It’s a sunny but brisk Saturday afternoon, and the Santa Fe Drive that winds through downtown Overland Park is buzzing with people.
Never mind Metcalf Avenue and its block after block of retail and car dealerships. Santa Fe is this city’s “Main Street,” as it’s always been since the early days of the 20th century when the area had gravel streets that bustled with horse-drawn carriages and the Steam Electric Interurban Railroad Line.
Though it’s had its ups and downs, this suburban street, with its two lanes of traffic, is home to retail stores, restaurants, schools and businesses. Those who stroll along Santa Fe’s sidewalks reflect a diverse mix of people drawn to the eclectic area that once was part of the historic Santa Fe Trail.
There’s the millennial couple from out of town shopping for an engagement gift in Ten Thousand Villages. A mother, daughter and granddaughter are making new memories together enjoying high tea at the Clock Tower Bakery. There’s the empty nester from Kansas City, who ventured across the state line to return a gift at Penseys Spices and browse a bit for goodies.
And then there’s the 30-something woman sitting outside Papa Keno’s Pizzeria surveying the neighborhood she had been gone from for years.
“I grew up around here but it’s my first time back in a long time,” said Sheryl Thompson of Olathe. “It’s so quaint. It’s got a lot of variety and I like the smaller businesses.”
Nestled between West 78th and 83rd streets, from Metcalf Avenue to Conser Street, the area includes 300 merchants and businesses within its business district. The main drag, however, is along Santa Fe Drive and includes retail shops, businesses, schools as well as residential space with new development under way.
While some people complain about a lack of parking, Santa Fe draws people to the area, especially during the summer months when the Farmer’s Market is open and live entertainment frequents the square near the emblematic clock tower.
Today, there are new stores and restaurants opening as well as five major mixed-use projects underway involving residential lofts and commercial space. Retailers range from gift stores, fabric centers, art shops, barbers and bakeries to restaurants offering diverse cuisine including American, Chinese, British and Salvadoran. Businesses from insurance to real estate, architecture to automotive call this main street area home.
“I love this place,” said 81-year-old Daryl Miller, who owns Red’s Barber Shop, one of the oldest businesses on Santa Fe. And while Miller knows this community urban center in the suburbs is evolving, he has no plans to close up shop and retire.
Horse and buggy days
The landscape looks quite different from 1907, when the first commercial building opened on the corner of 80th Street and Santa Fe, which sprung up where the historic Santa Fe Trail had been in use decades earlier.
Overland Park’s founder, William Strang, was the mover and shaker behind the area. The early commercial business included a grocery store, tobacco shop, a dairy and a confectionary — and of course the Strang Land Company office.
According to the Overland Park Historical Society, the Santa Fe area was a magnet for people in the early days. Strang platted subdivisions nearby, seeking to include commerce nearby along with educational and recreational facilities.
The area continued to develop along with the city. By 1926, Kansas City Power & Light Co. had business operations in “downtown” Overland Park as more roads were laid and cars replaced the old modes of transportation.
Through the war years and beyond, growth was the name of the game in the city, and this area moved along with it.
However, as Overland Park continued its southward and westward track, less attention was paid to the Santa Fe Drive area. Things began to stagnate, according to Ed Eilert, a former Overland Park city councilman who then served as mayor for nearly 25 years.
“When I was first elected to City Council in 1977, the then-mayor put me on a committee called the Downtown Coordinating Council to look to ways to revitalize that commercial area,” said Eilert, who today is chairman of the Johnson County Commission. “We struggled with that for about 15 years…. We finally settled on a partnership between the merchants and the city.”
Another big shot in the arm came with the creation of Downtown Overland Park Partnership in the 1980s. The Partnership is a nonprofit organization contracted by the city of Overland Park to promote the marketing, recruitment, physical enhancement and continued redevelopment of the downtown area.
“We are a liaison for the city,” said Partnership director Kate Sweeten. “Our biggest goal is attracting a crowd — we work to target different demographics and get people here, interested and into businesses through various events and activities.”
When the city built the Clock Tower Plaza and adjacent Farmer’s Market Pavilion in the 1990s, it helped the Partnership provide a gathering place for all kinds of events. In addition to the Farmer’s Market, which is open April through Thanksgiving, additional activities have been added to the schedule.
The Partnership is behind summer concerts, trick-or-treating at area merchants, the Overland Park Mayor’s Christmas Tree lighting, a food truck fest and special programs on the third Friday of each month.
“Businesses stay open late, have live music, food and drink specials,” Sweeten said.
