Leawood shopping center upgrade runs into questions

03/18/2014 1:51 PM

03/18/2014 1:51 PM

Plans for Leawood’s first Community Improvement District — to renovate a shopping center across the street from Town Center Plaza — hit a last-minute snag Monday night, frustrating the development’s lawyer.

John Petersen, who represented the developers of Camelot Court, 119th Street and Roe Avenue, described himself as “befuddled and shocked” when he learned late last week that the city administrator opposed CID financing for the project.

“This is disheartening to us,” Petersen said. “I could not disagree more with the city administrator.”

However, City Administrator Scott Lambers held fast. The types of improvements in Camelot Court were typical of only an average shopping center facelift, he said.

“The city expected to see, as a result of this public subsidizing, a ‘wow factor,’ ” Lambers said. “In my opinion, the applicant should be asked to do better.”

At issue is whether the city should set up a special taxing district to pay part of the estimated $35 million it will take to upgrade the center, which was built in the mid-1990s. The one-penny increase would raise about $10 million. Shoppers already pay an 8.65 percent tax in the area.

At the Leawood City Council meeting Monday, Petersen outlined the planned improvements for Camelot Court. Along with new facades for buildings and changes in street access and drainage, the developers would add more than 300 trees and shrubs, benches, landscaped islands in the parking lot, space for outdoor dining, fireplaces and lower but more numerous light poles. There also would be bike racks, air stations for filling bicycle tires and charging stations for electric cars. Many of the items are part of the city’s development ordinance, which Petersen described as “tough.”

The project also would allow Hen House supermarket to expand by about 20,000 square feet.

If approved, the project would be done in 18 phases to be finished in 2016, Petersen said. Businesses would remain open during the construction.

But the public financing is a must for the project to proceed, Petersen said.

City Council members, however, were cautious about the special taxing district because as the first in the city, it will set the precedent for other developers. The city has been trying to come up with rules everyone can live with, said Mayor Peggy Dunn.

The city’s policy is more restrictive than the state’s, she said. For instance, the limit a sales tax can be increased is 1 percent in Leawood but 2 percent by state rules, she said. Also, Leawood limits the types of improvements it will pay for to exteriors only.

Petersen said the developers have worked with the city for a year and a half trying to meet all the criteria.

But Lambers cited three areas of the policy that he said the development did not meet to get CID financing. The project wouldn’t attract mixed-use development, it would have no unique constraints — such as difficult-to-move power lines — that would make it costly to develop, and it would not incorporate higher than minimum standards for design and construction, he said.

Petersen took issue with Lambers’ assessment. If the city’s policy is to fund projects that bring older developments up to current standards, then the Camelot Court project does that, he said. But not all of the criteria are possible to meet in older shopping districts, he said, because buildings, set-backs and utilities are already in place.

City Council members asked many questions but said they wanted to examine the project carefully, perhaps going line by line to see which improvements could be publicly financed. “If you want to make it prettier, fine,” council member Debra Filla said. “But not just because navy blue is the current favorite color. I’m not paying for the coloring.”

There were several items pertaining to Camelot Court on the agenda. The council unanimously approved the final plan, but put off a decision on the special taxing district because the discussion was running past 11 p.m. The issue will come up again at the next City Council meeting April 7.

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