Drive around Johnson County these days and you can’t miss them: Cranes hoisted high and construction crews clamoring to build hundreds of new upscale apartment units from downtown Overland Park to Lenexa City Hall, many near traditional single family neighborhoods.
It’s the boom following very slow years during the Great Recession. And it’s changing the face of these suburban bedroom communities, causing friction with some longtime residents.
“People do not want to look up at a highrise,” says Mike Pezza, who lives in a house just west of a proposed Shawnee development.
Developers counter that residents should realize these multifamily projects are a big positive trend for Johnson County.
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“They keep thinking it’s bringing down our neighborhoods, but in reality it’s not. It’s improving lifestyles. It’s improving choices,” says Ken Block, managing principal with Block Real Estate Services, one of the metro’s big developers.
Since 2013, Johnson County has seen nearly 7,200 new apartment units built, versus just 2,700 units in the previous five years. Multi-family building permits outpaced single family permits in Johnson County in both 2015 and 2016, according to the Greater Kansas City Home Builders Association.
“For multifamily, Johnson County is particularly hot,” said Doug Davidson, president of CERI (County Economic Research Institute Inc.) in Overland Park, which studies Johnson County economic development data.
While many think millennials are all flocking to downtown Kansas City, they’re also heading to suburban Johnson County for employment at law and business offices, schools, medical centers and firms like Sprint, Black & Veatch and Kiewit Engineering, Block said.
“There’s so much office development and business development along College Boulevard,” he said. “So there’s a lot of people that work out there. If you work out there, you want to live out there.”
Not old-fashioned apartments
This is not your 1960s-era apartment building, says Doug Price, the CEO of Price Brothers, another major metro area developer.
“It’s not your apartment complex from college....a dumpy apartment that the landlord didn’t fix,” he said, citing two growing apartment segments: “the mature crowd that doesn’t want to repurchase, and millennials delaying home purchases.”
Block points out that many of these projects are high-quality, resort-style complexes, attractive to young professionals and empty-nesters.
They have large pools and courtyards, fitness centers, condo-quality interiors and finishes, concierge services, and prices to match, costing nearly $1,000 for one-bedroom units, which puts them into the so-called luxury category.
He says it’s what’s needed to keep Johnson County competitive and boost property values, and young renters in these complexes can ultimately be buyers in the nearby single-family neighborhoods.
But after five years of growth, the trend has many asking: Is Johnson County getting overbuilt with apartments? That depends on whom you ask.
Home Builders’ data shows Johnson County multifamily permits dropped from 1,777 in 2016 to about 800 through September of this year. The same type of drop occurred metrowide.
Many industry watchers say a slowdown is inevitable but still expect a steady pace of new units as Johnson County grows employment and population.
Jeff Stingley is an executive vice president with CBRE’s Kansas City office, which represents apartment building sellers. He says metro vacancy rates are currently only about 5 percent, showing demand remains strong. Stingley’s pipeline actually shows continued momentum with 1,453 Johnson County units planned for construction in 2018 and 1,213 in 2019.
Price thinks the Kansas City market generally is overbuilt and says south Overland Park has an abundance of units that may take a few years to absorb. Construction costs are rising, he noted, so rents may soon exceed the ability of some young professionals to pay.
But he still sees strategic opportunities if the location is right. He is planning 200 new BluHawk units in a few years on land previously zoned for single family and office at 167th Street and Lowell Avenue. That project, too, has brought some opposition from homeowners who say they don’t want apartments close by.
Block has hundreds of units built or planned at CityPlace near U.S. 69 and College Boulevard, in Lenexa and in Olathe.
Another prominent development is Promontory, a 420-unit project under construction at 89th and Metcalf. Thousands of apartment units are still on the drawing boards for Overland Park and elsewhere, including more than 2,000 units approved for Brookridge near 103rd Street and Antioch Road, where construction could begin next year, although the build-out will take years.
The tension points occur when these projects are proposed near existing single family neighborhoods.
“We want to slow the development of apartments,” said Corey Hunt, a newly elected Lenexa Ward 3 city councilman who heard that refrain as he campaigned door-to-door near Quivira Road.
“There’s been an explosion of apartments in Lenexa.”
He said longtime residents wonder how their communities will look after more years of apartment growth and want to see development in a way “that respects the existing neighborhoods, moving forward at an intentional, slower pace.”
One case study of the challenges posed by new in-fill projects is the $113 million Westbrooke Green project planned for 75th and Quivira Road.
It would replace the mostly empty Westbrooke Village shopping center and shuttered Dillons grocery with a 32-acre development. It would include hundreds of apartment units, plus a 2-acre park, walking trail, boutique grocer, restaurants and other small shops. It’s a joint venture of Mission Peak Capital and Extell Development Co.
P.J. Ventola, managing director with Mission Peak Capital’s Kansas City office, says rapid leasing at Block Real Estate Service’s upscale 377-unit WaterSide complex at 82nd and Quivira in Lenexa shows this is a high demand area.
“We believe we have put forth a plan that creates a 530-unit mixed-use apartment and 110,000 square feet of retail that can be transformational for the neighborhood and the city of Shawnee,” Ventola said.
The city council has given preliminary approval and votes again Dec. 18. If approved, the project would be built in two phases from 2018 through 2021.
Ventola held a community meeting early this month at which many in the crowd of 60 voiced serious concerns about the four- and five-story apartment building heights and proximity to their homes, plus traffic, stormwater runoff and the impact on nearby schools.
Pezza, who has lived on nearby Charles Court for 22 years, was at the meeting. In an interview later, he said that when longtime residents bought their homes, they didn’t anticipate a big mixed-use apartment complex nearby.
“I’m concerned about over-building in the wrong locations,” he said, advocating for building near I-435 or K-7.
Some nearby residents say they would prefer retail or low-slung office, although Ventola notes retail has struggled since Dillons closed in 2008. Plans for a Menards surfaced in 2014 but fizzled.
John Coulter, who has lived for 38 years on west 74th Street, says there are already apartments nearby that were once high end but went downhill. He opposes the building heights and proximity.
“It will tower over what we have now,” he said. “We’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Some neighbors praised the project as a big improvement over the struggling shopping center. Others said the developer and landscape architect have made personal visits to their homes to listen to their concerns, which they appreciated.
Ventola says the building heights will be lower than residents think because the site sits 12 to 18 feet below surrounding neighborhoods. He said a new signal will help with traffic congestion, and any school impacts would be covered by financial payments to the district.
Ventola also said the developer is seeking input from neighbors about extensive landscaping, and plans at least 180 more trees to buffer their homes.
“We do want to be good neighbors,” he said.
Block said he, too, heard neighborhood concerns about WaterSide on Quivira and also about his WaterCrest and EdgeWater complexes in the vicinity of 84th Street and Renner Boulevard.
Lenexa Community Development Director Beccy Yocham said Block worked with the Four Colonies neighborhood across Quivira Road to make design changes and turn lanes to help with traffic flow.
“He worked with them with landscaping and making sure (the buildings) were attractive from the street,” she said.
Block emphasized he’s just as concerned about quality progress as the longtime residents. So the key, he said, is for neighborhoods and developers to work together on design and landscaped buffering so everyone benefits.
“Sometimes they think we’re on the other side of the team, but we’re really on their side of the team,” Block said.
“We’re concerned about building the right product and the right appearance, and enhancing the neighborhood versus detracting from it.”