It would be difficult to find a street in Johnson County more in need of beautification than Nieman Road.
The street — a main artery in Shawnee and a gateway to its downtown — is overwhelming in its grayness. Widely spaced businesses either hug the sidewalk or sit a half-block back to make room for asphalt parking lots. For the brave pedestrian, there are sidewalks within touching distance of the fast traffic, with one stoplight to the north at Johnson Drive and another far, far away to the south. Above, power lines slice the sky.
Business owners along the thoroughfare watch nervously these days as traffic weaves around the cones and heavy equipment that reduce the four lanes to two. Change is coming to Nieman Road, and it will be a mess in the short term.
But while many are skeptical, some merchants are allowing themselves to hope that the grand plan for benches, landscaping, a pedestrian trail and improved stormwater drainage will finally breathe some new life into a historic downtown.
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“In my mind, they’re gambling,” said Pat Donovan, owner of Donovan’s Service auto repair shop. “But there are a lot of people at City Hall smarter than me. I hope they know what they’re doing.”
The Nieman Road project, branded by the city as Nieman Now, is the convergence of two big needs for the corridor that runs from 55th Street south to Shawnee Mission Parkway: flood control and a kinder, gentler street.
The area has been fighting a battle for years with runoff that drains through the area on its way to Turkey Creek in Merriam. Although flooding is not as bad as in Kansas City’s Brush Creek, it has been a frequent annoyance, said Jim Allen, county commissioner and former Shawnee mayor.
Allen, who owned an office building on Nieman Road and 60th Street for 30 years, said he’s witnessed a lot of heavy rain and high water over the years. Although the State Farm building where he formerly worked has been high enough to avoid water problems, he’s seen plenty of times when the nearby tributary could not handle the excess runoff. He expects the realignment of the stream now underway to improve things.
It wasn’t just the businesses, though. Neighborhood residents unlucky enough to be on low ground often got wet basements as well, said City Manager Carol Gonzales.
So better stormwater management has always been at the top of the city’s to-do list for the area.
Gonzales credits City Council member Eric Jenkins with what happened in 2016. By then, the city was looking at an overwhelming list of priorities for the area. In previous years, Shawnee leaders had always parceled the projects out slowly, with money from the “parks and pipes” designated sales tax supplementing what the county gave for stormwater management projects, she said.
Jenkins said he had always seen the street improvements on Nieman as a “want” rather than a “need.” But having worked for years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, floodwater management was “a subject near and dear to my heart,” he said.
“I thought: Wow, this is crazy doing these one at a time,” he said. Instead, he suggested the city use debt financing to do everything as one comprehensive project. That would make it big enough that the city could get a better deal on construction prices, he said, and the disruption would be done in one shot, rather than dragging it out over time.
From that point, the idea took off, he said. “It did just kind of morph.”
What it morphed into was a $38.6 million project, with $17.2 million coming from outside sources like the county stormwater fund, gasoline tax money and federal money for neighborhoods. The city decided to go ahead and bury utility lines while they were at it, although council members later had to take a deep breath to approve a cost overrun on that part of the project. The whole thing is on schedule to be done by the end of 2018, Gonzales said.
As stormwater projects go, this one has been big. The tributary that runs parallel to Shawnee Mission Parkway before emptying into Turkey Creek is being rerouted and passed through all manner of culverts and collection boxes.
Homes and businesses also have been bought and razed, in some cases because it’s cheaper to tear them down than to work the stream around them. The plan for the multiphase project calls for the removal of 10 homes and two commercial buildings, including a small strip shopping center and a former gas station. Of those 10 houses, seven were in the floodplain, two had willing sellers and one was falling into the creek, city officials said.
Where there’s a streamway, there often follows a streamway trail, and that’s also the case with the Nieman project. The part of the streamway that has already been done channeled the stream into a vertical-walled concrete channel and added a streamside walk, along with a pedestrian bridge linking the neighborhood at 62nd Street and Roger Road.
Nature trails have been a draw for families and cyclists in other cities, and that is the hope for Shawnee, as well, Gonzales said. When the whole thing is done, that trail will connect with a newly designed street that will be all but unrecognizable as Nieman Road, if renderings are to be believed.
That streetscaping is the second big half of Nieman Now.
The last time the city took on a major street facelift was in 2002, when leaders did a big study on downtown revitalization, Gonzales said. One outcome was a new look for Johnson Drive, the street that runs through the heart of downtown, past City Hall and Shawnee Town 1929.
Although the focus then was on Johnson Drive, Nieman Road was never far from the minds of officials, she said. They viewed it as a gateway to the city, connecting the old-school historic downtown with the drive-thrus, banks and fast-food places along Shawnee Mission Parkway.
