by Ben Welty, August 3, 2010
Revised – March 7, 2021
In Loving Memory of Thomas Carmona, long-time Topekan, devoted husband and father, and a dear friend to many in the community.
He alone made the city worth a visit.
On June 8, 2010, the grassroots organization ReThink Topeka scheduled a “High Noon” event on South Kansas Avenue in downtown Topeka, Kansas, calling on the 35,000 people who live and work there to step outside and make the sidewalks come alive – an admirable goal. However, walking the streets that day I wondered if anybody received the message as the heart of the city showed few signs of life (Fig. 1). And despite the attempts of local musicians and poets to animate the street corners, the few people they drew reflected a city gasping for breath, discouraging for a place once imagined to be a model of urban life.
So why did this event fail to generate a pulse in the heart of Kansas’s capital city? A visit to the group’s website revealed no mention of the event,* and the local paper ran only a short blurb noting that it was taking place, referencing a post on the group’s Facebook page.1
Would more publicity have led to a larger turnout? Perhaps…or perhaps not. Maybe downtown Topeka simply has no appeal?
To the nonchalant pedestrian strolling down certain stretches of South Kansas Avenue,
an element of deception buttresses its false façade. At first glance its brick paved sidewalks – lined with trees and shrubs, dotted with benches and street lamps, and with glass-framed bus shelters tucked in here and there – make for an attractive streetscape (Fig. 2). But it doesn’t take long for a sense of desolation to sink in once the less-than-modest flow of pedestrians subsides after the lunch hour, with empty street corners greeting those who remain to insipid views of vacant storefronts and half-empty parking lots carving voids into the city fabric (Fig. 3). Intermittent vehicular traffic does little to enliven the four-lane road, and quick glances down side streets offer nothing to pique curiosity and encourage impromptu excursions off of the beaten path. These are not signs of vitality, to be sure. But why has the city evolved in this way? Might it be the scar tissue from an ill-fated incision meant to bring the city back to life?
*Although, it should be noted that I visited the website the day after the event and any advertisement for it may have already been removed.
Estimated read: 45 min
1: Topeka, In Brief
2: Identity Crisis: Urban Renewal & I-70
3: Like Kansas City, Only Smaller
4: Planned Obsolescence
5: Wrong Turn
6: [Re]Location, [Re]Location, [Re]Location
7: Zoned Out
8: Out With the Old, In With the New
9: Going Nowhere Fast
10: The City, Today
11: Back to the Drawing Board
13: To Be Continued?
1: Topeka, In Brief
The city of Topeka, Kansas, traces its roots back to the Oregon Trail in the 1840’s, when three half-Kansas Indian sisters from Independence, Missouri, and their French-Canadian husbands, began a ferry service for travelers crossing the Kansas River. The city was incorporated in 1857 and blossomed into a prominent commercial hub for the region as it became a regular stop for steamboats offering goods for trade. In 1861, after Kansas was admitted to the Union as the 34th state, Topeka was officially named the capital.
The city experienced periods of economic prosperity and depression over the next several decades. Three major railway systems, the Union Pacific Railroad, the Santa Fe Railroad and the Rock Island Railroad were established between 1860 -1890 which led to a boom period for the city. Speculation dominated its real estate exchange which led to the ruining of many investors when the bubble burst in 1889. However, due to the advent of the railroads and becoming a major thoroughfare, the population of the city doubled and it was able to survive the depressions of the 1890’s.
Topeka faced its first major natural disaster in the spring of 1903 when the banks of the Kansas River flooded, leaving much of North Topeka, a largely industrial area, under water. In response to the disaster, townspeople constructed levees to prevent a reoccurrence and Topeka was able to recover and maintain steady economic growth with the rest of the country in spite of the industrial setback. However, growth fell to a historical low during the Great Depression before Topeka settled economically as a medium-sized city dependent on agriculture (Fig. 4). The 1940’s saw the development of new industries, the emergence of which became crucial to its economic diversity. But a decade later, Topeka fell victim to an epidemic sweeping the country, one whose long-term effects remain visible in its urban decay.
2: Identity Crisis: Urban Renewal & I-70
Topeka is thus on its way to creation of a civic jewel where ashes and dust were edging into the heart of the city.The Topeka State Journal, February 16, 19603
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, city planners across the country mobilized as they were faced with the challenge of rejuvenating their urban centers. At the same time the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was funding the construction of the nation’s highways coast to coast. The National Housing Act of 1954 abetted this movement, coining the term “urban renewal,” which described the reshaping of American cities through the acquisition and clearance of areas designated as slums, and intended to protect cities from further blight. Topeka, intent on becoming a model city, embraced these programs and hoped to reinvent itself and bring life back to its downtown. However, it was a utopian ambition that shows no evidence of having come to fruition, leaving this chapter of Topeka’s history to serve as a catalyst for its present state.
