer cities. The general consensus is that — as a city which hasn't raised its property tax mill levy in several decades — we simply don't tax enough to meet the demands of a 21st Century city.

Our police department is understaffed by nearly 75 officers. The city's water and sewer system faces over $2 billion in deferred maintenance. Our parks system is relying on gimmick license plates to fund drinking fountains and picnic shelters. One out of every five streets in our city is classified as "decrepit" — a result of political pressures and a long-term misunderstanding of the true cost of maintenance. 

While many of these issues are not unique to Wichita — and many of the solutions are admirable, offering creative ways to allow citizens to support causes they care about — wouldn't it be better if we could fund these basic obligations as a part of the normal operations of our city? Wouldn't it be better to not have to raise taxes, or get creative?

That will require us to ask fundamentally different questions. What if our premises are wrong? What if the problem is not one of revenue, but return on investment? 

Wichita's overbuilt transportation system has led to unnecessary financial hardship in both the public and private sector — and today, we'll discuss three small stretches of street that reveal the unproductivity inherent in our development model.


What are Streets for?

Before we get into the gruesome analysis (yay, numbers!), we need to first understand the purpose of cities and the streets within them. 

Cities are platforms for economic and cultural exchange — civilization's physical marketplace for all things that make us human.

Traditionally, roads played the role of connective tissue — providing the linkages between centers of exchange — and streets played the role of foundations upon which to make productive use of land. Streets developed over time as the productivity of destinations along them demanded it. 

A look at photos from early Wichita gives insight into the traditional role of streets. In its infancy, the city was comprised of little more than pop-up shacks — land brokers, hardware stores, and other merchants — often with proprietors living above their shops or in similarly-constructed homes nearby. Each storefront had its own, separate walkway between the street and the building; the streets were dirt.

As the city grew and developed, those businesses that were successful replaced their pop-up shacks with larger buildings made of better materials. Buildings with multiple stories, made of brick and stone, with increasingly ornate detail began to line the streets where a hodgepodge of wooden structures once stood. The most successful streets, like Main and Douglas, were soon fully lined with such buildings — yet the buildings still maintained private walkways. Even when the streets became so successful that horse-drawn trolleys — and later, the electric variety — were installed, the streets were still unpaved.

Traditionally, infrastructure followed investment. Eventually those successful streets grew to the point that the merchants and patrons demanded greater quality — taxes were levied to pave the streets with brick and install unified sidewalks between buildings.

The advent of suburbia changed that pattern of development. Starting with streetcar lines that were extended into neighborhoods like College Hill and Fairmount — often owned in part by the land developers and operated as loss-leaders — and escalated with the post-War, car-oriented suburban building boom, infrastructure led investment.

East Kellogg, circa 1952. As suburban development patterns took hold, the nature and purpose of streets fundamentally changed

East Kellogg, circa 1952. As suburban development patterns took hold, the nature and purpose of streets fundamentally changed

From the 1950s on, neighborhoods were developed on wheat fields further and further from downtown — often leapfrogging over large, undeveloped sections — induced by the new, world-class road infrastructure.

It must be understood that this pattern of development — this way of building cities — was fundamentally different than in the entirety of human history. Suburbanization marked a shift in streets away from platforms for productive exchange to connectors between places of productivity. It blurred the line between streets and roads to what we refer to today as stroads — infrastructure that seeks to accomplish the fundamental purpose of both streets and roads, unable to do either well. And above all, this new pattern of development was a grand experiment, with its best practices unknown and its consequences unknowable. 

This experiment, we now understand, has been a failure. Cities have been unable to maintain the massive amounts of infrastructure that their development patterns require. Wichita is no different.

Doing the Math

There are two ways our city pays for its street infrastructure. When a new street is being built — or an existing street is being rebuilt, expanded, or reconfigured — the money comes from a Capital Improvement Program, or CIP. Basic maintenance is paid for through the Public Works Department budget

Unfortunately, most of our streets serve places that inherently lack the financial productivity required to pay for their development. To demonstrate this, we've analyzed three projects in Wichita's current CIP — two suburban arterial expansions and one urban street reconfiguration. Simply doing the math reveals a clear winner.

The three upcoming CIP projects studied differ wildly in their financial impacts and returns.

The three upcoming CIP projects studied differ wildly in their financial impacts and returns.

