The line of customers formed early and kept coming Saturday at the Red Kitchen Tamales food stall in Lenexa City Center’s Public Market. Owner Alejandra de la Fuente paused briefly from serving to reflect on her start-up’s remarkable blossoming over the past year.
“I think it’s amazing,” said de la Fuente. “There are always more and more people coming.”
Red Kitchen Tamales’ success is just one example of the progress at Lenexa City Center, the new heart of the suburb 15 miles from Kansas City. It has sprouted from what was farmland not too long ago, west of Interstate 435 at 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard.
“The unique part for us is creating a Lenexa downtown basically out of a field,” said Keith Copaken of Copaken Brooks, the master developer for the southwest corner of Lenexa City Center. “It’s creating its own destination and its own draw, not just for Lenexa but for all residents of western Johnson County.”
Saturday marked the first year celebration since Lenexa opened its new City Hall, a masonry, brick and glass edifice that includes the Public Market and Park University classrooms within its municipal walls, plus an adjacent recreation center that already numbers 8,000 members.
The $75 million civic campus overlooks the 200-unit Domain apartments, a handful of hotels, and upscale restaurants like Grand Street Cafe and Ignite that are creating a hub of activity.
Just outside City Hall, construction is well underway on a $21 million Johnson County library and $28 million Shawnee Mission School District aquatics center, slated to open in mid-2019. Hundreds more residential units — plus offices for several thousand workers, grocery and liquor stores and more restaurants — are approved for later this year and in 2019.
While City Center has gained momentum in the last 18 months, it’s really the culmination of a 1997 plan that involved more than 100 citizens, who called for moving the city’s hub from the historic Old Town Lenexa, near Santa Fe Trail and Pflumm Road. But some citizens now warn that city leaders shouldn’t use this as an excuse to neglect older neighborhoods farther to the east.
Still, this new dense concentration of government, civic, multifamily residential and entertainment venues is starting to garner some national attention.
“Money Magazine” this year named Lenexa the best place in Kansas to call home, specifically citing the civic campus and saying Lenexa “is working hard to give locals more to enjoy within its own borders.”
All told, $655 million of new construction is done, underway or pending, including more than $186 million in public investment for land, roads and civic buildings.
About $200 million in additional spending is anticipated by Oddo Development over the next six years for its mixed-use Sonoma project, on 85-acres east of I-435 and 87th Street.
If fully completed, that’s more than three times the investment in revitalizing Overland Park’s downtown and on par with the $850 million investment in Kansas City’s Power & Light entertainment complex.
Live, work and play
This isn’t your typical suburb with single family neighborhoods and big box commercial. About 3,500 multifamily units have been built within a mile of 87th and Renner, with 1,500 more under construction or approved.
It’s helping to make Lenexa, population 53,500, one of Kansas’ fastest growing mid-sized cities. Census data from 2010 to 2017 estimate that Lenexa saw 11 percent population growth, a faster rate than the county’s largest cities of Overland Park, Olathe and Shawnee.
Nora Kaschube is an out-of-state transplant to the Domain apartments, which was developed by EPC Real Estate Group. She had planned to move from Chicago to Lawrence, but a friend told her about the Domain and she signed a lease in 2016. She enjoys the mix of empty-nesters and young professionals in her building.
Yes, she said, “The construction is a pain,” with all the noise, cranes and road closures. But she thinks what’s coming is worth it.
“It’s going to be lots and lots of people around,” she said, “and more and more things to do and restaurants and little boutiques. They’ve tried to keep it very non-big boxy, which is lovely.”
When asked what distinguishes Lenexa City Center, many people cite the Public Market in City Hall. With its contemporary design, exposed ceiling, communal picnic tables and mix of local vendors, it creates a casual setting that drew a big crowd at Saturday’s first-year celebration.
It’s unusual nationally to have such a food hall with rotating eateries and other small businesses within a municipal building. City officials wanted to create an incubator for start-ups selling primarily food but also clothes, jewelry and crafts.
De la Fuente, who routinely sells 800 tamales in a day and was this year’s Food & Wine Magazine pick for best burrito in Kansas, had been making tamales online for friends and family before she was invited to try out the Public Market’s test kitchen on Sept. 5, 2017. She planned to sell 500 tamales over a few hours, but sold out within 45 minutes. Soon, lines were out the door and people were coming from as far as the Northland to sample her food.
