Downtown Kansas City, Kan., is tasting a revival

Downtown Kansas City, Kan., overshadowed by the more heralded revival of its bigger namesake across the state line, is beginning a modest comeback of its own.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County has been undoing the ugly 1970s zigzag makeover of Minnesota Avenue that choked traffic and terrorized tires with its sharp steel-edge curbs. It has been replaced by softer landscaping, diagonal parking and a new bus transit center at Seventh Street dominated by the historic Winkler Clock.

The Chamber of Commerce recently renovated its offices at 727 Minnesota Ave. Just around the corner at 824 State Ave., Foutch Bros. recently renovated the old Horace Mann school into 30 apartments. Down the road, at 10th Street and Minnesota, Mayor Mark Holland wants to develop a “healthy campus” anchored by a new YMCA.

Across Minnesota from the spiffed-up chamber building, Loretto Commercial Properties of Prairie Village — a real estate venture founded by Lamar Hunt Jr., a son of the late Chiefs’ founder and owner — is about to tackle the renovation of a couple of old buildings at 730 and 736 Minnesota Ave.

“Our view is to be part of the community, and because of Lamar’s resources we can make those long-term investments,” said James Arkell, vice president of Loretto and Lamar Hunt Jr.’s son-in-law. “We think it’s a good opportunity in an area that was once thriving.”

He was standing in front of the old Katz Drug Store, which opened in 1900 at 730 Minnesota Ave. The three-story building has been vacant since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to its then-new quarters at 901 N. Fifth St. in 1999. The EPA has since moved to Lenexa.

Loretto owns the Katz building and is close to completing the purchase of the two-story building next door at 736 Minnesota Ave. that opened in 1930 and also once housed EPA operations. The plan calls for spending about $1.45 million to renovate the two structures into what the firm hopes is a center for nonprofit tenants and private businesses.

Arkell said the historic first-floor facade of the Katz building will be restored, a project that will include the removal of an aluminum awning. The upper floors still appear the way they did when people climbed out windows in the 1920s and ’30s to watch parades, or go to the bowling alley that was once on the top level.

The first tenant in the Katz building will be a nonprofit coffee shop called Cup on the Hill that will front the street. The shop will hire young people and teach them job skills to help them make it on their own. Other potential tenants are nonprofit organizations and potentially an engineering or architectural firm.

“A lot of people want to relocate to the Minnesota corridor, and there’s not a lot of space available,” Arkell said.

Last week the Unified Government approved selling the 730 Main building to Loretto and also agreed to accelerate its timetable for completing the streetscaping improvements in front of the two buildings.

“We’ve been trying to get people to come in and invest and look at the downtown area for some time,” said Doug Bach, deputy county administrator for economic development.

“For them to buy properties and make a great investment restoring them to the character of the original buildings — we’re very excited.”

Former Mayor Joe Reardon is advising Loretto. He said the work is part of a downtown master plan that was adopted in 2007.

“These two buildings will act as catalytic buildings for the block,” Reardon said.

Award winners

The Kansas City chapter of the Urban Land Institute held its awards banquet last week and recognized several projects along with one key individual, Tom McDonnell, president and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

McDonnell was the longtime chief executive at DST Systems until his retirement in 2012. During his tenure, DST Realty was a huge force in renovating and preserving a large chunk of the west side of downtown Kansas City, keeping it thriving during the 1990s and early 2000s at a time much of the rest of downtown was declining.

The projects recognized by the institute:

• Commonwealth Apartments, the name attached to the 11 majestic old apartment-hotel buildings on Armour Boulevard restored to market-rate housing by MAC Properties of Chicago.

• Plaza Vista, the office and hotel development once known as the West Edge and completed by VanTrust Real Estate.

• Linden Square, the new outdoor public gathering space in Gladstone that also is intended to encourage economic development.

• The new Johnson County Justice System facility designed by el dorado architects that reused a former supermarket building. It now houses the sheriff’s office, court trustees and court services.