“We have the most historic downtown of all Johnson County, so we’re blessed we have this downtown,” Gonzales said. “It really is the heart of the community. Nieman and Johnson Drive are the core.”
Helped along by grants from the Mid-America Regional Council, the city continued to work on a plan that would not be radically different from Nieman, but would add trees, grass and family-friendly walking space, she said.
Aesthetics are not the only problem with Nieman Road. All those businesses with varying setbacks also have a confusing array of driveways cutting across the sidewalks, and the side streets are somewhat misaligned with one another. There’s also a problem with the way the lanes are aligned at the Johnson Drive intersection. Those are all problems the street project will address.
It will not be the same old Nieman Road when it’s finished. A sidewalk wide enough to double as a bicycle path will run up the east side of the street. Old city streetlights will be replaced with something more decorative, and benches and landscaping will be added to separate pedestrians and bicyclists from the street.
Supporters of the plan hope a friendlier, better-looking street will make bring more families out and eventually bring more businesses downtown to expand the tax base.
Mike Unterreiner, owner of Hartman Hardware, has been doing business in Shawnee’s downtown for 32 years, but the family business goes back much further. “It’s gone downhill,” he said of Nieman Road.
“We’re looking for more small mom and pop stores, the type that are up in Parkville,” said Unterreiner, who is also in the Shawnee Downtown Partnership, a city group set up to encourage downtown business initiatives.
“You have to make it look good, make it inviting for people to come,” he said. “Right now, everybody just drives on by.”
Gonzales’ hopes for the project are even bigger. Shawnee officials recently toured Overland Park’s downtown and heard the story of how that city has renewed its own downtown area. The biggest takeaway, she said, was that “it takes time. They’ve been working on this a very long time, so that makes us all feel better.”
The public investment in Shawnee’s old town could also prompt private businesses to step up their game, said Gonzales and other supporters of the project. The improved look of the corridor could draw more people, not only for shopping, but for infill housing and a re-greening of the neighborhoods, she said.
But perhaps the most controversial part of the plan — and the part that makes some business owners nervous — is the “road diet” part. The new Nieman will go from a four-lane to a three lane, with the middle lane for turning traffic.
Some in town have been skeptical that a street with as much traffic as Nieman can work as a three-lane, although the city’s engineering study maintains that it can.
Kim Isenhower, president of Nationwide Transportation and Logistics Services, is among those who question the wisdom of the three-lane plan. She said she’s opposed it, pointing out that the businesses along the street range from car repair places, a chiropractor’s office, insurance and car rental companies, take-out places and her own freight brokerage. Not many of them are a big draw for walkers, she said.
“We never see anyone biking or walking. I’m not sure where they would go.”
Isenhower and Sohan Karra, owner of Merigold Wine and Liquor across the street, worry that the traffic will bunch up if the lanes are reduced.
“My guess is they got some tax money and they’ve got to spend it,” Isenhower said.
But if merchants along the way are not quite ready to jump in with both feet for the project, they’re allowing a small bit of cautious optimism and hoping for the best.
Kevin Delgado, general manager of Pool Services and Equipment, said the project is “a good idea if they do it right.” Delgado said he’d like to see Shawnee end up with a downtown like Lawrence, where he used to live.
Lawrence and Overland Park have “go-to destinations,” he said.
“But I don’t know if this is the right street to turn that into. No one is going to stroll up and down on a nice night and get something” at the businesses that line the corridor, he added. “But maybe the first leg of getting there is to fix the road.”
Carol Repp, who works with her husband, Michael Repp, in a chiropractic office on Nieman, hopes for good things.
“Look at how pretty it’s going to be,” she said. “The only thing I’m not looking forward to is the construction. Any time there’s improvement in the street, it’s good for business.”
At Donovan’s Service, Donovan is just happy the city decided to put the bike path on the opposite side of the street.
“I have six garage doors that back out to a four-lane road, and they want to introduce bicycles into the equation?” he said.
Donovan said he’s resigned to the plan, which he thinks was done mostly to accommodate future bicycle traffic and that middle turning lane will “probably be the lane that promotes accidents,” he said. But he also has room for a little optimism. The burying of utility lines will make the street look better, he said.
“I was a little cynical in the beginning,” said Donovan, whose family business recently passed its 80th anniversary. “It’s human nature to be against change. Everybody has that knee-jerk reaction.”
But he pointed out that the street that used to be two lanes of gravel when his business was young has undergone many changes over the years.
“We survived going from two to four lanes and I’m sure we’ll survive going back to two lanes.”