3: Like Kansas City, Only Smaller
Reinventing the wheel…is not a waste of time. Imitation is. There is more to gain than lose in arriving at a new solution.Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz4
As talk of urban renewal spread throughout Topeka, community interest was kindled by stories in local newspapers of the successes that Kansas City, Missouri, experienced with efforts to reinvent itself through the aid of government funding. Articles reported that “What has been done in Kansas City illustrates what Topeka’s Urban Renewal Agency hopes to do on a small scale,”5 and descriptions of slum removal in blighted areas of the city painted a portrait of success that promised “a downtown area in which existing streets will be converted to pedestrian malls with moving sidewalks to facilitate passage of shoppers from fringe parking areas.”6 But could the perceived success of another city be translated into success for Topeka’s urban renewal program?
In their book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, co-authors Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz note that one of the hurdles to downtown rebirth facing a city is “the ‘me too’ syndrome, the assumption that to be competitive, the big ideas happening elsewhere must be imported.”7 This common mistake was embedded in Topeka’s urban renewal beginnings, as comparisons to places such as Kansas City, Fort Worth and Brooklyn were drawn to broadcast Topeka’s future, despite it being a much smaller city with an economic base relying on different types of industry. Yet the newspapers continued to publish aerial photographs of Kansas City’s intricate freeway systems, with its dramatic skyline sculpted by skyscrapers, shopping centers, high-rise apartment buildings and public housing projects. This, they claimed, was to be Topeka’s future, just on a smaller scale.
4: Planned Obsolescence
The renewal program makes certain development of a carefully planned new district, performing the broadest function in serving its city. Its 26 blocks will be intersected by a major highway, its new buildings as they go in providing Topeka with a gateway few other cities or even metropolises will be able to rival.The Topeka State Journal, July 18, 19608
By the mid-1950’s, portions of downtown Topeka had become blighted, with dilapidated housing creating substandard living conditions and, as one article described, “many blocks…where hovels face onto dismal alleys, where junk piles high in the yards…[and] where people live far below decent standards”9 (Figs. 5, 6). Another noted the thousands of square feet of downtown upper-story floor space left vacant, reporting that, “Fifteen or twenty feet above street level along Kansas Avenue, a second story ghost town is evolving gradually.”10 However, enrollment in the Federal Government’s Urban Renewal Program provided new hope for the city and brought promises of a brighter future.
By June 1956, Topeka mayor George Schnellbacher had completed appointments to a 35-man advisory committee that, after a careful study of the area, granted approval for the city’s urban renewal initiative. A five-man Urban Renewal Agency was formed on August 7, 1956, eventually approving plans for a 37-block, 207.2 acre project area northeast of the central business district. The plan for the area (Fig. 7), known as the “Keyway,” was submitted to the Federal Government and approved on December 23, 1956, and sought “to eliminate substandard housing and to improve the usefulness of land where dilapidation of existing structures has created a public nuisance.”14 Its benefits would include “improved housing and living conditions, revitalization of the downtown business district, increased payrolls by the generation of new construction and business, and putting an older section of the city back into full value.”15
Planning was also underway at the time for the construction of Interstate 70 through downtown Topeka, which would connect the newly constructed Kansas Turnpike to the east and US-40 to the west.* Though construction had already begun on a bypass (now the toll-free portion of I-470) west of Topeka, the downtown route was deemed necessary to “revolutionize Topeka traffic patterns by providing swift, through access to the downtown district.”16 Furthermore, it would provide direct connections to the central business and industrial districts envisioned in the Keyway plan. Its planned route (as it also lies today) entered downtown from the east and curved north at 10th between Madison and Monroe, continued north to Fourth, then curved west to a point at about Second and Kansas Avenue (Fig. 8). Cutting through the heart of the city, it would claim approximately seven square blocks in the Keyway (nearly 20 percent of the area), and would result in the removal of all buildings in its right-of-way.
As momentum grew and the Keyway Urban Renewal project and I-70 plans moved forward, proposals were made by local architects, businessmen, realtors and contractors for development of the area, many of which included large supermarkets, department stores, drive-in banks, car washes, filling stations and ample above and below ground parking (Fig. 9). Proposed zoning of the area allocated the areas north and east of the expressway, bound by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and the Kansas River, for industrial development, and the area to the southwest as an expansion of the central business district.
In January 1959, a model of the proposed Keyway area improvements (Fig. 10), on view in a local store window, caught the attention of passersby as many stopped to comment on the display. One Topeka resident, Judy Branam, claimed that, “With the development of this project, Topeka should become one of the most up-to-date cities in the United States.”17 Another observer, Marlyn Nolan, described how it would “mean more parking space and [would] increase Topeka’s chance for more commerce and industry.”18
Not only did the casual citizen support the plan, local businessmen did as well. “I want to see urban renewal because Topeka needs something down here,” mentioned John Kritzer, president of a furniture company located near the urban renewal area, adding that, “There is no public parking below 6th, other than our store’s parking lot.”19 Harley Cox, a manager of Montgomery Ward & Co., remarked, “Anything that would improve downtown parking would be a blessing.”20
However, not everyone viewed the urban renewal initiatives as a positive thing for the city. One man who stopped to view the model on display, farmer and realtor James Cline, commented on the I-70 expressway saying, “That’s the trouble today, there are too many roads where cars can speed. I think our roads are okay as they are now, you always get where you are
going, maybe just a little slower.”24 Lee Samuels, a clothing store owner, also objected to the expressway fearing that “the interstate highway will cut too close to the downtown area. It will hem us in, so to speak.”25 Another skeptic, James W. McIver, field director of the National Small Businessmen’s Association, voiced his frustrations wondering, “What’s going to happen to main street in Topeka when the new area is built? I’m talking about the little dress shop, the druggist, the shoe shine stand. You can be sure that the large corporations won’t be hurt nearly so much.”26 Today, vacant storefronts provide the answer.
