The mood under the tent was celebratory as Lenexa Mayor Mike Boehm took the podium on a hot June afternoon. Just to his right, a mound of ceremonial dirt awaited the ritual turning by officials and volunteers. Straight ahead and past the food truck lines loomed the beginnings of a huge new luxury apartment building. Farther on, out of sight, sat the Perceptive Software building, home to 800 employees.
Boehm and other city officials were buoyant with good reason, as they prepared to turn the first spades of dirt on what will be the new Lenexa Civic Center within the Lenexa City Center. After more than 30 years, a couple of recessions and some false starts and embarrassments, the city’s risky venture appears to be paying off.
Things finally are happening on Renner Boulevard.
It’s been decades coming, but development on the more than 200-acre site at 87th Street and Renner called Lenexa City Center is on something of a run.
Just in the past couple of years, the area has picked up not only Perceptive and the Civic Center, but a multiuse office, retail and apartment complex; a Hyatt Place hotel and conference space; a golf course with a planned clubhouse; a maintenance-free neighborhood of homes; a couple of restaurants; and employer B.E. Smith.
The city also hopes to land the aquatic center to be built by the Shawnee Mission School District. School officials and the city are negotiating a plan to put the aquatic facility, which would be used for large swim meets, on city land on 87th Street Parkway.
When Lenexa City Center is completely built — and officials say that won’t be for at least a decade — it will be an area where people can work, shop and be entertained, possibly within blocks of their homes. City administrative offices will be there, as well as a public market modeled after those in Seattle and Milwaukee. There will be gym facilities at the Civic Center and at Lifetime Fitness a couple blocks away. A city park already has been built in the northern part of the development. There’s also talk of moving the Lenexa branch of the library, currently at 87th Street and Lackman Road, to the City Center if the library’s expansion plan is approved.
And it will be thickly populated. There are already 600 apartments available, and that will easily double once other announced projects are completed, officials said. Those spaces are said to be filling quickly with waiting lists developing.
In short, it will be the opposite of the sprawling suburban landscape of big roads, big parking lots and single family-homes that define most other areas of Johnson County and, until now, Lenexa.
As Lenexa evolved from a little whistle stop populated by European spinach farmers, the town’s gathering spots began to change. The train depot in Old Town of the 1930s gave way to the four-lane main drag of 87th Street, where City Hall now is. As the population grew westward, the city scheduled its many festivals and events along both strips of road. But “downtown” was hard to define.
The City Center will give Lenexa residents something they say they’ve always wanted: a town square.
“What it brings to people of all ages are options,” said Councilwoman Mandy Stuke. “It’s beyond exciting.”
It almost didn’t happen.
“By luck and design, we are really going to be able to fulfill the concept,” said Councilman Lou Serrone, a real estate company sales manager who served on the Lenexa City Council from 1989 to 1997 and again for the past six years.
The city invested millions of dollars in the infrastructure and in tax incentive plans to lure business to the intersection.
“It could have gone either way,” he said of the development. “We could be sitting here today and talking about one of the biggest disasters in developing history.”
The plan to develop what used to be called Renner Road goes all the way back to 1984. At the time, Lenexa was a much smaller town of about 19,000 (it’s now around 48,000), and Renner was a two-lane roadway blocks from any stores. There wasn’t a lot of shopping, but residents could go to stores that lined 87th Street Parkway from Quivira to Pflumm roads or the Old Town shops along Santa Fe Trail Drive.
It was the easy access to Interstate 435 that interested city officials. They looked at the Corporate Woods office park in Overland Park and imagined Renner blossoming in the same way.
The first step was to build a better road than that country highway — one that said “corporate office park.” But a little black cloud of misfortune seemed to follow the project from the very beginning.
First, the city met opposition from two artists who lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse along the road. The owners, Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak, did not want to move from their studio/home on its 21/2 acres to accommodate the new roadway.
