Update: Kansas City Council committee offers early support. Read the latest here.
More than 24 years ago, Kansas City backed an ambitious plan to restore the Uptown Theater, revamp an underperforming shopping center and revitalize the Midtown neighborhood.
But while the Uptown Theater now regularly hosts concerts, weddings and high-profile events, the former Valentine Shopping Center — now dubbed the Uptown Shoppes — is half vacant. Kansas City chipped in more than $2 million to help pay back bonds it had guaranteed because the project didn’t produce enough revenue.
“That’s been kind of a failing retail project for a long time,” said Greg Flisram, a senior vice president at the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City. “It’s an old 1960s-era strip center in the middle of the city.”
Now, a new developer is getting a shot to transform the aging shopping center in the middle of Midtown by revitalizing the existing structure for commercial use and adding apartments on top. Eventually, developers could add a hotel on the corner.
A Kansas City Council committee was expected to vote Wednesday on whether to set the project in motion.
“We just think there is a lot of growth potential in that kind of Midtown corridor,” said Banks Floodman, director of development for Sunflower Development Group.
Jason Swords, principal at Sunflower, said the development group would like to add onto what MAC Properties has done redeveloping apartment buildings along Armour Boulevard to make the Midtown neighborhood “more walkable and liveable.”
Their project would deliver market-rate studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments and another chance for the city to revitalize the shopping center.
“What the city gets is we get a much higher quality development on that site, so we get a much more dense development,” said Troy Schulte, Kansas City manager.
For years, the shopping center has been controlled by Larry Sells, who also owns the Uptown Theater across Valentine Road to the south. Reached several times, Sells referred questions to Floodman and Swords and did not answer questions about his time controlling the shopping center.
Schulte said the city issued bonds for the shopping center, which were to be paid off through the revenue generated by the property. When the project struggled, the city made up the $2 million shortfall.
Sells successfully cleaned up the property and restored the parking lot, which serves the theater, Schulte said, but the shopping center never took off.
“It’s one of those projects we’ve learned a lot from, the city,” Schulte said. “That’s why we no longer back private development projects where we don’t own the property.”
At one end, what’s meant to be a bank is unoccupied. A piece of Bobcat brand equipment sits inside the door of the largest retail space in the center at the other end. In between are small restaurants, a yoga studio and office space.
The council’s Finance and Governance Committee was expected to vote Wednesday morning on whether to authorize Schulte to execute a master financing agreement to establish a framework for the development, including a property tax abatement.
The agreement was also expected to settle a dispute between the city, a tax incentive advisory agency called the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and Sells concerning control of the property, according to the ordinance up for debate.
Schulte said Sells could have owned the property at the end of the bond payoff, but the LCRA still holds the title to the property.
“We weren’t going to release the property back to Larry Sells because he owed us money,” Schulte said.
Sunflower’s redevelopment plan would preserve parking for the Uptown Theater, a priority spelled out in the ordinance. Flisram said it would provide urban infill in Kansas City.
“I think it would transform a long underperforming retail development, and it would transform it into something more dynamic and fitting in the neighborhood,” Flisram said.
Swords said developers hope to start construction sometime between April and June next year.