Checking in on JoCo’s biggest redevelopment projects: Part 1

Development remains one of our readers’ biggest sources of questions and concerns.

This two-part story aims to capture the experiences of some of Johnson County’s biggest cities when it comes to redeveloping established, high-profile plots of land that are now aging, under-used or even vacant.

The first part looks at some recent projects that have been able to forge ahead despite setbacks. The second part will look at other major projects that have stalled and why.

Nothing stays the same forever. Nowhere is that more true right now than in Johnson County, where gleaming strip malls, four-lane roads and convenient parking as far as the eye can see were once considered heaven on earth for young families.

That was more than 50 years ago. Building on vast open fields was the easy part, it turns out.

Now that a lot of that available space has been built out, there’s a new question local city leaders are asking themselves: how can they prevent decay in underused, aging commercial centers that may be at a low point in their life cycles?

Success, so far, has been mixed.

Successes and ongoing challenges

Shawnee, for instances, appears to be on a roll lately with business after business announcing plans to locate near its city square.

Meanwhile, heavy equipment recently moved in Merriam to scrape and level a prominent corner that had for years held a shuttered Kmart.

Overland Park is continuing a long-running string of projects in and around its downtown area with a planned redo of its farmers’ market area.

Mission has seen new energy on its Johnson Drive corridor with apartments and small businesses, particularly on its western side.

But there are also places where change has been slow.

Maybe most notably, on the other end of Johnson Drive in Mission, the partially built Mission Gateway multi-use development stands empty as testament to the challenges and unexpected difficulties of development projects.

And in another area of Johnson County, it remains to be seen whether some city improvements will draw new traffic into Lenexa’s Old Town area.

Making it happen

City administrators and economic development experts in Shawnee, Overland Park, Merriam, Mission and Lenexa recently shared some thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t when it comes to the difficult job of redeveloping older areas.

A few patterns emerged in what they said:

  • Developing in older areas is tough enough that it generally won’t happen without some kind of help from the city. That help can come in the form of public/private aid to developers, major street remodeling, floodplain mitigation or a combination of those things.
  • Every redevelopment project is difficult in a different way. Progress is often unpredictable.
  • Getting the desired results depends on long-range planning, relentless negotiation and a friendly political landscape.

“Lots of existing things come into play with the buildings around you, the land agreements and restrictions – any number of things you might not anticipate that you have to deal with begin to raise the difficulty level,” says Jack Messer, Overland Park’s director of planning and development services.

What are the challenges?

There are about as many variations on the challenges as there are sites.

There may be environmental problems, like the motor oil on the site proposed for Stag’s Garage in Shawnee.

Or the lot may have weird topography, like the former Merriam Kmart, where soil compaction was also done according to earlier standards.

Lots could have awkward entrance possibilities, or might require assembling adjoining parcels – also an issue at the former Kmart.

Just tearing down the original structure is an added expense that doesn’t occur when the lot is a former cornfield.

Those are barriers enough that most times, cities have to share some of the burden, city experts say.

The typical go-to’s are special taxing districts, like tax increment financing or community improvement districts, which uses some of the future increase in revenue caused by the development to pay for certain development expenses.

Tax increment financing, though, has become controversial in some communities with residents who view it as a giveaway to private developers.

For that reason, a lot of city executives say the use of TIFs should be “judicious.”

Merriam: Former Kmart site makes progress

Merriam Grand Station Kmart redevelopment
A rendering of Merriam Grand Station, the project to be built on the former Kmart site at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Nall Avenue. File image via city documents.

Backhoe operators are hard at work at the southeast corner of Shawnee Mission Parkway and I-35, scraping away at a big pile of loose black dirt and limestone.

For close to a decade, that corner was dominated by shuttered Kmart – one of the most visible reminders of what an uphill slog redevelopment can be, even in a place as well off as Johnson County.

The Kmart closed in early 2013, but things began to look up when Menards expressed interest in late 2014, said Chris Engel, Merriam city administrator. But Menards backed out a couple of months later, and the site remained vacant for nearly another decade.

It was years before the current deal with Drake Development for the $136 million Merriam Grand Station mixed-use project was sealed.

There is public money now going into Merriam Grand Station’s development, but Engel said there were sensitivities about that because of the incentivized plan for a Circuit City that failed a few years earlier.

The tech store had been fully built and had its signs up when the company went belly up, he said.

City officials expanded the tax increment financing district along Interstate 35 to include the former Kmart site. Then they drove for a bargain with Drake to include assurances that a proposed grocery store that was high on the city wish list would actually open.

That was a promise developers were unable to make, but their follow-up proposal added more of the class-A residential spaces that the city needed, Engel said.

Past experience has taught Merriam officials to be strategic with their use of TIFs, Engel said.

“We understand our value,” and want business to locate in Merriam, he said. But, “we don’t have to just open up a checkbook and hand money out. So we don’t. When there are extraordinary costs for development, we feel more compelled to step in if what’s going to develop is going to be for the public good or to fill in a gap of something we don’t have already.”