An ugly condemnation proceeding followed, with the artists launching a petition drive against the move. They eventually settled with the city.
Other problems followed. Limestone mining nearby scared off some potential occupants, and a lack of sewers deterred others. A recession hit the commercial real estate market in the early 1990s.
By 1992, things were looking grim. The newly landscaped Renner Boulevard, with its roundabouts and medians, was open, but there were already signs of street damage, possibly from groundwater under the road.
By the time a decade had passed, Renner was a $10 million road, beautiful but unoccupied. The city hired a consultant.
The report was disheartening. The corridor probably would never become an office park, it said. The city should find a new plan.
Serrone remembers the feelings of uncertainty. In the real estate world, he said, developers have a clear idea from the beginning of what type of project will generate the best returns for investors. But the Renner corridor project wasn’t like that.
“There was no consensus at the time what the vision was,” Serrone said. “They could tell you what they didn’t want but couldn’t articulate what they wanted.”
Not too long after, in 1997, the mayor at the time, the late Joan Bowman, and other elected officials decided to have a “visioning” process, asking residents what long-term goals the city should work for. More than 100 people volunteered to hold discussions and write up their recommendations. Among the suggestions: The city should have a central shopping and meeting district.
The city took that idea and ran with it. With the population moving westward, 87th and Renner would be centrally located as the city grew. By 2002, city officials were touring other locales to see how New Urbanism, a city planning trend calling for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly streets, was working out.
“Part of the reason we need to have a city center is so we have that place that people identify as our community,” said City Administrator Eric Wade. Residents expressed that in their findings from the group discussions, he said.
“We said we want to be something more than every other suburban community in the country,” Wade said.
But the series of unfortunate events was not yet through with Lenexa. A split with a former developer cost the city more than a half million dollars in legal fees.
Then there was the 2008 Great Recession, which brought development everywhere to a grinding halt. A bankruptcy meant construction on one of the key components, a multilevel parking garage, couldn’t continue. It sat half-built so long that it eventually had to be pulled down.
Just to top things off, a decorative metal truss that was to run across the gateway intersection of the development broke during installation in 2011. It was sprawled along the road nearby, where it lay for weeks, an exhausted symbol of the obstacles the city was working against.
Things began to turn around in 2012. That was the year Perceptive Software broke ground for a new headquarters at the center, having been lured by tax incentives from its former home in Shawnee. It was followed the next year by Grand Street Cafe, the Hyatt Place conference center and The Domain at City Center, a two-phase luxury apartment and mixed-use complex.
New announcements keep coming in. Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson recently said the school is considering City Center as the location for a state-of-the-art aquatic center originally planned for Shawnee Mission South High School.
Lenexa officials proposed using city land across from its Civic Center for the aquatics center because it would contribute to the unique sense of place, said city spokeswoman Denise Rendina. It also could bring business to restaurants and hotels, since the aquatic center could host larger swim meets, she said.
The words “high end” and “luxury” come up frequently in descriptions of the housing planned for the City Center. The Domain, for instance, advertises a coffee bar, a dog wash station, a resort-style pool, a massage therapist and an on-site personal trainer and fitness center among its perks.
In general, apartments in the center are going for about $1.25 to $1.50 a square foot, which is a typical high-end price for a major area, said Beccy Yocham, Lenexa’s community development director.
The area surrounding the development is above average for income. According to the city’s demographic survey, the typical person living within five minutes of the development is about 35 years old and lives in a two-person household with a median household income of $81,763.
The people moving into the area fall into two major categories: young professionals of the millennial generation who don’t want to own a home, and baby boomers who are tired of owning a house but want to live in a community that offers the things the City Center will, Wade said.
“These are renters by choice,” he said. “If they wanted to own a house, they could certainly afford to own a house.”
The flexibility of having residential, office and recreational uses in the same area appeals to millennials, agreed Keith Copaken of Copaken Brooks, the center’s developer since 2005.
