Three short culs-de-sac — no houses or other buildings — are the only signs of development on the site of the former Leawood Country Club on 89th Street just east of Lee Boulevard.
It appears the plan to develop the 16-acre site as an upscale housing development with a pool and clubhouse has hit a dead end, too.
It has been 10 years since Leawood rezoned the site from recreational to residential use. That touched off a lawsuit that delayed the development proposed by a local group. Then the recession hit.
The original four-man partnership that was formed to develop the site is now down to one man, insurance executive Richard F. Jones. Jones did not respond to inquiries for comment about the development that was to be called the Estates of Old Leawood. But Bill Whitaker, a former partner whose name and phone number are still posted on a sign advertising the development, did.
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Whitaker, a former pro football player turned commercial real estate broker and developer, said the partners “spent quite a bit of money on infrastructure” at the site of the former country club after clearing away the legal hurdles.
Utility lines were buried and a stone retaining wall topped by an iron railing was constructed along the east edge of the property, adjoining the Dykes Branch Creek.
“The neighbors sued the city” over the zoning change, Whitaker recalled. “A number of things happened between the time we bought the land and the time we got the go-ahead to do development on the site. … We broke ground in October 2008, and the next day the stock market collapsed. The recession hurt us.”
There are no plans for the site right now, Whitaker said. “And there are a lot of reasons why the development has stalled. … Right now there a bad taste in everybody’s mouth on this deal.”
According to a brochure published by the Leawood Historic Commission, the country club was built in 1954 by Kroh Brothers Realty, the company that platted Leawood in 1937 and built most of its original homes. It had a swimming pool and tennis courts in addition to a clubhouse, and it was a neighborhood social center for most of the late 20th century.
But much like the remaining northern Johnson County country clubs today — Homestead and Meadowbrook — Leawood Country Club fell on hard financial times at the turn of millennium. A bank foreclosure allowed the Jones group to acquire the land in 2002.
Leawood Ward 1 City Councilwoman Deb Filla was a member of the country club long before she joined the council. She recalls riding her bike there, playing tennis and seeing all sorts of school- and club-related functions in the clubhouse.
In fact, it was the brouhaha over the rezoning of the tract that got her involved in city politics, Filla said. Neighbors urged her to run for the City Council.
“At that time, there was angst among the neighbors,” Filla said. “I felt the site could have recreational use, homes or green space, but not all three.”
Filla voted against the rezoning in 2004, but she was in the minority, and the tract won rezoning to residential, even though neighbors’ opposition triggered a requirement for a supermajority on the council.
“The plan was for 23 homes, a clubhouse, a pool, tennis courts and a playground,” Filla said. “Anyone who lived within a certain distance could pay a membership fee to join. That was the plan that got approved.”
Still, some neighbors sued to stop the development, and the court fight lasted several years before the Jones group prevailed.
The partners tore down the clubhouse, installed the culs-de-sac and underground utilities and even built a footbridge over Dykes Creek before they were technically required to do so under their agreement with the city.
Since then, nothing.
Even so, the undeveloped land serves a recreational purpose of a sort. Filla and others have carved out footpaths along the creek where they walk their dogs.
Still, some neighbors like Martha Conradt hope for the pool and clubhouse that was envisioned in 2004.
“In the north part of Leawood, there is not much recreational space,” Conradt said. “The subdivisions in the southern part have their own pools and tennis courts. We hoped it would become a park after the country club went away … so the residential zoning was disappointing — that they didn’t at least look into options to add recreational space.
“One stipulation of the zoning was that the developer would have a pool and a playground that people within a certain distance could pay a fee and use,” Conradt said. “My kids were 2 and 4 at the time, and now they’re 12 and 14. I wonder if my kids will even be around by the time it’s developed.”