On June 5, 1959, the Topeka State Journal reported that the Urban Renewal Agency’s Keyway plan had gained federal approval. Over the course of the next year it would go through several changes, with the ultimate decision made to delete nine and one-third blocks in May 1960 (Fig.11). Recommendations were also made to shift I-70 from its planned route between Madison and Monroe a block and a half east to Jefferson Street, though these pleas were ignored due to cost and time constraints.
*This portion of US-40, just west of the city, had previously been converted to the nation’s first stretch of interstate.
In January 1961, city commissioners declared the Keyway “a combination slum and blighted area,”28 and then approved the amended Urban Renewal plan on February 27, 1961. The Topeka Daily Capital described the final scope of the project:
The amended project area is generally bounded on the north by the river, on the west by Kansas Avenue and on the east by the Santa Fe tracks. The southern boundary begins east of the Post Office property at Kansas, extends east to the alley between Quincy and Monroe, south to 5th, east to Monroe, south to 6th and east to Adams.
Redevelopment plans for the area call for “I” light industrial zoning north of 3rd and east of Madison with the balance zoned “H” for business use.29
On March 15, 1961, federal officials approved the revised plan and Topeka’s Urban Renewal Agency began buying properties in the Keyway area. In total, 648 families, or about 2,000 people, were being forced to move out of the 27-block site, with 300 to 400 families, about 1,200 people, forced to relocate because of the construction of I-70.30 By May 1962, demolition was underway and the center of the Urban Renewal Area fell quiet as the majority of the buildings had been cleared and most of the people relocated. The Topeka Daily Capital described the scene:
In the middle you’ll find reminders of neighborhoods; sidewalks that lead to shallow holes – holes about the size of basements that have been filled in. They’re graves of a sort…
Quiet prevails in the middle but no where in the Urban renewal area is the silence more noticeable than over the strip of ground that will underlie the elevated I-70 super highway.
All that remains there are sidewalks and lawns – no trees, no buildings, no sound. It’s unnatural. With all this evidence of people, there ought not to be quiet.31
Nearly 50 years later, with only the ghosts of its past left to tell its story, the silence remains, only to be broken by the occasional passing of cars overhead.
Land sales in the Urban Renewal area began in December 1962, with inquiries for the acquisition of sites coming in from several firms representing various types of industrial and commercial interests. The following year, the Urban Renewal Agency began studying the possibility of adding a two-block area to the plan (left out originally due to opposition of property owners), bound by Kansas and Madison between Fifth and Sixth streets, ultimately approving it in June 1964.
Family relocation in the area, previously estimated to take until June 1965, had been completed the previous December and 97 percent of the structures had been razed, ahead of the estimated completion date. Thirty-seven percent of the properties had been sold and developers in the Keyway were named as the project continued on or ahead of schedule.32 Over the next eight years urban renewal in Topeka pushed forward, transforming the landscape of downtown by weaving a new urban fabric with a frayed modern thread (Fig. 12).
By 1973, after 17 years of planning and development, the project was closed out at a final cost of $8.2 million (about $40 million today). In their 1973 Annual Report, the Urban Renewal Agency declared that, “Comparing the original model representing the dream…for redevelopment with what is now in place…we can conclude that the quality of the dream has been exceeded by that of the reality”33 (Fig.13).
But had Topeka, in fact, realized its dream? Under the guise of urban renewal it transformed its downtown into what it believed to be a masterpiece of modern urbanity. Absent, though, was the foresight needed to envision the consequences of regarding the city as a blank canvas, as its sense of identity was erased.
5: Wrong Turn
For every problem there is a simple solution and it is wrong.H. L. Mencken
Topeka’s urban renewal ambitions mirrored the fanciful ideas peddled by planners and developers of extravagant redevelopment plans aimed at revitalizing city centers. In their Planning Report for “Keyway” Urban Renewal Project, the Topeka Association of Architects (T.A.A.) explained that, “With the redevelopment of Keyway…the type of neighborhood will change from residential to commercial and industrial…The building of the interstate highway through the area with its large right-of-way and elevated structures will change the nature of the area. The changing of the type of neighborhood eliminates the need for schools, churches, and parks.”36 But, in hindsight, they were relocating the population to create a place that needed to be populated, only with no one left to do so. They had effectively killed downtown “in the name of saving it.”37
Topeka’s urban planners made the same common error other cities across the country were making at the time in believing that it needed massive immediate change, and that the only way to revive it was to erase memories of the past and start anew. But, as Gratz and Mintz observed, “This pattern of planned urban destruction parading as renewal…led to the sprawling, dysfunctional landscape with which the nation now wrestles.”38 This is because successful cities are not planned – they evolve over time, creating a sense of “place” by the people who make them their own.