“Millennials will soon be making the decisions,” he said. “In the future, they’re going to be driving to the office and shopping. We feel we have to appeal to them today because they are the decision-makers of tomorrow.”
For some residents, living in a walkable area holds a lot of appeal.
Rima Turakhia, 30, moved to a nearby apartment complex from Houston. She said she enjoys the nearby park for walks and looks forward to more development so she’ll have more places to go without driving. “I had to drive everywhere in Houston,” she said.
Hope Stilwell, 23, and Josh Gelenn, 26, said the nearness to Interstate 435 makes it a convenient location, and they like that they’re living close to a lot of people near their own age.
The demographics also attract businesses. Scott Anderson said the west side of Lenexa makes a good place for his Massage Heights. The income level and active lifestyle of residents in the surrounding area make it a perfect fit for regular massage programs, he said, adding that so far his franchise is doing as well as a typical new franchise, even though the area is not completely built up.
Tracy Torres, owner of the French Bee Bakery, opened another location at City Center because some of her customers asked her to come to the Lenexa area, she said. The original location is in Parkville.
Her daughter Hilary, who works part of the year in the store, said the development is appealing because “we knew it would be high traffic.” So far it has been, she said. Customers often walk in from Perceptive Software and other nearby businesses for lunch or coffee.
“It’s been better than we imagined,” Hilary Torres said. “People are super welcoming.”
The development’s success so far could not have happened without a lot of help from city officials.
The council approved 11 tax increment financing districts, and there is one active and one planned Community Improvement District. Those special districts give developers a break to get help with the initial expenses of building and site preparation. To date, the city has approved about $43 million in costs for the development, said Doug Robinson, Lenexa’s chief financial officer.
Lenexa also got voter approval in 2008 for a three-eighths percent sales tax for streets, parks and recreational facilities. That tax raised $27 million to fund a portion of the Civic Center.
How the development will affect the rest of Lenexa is still an open question. The city plans to move much of its City Hall operations there, leaving more room at its current spot on 87th Street Parkway for courts and police. A farmers market, which used to be located in Old Town but has been on hiatus for years, will also be set up in a sheltered area at the City Center.
City officials say they expect the center to attract a different type of business than other shopping areas east on 87th Street Parkway or in Old Town. Serrone said he doesn’t expect the center to drain shopping dollars away from other parts of town because of the uniqueness of the area.
“I don’t think it will take away from the local mom and pops,” Serrone said. “I see some very unique, exclusive to Kansas City shops that will come there.
“I think what the City Center will do is add to the quality of life in Lenexa.”
Copaken agreed, saying the development is already having a ripple effect at its edges across the interstate and on 95th Street. Those areas have sprouted more restaurants, groceries and shopping just in the past three or four years, he said.
“Growth begets more growth. People tend to want to be where things have already started,” Copaken said.
For some, the current spate of success is a relief. Serrone credits the doggedness of Wade and the City Council for sticking to a risky vision that he said was ahead of the curve.
“If you’d gone back to the development community 10 or 15 years ago and said, ‘What do you think about a city center,’ they would’ve told you you were nuts,” Serrone said.
Had the city faltered or given up, the results could have been disastrous, he added. “We could’ve been saying, ‘My gosh, what are we doing? This is the perfect reason cities should not be in the development business.’”
Wade gives credit to the City Council.
“They’ve been unwavering about really wanting to make a great place for the community rather than saying, ‘OK, I give up, and we’ll take whatever gets built out here,’” Wade said. “That has been really a blessing for all of us and for the future,” he said.
The type of project the city is building is more ambitious than the typical strip mall or big box center with surrounding pads, he said.
“Even though it seems as if it’s a long time, the truth is it’s a generational change, so it does take time,” Wade said. “We’re not trying to build a project out here. We’re trying to build a place, and place-making is a lot slower and more organic process than if you’re just building a shopping center.”