Consultants recently asked Overland Park workers and residents to describe the city’s most prominent business corridor, near College Boulevard and Metcalf Avenue.
The observations were blunt and brutal.
“We heard things like, ‘It’s not unique. There’s no character,’ ” said Ben Sporer, Minneapolis urban designer with Perkins + Will. “ ‘It’s not cool, and there’s no fun factor.’ ”
Sporer provided the assessment in a Jan. 9 public presentation attended by around 50 people. Among the findings: Around 50 percent of the land is made up of pavement and parking lots.
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The city is studying ways to try to fix that image and improve one of its most vital employment hubs, encompassing the Overland Park Convention Center and just east of Corporate Woods. The 470-acre district spans College Boulevard, 1.5-miles from Lowell Avenue on the west to Nall Avenue on the east and from Interstate 435 to 112th Street.
The study grew out of a 2016 City Council retreat in which city leaders, plus business and tourism executives, discussed the need to enhance the convention center’s surroundings for visitors. They also wanted to enliven a business corridor that has 30,000 employees but little for them to do outside of work.
“The number one thing we hear the most is walkability, connectivity,” said Beth Johnson, senior vice president of economic development for the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce. “They want to be able to walk at lunchtime. They want to be able to get a beer after work.”
The area’s major engineering and architecture firms “want to be in an area that is hip,” Johnson said, “where they feel they can continue to attract top talent.”
Dana Markel, president of Visit Overland Park, the convention and visitors’ bureau, said 1 million visitors stay at hotels within a mile of College and Metcalf each year, and they, too, want more accessible restaurants, walking paths, nightlife and other amenities.
“That’s 1 million people a year without a kitchen, looking for things to do, and if we don’t offer that in a walkable distance, they’re going to go elsewhere,” she said.
The consultants emphasized it will be a big challenge, possibly costing $5 million to $40 million in taxpayer dollars, to transform sterile office parks that become ghost towns after dark into vibrant, entertainment-rich and walkable places with an urban vibe. That wide-ranging pricetag depends on what the city decides to do — from a few quick fixes right around the convention center, to more dramatic improvements spanning a much larger area.
Preliminary concepts include:
▪ More sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaped streetscape, to beautify and “tame” the streets, including Lamar Avenue at College and at 110th Street.
▪ Safer crossings at the Convention Center.
▪ More shaded small park areas and picnic gathering spots.
▪ Programmed activities such as Food Truck days and street fairs to liven up the huge parking lot expanses.
▪ A “road diet” on College Boulevard, with wider sidewalks and more bike lanes to make it a more scenic boulevard instead of just a car-centric thoroughfare.
A final plan is expected in March, but there’s no funding or specific timeline yet for implementation. Overland Park Planning Manager Leslie Karr said the city is looking for “quick start projects” that could add streetscape and activities near the convention center.
Reactions from several dozen people at the public presentation were generally favorable.
“I was very impressed,” said Jay Rome, an avid cyclist who lives with his wife, Andrea, at College Boulevard and Nieman Road. He said he bikes on Lamar Avenue now but finds it challenging.
“We’d like to see more bike-friendly development in this area, more healthy and walkable,” Andrea Rome said.
Pam Rist of Lenexa said she shops in the area but agreed it needs more people-oriented activity. She said the Lenexa City Center is an example of a more urban, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood with a new public market.
“I think this would help Overland Park,” she said. “I see the benefit.”
Former City Councilman Greg Musil was intrigued but said he didn’t want this concept to turn into another “Vision Metcalf,” which was basically a “wish list.”
He questioned just how much public investment will be required, noting that “$5 million to $40 million is a big range.”
“I’m just looking for realism,” he said, adding that, no matter what happens in the area, “car demands will way exceed pedestrians and bikes.”
Some longtime Overland Park residents remain skeptical.
“We are suburbia. We drive,” said Toni Gelpi, who has lived on West 88th Street for more than 40 years. She found out about the College-Metcalf plan shortly before the Jan. 9 presentation and wasn’t able to attend. She wants to know how it will benefit regular citizens, not just developers. And she said the city should seek more input “by the residents/citizens whose lives it will impact on a daily basis, including the broader financial cost to us.”
