Kansas is injecting $205 million into a biomedical campus. How it changes downtown Wichita

Wichita State, WSU Tech and the University of Kansas are collaborating on a biomedical campus in downtown Wichita. Supporters say that beyond educating students, it could turn Wichita into an innovation hub. But questions linger about what it means for affordable housing in the area.

by Roxie Hammill

It is closing in on a weekday lunch hour with few signs of life on an April morning at the southeast corner of Broadway Avenue and East William Street.

On the corner, a parking lot.

To the west, the distinctive Depression-era Petroleum Building sits empty.

To the south and east, toward the Intrust Bank Arena, only an occasional door advertising a consultant or property management office breaks up long stretches of brick wall.

Take a good last look. Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership, promises that the intersection and beyond will soon be transformed by the new biomedical campus for Wichita State University, WSU Tech and the University of Kansas. 

“Everyone is extremely excited about what this is going to yield,” Fluhr said. “Not just for our downtown, our city or region but also our state.” 

Boosters say the $300 million project will spark development, attract talent and revive downtown, but concerns persist about providing affordable housing for the students at the center of the project. 

A vision realized

Pockets of Wichita’s downtown have been reviving, slowly, for years. The 1860s-era Old Town neighborhood east of the biomedical project reinvented itself four decades ago as a quaint entertainment and shopping area with redone warehouse lofts and brick streets. Across the river to the west sits a new Riverfront Stadium. 

But Fluhr said the $300 million health care campus project will become the fast-burning fuse that rockets downtown rejuvenation.

The first building will occupy what is now a parking lot at Broadway and William Street. A second building to the east is planned later on the Transit Center site after that facility is relocated.

The Kansas Legislature committed $190 million to the estimated $300 million project. That’s one of the biggest investments ever in Wichita, the WSU website says. About a year ago, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) kicked in another $15 million from federal pandemic relief money.

The $205 million, plus the 1.9 acres of land donated by the city, makes it possible for construction to begin this year on the first building, with groundbreaking May 8 and move-in starting in 2026. 

Students from WSU and WSU Tech will occupy the first four stories of the eight-story, 350,000-square-foot building. The top three stories will be classroom, work and office space for the University of Kansas schools of medicine and pharmacy. The fifth floor will be a shared simulation floor with simulated hospital and patient rooms.

The first building for the Wichita biomedical campus will be built on the site of a parking lot at Broadway and William Street. Credit: Niko Schmidt / The Beacon

Once it’s up and running, the Wichita biomedical campus will have about 2,000 students, the bulk of them from Wichita State. The University of Kansas expects to send as many as 390 students from the Wichita campuses of its medical and pharmacy schools. Another 800 students will attend the neighboring Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. In all, about 1,000 students a year will be graduating into health care fields.

WSU’s website says the new buildings will form the anchor of a health care corridor, stretching north as far as Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital. Fluhr told the Wichita City Council last summer the project could “elevate our city into a whole new class of cities.” 

WSU President Rick Muma drew inspiration for the biomedical campus from health care education and related businesses that grew up in Phoenix and Houston. 

After more than two decades of spending, the bioscience sector is booming in Phoenix. The bioscience zone in Phoenix began with a commitment from the state legislature in 1997 to prioritize health care development. Ground was broken in 2003 on the first building, with the Translational Genomic Research Institute becoming the first tenant. The institute was involved in the international effort to sequence the human genome.

That institute and a genomics consortium spun off some 30 bioscience companies. More medical development followed. Now Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona also have a presence there alongside the Phoenix Union Bioscience High School and Arizona State University Preparatory Academy.

It’s started

The Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine had selected and built on a spot across Broadway that opened in 2022. The larger biomedical campus will be a catalyst for more clinics, research and pharmaceutical offices to locate in the area the way things happened in Phoenix, said Gregory Hand, the dean of the College of Health Professions at WSU. 

Hand hopes the health care corridor could spark a magnet high school focused on health care. 

“That would really be that pipeline from high school to graduate or doctoral training,” he said.

Those health care offices and labs will house 3,000 students and staff in the heart of downtown. The project’s boosters hope that will draw a neighborhood of retail and residences. 

“My guess is that the average age of the person downtown is going to drop dramatically when all of our students start moving down there,” Hand said.

Those young people could build demand for apartments, coffee shops, restaurants and entertainment. Some of that has already begun to happen, Fluhr said.

A luxury apartment project called Vantage 906 is in progress that will have up to 370 units, he said. Its developer told the City Council that construction would be accelerated to sync with the opening of the biomedical building.

Private business is also bringing other new projects. The Petroleum Building, Kress Energy Center and O’Rourke Title building have a new owner with plans for possible mixed use. Hutton Development intends to redo the American Legion Building at 126 N. St. Francis St. for office or commercial use. Plans also have been made to turn the Sutton Place building at 209 E. William St. into student housing.

After the transit center is moved, a second building is planned to be built on that sire for the Wichita biomedical campus. Credit: Niko Schmidt / The Beacon

“Since 2010, we’ve been working on what has yielded about $1.6 billion of investment,” Fluhr said. “We have announced a half a billion for the projects that will actually start this year. So it’s accelerating.”

It may also mean a new look for the area. The Downtown Partnership has been working for 15 years to create the kind of downtown that attracts and retains talent, Fluhr said. A lot has to do with density and urban design that encourages easy walkability. 

“We have been working diligently on the infill development of Douglas to where you would walk in multiple blocks without even thinking about it,” he said. “You do that through quality urban design and an activation of public spaces and urban parks.” 

The influx of students will only accelerate things, Fluhr said. The added density may also help downtown boosters accomplish a long-cherished goal of a downtown grocery store, he said.

Student housing still being worked out downtown

So far the schools have no plans to build any new student housing in the area. That is a concern for the Rev. Kevass J. Harding, executive director of Hope Community Development, a nonprofit that builds workforce and affordable housing.

Developers should be mindful of the needs of those students, Harding said, adding that he hopes they’ll consider building living quarters that are nice and “not just four walls.” 

“The future looks great for downtown,” he said. “I just want to make sure that when they build it they have space for the students where they can afford to live.”

Harding said he’d like more of a chance to discuss these things and the nonprofit’s role as development goes forward.

Developers are “acutely aware of the need for housing,” Hand said, adding that there will be opportunities for private developers to erect it.

The students most likely to use the biomedical building will be juniors, seniors and graduate students, and Hand said they often are less attracted to dorms or other university-provided residences. 

Some residential projects are in the works, and Fluhr expects more that will be oriented to students. 

In the meantime, some neighborhoods surrounding downtown might be attractive to students. The city has doubled the number of residential projects downtown since 2010, Fluhr said, and the market still has room for 5,300 more units. 

“We’re seeing a number of projects that are being explored now that will be supportive of the campus itself,” he added. “Our goal is to make sure that we can have residential availability and options for those who want to live in the core.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon