Amenities could be key in spurring downtown Wichita office demand

There is still office space to be had in Wichita, especially in the downtown area.

But one local broker says owners and developers might want to think about spending money to make money — especially if they are going to overcome the parking problem that remains one of the biggest drawbacks to officing in the city’s core.

By turning some vacant office space into amenities for tenants, says Patrick Ahern, a commercial real estate broker with NAI Martens, buildings could add important new draws in an age where demands go beyond just square footage.

“We are starting to see more HR people getting involved in real estate decisions than ever before,” Ahern says. “(Their space) has become a recruiting and retention tool for their employees.”

According to the list of Wichita’s largest office buildings, the vacancy rate has declined year-over-year by 9 percent, while average leasing rates have increased 0.7 percent.

Of interest in those numbers, particularly as it relates to downtown, Ahern says, is how little they have been changed by several recent projects that have turned former office buildings into apartments.

“We don’t have any positive absorption in the market,” Ahern says. “It’s all about supply and demand.”

One property that Ahern believes has done a good job of keeping its property in demand downtown is the Garvey Center, where amenities include a 24-hour fitness center, conference rooms and onsite restaurant options that will also include Reverie Coffee Roasters by the end of the year.

Larry Weber, vice president at Builder’s Inc., the leasing company for the Garvey Center, says the facility — currently 99.4-percent occupied — is unique in that it is a “24-7” environment, where amenities serve both its commercial and residential tenants.

“It’s always been a goal of ours to meet the needs of our tenants,” Weber says. “I do believe that (office) demand is out there … but it has to be well-cared for and you have to have an involved owner.”

That of course creates a chicken-or-the-egg scenario for owners: Do you build amenities in the hopes of attracting tenants, or do you first have to attract the tenants and then build the amenities?

While that could be a difficult proposition for some, Ahern believes there are other spaces downtown that could be converted without breaking the bank to offer amenities like yoga rooms, bike lockers, “anything that is a differentiator.”

And any differentiator, he says, is going to be important in fighting an inherent lack of parking — another major plus for the parking-rich Garvey Center — that counteracts the efficiencies business owners are increasingly looking for in their office space.

“If you look at the office buildings downtown with the most vacancies, one of the correlations is that they don’t have a good parking situation,” Ahern says. “If people think employees want to walk a block to get to their car, I think they might be smoking Rastafarian glaucoma medicine.”

Article Originally Appeared in the Wichita Business Journal