When you walk through Old Town, with its historic brick warehouses that have been converted into modern offices and loft apartments, local bars and unique restaurants, it might seem as if the area had always been a popular place for locals and tourists alike. But it was the vision and efforts of members of the Wichita community that kept the area from wasting away into a derelict urban warehouse district common in so many other cities. We’re fortunate to have such a charming, historical district.
Old Town sits at the eastern edge of downtown Wichita, spanning the area from Douglas to Central between Washington and Santa Fe.
The Old Town District wasn’t always the thriving urban hub we see today. When Wichita was founded in 1870, it was a major stop on the cattle trails going into and out of Texas. Just as in other towns along the Chisholm Trail, the railroad soon followed the cowboys. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway began operating in Wichita in 1872, running south from Central Avenue. Other tracks were added for the Frisco and Rock Island railroads, and the corridor became a large, thriving warehouse district serving the meat packing, real estate and tanning industries. The area was home to the manufacturing, distribution and retail services of companies like International Harvester and the Coleman Lamp Company.
Unfortunately, the railroad boom died out just as the cattle drives did, although not as quickly. Beginning in the late 1950s, the development of the country’s interstate highway system caused a shift in the shipping industry from rail to trucks. This led to the construction of new warehouses on the outskirts of town, where they were easily accessible from the highway. Eventually, 70% of the historic brick shops and warehouses in the current Old Town neighborhood sat vacant and boarded up.
Fortunately, a group of Wichita community members envisioned a new life waiting to be uncovered in the abandoned buildings and empty streets. They wanted to create a mixed-use district that would house commercial and residential properties. In 1983, after nearly a decade of meetings and planning sessions, the Old Town Association, along with area business leaders and citizens, unveiled the Old Town Development Plan. This established the urban design standards for today’s Old Town District and outlined opportunities for creating parking, as well as how to market and fund the project.
By 1991, Marketplace Properties had been chosen as the developer tasked with making street improvements, adding better lighting for pedestrians, widening the sidewalks and developing parking lots and garages. Not detail was left unaddressed, from removing curbs to make it easier for foot and bicycle traffic to get around, to preserving the area’s historic feel by paving the streets with brick and maintaining the boardwalks. The plan also included open spaces for festivals and concerts. New restaurants and other businesses continued to open in Old Town throughout the 1990s, but the area’s growth had only just begun.
In 2002, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation (WDDC) embarked on a mission to revitalize the entire downtown area, including Old Town. Part of the WDDC’s ongoing efforts include developing businesses and creating a thriving urban area for people to live, work and play. The following year, 2003, was a big year for Old Town: The District was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and construction began on the $7 million Old Town Warren Theatre, one of the most prominent businesses in Old Town Square today. In addition to the movie theater, the Square features a parking garage, restaurants, apartments, offices, retail shops and an open public area complete with a splash park.
Live, Work and Play Here
Today, with more than 130 businesses including restaurants and bars and two hotels, Old Town is a top destination for Wichita locals and visitors alike. The area’s cultural offerings include a theater and several galleries. If you’re looking for an evening out, the clubs and bars in the area are within easy walking distance of each other. On Saturday mornings from spring through fall, you can visit the Old Town Farmers Market to shop for local produce and tasty treats. And, upscale lofts and budget-friendly apartments allow you to live close to all the action. Find a business directory and list of upcoming events at www.oldtownwichita.com, and start planning your visit!