Laura Summa thought her husband was crazy when he first proposed buying the Kansas City, Kansas, bar she worked at in her early twenties and frequented through adulthood.
“Then the price dropped,” she said. “There was not a lot here, but we always believed in this area.”
Together with her husband and cousin, she now runs Chicago’s, a cozy joint that sits just a block from Interstate 70 on Central Avenue.
Summa, 36, grew up in the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood — her parents have been on the same block for four decades. She loves the charm of the area, which was established more than a century ago by a wave of Slavic immigrants.
Driving from here to the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City takes less than 10 minutes. And Summa believes the neighborhood boasts the metro’s best view of the downtown skyline.
“It’s like you took a small town and plopped it down in a big city,” she said. “We knew this area would eventually get some attention.”
That time may have come.
While developers have spent recent years building hotels, offices and restaurants in and around downtown Kansas City, a more modest revitalization has been underway just across the river in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas.
And a wave of multi-million-dollar projects stands to transform the area in the coming years:
▪ The University of Kansas Health System plans to bring hundreds of workers to downtown KCK this fall when it opens a mental health facility in former EPA office space on North 5th Street.
▪ Nearby, the Merc Co+op plans to break ground next month on a government-subsidized, 14,000-square-foot grocery store at 5th and Minnesota.
▪ Prairie Fire Development Group will soon erect the city’s first downtown apartment complex in decades with the Boulevard Lofts, a 50-unit development of mostly affordable apartments.
▪ The same developer also plans to convert a shuttered YMCA building into 40 senior living units downtown.
In the shadow of those big developments, small businesses have made more modest investments that have infused KCK’s urban core with life.
Last month, Sarah Breitenstein opened a sandwich and pizza shop on North 5th Street, joining other recent additions to the neighborhood like Splitlog Coffee Co. and Slap’s BBQ.
Collectively, the area in and around downtown KCK will have seen more than $120 million in investments in two years, according to the Wyandotte Economic Development Council.
Even as perceptions of crime and below-average incomes threaten progress, local officials say they’re seeing an unprecedented interest in redeveloping the area.
And much of that growth has been organic: As the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Kansas City, Missouri, grow in popularity — and price — many residents and business owners have had to look elsewhere for space. In the Crossroads Arts District, many artists are being pushed out by high rents after being credited with reviving the neighborhood.
KCK leaders, largely satisfied with the development of western Wyandotte County near the Kansas Speedway, are now working to revive the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. And they’re positioning their own downtown as an affordable alternative to the pricey urban core across the river.
“The area has a great feel,” said Tony Privitera, who owns several downtown KCK properties. “The Crossroads is becoming a little too expensive for people. And pricing in this neck of the woods is reasonable. Some people may say there is a perception issue, but I have learned that price beats perception all day long.”
‘You don’t want it to change’
Inside Chicago’s, the ceiling is papered in autographed dollar bills. One shelf features the branded lamps Summa’s grandfather collected throughout his career as a liquor distributor.
She believes the two-story brick building has been a bar since at least the 1930s. Nowadays, it specializes in craft beers and draws crowds of younger people who don’t want to frequent places like Westport or the Power & Light District.
Chicago’s is also much cheaper than those entertainment meccas — a pint of Boulevard Wheat goes for $4 here.
Just up the street, hip establishments like Slap’s and Splitlog have helped boost foot traffic.
“There’s now a well-known restaurant on Strawberry Hill and that was a big turning point for us,” Summa said.
Like many in the area, Summa cheers the area’s redevelopment. But she doesn’t want to see Strawberry Hill lose its Eastern European roots and unique charm — she can’t help but gush when talking about the ice cream socials hosted by the local Catholic churches.
“It’s so cool people are finally paying attention,” she said. “But at the same time, you don’t want it to change.”
Adam Wittmer, who has been developing in the area for 15 years, said it’s easy to forget how much things have already changed here.
While fixing up a building on Central Avenue, he watched a storefront across the street sit vacant and on the market. For four years.
“If no one else was going to do this I thought we should,” he said. “Empty buildings are such a determent.”
That building now houses Slap’s BBQ, which opened in June 2014 and regularly lands on lists ranking the nation’s best barbecue. It will soon add a rooftop deck.
While he was working on renovating the Slap’s building, he searched for a spot that could serve as a central meeting place for locals.
So that became his next project: In 2017, he and his brother Caleb opened Splitlog Coffee Co. , which will soon expand its Central Avenue shop.
“People look at it now and say ‘oh, yeah, we would love to buy in Strawberry Hill,’” he said. “But that was not exactly the case back 10, 15 years ago. It was just vacant.”
‘It still needs work’
KCK is no boom town yet.
The area has long been perceived as high crime. Last year, the city recorded 35 homicides and 1,293 violent crimes. That gave KCK a homicide rate of 22.6 per 100,000 residents — lower than the 27.82 in Kansas City, Missouri, where police said 136 died from homicide in 2018.
The KCK killings included high-profile crimes like the June deaths of two sheriff’s deputies who were shot outside a corrections building in downtown KCK.
And just last week, Dennis Edwards, who owned a corner market and deli just a few blocks from downtown, was shot to death in his business in what police believe was a domestic dispute between a customer and another person.
Low incomes have also stood in the way of the area’s redevelopment.
Nearly one-fifth of the KCK population lives below the poverty line, census figures show. And the city’s per capita income of $21,302 is about three-fifths of the wider metro’s figure of $34,457.
“That’s one of the things that’s holding us back just a little bit,” said Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte Economic Development Council.
Those dynamics have made it difficult to lure investments from large commercial developers, he said.
“If we wait for someone else to come in and take care of us, it isn’t going to happen,” Kindle said. “Most of the growth we’re seeing is largely local growth.”
In downtown, he envisions shuttered brick buildings or infill lots transforming into new office, retail or living space — something that could be particularly appealing to the young and creative.
“Right now it is super hip to be in a nonconforming space — something different,” Kindle said.
Philadelphia-based goPuff, which specializes in delivering items like potato chips, ice cream and candy directly to consumers, has set up shop in the area. KCK Dental Professionals is opening a second location in downtown. And the construction firm Newkirk Novak recently opened an office in downtown KCK, where it’s also building a $27 million juvenile justice center.
But downtown is still plagued by high vacancy rates.
“It still needs work,” said Daniel Silva, president of the KCK Chamber of Commerce. “But we’re really starting to see small businesses pop up.”
‘I felt priced out’
For two years, Larry Perez unsuccessfully searched for a space in the Crossroads or the West Bottoms to open a commercial photo studio.
“I felt priced out,” he said.
His girlfriend urged him to check out KCK, but he refused, fearing people would never make the trek across the Kaw. Perez finally gave in and found a 6,300-square-foot space where he opened up his studio in 2017.
Plans of opening a commercial space never materialized, but he donates use of the 1925-era building to local nonprofits. He tinkers around with his camera there — the original wide plank wood floors and brick walls make for a stunning backdrop. He hosts friends for brunch parties and watches movies on the 20-foot screen he installed there.
His five-year lease on the space graduates to a top rate of $2,000 per month.
“I would have paid $2,000 to $3,500 in West Bottoms two years ago,” he said. “In Crossroads, it would have probably been two or three times that.”
In just two years, the 51-year-old Perez said he’s noticed a lot of changes in the area. More neighbors jog down the streets in the evenings and walk dogs past his shop.
“You can tell the place is really changing,” he said. “The energy is very different.”
Specifically, he’s noticed an influx of artists from other parts of the metro moving in. And many of them want to know their neighbors and get involved in the community, he said.
But with construction saws buzzing around the neighborhood, he already senses that prices are set for a spike.
“I’ve been around long enough, I feel like I can safely say that’s going to happen,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable.”
‘It’s early days’ for KCK
Thats exactly what happened in the Crossroads.
Commercial rents there are now among the highest in the metro, coming in below only the Country Club Plaza and the College Boulevard Corridor.
The asking rate for Class A office space averaged $23.85 per square-foot in the Crossroads during the second quarter of the year, according to commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
That was a bit higher than downtown’s average asking rate of $21.22 per square foot. But it far surpassed the going rate of $15.40 in Wyandotte County.
Matthew Nevinger, associate research director at Cushman & Wakefield, said actual rents in the Crossroads may be higher than asking rates because demand is so high. Nearly all tenants facing lease renewals will see rents go up, he said.
“We haven’t seen anybody yet balk at that,” he said. “But we do sense that we’re not far away from that. People are starting to think about it.”
Nevinger said newfound interest in KCK’s urban core is emblematic of the growth happening across the metro: as downtown, the Crossroads and River Market continue to develop, businesses and residents have had to look at outlying areas to grow. That’s helped steer investment to Midtown, North Kansas City and KCK.
For now, quantitative evidence of a KCK revival is lacking.
“It’s early days. We’re just getting moving,” Nevinger said. “It will take a good, creative person with some vision to go in, but they’re well positioned. They have a neighborhood element to them. There is an urban community potential. And we think they can be really competitive with all these other areas.”
Caution about responsible growth
In 2009, a real estate agent suggested Justïne Underwood-Jones consider Strawberry Hill.
Having lived in Poland and Northern Ireland, she thought the area’s unique architecture, brick sidewalks and chiming church bells would call to Underwood-Jones.
And it was cheap.
She purchased a home that had fewer than 900 square feet of living space and has slowly fixed it up over time.
A decade ago, homes on her street were going for $20,000 to $40,000. Now, she sees some selling for more than $150,000.
Underwood-Jones knows all her neighbors.
She feeds their cats when they’re away. And they help her look for her dog when it gets away. Proximity drives many of those relationships: homes are sandwiched together on lots as little as 25-feet wide.
“Our houses can be so close together that you can touch your house and your neighbor’s,” she said. “We have community and it’s not always optional.”
And the location is hard to beat. Underwood-Jones previously worked at a call center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
“It was only six minutes from the time I left my front door to the time I was clocking into my computer,” she said.
She’s now president of the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood Association, which she described as a “full-time volunteer” position. While she said she welcomes investment to the area, she hopes it’s cautious and thoughtful.
Underwood-Jones was encouraged by the development of affordable housing nearby, which may ease pressures for those priced out of their homes. She’s also happy to see the new grocery store commit to offering affordable groceries in addition to its lineup of pricier natural foods.
She doesn’t want to see long-time residents pushed out. And she fears a revival may focus too much on young professionals, neglecting the importance of families, quality schools and local playgrounds.
“We don’t want to overlook the fact that people have raised children here for ages,” she said. “We just want to make sure everyone is considered and everyone is included. But we’re not against growth.”