Today, much of Topeka’s downtown lacks a sense of identity due to these past misconceptions. The Keyway plan uprooted residents and businesses, promoted single-use zoning that discouraged diversity and created borders, and left holes in the urban fabric where buildings once stood. The highway further divided the city, with wider surface streets and ample parking further encouraging the use of automobiles, thereby creating the need for even more roads. What they left in their wake is no “civic jewel.”
6: [Re]Location, [Re]Location, [Re]Location
[T]o overcome slums, we must regard slum dwellers as people capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are. We need to discern, respect and build upon the forces for regeneration that exist in slums themselves, and that demonstrably work in real cities.Jane Jacobs39
Relocating people from blighted or “slum” areas proved to be one of the most serious problems for Topeka’s Urban Renewal Agency. Norville Wingate, Urban Renewal director, declared that, “Finding ‘good’ housing for these families,…not just another place to live, is the ‘entire hub of our program.’”40 He established an office in the Keyway area to connect with the people who lived there and promised to be “tough with [his] helpers”41 as they attempted to understand the problems concerning relocation. However, as noble as the gesture may have been presented, identifying the best method for relocating families did not get to the root of the problem – the problem was that they were being forced to move in the first place.
While coordinating an early relocation survey of residents in the Keyway, Dr. William Key, sociology professor at Topeka’s Washburn University, described the difficulties of relocation with fears that “unless considerable effort was made, many of the poorest families would be worse off after the project than before,” and “this was because many of the area residents‘ live in a very precarious equilibrium in which they can meet their day to day problems if nothing upsets this equilibrium.’ ” He goes on to say that a “substantial proportion of the minority groups believe that the project was designed to get rid of them.”42 Jane Jacobs illustrates this point in her renowned book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, mentioning that “relatively few people enter low-income projects by free choice; rather, they have been thrown out of their previous neighborhoods to make way for ‘urban renewal’ or highways and, especially if they are colored and therefore subject to housing discrimination, have had no other choice.”43
So what was really being done? Slum clearance did more than just raze houses to make way for new and better development; it removed people from their neighborhoods, destroyed local businesses and, as described by the T.A.A., tore down schools, churches and parks. A sense of community was lost, only to be replaced by strangers who worked in the city but left for the suburbs as soon as the workday ended. Jacobs bemoaned this practice saying that, “At best, it merely shifts slums from here to there, adding its own tincture of extra hardship and disruption. At worst, it destroys neighborhoods where constructive and improving communities exist and where the situation calls for encouragement rather than destruction.”44
But there was a better answer ignored by project planners too obsessed with trying to design utopia: By focusing on regeneration instead of redevelopment, the common goal of revitalizing the city could be reached. Ideally, efforts would have been made to keep people in place and build upon their roots. That was an unattractive solution, though, because massive immediate change is more easily sold than slow evolution, and offers a more immediate return on developers’ investments.
However, funds allocated for loans and subsidized housing should have been committed to helping people improve their environment, because moving them from one place to another did not ensure their problems would not follow. People have an attachment to where they live, and providing them with the means to improve their situation meant regeneration of “blighted” areas was possible. This was the change they were looking for but were instead forced out of their homes, left with only the memories of their lost communities. As one man who used to visit the area as a child recalled, “When you ask the older folks about 4th Street, an automatic smile comes to their faces. It is with tremendous sadness that there is nothing like a plaque or momento [sic] to establish the current site of the Topeka/Shawnee County Police Department as the place that used to be 4th Street[,] the Mecca of Black and Latino family life in Topeka during the time period.”45 Unfortunately, one man’s “Mecca” was another man’s “slum.”
Residents of the area weren’t the only ones adversely affected by the Urban Renewal program. Local businesses and property owners suffered from what Gratz and Mintz described as “the death threat syndrome,” explaining that:
Any residential, commercial, or industrial area begins to die once a new destiny is planned for it. Property owners cease maintenance, anticipating condemnation and demolition. Banks won’t lend money, even if property owners are inclined to invest. Businesses move out, not waiting for the battle to play out. Even if an announced Project Plan eventually fails to materialize, the announced plan can kill an area.46
In Topeka, Frank Wilson, owner of a building at Sixth and Jefferson, began losing tenants due to misconceptions about the program.47 Golda Carlson, a property owner in the original Keyway project area, was told by the Urban Renewal Agency not to make improvements to her property before it was ultimately deleted from the project.48 Sears and Roebuck left for the suburbs and local businesses were forced to relocate due to demolition. These were the most common effects of misguided city planning during this time period, all of which could have been avoided if efforts had only been made to help people stay instead of moving them out.