She quit her Mazuma Credit Union job a few weeks later and graduated to one of the market’s stalls. She loves the supportive small business environment and the customer mix where construction workers rub shoulders with other employees, families and retirees.
“Everybody is like a big community,” she said. “I’m living my dream.”
On Saturday, Lenexa resident Andrea Jones sat at one of the picnic tables, chatting with other customers. She said she’s watched the market become more vibrant over the past year.
“It’s just a very neat atmosphere,” she said. “I love that they have all these local vendors.”
The four anchors with multi-year leases are the Roasterie, Chewology, Topp’d Pizza + Salads and Mad Man’s KC BBQ. But other entrepreneurs can use day carts or get shorter-term food stalls, so there’s an ever-changing variety.
Several vendors have faded quickly, as Saturday crowds give way to slower weekdays, especially as construction deters some customers.
But city officials say they knew it would need time to take off, and momentum is building. The market doesn’t track visitors, but vendors reported more than $700,000 in sales from 60,000 customer transactions, from January through July.
Old Town, founded in 1869, was cherished but had little space to grow and was constrained by a rail line running through it.
As the city sprawled to the west, residents said they wanted a new town square and dense live-work-play community on about 200 acres closer to the city’s geographic center.
“You can look and see that we are definitely accomplishing what the citizens asked us to,” said Community Development Director Beccy Yocham. “We’re not done. We’ve got years ahead of us to really see it fully developed.”
Still, some long-time residents caution that city officials must continue to pay attention to the rest of the city.
Michael Elliott ran unsuccessfully for city council last year but remains an advocate for neighborhoods near Lackman Road. When he was campaigning, he heard from constituents concerned about Old Town’s future and the loss of the popular Lackman Road library when the new library opens.
He said Lenexa City Center “may be a great success and I wish it great success. I want representatives to pay attention to us as well.”
Elliott and other bike advocates argue City Center currently isn’t very walkable or bike-friendly, and even new roads don’t have bike lanes. They say the new downtown feels “cut off” from older Lenexa.
“We feel a lot of things are moving to the other side of the interstate,” Elliott said.
Lenexa City spokeswoman Denise Rendina said walkability will improve as construction wanes, and officials are working on a comprehensive bike plan for the entire city. And Yocham argued the city is equally committed to revitalizing Old Town and other neighborhoods, including the Quivira Road corridor, even as City Center takes off.
City Center supporters say this new downtown is how Lenexa can maximize its growth opportunities and help the whole city. They point to the Renner Boulevard corridor as a hotbed of employment, especially with Geico moving in, and strong demand for commercial office space west of I-435.
Advocates also say the government spending on infrastructure and public buildings were the catalysts for the private investment now occurring.
Key projects yet to come include:
▪ The District, by EPC Real Estate Group. This mixed-use building with 175 apartment units, plus office and retail, is expected to open in spring 2019 east of City Hall.
▪ Kiewit engineering headquarters. Kiewit is renovating two former Perceptive Software buildings at 89th and Renner to occupy in mid-2019. It’s building another $50 million building and garage, completing a campus for more than 1,200 engineers and other employees by the end of 2019.
▪ The Yard. Scott Anderson of CRQ Development aims to start construction on this $15 million project next spring and be completed in 2020, at the southeast corner of 87th and Renner. It is expected to have office space but also a sports tavern and other restaurants. Outdoors, it would feature a giant screen for watch parties, pickleball courts and space for other yard games.
▪ Sonoma. Oddo Development is completing 322 residential units called Sonoma Hill, with the first residents moving in this month. A McKeever’s grocery will anchor the Sonoma Plaza retail center, which will also have multiple restaurants. Some 650 high-end apartment units are planned over two more phases.
Oddo Development President Rick Oddo said he loved the location, bought the land about 10 years ago and has patiently waited for the right time to move forward.
“The growth is moving that way. There’s a huge need for the retail center and apartment homes that we’re bringing,” he said. “We knew when the economy finally did break, this would be the spot to go to.”