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At Wichita planning commission, downtown plan approved

Wichita city leaders want us to believe that decisions are made on “hard” data, that is, reliable and objective data. Here’s an example of exposing the nature of some of the data the city relies upon. A city official agreed that the data was probably “flawed,” that is, inaccurate and/or unreliable. But the city proceeds nonetheless. From November 2010. I apologize that the links to the City of Wichita’s website have moved or disappeared.

At last week’s meeting of the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, members were asked to approve the Goody Clancy plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. I appeared to make sure that commissioners were aware of some of the highly dubious data on which the plan is based.

In particular, I presented to the commission the Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, and how Goody Clancy relied on this obviously meaningless data in developing plans for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the mster plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita. In January, David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division, used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and David Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody ClancyWalk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click for a larger view.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But as Larry Weber, chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation told me a while back, Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on this website.

He’s correct. Walk Score has been updated, but we should still be concerned about the quality of the data. Now for the same location the walk score is 85, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

If Mr. Weber would ever happen to stroll by that location, he’d find that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

It’s not a grocery store. It’s nothing resembling a grocery store. Now I’m even more concerned about the credibility of this data and the fact that Goody Clancy relied on it. I’m further concerned that Weber thinks this is an improvement, and that he feels I should not be concerned.

As I reminded the commission members, David Dixon and other Goody Clancy staff did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities.

But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

And since this January reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is — that should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis.

A member of the planning commission asked that Scott Knebel, a member of the city’s planning staff who is the city’s point man on downtown planning, address the concerns raised by me.

Knebel said “In terms of the Walk Score, I suspect Mr. Weeks is absolutely right, it probably is a relatively flawed measurement of Walk Score.” He added that the measurement is probably flawed everywhere, downtown and elsewhere. He said that Goody Clancy used it “as an illustration of the importance of walkability in an urban area.” He added, correctly, that Goody Clancy tied it to premiums in real estate values in areas that are mixed use and walkable.

In the end, all commission members voted in favor of accepting the plan. The Wichita City Council is scheduled to hear this matter on December 14th.