The three projects analyzed are:

  • The Douglas Design District Streetscape - Phase 1
    • A $6.5 million plan to convert East Douglas from Washington to Grove into an urban street that supports business activity and improves walkability; set to begin in 2023
  • 13th Street Expansion
    • A $4 million plan to expand 13th Street from 119th to 135th; set to begin in 2019
  • Pawnee Expansion
    • A $5 million plan to expand Pawnee from Webb to Greenwich; set to begin in 2018

We analyzed the property values and tax generation of the land surrounding the streets by comparing their productivity to the cost of each project. We found that while none of the areas generate enough taxes to pay for their respective project, only the Douglas Streetscape project has the potential to improve its surroundings, spur further economic growth, and justify its cost.

1.  Douglas Design District Streetscape

The businesses in Wichita's emerging Douglas Design District have long recognized that the street that comprises their vital artery does not serve the needs of the district, an urban business district comprised of over 300 local businesses, many of them in the design industries. Douglas Avenue more often resembles an airport tarmac than an urban street, with two wide driving lanes in each direction and parking on both sides.

The entire corridor — from Washington to Oliver — sees between 11,121 and 15,080 vehicles per day, suggesting that the street could function well with a tighter configuration.

In fact, the street's low utilization induces drivers to operate their vehicles at speeds unconducive to a vibrant, walkable retail street; 85th percentile speeds along the corridor ranged from 36 to 38 miles per hour, averaging 37.1 mph. At that rate of speed, a pedestrian would be killed in nearly 65% of collisions and seriously injured in 98%. 

The project would improve crosswalks, add a landscaped median, and enhance the uniqe identity of the district. District boosters are currently engaging in a campaign called "2020 Vision" that advocates for the project to be moved up in the CIP from 2023 to 2020. 

The impact area of the project — roughly from 2nd to Waterman and Washington to Grove — comprises approximately 312 acres, which generate $98.3 million in property value and $583,679 in yearly property taxes to the City of Wichita. Based on these numbers, the $6.5 million project has a 9.0% static rate of return (annual taxes generated/project cost), resulting in an 11.1-year payback period assuming all taxes generated in the impact area go to pay for the project.

The Douglas Streetscape impact area comprises over 1,000 parcels on 312 acres; most of the area is zoned CBD, which allows for high-intensity development, resulting in a high ceiling for productivity

The Douglas Streetscape impact area comprises over 1,000 parcels on 312 acres; most of the area is zoned CBD, which allows for high-intensity development, resulting in a high ceiling for productivity

Of course, streets aren't the only component of a city budget — property taxes also fund things like public safety, parks, and so on. To account for this, we ran the project costs against the proportionate share of taxes generated to both the Public Works Department as a whole and its Outsourced Preservation Program, the primary method for street maintenance; payback periods were 78.75 and 319.55 years, respectively. Given that the average life cycle of a street is 40 years, this means that the street would fail twice before the area generated enough tax revenue for the Public Works Department to rebuild it with a similar project once.

To be financially sustainable, then, the project must reasonably be able to generate additional development or an increase in property values of existing properties. 

2.  13th Street Expansion

The 13th Street project will extend the corridor's two-lane configuration past Azure Lane to the 135th Street intersection into a three-lane configuration. The corridor is almost fully-developed, with only a single commercial parcel undeveloped, and is characterized by low-density suburban residential development.

The 13th Street project has an impact area of 400 acres, almost fully-developed with low-density residential; there is little marginal growth potential

The 13th Street project has an impact area of 400 acres, almost fully-developed with low-density residential; there is little marginal growth potential

The corridor sees extremely low traffic counts, with an average of 4,897 vehicles per day at the east end toward 119th and only 2,850 vehicles per day at the west end near 135th. This calls into question the need to expand the corridor at all — its impact area is almost fully-developed; properties have maximized their zoned capacity, limiting potential for intensification; and the corridor still operates at less than 30% of its built capacity. There is perhaps an argument to be made that the addition of dedicated turn lanes will improve safety along the corridor, but these could be limited to only the areas immediate to the entry points of subdivisions along the segment of 13th Street.

The lack of immediate need makes it difficult to justify the project's negative return on investment. The area generates $81.9 million in property value and $310,842 per year in taxes to the City of Wichita — a 7.8% return on the $4 million project and payback periods of 91 and 369 years to the Public Works Department and Outsourced Preservation Program, respectively. At the current rate of property tax generation — which is limited by the area's lack of new development potential — the project has a failure ratio of 2.27 and 9.23, respective to the PWD and OPP budgets.

