Commerce Tower returns to village concept

When Commerce Tower opened in 1965 as the then-largest office tower in downtown Kansas City, it was touted as “a city within a city,” offering a bank, barber shop, drugstore, post office and restaurants in addition to office space.

Five decades later, a who’s who of civic and development leaders gathered Monday morning to celebrate an official launch of a new “vertical neighborhood” — a 31-story tower that is undergoing renovation to become a combination of apartments, a university, an early learning center, offices, a bank and retail locations.

The mostly vacant Commerce Tower at Ninth and Main streets is one of several downtown Kansas City buildings that are changing from commercial to residential or hotel use.

The $139 million Commerce Tower renovation, scheduled to open in phases beginning in September, won’t be completely done until August 2017, according to the current plan. Leasing through for the apartments won’t begin until July.

But this week, which marks the public opening of Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar service, was chosen as a time to draw attention to the tower project. Michael Knight, vice president of the Commerce Tower Group LLC, has said from the beginning that the streetcar stop on Main Street was an incentive to tackle the huge renovation.

In addition to its transit tie, the building also is expected to gain national attention for gaining a LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

According to the developers, Commerce Tower is a pioneer in the Green Initiative Program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and was the first project to volunteer for Kansas City’s new benchmarking ordinance for energy efficiency in buildings with more than 100,000 square feet.

To that end, the launch event at the towerwas kicked off by Bob Berkebile, a founding principal of BNIM Architects in Kansas City, who was a leader in creating the U.S. Green Building Council and the LEED rating system. Berkebile also serves as a partner in the Commerce Tower Group.

In addition to Knight and Berkebile, there are two other principals in the development group: Roy J. Carver Jr., chairman of Carver Pump Co., who has a broad real estate portfolio, and Bryce Henderson, co-founder of Revive Capital Development.

The builder and architect of record is Ryan Companies US Inc., a Minneapolis-based company.

Since Ryan was selected in 2013, the tower’s renovation costs have soared from an early estimate of $71 million to today’s $139 million estimate.

To make the project financially feasible, the renovation is being assisted by a 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement granted by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and a Tax Increment Financing Commission agreement covering about $18.5 million in costs.

The project also received federal and state historic tax credits, and the developers have asked for a community improvement district designation to get a 1-cent sales tax applied to redevelopment costs. That sales tax would apply only for the Ninth and Main block.

Current plans call for the tower’s lowest floors to include a Commerce Bank facility, a CVS store, a Spectrum Station Early Learning Center and Lincoln Property Co. offices. Park University will occupy the third and fourth floors, and office suites will be offered on the fifth and sixth floors.

Above that, the design calls for 68 studio apartments, 127 one-bedroom units, 100 two-bedroom units and nine penthouses on the top floor. The tower also is to include 13 furnished units.

In addition to Berkebile and Knight, speakers at the event included Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte; Tom Gerend, CEO of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority; Joe Reardon, CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, and a HUD representative.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford