How does JoCo’s new nature oasis rival Loose Park? Try more acres and a sledding hill

Johnson County Deputy Parks Director Jeff Stewart sported a big smile Friday as he surveyed crews scrambling to finish the area’s newest park, with its 82-acre expanse of lawn, abundant trees, ponds, walking trail, clubhouse and even a sledding hill.

Meadowbrook Park is northern Johnson County’s answer to Loose Park, a beloved Kansas City urban oasis. It’s behind schedule but officials hope for substantial completion by the end of the year.

It’s just southeast of 91st Street and Nall Avenue, serving densely populated Prairie Village, Leawood and Overland Park neighborhoods that have wanted extra parkland.

“It’s pretty rare to find 80 acres of green space to develop into a public space, so that’ll be a great positive addition to this part of Johnson County,” Stewart said. “We’ll really have a jewel here.”

Converting the northern part of the former Meadowbrook private golf course to a public park took years and lengthy negotiations. But it’s a success story at a time when Overland Park is fighting bitterly over the proposed Brookridge golf course redevelopment at 103rd Street and Antioch Road.

Meadowbrook worked, officials say, because real estate company VanTrust collaborated with public agencies and agreed to have tax incentives invested in the park amenities, rather than to benefit private development.

“It’s extraordinarily unique,” said Prairie Village City Administrator Wes Jordan, who was involved in extensive discussions to create the park. “The fact that you get to keep 82 acres of green space is the real winner here.”

The park’s construction got off to a slow start and has encountered delays due to rainy weather, sewer installation complications and a spillway that had to be redesigned and rebuilt, Stewart said. But officials are hoping the clubhouse, outdoor pavilion and most other amenities will be substantially completed by the end of the year. Part of the park, south of Meadowbrook Parkway, is already open to the public.

Prairie Village Mayor Laura Wassmer notes that VanTrust bought the 18-hole golf course property in 2010 and could have converted the entire 136 acres into single-family residences. After the course itself closed in 2014, VanTrust had talked to the city about keeping 60 percent of the property for large estate homes, and turning 40 percent into park.

But Wassmer recalls that she suggested a twist. What if 60 percent went for park and only 40 percent for residential development?

“The land itself was so beautiful, with so many mature trees,” she said. “The thought of cutting all the trees down and filling it up with homes was really a sad thought.”

Remarkably, Wassmer says, VanTrust representatives were amenable to the idea, if they could build more dense residential to make the financing work. They agreed that tax-increment-financing, or TIF, could redirect new property tax revenues generated from the development to help pay off about $11 million in bonds for the park’s development.

“That had never been done before,” Wassmer said, adding that it’s something for other cities to consider and “a great template to follow.”

The city held numerous public forums and got buy-in from residents. The deal also required the cooperation of the Johnson County Park & Recreation District, which agreed to take over the park’s maintenance, and Johnson County Wastewater, which provided sewers for the private development.

The city bought the park acreage from VanTrust for $5.9 million and turned it over to the Johnson County parks district. About $5 million more was paid for the trail and other improvements, with Harmon Construction as the contractor on the project.

What resulted was a “park framed by a neighborhood,” in which VanTrust is pursuing a $200 million development that will ultimately include 53 single family homes, 20 twin villas, 282 upscale apartment units, a boutique inn and 300-unit senior living facility.

Jordan has presented this public/private collaboration model at national urban planning conferences..

“It was a unique partnership and has actually won some awards for the concept, and it’s just lovely when you get out there and walk around,” said Johnson County Park & Recreation Chairwoman Nancy Wallerstein. The Prairie Village resident was also involved in the negotiations.

Meadowbrook Park doesn’t have a rose garden but in other ways resembles the 75-acre Loose Park a mecca for those who want a relaxed stroll, or a spot for family and community gatherings. Neither park focuses on competitive athletics.

The site doesn’t have ball fields but will have an outdoor pavilion with fire pit, other picnic areas, a large playground, a 3.75-mile walking trail, three ponds, eight pickleball courts, a low-impact fitness area and a sledding hill to the east of the clubhouse.

One part of the project causing delays is the $3.8 million clubhouse, under construction near the park’s northwest corner near Somerset Drive. It’s being built as an activity center, and will include a preschool and a special-events space that can hold about 200 people, with a stunning view of the grand lawn.

“I think it’s going to be a great place for weddings and parties,” Wassmer said.

Part of the private development, is also already built. The 282-unit Kessler apartment building was completed in September and is leasing. VanTrust broke ground in August on the 54-room inn, which should open at the end of next year and will include a restaurant open to locals. The town home and single family lots are prepped and construction has started.

The company has sold 8.5 acres to another group that should start building the senior living facility next spring.

All those residents will also benefit by having a park right outdoors, said Justin Duff, director of development for VanTrust.

“It’s the park, with all of its amenities, expansive green space and trails that make this neighborhood a special place,” he said, adding that it’s intended to appeal to people from throughout northern Johnson County and beyond.

Duff has four children and he said they’re especially excited about the sledding hill, which was created out of the prodigious amounts of dirt moved for the private development. It’s affectionately dubbed “Mount Meadowbrook.”

After years of planning and delays, Wassmer and Wallerstein say the end result has exceeded their expectations. Wassmer, who is ending her tenure as Prairie Village mayor, says it’s one of the most rewarding projects she’s watched unfold.

“It’s been a long time coming, but wow,” she said. “What a legacy for Prairie Village. We are just absolutely thrilled, and I’m thrilled about being a part of it.”