7: Zoned Out
To see what is wrong, it is only necessary to drop in at any ordinary shop and observe the contrast between the mob scene at lunch and the dullness at other times. It is only necessary to observe the deathlike stillness that settles on the district after five-thirty Saturday and Sunday.Jane Jacobs49
With the decision to start from scratch, the Urban Renewal Agency would be able to zone the land for what they considered to be the best use, to the benefit of developers. As the T.A.A. explained, “The existing zoning of the area is a heterogeneous mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial zones…The proposed plan indicates a complete change of this situation; by including large land areas in a single zone the redevelopment of the area will be uniform and add to the effectiveness of Urban Renewal.”50 The only goal that this fallible zoning philosophy achieved was that it made things easier for planners, who far too often were content in settling for obvious solutions. But it is the “heterogeneous mixture” of uses that make cities successful, allowing them to evolve into diverse places and drawing users to their core at all times of day.
Because of the way I-70 would divide the Keyway area, the Urban Renewal Agency and developers felt the most logical solution was to zone the blocks north and west of the freeway for industry and those to the southwest for commerce.* Unfortunately, this method of single-use zoning, combined with the construction of the highway, did nothing more than create boundaries that divided the city. Instead, a mixture of uses should have been promoted to foster cross-use and blur the boundaries between city districts. A vibrant city is not one that has distinct boundaries, it is one where you can move from one part to the other without noticing the transition. As Jacobs explains, “Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order.”51
Diverse cities are successful and intriguing places because they promote primary- and secondary-uses that contribute to the success of one another. They rely on each other for survival and create a complex framework for city life. The single-use zoning in the Keyway area prohibited this framework from forming, with its bland uniformity repelling life. The desire to separate dirty industrial areas from residential and commercial zones may have appeared logical, with the location of I-70 and the Santa Fe tracks seen as perfect barriers for preventing the spread of fumes into these districts, as if they extended to the heavens. But, as Jacobs notes, “the air doesn’t know about zoning boundaries.”52
Topeka’s Urban Renewal program uprooted families from their communities without replacing them, allocating only a small portion of the Keyway for residential uses. However, to realize diversity, a city needs dense concentrations of people who make the city their own and give it an identity, with a balanced mixture of zoning that attracts people to the streets throughout the day. If not, they fall dead on evenings and weekends as workers retreat to their suburban homes, with nothing to draw them back. To witness this phenomenon in Topeka, stop by Schlotzsky’s deli at 607 Kansas Avenue and notice what time they close (it’s 3:00 p.m.), or take a drive downtown on the weekend and try to find a crowd of people (Fig. 26) – it is a lot harder than you would think given what was promised.
8: Out With the Old, In With the New
We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.Jane Jacobs53
In the pursuit of penning a more vibrant future, Topeka continued shedding layers of its history as buildings in the Keyway were razed to make way for new construction, thereby turning its back to its past. But vibrant cities aren’t simply born in this way – it is their evolution over time that strengthens their identity by breeding buildings of different ages and styles where, as Gratz and Mintz explain, “an observer can ‘read’ the community’s history on its streets.”55 This assortment of buildings helps promote the mixture of uses and diversity that follows, as small businesses often cannot afford the costs of new construction.56 Over the years, buildings should be continually replaced or renovated, weaving a place’s history into its cityscape.57 This was an antidote to a loss of identity.
But as more modern buildings became available, large enterprises such as banks, supermarkets and department stores would often vacate their old quarters for more attractive facilities, further exacerbating the problem. This policy of refusing to allow similar uses was described by Calmetta Y. Coleman in her 1997 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Shuttered Supermarkets Prompt Civic Protests,” in which she reported on how supermarket chains would engage in this practice to prevent competition.58 Gratz and Mintz described a similar case of how the retail chain Bon-Ton refused to sell their building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a similar use, so the building remained vacant for 12 years.59
This trend surfaced in Topeka when the Citizen’s Planning Advisory Committee recommended that the old Capitol Federal building be left standing, having originally been planned for demolition. Despite this recommendation, Capitol Federal Savings and Loan Co. president Henry Bubb ultimately announced that they would continue with plans to construct their new building at Seventh and Kansas, leaving the old one abandoned to avoid renting it to a competitor.60 Two years after it was vacated, the Capitol Federal building was reported “obsolete and unusable for any foreseeable development of significance.”61
9: Going Nowhere Fast
We have built a physical landscape that does not function and we have done it by design, not by chance. We have allowed the car and highway engineers to design and shape our lives. In 50 years, America has been remade to accommodate the car.Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz62
After World War II, as more and more families began leaving cities for the suburbs, a heavy reliance on automobiles developed as people moved further away from commercial centers. The landscapes of cities were changing – superhighways were constructed through downtowns to move people in and out of the city; widened roads and abundant parking accommodations made it more convenient for vehicular travel; and the advent of trucking encouraged industries to move to the outskirts. Topeka’s urban renewal program and construction of I-70 followed this trend as the city was redesigned to meet the needs of its car-bound public. This was common practice because, as Jacobs explains, “The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities, and a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problems of cities.”63 Of course, this was the easy solution and again exposes the negligence of city planners in their failure to understand the complex nature of cities.
With the appeal of revolutionized travel garnering public interest, the Topeka State Journal declared that, “The new Interstate 70’s limited-access superhighway, providing smooth, fast, safe transit across town – also from the suburbs into and out of the city – will cut neatly across the Urban Renewal’s Keyway Project.”64 However, by expressing the allure they were defining the problem, a tragic irony that still holds the city in its grasp. What resulted in Topeka was the fragmentation of a city severed by an interstate, with large vacuums of deserted roads and parking lots making it easier than ever to get nowhere you’d want to go.
Detrimental as the construction of I-70 was it does, however, serve its intended purpose quite well – transit across the city is swift because downtown is avoided and workers can easily commute in and out of the city (though, no one is brought in to replace them when they leave). And it did make planning the city easier, resulting in uniform zoning that deters cross-use. It was an absence of critical thinking that brought the meandering giant through the heart of downtown, and today sparse traffic speeds by high above while what lies below is left to collect dust.
In June 1959, opponents of the highway’s construction warned of this fate, and Topeka mayor Ed Camp and the City Commission asked that the freeway route be moved a block and a half east of its proposed location, between Madison and Monroe, to pass along Jefferson Street. He explained that, “50 to 60 Topekans having business interests in the area ‘don’t want to move to the east side of the expressway,’ ” also claiming that “several New York and Los Angeles interests . . . have expressed preference to the area west of the expressway rather than being bound by it on the west and railroad tracks on the east.”65 Conversely, highway engineers claimed that moving it further away from Kansas Avenue would be a mistake, with Elmer E. Buell, the division engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads, asserting that “the expressway would not be a ‘barrier’ between portions of the renewal area because cross streets would connect them at frequent intervals.”66 Ultimately, the State Highway Commission decided that the estimated cost of moving I-70 ($145,000) and the time lost in planning (2 years) were too costly and the freeway would go in as planned.
But even rerouting I-70 was not the best solution because, ideally, the freeway would not have entered downtown at all. This advice was offered (though not supported) in a 1959 Topeka State Journal editorial commenting that, “In recent years a trend has been to by-pass cities in the routing of major highways, demonstrated here in the Interstate 70 cutoff which is under construction west of Topeka, connecting US-40 with US-75 and the turnpike to the south. In most instances it was found benefits outweighed disadvantages.”67
So why was this trend not followed? The route mentioned (described earlier as the current toll-free portion of I-470) should have become the I-70 thoroughfare around the city
The fact that it was already being put in place makes this even more obvious, but since the project was independent of the Urban Renewal program it was subject to less public scrutiny.
With plans finalized to provide swift transportation through Topeka, the predicted increase in automobile use needed to be accounted for. Accordingly, planners designated roads for upgrading to accommodate interstate traffic and relieve congestion, and pleas from citizens and business owners achieved provisions for myriad parking. Monroe and Madison streets, for example, were designated by the T.A.A. “as one way traffic streets…to serve and correspond to the exit and entrances to the interstate highway.”68 But what did this really accomplish? What exists today is a seven-block stretch providing 11 parallel lanes of traffic on three different roads, bordered or in-filled with parking. Oddly enough there are few passing cars (Figs. 14, 15).
Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization, describes how, “Traffic engineers are appalled by congestion even though in a downtown congestion is healthy. It means something is going on.”69 The same could be said for a lack of parking. As Gratz and Mintz note, “The more downtown space devoted to parking, the less ‘place’ exists.”70 But with less space dedicated to parking, the balance becomes an incubator for diversity, capable of rearing various attractions to draw people into the city. And then if their biggest problem is finding a place to park, this should be regarded as an inconvenience of fortune because, again, it means something is happening.
Cities can, however, become a “place” again by freeing themselves from the restrictions of vehicle-oriented planning and design, and can be accomplished by what Jane Jacobs calls “attrition of automobiles.” She explains:
Attrition of automobiles operates by making conditions less convenient for cars. Attrition as a steady, gradual process…would steadily decrease the numbers of persons using private automobiles in a city. If properly carried out – as one aspect of stimulating diversity and intensifying city use – attrition would decrease the need for cars simultaneously with decreasing convenience for cars, much as, in reverse, erosion increases need for cars simultaneously with increasing convenience for cars.71
It is this erosion that afflicts Topeka today, as its network of roads carry scattered traffic to a freeway that better serves as an impediment to vitality than the “gateway” that was envisioned. Parking lots create voids in the city fabric and large parking garages lie empty at night with no one to fill them (Figs. 16, 17). To remedy this problem, roads should be narrowed or eliminated to slow traffic to the speed of the pedestrian,72 parking lots should be in-filled to foster uses that stimulate diversity, and reliance on private automobiles should be reduced to encourage public transportation. With this strategy of attrition, Topeka can reclaim its streets, returning freedoms once lost back to the city-goer.