This is the definition of a big investment with lots of risk and little upside.

3.  Pawnee Expansion

The Pawnee project, which would expand a two-lane, curbless country road into a modern, suburban arterial, is something of a mix of the two previous projects. The corridor is similar in character to the 13th Street segment, but is much earlier in its lifecycle and has much land to be developed; however, if it develops in a character consist to its surroundings and in a similar pattern as 13th Street, it will never be able to generate enough productivity to support its infrastructure.

The Pawnee corridor comprises 510 acres of mostly undeveloped land, with some low-density housing development

The Pawnee corridor comprises 510 acres of mostly undeveloped land, with some low-density housing development

Currently, the impact area includes only $38 million in property value, generating just $144,440 per year in taxes to the City of Wichita. On a $5 million expansion project, that punches out to a 2.9% annual static return on cost. As currently developed, it would take the area 244 years to generate enough taxes to pay the project's share of the public works budget, and 993 years to pay for its share of the annual maintenance budget. 

The project will need to be redone more than six times before it has paid for itself once.

The area does have some marginal development potential, though, with nearly three-quarters comprised of undeveloped land. The intensity at which that development must happen to support its infrastructure, though, is unlikely.

The area currently generates $74,608 dollars in property value per acre; to support its infrastructure, it would need to generate $1.85 million dollars per acre. That intensity of development is similar to the northwest corner of Wichita's Central Business District, which is characterized by large office buildings and some of the highest-density residential development in the entire city. 

Creating Platforms for Productivity

As briefly mentioned in each of the project analyses, the three areas carry wildly differing potential for marginal development to improve their financial productivity. Pawnee has room for growth (but must improve its pace significantly), 13th is essentially frozen in place, and Douglas could intensify to a level similar to Old Town to the west — which would generate enough productivity to support its infrastructure.

This is the fundamental difference between urban and suburban streets — urban streets remain platforms of productivity, while suburban streets are merely conduits between productivity.

Since the completion of the Delano Streetscape in 2003, property values have steadily climbed

Since the completion of the Delano Streetscape in 2003, property values have steadily climbed

The history of streetscape reversions in Wichita bears out this fundamental fact. In Delano, where Douglas Avenue was improved similar to the plans for the Douglas Design District, property values have increased at a rate three times that of the rest of the city. 

Since 2003, when the Delano streetscape was completed, the appraised value of property within the district increased 120.7%; the areas of the city that were already developed in 2003 increased only 48%. 

A similar pattern has played out on St. Francis Street in the downtown district. What was once a featureless, one-way thoroughfare has been converted into a two-way, pedestrian-oriented urban street. As a result, several properties along the corridor have been redeveloped and property values have increased significantly.

When urban streets are designed to serve urban needs — pedestrians, shoppers, residents, people — rather than simply acting as conduits for car traffic, the properties along them flourish.

The Douglas Design District streetscape project, therefore, is the only of the three studied projects that has a reasonable ability to spur economic regeneration at a level necessary to justify its cost — with the added benefit of making the corridor safer and more pleasant, rather than the opposite as will happen with the two suburban expansions.

Moving Toward Zero and From Profligacy to Productivity

The numbers are clear. The reasoning is sound. The results are just. 

But as things stand today, the City of Wichita (and cities like it) still prioritizes the needless expansion of wasteful suburban arterials over the regeneration of safe and productive urban streets. The current CIP slates the Pawnee project to begin in 2018, the 13th Street project to begin in 2019, and the Douglas project not until 2023. 

City leaders are currently in the process of reviewing the CIP, during which time they can choose to reprioritize projects or drop them entirely. We encourage our city council and staff to fully consider the ramifications of each project on the health, wealth, and safety of all Wichitans. Our infrastructure decisions have tremendous impact on the degree to which Wichita is a livable and lovable city. 

This series has clearly demonstrated the flaws in our current approach — prioritizing speed over safety and expansion over excellence in our street design.

We call on the city council to move the Pawnee and 13th Street projects back in the CIP and replace them with the Douglas Design District streetscaping plan, supporting the District's 2020 Vision. 

The time is now for safe and productive streets. Will our city leaders check their clocks?