Evergy Plaza vision starts to take shape

The Topeka Capital-Journal

Work underway in the 600 block of S. Kansas Avenue has piqued the interest of Topekans curious to see the development of the long-anticipated Evergy Plaza, which is touted as a key development expected to draw people to downtown.

“They see the increased use of heavy equipment and in the coming weeks, when things dry out, we’ll have the concrete contractor come in there and start those footings and foundations,” Darren Younker, project manager with MCP Group, said in late May. “Definitely people are starting to notice.”

Even with the frustrations of a rainy spring, Younker expects the project — which will include a splash park with choreographed fountains, a 50-foot CapFed On 7th Stage, and a 30-foot digital screen — to be completed by the March 2020 projected opening.

“Things are going actually really well,” Younker said. “We’re still on track despite what I’m calling the monsoon season.”

MCP Group posted 360-degree, virtual-reality images of what the plaza will look like online, and visitors to the construction site can scan a QR code posted on a banner at the site to see how the view in front of them will change.

“You’ll look at the plaza and as you turn your phone and hold your phone up to the plaza it will show you what it will look like when it’s done,” Younker said. “It has little arrows you can tap that will move you through the plaza. You can go stand on the stage or pretty much any point in the plaza.”

The plaza will be programmed with free events about 250 days of the year. The water feature can serve as a splash park during the day followed by colored light and fountain shows at night and ice skating in the winter. Lights on the sound and light towers are controlled in the same systems as lights for the water feature and can be programmed to match the beat of the music being played.

“It will be something that is very unique,” said Vince Frye, president and CEO of Downtown Topeka Inc. “It will be something that will be available to all Topekans. That has always been our goal. That downtown is a place for everybody.”

Pat Michaelis, chairman of the Downtown Topeka Foundation, which owns the land and is the developer of the plaza, said the plaza is expected to bring three main benefits: 1) as an economic development engine for downtown; 2) as a source of community pride and enjoyment; and 3) to help forge connections.

“I am hopeful and confident that it will bring us all together as a community, all sections of town, all economic strata, all colors, all people,” Michaelis said. “I just think it will help us come together and enjoy things as a community.”

The construction of the plaza is projected to cost about $7 million, with the water feature carrying a price tag of about $1.6 million. The city allocated $3.435 million in transient guest tax money toward development of the plaza. Capitol Federal and Evergy each donated $2.5 million to the plaza. Other sponsors include Stormont Vail Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas.

John B. Dicus, CEO of Capitol Federal, said the bank has been located on Kansas Avenue since 1893, and the donation from the Capitol Federal Foundation represents the organization’s commitment to the community.

“Evergy Plaza will not only be for the citizens of Topeka, but for communities across northeast Kansas,” he said in an email. “It will bring people from other cities to Topeka, increasing revenue for businesses, restaurants and hotels across Shawnee County. It’s a win-win for not only the downtown core of Topeka, but for all areas of the city. With a strong downtown district, other redevelopment areas, like Wheatfield Plaza and NOTO’s Redbud park, will find an energized community, rooting for them to succeed.”

Jeff Martin, vice president of customer and community operations for Evergy, which was formed by the merger of Westar Energy and KCP&L, called the plaza “one of the pillars of the redevelopment of the downtown area.”

“With the merger of the companies, we wanted to make sure that Topeka understands that we are a part of the community, we want to be a part of the community, and that we’re going to be here for a long time,” Martin said.

Talk of developing a public plaza stretches back years, emerging repeatedly as community leaders and consultants identified such spaces as a key to downtown revitalization efforts.

“As far back as I can see, downtown plans or studies have identified a desire for a public gathering space in downtown,” said Zach Snethen, project architect with HTK Architects. “Improvements have been made on the streetscape. Improvements have been made at the Statehouse. Improvements have been made around town. But they haven’t ever really developed that fully visioned public gathering space. This isn’t something that has just been the last five years. It’s really been 10 and 20 years ago that have identified that this is a key component to successful downtowns.”

Recommendations to develop a downtown plaza came about seven years ago from Omaha, Neb.-based RDG Planning and Design and later from tourism consultant Roger Brooks. Brooks had worked with cities, including Rapid City, S.D., and Topeka leaders eventually traveled to that city to see its plaza firsthand.

“We’ve spent a lot of time studying and visiting Rapid City, South Dakota, where their plaza has truly turned that entire community around,” DTI’s Frye said. “Their downtown is thriving. The night we were there, there were about 10,000 people in the plaza for an event.”

Cody Foster, founder of AIM Strategies, was among those who went to Rapid City.

“Legitimately it was packed,” he said. “They had this summer night concert series and there were people everywhere. Every single person we talked to there, from some of the people that programmed the plaza to some of the city leaders to some of the business owners downtown, they all pointed to that plaza being the catalyst that transformed that area.”

He said Topeka has many advantages that Rapid City lacked before its plaza was developed, including 30,000 people who work within a six-block vicinity of downtown, the location of the state Capitol, and momentum from recent development. AIM Strategies owns several buildings in downtown and developed The Pennant, 915 S. Kansas Ave.; Iron Rail Brewing, 705 S. Kansas Ave.; and the Cyrus Hotel, 920 S. Kansas Ave.

The Topeka Lodging Association will help cover operating expenses with a Tourism Business Improvement District, which allows hotels to assess themselves $1 per room sold.

Kurt Young, executive director of the Topeka Lodging Association and chairman of the downtown plaza design committee, said plazas mean different things to different cities. To understand what Topeka’s plaza should include, leaders conducted a survey asking citizens what they wanted in a plaza and then incorporated the top suggestions into the design of Evergy Plaza.

“I think what will make it uniquely Topeka is the fountain,” Snethen said. “That experience, it’s not what Topeka is right now, but the experience with the fountains and the lighting and the sound and all of that will become something that’s really unmatched in the region. Regionally there’s nothing else like this in the greater northeast Kansas, central Midwest region.”

Snethen said what he is looking forward to most is “taking my 9-year-old son down there and enjoying it, watching him run around in the fountains, listening to music, just being down there and knowing that we’re going to have a good time down there just like we do when we travel.”

Those sentiments were echoed by others involved with the project.

“Where I come from in California we didn’t have anything like this,” said Younker of MCP Group. “This is really, really cool. I’m from the San Francisco Bay area.”

Younker said he is looking forward to bringing his children, ages 5 and 2, to the plaza.

“On a personal level my wife and I are really excited about it because it’s gonna be good for the kids,” he said. “We want our kids to be able to go do stuff downtown and appreciate Topeka.”

A recent graduate of Leadership Greater Topeka, Younker said that program emphasized creating a mindset of loving where you live.

“It’s projects like this that do that,” he said.

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