There’s been a new development in the debate about the parking lot proposed by Happiness Plaza, the center at 3555 E. Douglas that includes The Belmont and that would be home to a revival of Larcher’s Market.
On Tuesday, two of the three College Hill houses at the center of the discussion started coming down.
It should take a couple of days to complete the demolition of the houses, which sit side by side at 123 S. Clifton and 125 S. Clifton, just behind Happiness Plaza, said Tory DeMarce, a partner in The Belmont with Happiness Plaza owners Ryan Francisco and Anthony Francisco.
When the Franciscos bought Happiness Plaza in 2019, the home at 123 S. Clifton, which dates back to 1923, was part of the package. They’ve since acquired the house at 125 S. Clifton that was built around 1925 and a smaller adjacent house at 3344 E. Oakland, built around 1907.
But recently, DeMarce said, vandals started breaking into the two homes on Clifton, kicking in the back doors, breaking the windows and damaging the walls. The partners decided that, for safety’s sake, the two houses needed to come down. The smaller house on Oakland will stay for now, he said, as a couple of different interested parties investigate whether it can be relocated.
“To protect not only anyone that could be around the properties but also ourselves, we decided it was best to just take down the homes and keep going forward with the parking lot plan,” he said.
That plan, which the partners outlined earlier this year, would turn the lot the houses occupy behind the plaza into a bean-shaped parking lot with room for about 26 spaces. Their goal is to make the lot look more like a park and to include lots of landscaping, a seating area and a walking path.
But to do so, the owners had to ask the city to rezone the property behind the plaza all the way to Oakland, which is the next east-west street to the south.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission on Oct. 7 voted 8-2 in favor of a motion to allow the new parking lot. The meeting included hours of testimony from College Hill and Wichita residents both opposed to and in favor of the parking lot. Many were focused on the three houses. Because the houses weren’t protected by a historical designation, the owners said, they could take them down regardless of the zoning vote.
The matter was sent to the Wichita City Council for a final vote on Nov. 9, but at that meeting, the council voted to defer the item to Dec. 14 and to use the time to gather more input.
After that meeting, said city spokeswoman Megan Lovely, the city asked The Car Park, the Idaho-based company it contracts with to manage city parking lots, to do a parking study looking at the core area along Douglas and the key areas on the Douglas corridor. The company will present its findings to the council on Dec. 14, she said.
The Franciscos say they need the additional parking to be able to open their re-imagined Larcher’s Market, a specialty market that would also serve coffee, breakfast and lunch in the almost 2,000 square feet that’s vacant on the center’s east end.
The market, which will feature local meats, produce, coffee and other products, would be named Larcher’s and would serve as a tribute to the business started by Frank Larcher, who was the great-grandfather of Ryan Francisco’s wife, Lacy. Frank Larcher opened Larcher’s at Erie and Central in 1922, having bought it as a gift for his wife, Rose. He paid $400.
As for what they’ll do with the soon-to-be-empty lots if the city turns down the zoning change?
DeMarce said the owners aren’t considering that possibility yet.
“We’re just working on our plans to make it the best parking lot that would fit into the neighborhood,” he said.
Some residents were surprised to see the houses coming down on Tuesday, said College Hill Neighborhood Association President Trish Hileman, who has become a spokesperson for the neighbors opposed to the project.
But she was not among them, she said. Once the owners cut off the utilities to the houses, she knew it was likely coming.
Still, she said, even with the houses gone, the group is opposed to the parking lot plan and wants the lots to stay residential. They’ve been speaking with City Council members and trying to persuade them that chipping away at the neighborhood is not what’s best for it.
Ideally, she said, the council votes against the zoning change next week and the property owners either sell the land to people willing to build neighborhood-appropriate houses or duplexes or do it themselves.
“These guys came in and they made a beautiful restaurant and they’ve invested into Wichita and that’s awesome,” she said. “I wish they would have worked with the city and with the neighborhood more and listened a little more. This is not what’s best for Wichita — this parking lot and this push into residential.”