10: The City, Today
It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.William H. Whyte
Observing the city today, it is hard to imagine that the members of the Urban Renewal Agency would consider this the dream they envisioned. Much of the Keyway area remains a decaying relic of past mistakes, as neglected artifacts continue to crumble along its timeworn streets. The areas surrounding it have not fared much better, as the miasma has slowly drifted outside its bounds, suffocating life from the fringes of downtown (Fig. 18).
The area north and east of the freeway is an industrial wasteland, littered with run down buildings, abandoned train tracks, empty cracked parking lots, and a labyrinth of power lines that seem ironically superfluous (Fig. 19). An old Greyhound bus station lies empty (Fig. 20) and the Topeka Amtrak station remains lifeless during the day, sitting in isolation amid the barren landscape that surrounds it (Fig. 21). To the north levees block views of the river; to the casual observer it doesn’t exist (Fig. 22). To the south stands an abandoned hotel, cut off from downtown by 11 lanes of occasional traffic (Fig. 23).
The Keyway area to the southwest of the freeway is filled with large office complexes that offer little to attract anyone without a need to be there. The Topeka Police Department and Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office occupy the center of a two-block site, with more than half of it devoted to parking (Fig. 24). A Bank of America complex runs the entire length of South Kansas Avenue on one stretch of block, its offices and parking garage depriving the street frontage of activity that could be generated by local businesses (Fig. 25). These are common conditions found strewn across the seven block area.
The land surrounding I-70 is barren as well, as the concrete structure takes flight and soars high atop the buildings. All life on Kansas Avenue slowly dies towards the highway with “For Lease” signs outnumbering pedestrians, carrying this desolation with it north of the river (Fig. 26). The homes that sit in its shadow sprout billboards from their backyards, and the only evidence of life is the low rumble of cars above (Fig. 27). Running beneath it, Second Street may be the best maintained street in the city, protected from the elements and relieved of all traffic.
Kansas Avenue south of the Keyway area, from Sixth Avenue to 10th Street, does foster some semblance of life, and when lost beneath the trees it can be easy to forget where you are. Its Main Street quality gives the city some character, with charming rows of historic buildings and an attractive streetscape lending it a sense of identity (Fig. 28). However, it is not completely free from the perils of the decay that surrounds it as empty storefronts and a muted pedestrian flow still plague the area (Fig. 29).
11: Back To The Drawing Board
Years of big plans, false hopes, and broken dreams have left most communities appropriately skeptical. When people see positive change quickly, no matter how small, they begin to believe in the future. Small steps invariably lead to bigger ones. Small, manageable steps are rarely included in conventional plans. Yet, early modest accomplishments build public confidence that big changes can be accomplished step by step.Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz73
Fifty years after its urban renewal program promised to revitalize the city, Topeka has once again gone back to the drawing board in hopes of drafting a brighter future. Community initiatives from groups such as Heartland Visioning, Think Big Topeka and ReThink Topeka are leading the efforts to foster a new sense of identity for this capital city. Plans to redevelop downtown and the riverfront, bring in new technologies and nurture its budding arts culture aim to shape a vibrant community by growing businesses, strengthening the economy, retaining its youth population and making downtown a hub of city life. They are attempting to give it character, but should be wary that it needs to be a gradual change.
Too often, city boosters lack the patience to let a place slowly evolve because a lack of immediate change is considered a loss on investment. This leads to “solutions” that don’t solve the problems cities face, and superficial upgrades such as street and sidewalk improvements are appealing but do not generate growth74 (Fig. 30), and large development plans are enough to spark public interest but not enough to improve public life. Topeka needs to take the time to first define and understand its problems to avoid investing in misguided efforts that do not address them. Because downtown should not be redeveloped, it should be regenerated – if the infrastructure is there, build upon it. Arts and entertainment attractions should not be confined to North Topeka, they should be scattered throughout the city to strengthen its diversity – where they go, other uses will flourish. Furthermore, North Topeka should not remain isolated from the city, it should be both visually and physically reconnected to downtown – when divisions are surmounted, bonds can be formed. The river that segregates it, the literal birthplace of the city, should not be solely regarded a hazard but also an amenity – here it would form a seam where a boundary exists.75 And finally, I-70 should not be realigned, it should be removed – It should have never been built in the first place.
One of the great public works projects of the next century will be deconstruction of freeways. There’s going to be a lot of that happening once economists apply themselves to the economics of transportation.Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist76
In composing its future Topeka could be re-living its past, as current plans to realign I-70 through downtown are set to undermine the efforts to revitalize the city. The plans call for widening one stretch of highway from four to six lanes, smoothing out a 45 mph curve to allow faster traffic, and upgrading the interchanges (Fig. 31). “This will be the transformational change we need,” Topeka Councilwoman Karen Hiller was quoted as saying, also adding that because of the views of the Statehouse it provided it would be “a perfect gateway to downtown.”77 It is uncanny how these thoughts from 2010 mirror the misguided sentiments from half a century earlier when the freeway was being planned.
