Olathe launches plan to preserve city’s history

06/21/2013 12:00 AM

06/20/2013 1:15 PM

Olathe wants people to know it’s more than just a pretty suburb.

It’s a city richly embedded with American history and cultural significance. The once-small Kansas town was caught in the midst of the Civil War. Settlers making their way west rode trails right through it. And more than 100 years ago, families built new homes in a city that would continue to flourish long after they were gone.

To keep those memories alive, Olathe is creating an historic preservation plan, funded through an Historic Preservation Grant through the National Parks System and the Kansas State Historical Society. To help put it together, the Olathe Historic Preservation Board brought on the consultant team of two Kansas City companies.

Working closely with the community, preservation experts Elizabeth Rosin of Rosin Preservation and Dominique Davison of Draw Architects + Urban Design are drafting guidelines for the city to use in the future.

They are considering how zoning and codes can help preserve the city’s history, and how they might be changed. They are brainstorming ways to draw more businesses downtown and encourage more people to invest in older homes.

Keeping Olathe’s urban core alive is vital, both women agree.

“History is what sets each community apart,” Rosin said. “Buildings and resources from the past tell stories. Tear those places down and you’ll have nothing but a bunch of suburbs that all look the same.”

Preserving older buildings, from 50 years ago or more, is one of their biggest goals.

“It’s harder for people to see a 1960s neighborhood or a cool 1950s gas station as being historic, because a lot of people remember those places from their childhood,” Rosin said. “We need to realize that most of those places hold significant and unique historical value.”

Davison said she would love to see more Olathe residents preserve a historic home, rather than demolish it to build a lesser quality one.

“A lot of homes built before World War Two were crafted out of local materials and built in a way that is next to impossible to economically create today,” she said. “We want people to understand what they see is more than just an old structure.”

To encourage historic home and building preservation, the consultants are going to help the city put together informational toolkits about state and federal incentives that can help property owners finance historic preservation.

“With the right knowledge and right resources, historic preservation can be done efficiently and economically,” Davison said. “A lot of people don’t realize it.”

But historic preservation goes beyond simply restoring places with four walls, she pointed out.

The consultants are also looking for ways to revitalize Olathe’s downtown district. They would like to see more businesses and residents call it home. They would also like to draw more visitors to Olathe overall.

At a public meeting the consultants held last month, several residents offered their own ideas.

Some suggested bringing more festivals and family activities to downtown Olathe. Others suggested a walking trail that would feature Olathe’s history embedded on signs or kiosks.

Both Rosin and Davison love all of the ideas Olathe residents have been throwing their way and they find the feedback helpful.

“We can come in and make a bunch of suggestions but if they don’t reflect what the community wants, then they don’t mean anything,” Rosin said. “We want residents to tell us about the places we may have overlooked or stories about Olathe we didn’t know.”

The consultants are conducting an online survey to collect input and feedback from residents until the end of June.

They are also holding another public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 10 at the Mahaffie Heritage Center.

After the final public meeting, they will submit a draft of the plan to the city. In August, they hope to submit a final plan.

City officials are looking forward to it.

“Right now, our ordinance is vague when it comes to protecting older homes and buildings,” said Dan Fernandez, a planner for Olathe. “This plan will offer specific guidelines to follow, which is nice. It’s important for us that people want to buy old homes and fix them up and we’re hoping this plan will make that happen.”

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