“I think there’s a great opportunity, and I think we’ll have fun doing it.”
That sums up the attitude of Dave Harrison, president of VanTrust Real Estate, about becoming co-developer of the floundering East Village project. Along with the streetcar chugging forward, it ranks as the best news of 2013 when it comes to reviving downtown Kansas City.
VanTrust is the real deal.
The firm, thanks to the resources of Cecil Van Tuyl, the auto magnate who died last year, has the ability to get things done including finishing the West Edge; building new headquarters for AMC Entertainment, Freightquote and Generali USA, and upscale apartment projects at Mission Farms, 51 Main and Park Place.
“We have a substantial equity and capital base that’s committed to Kansas City real estate,” Harrison said.
It’s been more than eight years since Swope Community Builders was granted development rights by the city to a multiblock chunk of dull downtown real estate lying east of Ilus W. Davis Park.
Think acres of parking lots, razor-wire coils to keep homeless people out of the abandoned Greyhound bus terminal and a rundown motel notorious for hookers and drugs. You can also throw in a failed attempt to get the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City to relocate there.
The hope at the time in 2005 was to do for downtown’s east side what the Power & Light District, H&R Block headquarters and Sprint Center had done for the South Loop. But it became apparent quickly that Swope was in over its head with such an ambitious endeavor.
While the nonprofit group had done a solid job with its office and retail work on Blue Parkway, summoning the resources and expertise to execute an eight-block vision that called for a urbane neighborhood with 1,200 housing units and 213,000 square-feet of office proved too much.
J.E. Dunn Construction moved quickly to build its new headquarters and office building at 11th and Locust streets, a cornerstone project that opened in 2009.
Swope however struggled to keep its end of the deal, buying out its original partner, Minneapolis developer Sherman Associates, and going through a couple of project executives.
There also was a sense of opportunism as the nature of the project evolved. When the feds expressed an interest in a downtown office building, the plan quickly pivoted to pursuing that deal- — it ultimately petered out two years ago.
Then the YMCA started talking about a downtown building and Swope seized on that proposal for the East Village. It too went away, although the Y is still apparently moving forward with the concept elsewhere downtown.
Even the sole housing project built by Swope to date, a 50-unit affordable rent project 950 Holmes St. was done to beat the clock when incentives were due to expire.
“We were obligated to do the first project according to our time line,” said E. Frank Ellis, chairman and CEO of Swope Community Enterprises. “It wasn’t there for marketplace housing, so the low-hanging fruit was affordable.”
VanTrust is switching the dial back to close to the original East Village vision, although with about half the housing. Its first project is expected to be a 180-unit market-rate apartment building on the site of the old J.E. Dunn offices at 10th and Holmes streets.
Ultimately up to 600 new apartments and additional modern office space is expected to be built gradually in four- to five-story buildings with Quality Hill-style streetscaping. Besides more people living downtown, VanTrust believes it knows how to do office buildings that will attract new business as well.
Harrison believes there are companies that would like to be downtown if the right space was available.
“When given the product they desire, there’s good will to coming downtown,” he said.
VanTrust’s decision to join Swope means some important unfinished business left over from the downtown redevelopment boom of the last decade will be taken care of at last. Who knows, maybe Ilus W. Davis Park finally will get used if enough people live nearby.
Bill Dietrich, president of the Downtown Council, sees the East Village as tying together the revitalization of the north edge of downtown near Admiral Boulevard including the revived View and Metropolitan condo towers, with the J.E. Dunn office building.
“VanTrust becoming co-developer is a real milestone and another validation for the viability of the residential market downtown,” Dietrich said. “Having one of Kansas City’s largest and best developers join Swope ensures a high-quality project.”