There are, though, those concerned with the proposals for the highway’s realignment, claiming that travel into downtown would become more difficult. The Topeka Capital-Journal, in an article on the planned realignment, noted Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten’s concern that “the connector roads running parallel to I-70 and the layers of ramps could be confusing,” also mentioning that he thought the potential effects on downtown would be “devastating.”78 Mayor Bunten further emphasized his point claiming, “They’re [the Kansas Department of Transportation] just building a road to get traffic going westward through Topeka and on to Denver,” adding that, “They’re not building a road to accommodate our city and our desire to revitalize our downtown.”79
He’s right – it’s already happened once, and a close observation of current traffic patterns reveals this condition. That it’s intended to be rebuild is the crux of the problem.
There are other voices of reason scattered amongst the proponents of realignment. The Capital-Journal noted the following:
[Jim] Rinner, the JE Dunn [Construction] veteran, worries about the width of the proposed new interstate and its effect on the tie-in between a developed riverfront and a revitalized downtown. With intersecting ramps and connector roads overlapping near the I-70 curve north of downtown, the realigned highway could be one of the only things visible from the riverfront.80
Mayor Bunten and Mr. Rinner’s arguments are compelling, as the proposed realignment of I-70 does nothing more than beckon history to repeat itself. A study of this past history makes it even more obvious and, in fact, it will now assist motorists in moving even faster through it. Otherwise, it will still serve as barrier that impedes the evolution of city life. But it seems planners and traffic engineers are more concerned with bringing people in from outside the city than they are about the people that actually live there, when it is in fact the character informed by these people that draw others in, not interstates. The “build it and they will come”81 mentality threatens this because travelers driving to Denver aren’t going to stop in Topeka regardless of where the interstate is located, at least not yet. What would they come to see? Multiple lanes of empty highway, with precisely engineered interchanges leading to more empty lanes on redundant surface streets? A city divided with its riverfront and northern limits cut off? How would that be advertised? “Come visit Topeka’s riverfront for majestic views of vapidity and watch the sun set over I-70?” Sounds enticing…
Rather, an identity for the city needs to be created by the people who live there, with full effort being directed towards forming bonds in the community instead of divisions. Then, if strong enough, the city can become a vibrant place with a livelihood of its own, attracting passersby no matter how far from the interstate it is. If the attraction is strong enough to draw cross-country travelers into the city, the added time it takes to get there does not become so much of an inconvenience. But this won’t happen with the repetition of past mistakes, and the city should fight to have it removed to mend the city fabric. Only then will it be able to start piecing itself back together again.
13: To Be Continued?
A city cannot be a work of art.Jane Jacobs82
Heralding a future of planned Utopia’s, urban renewal crusaders of the mid-twentieth century sought to breathe life back into American cities by reshaping the landscapes that had evolved naturally over time. But in an attempt to defeat urban sprawl they merely facilitated the migration, with poorly designed solutions that didn’t solve the complex problems cities were facing. “One of the great social mistakes of urban renewal,” note Gratz and Mintz, “was that it demolished more than it rebuilt.”83 By carelessly planning cities to operate as machines they destroyed any character or sense of “place” they had. But building utopian cities does not work because we all have different visions of what “utopia” is, and what is often left from the endeavor is certainly no sight to behold.
Topeka was a casualty of this epidemic and a half-century later still bares its scars. Its urban renewal advocates of the 1950’s and 60’s uprooted people from their homes and businesses, wiping the slate clean to plan a new future. Instead of investing in the people who lived there, they decided to move them out. Instead of building and improving on the resources provided by existing infrastructure, they decided to start anew. Instead of fostering diversity and cross-use, they formed barriers. Instead of drawing people into downtown, they moved them through faster. In attempting to get ahead the city fell further behind. Though the Keyway Urban Renewal area and highway running through it claimed a small portion of downtown, the devastating effects of its redevelopment left the entire city to ruin in its wake.
But there is good news – Topeka can transform itself into the vibrant city it wishes to become because it has the people with the will and desire to do it. I have witnessed this firsthand. I have spoken with the artists, grassroots organizers and community members determined to make this happen. I have attended the block parties in neighborhoods surrounding downtown that showcase the city’s vitality. I have paraded down South Kansas Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day with thousands of people smiling and waving at me, though most of us have never met. They are there and, if the collective voice of the community is loud enough, anything is possible.
As it looks to its future Topeka should recount its history, drawing lessons from past mistakes that still tear at its urban fabric. Current redevelopment plans should be thoughtfully reconsidered, lest the city risk repeating the failures of its predecessors and further erode what remains of downtown. It should search for creative and innovative ways to foster its rebirth, driven by the hearts, minds and passion of the more than 120,000 souls that give it a pulse. It should create its own identity, an identity defined by the people that call it “Home.” But most importantly, it needs to know where it is heading before it decides how to get there. Because foresight is a much more valuable tool than hindsight; but it’s one that requires critical thinking, not acquiescence to simple solutions.
Ben Welty is an architect living in California, former grad student at the University of Kansas, and former employee of HTK Architects in Topeka.
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