Northeast Joco

Downtown Mission awaits a street makeover with hope and apprehension

Updated: 2013-05-21T19:17:18Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Mission’s main drag looks as if it’s been chewed up by tanks. Between the crumbling curbs, the four lanes of cracked asphalt have patches on top of patches.

No one disputes that this well-traveled section of Johnson Drive is way overdue for a makeover. But when it comes to the details, there’s no shortage of contention.

While pleased that the city is finally getting around to fixing the street and making the corridor more pedestrian friendly, some merchants worry about losing control of the on-street parking spaces that many of them own and that the city is now acquiring through easements.

At the same time, fiscal conservatives on and off the City Council contend that an asphalt overlay would have been much cheaper and far less disruptive than the current $10 million plan, which is to dig up the street and start all over.

Then there was last summer’s wrenching discussion over plans to bury beneath the new street a large storm water pipe known as “the interceptor.” A slim council majority ordered the interceptor built, despite the fact it will cost Mission taxpayers and drag out construction.

So, yes, there is general agreement on the need for road and sewer improvements, but it’s with mixed feelings, like those of sausage shop operator Dave Miller.

“It’s long overdue,” said Miller, owner of Werner’s Specialty Foods, 5736 Johnson Drive.

But the 18-month construction period set to start this summer worries him.

“I don’t know if my business will survive,” Miller said.

Bricks beneath

On weekdays, 17,800 vehicles rumble through downtown Mission, which is the half-mile stretch of Johnson Drive between Nall and Lamar avenues.

To the east and west along Johnson Drive, you’ll find the same sorts of cookie-cutter strip malls common across suburbia, plus the long-awaited Mission Gateway project toward Roe.

But sandwiched in between is Mission’s old downtown with its kitschy, small-town feel. Along both sides of the street are dozens of mostly small businesses in low-slung buildings built in the 1950s and earlier. There are two hardware stores, several restaurants and a Depression-era movie theater turned banquet hall, as well as an assortment of mom-and-pop shops selling everything from violin resin to guns to vanilla lattes.

Until through traffic was diverted to Shawnee Mission Parkway in the 1950s, Mission was one of the last towns eastbound travelers passed through on their way to Kansas City on old U.S. 50.

Johnson Drive was then downgraded to a state highway before the Kansas Department of Transportation decommissioned it in 1979. Ever since, Mission has been responsible for maintaining the street, which has been challenging.

“What it is is a two-lane brick road that got paved over,” said Mayor Laura McConwell.

Paved over and widened to the point where the roadway now sits on land owned by some of the adjacent businesses.

The sewer and water pipes are covered by the asphalt, too. That means every time a line breaks or collapses, which is often, backhoes dig up the street, the traffic backs up and the street gets another patch.

Rebuilding Johnson Drive has been under discussion for much of her 11 years in office, McConwell said, but the city is just now getting around to it because other issues have jumped ahead, such as flood control.

The delay has irked some residents and business owners, who are also agitated by the city’s growing level of debt and new fees.

“But in my opinion, the driveway tax is what got most of us spurred,” said Bill Nichols, who runs the website SaveMission.net.

That recently imposed transportation utility fee, commonly known as the driveway tax, is assessed on property owners and pays for road projects. Opponents of the fee worked to successfully oust three council members last year just as discussion of the Johnson Drive project was nearing a final decision on design.

So when time came for a vote, the council was divided. Some said a total redo of the street was unnecessary. Repaving would do.

But the biggest argument centered on the interceptor, which accounts for $2.3 million of the total cost. The interceptor’s purpose is to alleviate flooding in Mission by collecting storm water and piping it directly into Rock Creek.

Projects like that normally qualify for county aid but didn’t because the mayor in downstream Fairway worries that the interceptor’s flow will worsen flooding in his town.

That meant Mission either had to scrap the interceptor when it rebuilt Johnson Drive or pay full freight and increase sewer fees on its residents and business owners.

Councilman Will Vandenberg was among those who said the city should hold off, but his faction lost by one vote, which led to hard feelings that have now softened some.

“Once it passes, you just have to let it go,” he said.

Parking spaces

What hasn’t gone are business owners’ concerns about parking. For most of them, the only parking spaces they have are the diagonal ones in front of their shops.

Some spaces are publicly owned, but the rest belong to 34 property owners, some of whom are pretty particular about who parks in those spots.

They won’t be allowed to reserve spaces for their customers after the road is rebuilt. The city aims to take away that control through permanent easements, taking over maintenance of both the parking spaces and the sidewalks in front of the businesses, which are also privately owned.

Ray and Becky Hanf, who own Mission Fresh Produce at 6102 Johnson Drive, are upset at the price the city is willing to pay for taking away their property rights.

“We feel that we’re being treated unfairly,” Ray Hanf said.

But he and others are more worried about the lack of assurances from the city. They want a binding promise that the parking in front of their buildings will never be eliminated, but none has been forthcoming.

“Basically a building without parking is worthless,” said optometrist Jason Pingel at Mission EyeCare, 6120 Johnson Drive.

However, city officials say the businesses have nothing to worry about.

Not only will the parking spaces be preserved, said Assistant City Manager Laura Smith, but city officials are considering time limits or meters to ensure that spots aren’t hogged for hours on end.

Also, during construction, the city has promised to keep at least two lanes open at all times and to provide alternative parking, perhaps by renting vacant lots. After all, Smith said, the city’s aim is to make downtown Mission more, not less, economically viable.

Sharon Miller, owner of Art Glass Productions, 5812 Johnson Drive, thinks that’s exactly what will happen when the project is finished at the end of 2014.

“I think redoing Johnson Drive is for the betterment of Mission,” she said while taking a break from work in her showroom.

Beyond her shop window, traffic flowed freely over the wide but bumpy road that brings business to her door.

“It’s going to happen,” she said, “and it’s going to be good.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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