Shawnee: Revitalized downtown

Transport Brewery is located on Johnson Drive near Nieman Road.
Transport Brewery and the revived Aztec Theater are two projects that have helped lead a revitalized Shawnee downtown area in recent years. File photo.

When it comes to downtown rejuvenation, Shawnee has been on a tear. Some 40 new businesses have opened or announced plans in the past couple of years in some of downtown’s landmark buildings.

Among them: the rehabbed Aztec Theater, Friction brewery in the former Hartman Hardware store, District Pour House at the former Shawnee State Bank and a major redo to make room for some new businesses in the 4,000-square-foot Merigold Retail Liquor store on Nieman Road.

Tax increment financing has proved a hard sell for Shawnee councils over the years, but the city has a unique advantage that makes it less reliant on them. As home of the county landfill, it receives revenues from the landfill “impact fee.”

That makes it possible for the city to focus its downtown development on smaller, local businesses that often have a social aspect, said Ann Smith-Tate, CEO of the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce.

Breweries, restaurants, the theater and a downtown bakery and breakfast shop have become gathering places that have brought people back to downtown.

 “Every community, from Portland, Me., to San Diego, is going to have a Kohl’s and a Five Below and a Target and a Walmart. That’s not what gives you your identity,” she said.

But old downtowns don’t stay charming without help.

Smith-Tate wanted to avoid having out-of-town developers buy up and combine lots to put in big stores that would be out of character. Having local businesses has meant a lot, she said, and a lot of time went into vetting potential businesses.

The building at 5907 Nieman Rd in downtown Shawnee is expected to get a major upgrade over the next few months. The plans envision the renovation of the existing Merigold liquor store, the addition of a sit-down restaurant and more retail shops.
The building at 5907 Nieman Rd in downtown Shawnee is expected to get a major upgrade over the next few months. The plans envision the renovation of the existing Merigold liquor store, the addition of a sit-down restaurant and more retail shops. Image courtesy of city of Shawnee documents.

“We’ve had a lot of people that have looked at us and said, ‘Good luck. You’ll never get it done,’” she said.

That said, there are still challenges.

“These are old buildings built 100 years ago under a different set of codes and for different use. So they’re complicated and expensive.” But , “we’re easily two-to-one on private dollars versus public dollars that have been invested in downtown,” she said.

Smith-Tate adds that private investment and planned investment in downtown redevelopment is just under $50 million.

Another big city commitment was the $38 million, five-year Nieman Road reconstruction project, partially paid for with county stormwater and roads funds.

Nieman Now reduced the road from four lanes to three, buried utility lines and added streetscaping to make the main road more acceptable for walking and biking.

That construction, plus earlier streetscaping on Johnson Drive, has played a big part in making downtown more friendly to walkers, she said.

Overland Park: Changing Metcalf area

Overland Park survey
There are currently five tax increment financing districts in the downtown Overland Park area. File photo.

Overland Park has been at downtown redevelopment about the longest among Johnson County cities.

People realized as long as 45 years ago that downtown needed some work, said Messer. Revitalization studies were done in 1986, 1997 and 2001. But it was Vision Metcalf in 2008 that really got things going, he said.

“That’s 30 years of planning, from a recognition in 1976 to multiple plans of trying to get something done downtown,” he said. “The reason I believe that is, is because redevelopment is really hard to do.”

Forty-five years may seem a long time ago, but Messer said he believes people were beginning to see a leakage of retail and commercial business even then.

“You don’t have to go back very far to know you didn’t go downtown for much of anything. When I first started here in 2011, you didn’t go downtown for lunch because there was no place to get lunch,” he said.

Messer credits Vision Metcalf in 2008 and the city council for creating a framework that made it possible to start making changes.

The city created new code requirements for downtown facades and footprints and for making the area more friendly to pedestrians.

There had already been investments in the streetscape, the clock tower, transit improvements and the Matt Ross Community Center.

The Vue luxury apartments on Metcalf just outside the downtown area in Overland Park. File photo.

In the ensuing years, new projects replaced a defunct car dealership, fast food restaurant and an appliance business.

But public incentives were still necessary to keep things moving, Messer said.

Market Lofts was the first downtown TIF, which the city has since rescinded, but others followed. Downtown now has five active tax increment districts: Avenues 80 and 82, Edison OP, InterUrban Lofts and The Vue.

“There was almost nothing happening prior to Vision Metcalf,” Messer said. But since then there has been over $200 million in property value produced as a result of those projects.

Some Overland Park residents have not enjoyed the new, more populated downtown vibe and have questioned whether the city should continue to use tax increment financing when the area has now become a business hub.

But Messer said the difficulties of tearing down and rebuilding will continue to make public financing necessary.

“In my experience, redevelopment doesn’t become self-sustaining in that way. It needs help,” he said.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com.

About the author

Roxie Hammill
Roxie Hammill

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com.