The $177,650 study is being funded with $83,750 from Overland Park, $10,000 from the chamber and convention and visitors bureau, and $83,900 from the Mid-America Regional Council. Consulting firms include Perkins + Will; San Francisco-based Nelson Nygaard; and Chicago-based Johnson Consulting.
With the MARC grant and other funding, consultants got feedback from about 400 people. They also studied what’s there now and found that half of the land is roads and parking lots, and another 40 percent is manicured lawn.
The office layouts, Sporer pointed out, often involve “a building in the center of a sea of parking, with lack of pedestrian access from the street to the front door.”
“Everybody thought very strongly it’s just too difficult to walk, and why would I walk anywhere?” Sporer said. “There’s no place to go and there’s no place to eat.”
He said having 30,000 employees in the area is “ a huge opportunity” for the city to build a more vibrant neighborhood, but right now it’s a challenge.
“We know that the area is actually losing new business to other areas, downtown Kansas City and other areas and regions,” he told the gathering. “Businesses don’t necessary want to come here when compared to other parts of the region, mainly due to this built environment.”
Sporer did not name any businesses that have left, and Johnson declined to provide specifics.
City Councilman Jim Kite, who represents the area and attended the presentation, said he wasn’t aware of any businesses leaving. He and his wife like the Applebee’s at 11000 Metcalf Ave., but he agreed the area could use more restaurants and attractions.
He said Overland Park needs to join the trend of many other suburbs, working to transform their office towers and parking lots that date from the 1980s and 1990s.
“This is going to be the center of the city, the southern anchor of Vision Metcalf,” he said. “Let’s rethink that area, much like we’ve rethought downtown Overland Park.”
Black & Veatch, one major employer with 2,400 employees in a building at 11401 Lamar Ave. and another at 6800 W. 115th St., is watching the planning process with interest.
“While our headquarters lie just south of the proposed College-Metcalf redevelopment area, that proximity means current plans could open enjoyable new options for Black & Veatch professionals during and after the workday,” Clint Robinson, associate vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. “We are eager to watch as the plans develop toward a safer and more walkable space.”
Inner-ring suburbs changing
Sporer said Overland Park is certainly not alone in this challenge.
“A lot of cities in the country are struggling with this now. I would say as a country we all planned and designed for the automobile for so long that I think we’re now realizing that it’s causing some problems,” he said.
From Maryland to North Carolina to Colorado, suburbs of major cities are trying to capture some of that downtown urban excitement.
Sporer used the example of how Facebook is transforming Menlo Park in California, with 1,500 units of housing, 125,000-square feet of retail space and new parks in a 60-acre campus.
New housing, retail and park-like settings could also help the College/Metcalf corridor, he said, although he acknowledged this is a much larger space than many suburban areas are trying to tackle.
Sporer also cited the need to transform the area after dark.
“We know it’s kind of a ghost town around here at 5 o’clock,” he said. “Everybody goes home. There’s nowhere to go. Nothing to do. So that represents an opportunity.”
At the presentation, Becky Metcalf, a Realtor who works for Keller Williams Realty Partners at 11005 Metcalf Ave., agreed it would be nice to have somewhere nearby to take clients for lunch or a drink, rather than having to get in a car and drive.
Still, she appreciates the nearby highway access and road infrastructure and said her clients aren’t interested in transit or alternatives to cars.
Transportation consultant Pete Costa, with Nelson Nygaard, said nothing in the plan is designed to force people out of their cars, but the city should give people pedestrian-bike choices. He insisted there’s excess capacity on College Boulevard and that it can handle a “road diet,” in which some car lanes are substituted for cyclist and walker lanes.
Both Kite and Councilman Curt Skoog emphasized this is all very preliminary and no decisions have been made. They said some new sidewalks and bike lanes can be incorporated into the city’s future capital improvement plans. But they also appreciated the ambitious possibilities that are outlined.
“I think it’s a good start,” Kite said. “We now have to do the heavy lifting to see what we can embrace, and what the community can afford.”