The historic Pickwick complex, a grand reminder of downtown Kansas City’s pre-war heyday, is on track to be redeveloped as apartments intended to appeal to young urbanites.
The group of vacant buildings, completed in 1930 and unified by their “streamline Gothic” design, covers almost the entire city block northeast of 10th and McGee streets near the Whittaker U.S. Courthouse. They include what once was an 11-story hotel, interstate bus terminal, parking garage and six-story office building.
Developer Tom Smith of Overland Park has been pursuing the project since 2009. Though his financing is not completely secured, he’s confident construction should begin next spring on his $46 million redevelopment plan. Smith’s previous experience has been developing suburban apartment projects.
“It’s had many challenges, but it’s too worth it,” Smith said. “This building has fascinated me from the get-go.
“Call me stupid or stubborn to stay with it, but we’re going to do it.”
The plan includes renovating the former office and hotel buildings into 261 apartments geared toward the young adult market, with amenities including an indoor pool, a restored historic two-level lobby and a 3,000-square-foot community room. Completion is expected by late summer 2015.
The Pickwick complex was described at the time of its opening as one of the largest developments downtown. It included a bus terminal — considered then the nation’s largest — served by several bus lines, with one operated by the Pickwick company. The company opened similar hotel and bus terminal complexes in other major American cities.
It was designed by Wight & Wight, a Kansas City architectural firm responsible for other major local buildings including Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral; the First National Bank building, now the Central Library of the Kansas City Public Library; and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Harry Truman used the hotel during the 1930s as a retreat to write his journal known as the “Pickwick Papers,” according to the report prepared for the buildings’ listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bus terminal, billed as one of the largest west of the Mississippi River, had 4,433 scheduled departures each month at its peak in the early 1950s.
“From the beautiful new Union Bus Terminal, Kansas City, Pickwick-Greyhound coaches radiate to the Atlantic and the Pacific — into Canada and Mexico,” its opening day brochure said.
Elizabeth Rosin, the architectural historian consultant for the project, said the multi-use nature of the old complex — it even included a penthouse radio station used by KMBC and WHB until 1968 — made its redevelopment a unique challenge.
The complex also has fallen into disrepair over the years with only the three-story garage still in use. The bus operation left long ago; the 50,000-square-foot office building at Ninth and McGee has been vacant for more than 30 years; and the hotel at 10th and McGee closed in 1968.
The old hotel was converted into a housing development for the elderly called Royal Towers in 1972. It closed in 2009. A fire in 1996 prompted the city to require the closure of the mezzanine level of the old hotel and bus terminal lobby space.
Smith has hired Helix Architecture & Design to design the redevelopment and Haren Laughlin construction as contractor. Both firms have had extensive experience in historic preservation projects.
As part of the renovation, the grand clock at the center of the four-story stone arcade above the former bus terminal entrance will be repaired.
To hit a price point where most units will rent for less than $1,000, the apartments will average about 500 square feet in the old hotel building and 600 square feet in the office portion. The design calls for 64 studio, 157 one-bedroom and 40 two-bedroom apartments. Monthly rents would range from $700 to $1,300.
Smith believes the downtown apartment market, which has a less than 5 percent vacancy rate, is hungry for additional units.
“There’s no supply of market-rate units for under $1,000,” he said.
Christina Boveri, who specializes in downtown real estate, said the Pickwick would be a welcome addition to the market.
“For people with a certain income range, getting an apartment for under $1,000 is needed,” she said. “We’re turning people away, and we could really use it. It also has plenty of parking and storage.”
The four-level garage has parking for 300 vehicles. The development will include 21,000 square feet of space for retail and other commercial use.
“We want to restore the street level with glass storefronts and a historic shop-front feel,” Smith said. “It should reinvigorate that part of downtown.”
Bill Dietrich, president and CEO of the Downtown Council, described the Pickwick as an “iconic, historic project in a critical location.” He said its location a block east of Grand Boulevard should help push redevelopment farther east toward Ilus W. Davis Park and beyond to the East Village development area.
Smith has not completed his financing but is confident the project is a go for next spring.
He is seeking $18.5 million in federal and state historic tax credits and has been in discussions with city officials about possibly getting between $2 million and $3 million in direct assistance.
Two years ago, the Kansas City Council approved issuing a $10 million bond to assist downtown housing development. Much of that went to the high-rise 311-unit apartment tower planned by the Cordish Co. at 13th and Walnut streets, with the rest going to a 137-unit apartment project being developed in the River Market.
Discussions continue about the city issuing another $10 million bond for further housing development downtown.
Three private lenders have expressed serious interest in financing his deal, Smith said, adding that it would be helpful if the city provided financial assistance as well.
“We’ll clinch our loan much easier with help from the city,” he said. “It’s going to happen, but there are some blanks, and you need to make a leap of faith sometime.”