Tucked amid upscale neighborhoods near 71st Street and Quivira Road in Shawnee is an oasis of rolling hills that was legendary in golf circles for decades and is still one of Johnson County’s most distinctive properties.
It’s the last 60 acres of the former Kenneth Smith golf club manufacturing company. It catered to kings, presidents, celebrities and ordinary golfers who cherished the custom-made clubs, handcrafted there from the mid-1930s until 2003.
Residents have loved living near the beautiful grounds, and breathed a sigh of relief when a 2006 Rodrock home redevelopment plan fell apart with the economic downturn.
But now, a new proposal has emerged that may convert the property to luxury homes, if the Shawnee City Council approves a rezoning Monday night.
Developer Jeffrey Alpert says he will honor the property’s storied history, including trying to restore the charming old stone home where Kenneth Smith and his wife lived for years. But he says the time is right to redevelop it for 92 single-family homes ranging in price from about $450,000 to close to $900,000.
“Our development philosophy has always been to find a really high-quality site, a really great piece of property, and try to do the best thing for that site,” Alpert told the Shawnee Planning Commission on July 16.
Residents in the nearby Fairway Hills subdivision, who also live on land that was once part of the Kenneth Smith property, said they know Alpert has a good reputation with such projects as Hawthorne Plaza in Overland Park, Park Place in Leawood and numerous Johnson County residential developments.
But they worry about more traffic and safety of the 40 to 50 children who walk to school, the potential for flooding, and the loss of the bucolic setting in the midst of suburbia.
“This really changes the dynamic of our community,” homeowner Wanda Stipek told the planning commission.
Alpert says he takes the neighborhood concerns seriously and will address them. But he and others say that as the county grows and evolves, this new development, which seeks no incentives and is valued at $50 million to $60 million, is the best plan that’s likely to come along.
If city regulators approve, Alpert hopes the property sale could close in October. The full project build-out is expected to take three to five years depending on market conditions.
Golf’s glory days
Johnson County golf properties are undergoing major changes, including Meadowbrook in Prairie Village and Brookridge in Overland Park. But the Kenneth Smith property in Shawnee was unique in the metro area.
Kenneth Smith was born in 1901, caddied as a teen at the Mission Hills Country Club and became fascinated with making and repairing clubs in his father’s Westport garage, according to the Shawnee Dispatch. He opened a Kansas City shop to make and sell clubs in 1928.
He and his wife, Eva, bought the late 19th-century stone home and 177 acres just south of 71st Street in Shawnee in 1933. In 1934, according to the Dispatch, Horton Smith won the first Masters tournament in August, Ga., with a set of Kenneth Smith clubs and the business took off. Skilled craftsmen made clubs tailored to each client’s specifications.
Smith moved the golf club operation from Kansas City to his Shawnee land in 1935. Clients eventually included Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, Mickey Mantle, George Burns, as well as presidents Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson.
In addition to the residence and manufacturing buildings, bordered by a stately stacked-stone wall, the property also had a golf course where clients could try out their clubs.
In 1971, according to the Dispatch, Smith visited one of those clients, King Hassan II of Morocco, and later told employees about how he got caught in the middle of a rebel desert attack. The coup was put down, and Smith returned home safely. Good thing, he told employees, that the rebel leader also was a golf club client.
Legendary Kansas City golfer Tom Watson told The Pitch in 2006 that he stopped by the Shawnee facility in the 1970s to have a putter refinished. “It was always fun to be in a place where they were making clubs professionally, not just kind of gluing them together,” he said.
In a recent email to The Star, Watson wrote that Kenneth Smith “had a worldwide reputation of manufacturing sought-after woods and irons. His woods in particular were very popular (with) Japanese golfers who traveled to Kansas City to have clubs individually fitted. In my early years competing in Japan, it was fairly common for people to show me their Kenneth Smith clubs.”
After Smith died in 1977, his wife and loyal employees kept the company going, but most of the land was sold off for residential subdivisions and Good Shepherd church and school. Eva Smith died in 1999 and the company folded in 2003.
The Kansas State Historical Society received information about the historical value of the property, but despite its reputation, no national or state historical designation was ever awarded.
Seizing an opportunity
Neighbors fought a Rodrock redevelopment plan between 2004 and 2006, even filing a lawsuit. The suit was dismissed but Rodrock eventually abandoned the plan as the economy soured, so the land retained its country character.
Alpert says he was alerted to the buying opportunity last fall by a former Shawnee resident and business associate who knew of its beauty and history. The Alpert Companies signed a sale contract with an affiliate of the Kenneth Smith family trust in January. The sale closing and redevelopment remain continent on city approvals.
“We jumped on it pretty quick. We saw it and fell in love with it right away,” said Jeremy Alpert, Jeffrey’s son and a partner in the firm. He doesn’t know why it sat unsold for the past decade.
The new plan, titled Kenneth Estates, calls for 92 residential lots with a variety of upscale home styles. It is currently zoned R-1, single family residential, but the developer is seeking rezoning to planned single family, which allows for slightly smaller lots on the 60 acres.
Twenty acres of woods and streams, primarily in the southern portion, would stay undeveloped. Two of the three existing ponds would remain and be improved for added water detention. The developer hopes to restore the old Smith home, which has been vandalized and needs a lot of work.
“It has beautiful character and we really want to see it preserved and hopefully find a family who can move into it and enjoy it,” Jeffrey Alpert told the plan commission.
The golf manufacturing buildings, which are deteriorated and have environmental contamination, would be torn down. Alpert said he will work with Terracon Consultants and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on a cleanup remediation suitable for residential development.
The Shawnee Plan Commission unanimously endorsed this new plan. Commission member Les Smith, who lives in the adjacent Fairway Hill subdivision, said the proposal fits well with the requested rezoning.
“This project will have minimal impact on surrounding neighborhoods,” he predicted, “and the responsible manner in which it will be developed honors a unique part of Shawnee’s history.”
Some of Smith’s neighbors still have concerns and wish the plan called for larger lots, fewer homes and more land preservation.
Stipek and others fret most about the city requirement to extend 74th Street, which currently dead ends, through the new development to 71st street. Kindergartners and other children, she told the plan commission, may have to start dodging traffic.
Smith said traffic calming designs can slow motorists in Fairway Hills, and he will do what he can to make sure that happens.
Fairway Hills Homes Association President Gene Russell, who has a master’s in environmental engineering and has studied storm water issues extensively, opposed the earlier Rodrock proposal of about 86 homes and 23 vacant acres. He worries this has even more homes and only 20 vacant acres.
The area’s flood maps are about 20 years old, predating Fairway Hills and newer subdivisions. Russell says those maps should be updated, and the city needs to assure this new housing won’t worsen storm water runoff behind his neighbors’ backyards.
“When you add the rooftops, when you add the driveways and streets, there’s faster moving water coming down to Fairway Hills,” Russell said.
Jim Snead has a detention area behind his 74th Street backyard that already fills up in very heavy rains. “I’ve had water on the edge of my backyard,” he said. “I want them to address all of the possibilities of future flooding.”
City engineers say the developer will be required to control the water on the property, although neighbors remain skeptical.
For his part, Alpert has been developing properties and dealing with neighbor concerns for 40 years.
“I think they are legitimate issues,” he said, adding that he’ll work hard to make sure the new development is an asset to the neighborhood, not a problem. “We want to look for reasonable solutions that hopefully will work within the parameters of what we need to accomplish.”