Generating a buzz
That vibe is what brought Peter Taylor and Mary Kate Barnthouse to the area in search of a gift. While visiting friends, the Wichita couple was told to look in shops along Santa Fe to find something special and unique.
“We had never been here before, and it is really pretty cool,” Taylor said.
“All the stores are really different,” Barnthouse said. “They all have something — there’s too much to choose from.”
Kansas Citian Linda Lyon is a fan of the area.
“I don’t come down here very often, but it is very cute,” Lyon said as she shopped in Penseys Spices.
The bottom line for Sweeten is to get more people to Downtown Overland Park.
“We want people to come down here and live and play,” Sweeten said.
Missy Peterson moved to Overland Park two years ago and heard about the area from a friend. When she was looking for a special place to take her mother, Mary Kelzer, and her 5-year-old daughter, Maren, for an afternoon, Peterson knew just the place to go — the Clock Tower Bakery at 7911 Santa Fe Drive for its authentic English Tea.
“We’re trying to make memories,” Peterson said. “We live in southern Overland Park (but) the town I grew up in outside of Chicago, the downtown area is just like this. It’s such a quaint spot.”
The bakery originally opened on Santa Fe in 2009. A British couple, Teresa and Ian Gebbett, bought the bakery in May 2014 where Teresa had worked with the former owners. The Gebbetts soon added their own touch, including the English Tea.
Teresa Gebbett likes being part of main street.
“Although it’s a growing area it has retained an old fashioned charm feeling,” she said. “It almost feels like going back in time to when one would walk from shop to shop without needing a car.”
About six years ago, Nick Burnau and David Cea opened The Peanut bar and grill at 7938 Santa Fe Drive. The building’s older look with its brick exterior was part of the appeal, Burnau said.
“We always liked the area,” Burnau said. “It was a beautiful building and we adapted it for us.”
Burnau likes the vibe.
“I think it’s the older buildings that give its main street feel…. The clock tower is beautiful and the people are proud of the area. It is a tight-knit community.”
The move to the area has been profitable for Burnau and Cea.
“It has been phenomenal for us,” Burnau said.
Tim Crough is relatively new to the area, opening his Move Right KC fitness business around the corner at 7331 W. 79th St. nearly two years ago.
“Downtown Overland Park has an authentic community and a neighborhood feel that’s very unique to the area,” Crough said. “It’s a hip district in the middle of the suburbs that makes perfect sense for our business model.”
Some of the city’s older buildings remain in the area, with new businesses in them. The Conser Building, built in 1911, is home today to the Dragon Inn restaurant. The building that housed the Overland Park State Bank in 1911 is home to The Monogram Shop.
Sprucing up the old district
That old-time feel is getting a boost with new-time development.
Part of the 2008 Vision Metcalf development plan identified the downtown area for redevelopment efforts.
Jack Messer, the city’s director of planning and development services, said recommendations called for developing the area in a mixed-use format that is pedestrian oriented. To that end, five major projects are underway in the area:
▪ Avenue 80: A $40 million project at 80th Street and Metcalf that includes retail, office and 200-plus apartment units. Completion is set for this year. Developer is EPC Real Estate.
▪ The Vue: A $40 million project at 80th Street and Marty. It includes 200-plus apartments and retail as well as a partially wrapped parking structure. Completion is in 2018. Developer is Hunt Midwest.
▪ Interurban Lofts: $9.3 million project at 79th Street and Conser. Four-story project includes offices and 40-plus apartment units. Set for completion this year, the developer is Hal Shapiro.
▪ Market Lofts: A $9.3 million project at 80th Street and Marty that also includes retail space, 40-plus apartments and a two-level parking structure. Completion is scheduled for next year. Developer is Paul Goehausen.
▪ Revival Furniture: A $1.3 million two-story building at Santa Fe Drive and Robinson. The first floor will be retail for the relocating Revival Furniture, and the upper story will have two apartments. Completion set for this year. Developer is Revival Furniture.
Messer said everyone benefits from this revitalization effort in downtown Overland Park, assuming all goes according to plan.
“There is obvious economic impact of construction as well as those economic impacts associated with additional retail and office opportunities,” Messer said. “The existing businesses in the area should benefit greatly from a new built-in source of customers.”
Eilert has taken personal pride in watching the old downtown area become the city’s main street once again.
“It really was the commercial center of Overland Park since the beginning,” Eilert said. “For some of us, it has always been downtown Overland Park.”
This is part of an occasional look at some of the historic and vital commercial centers in Johnson County.