Government & Politics

Love downtown Overland Park’s charm? New urban vibe bringing excitement, angst.

For decades, downtown Overland Park has been home to quaint shops, restaurants, and one of the most popular farmers markets in Kansas, serving as an eclectic retail destination for folks throughout the metro area.

Dominated by a distinctive clock tower and plaza on Santa Fe Drive, the district has customers flocking to 300 locally owned businesses, including a culinary center for cooking classes, the renowned Vinyl Renaissance record store, the Rio vintage arthouse theater and the Brew Lab.

But now that small-town quirky character is being transformed, with $100 million invested in four upscale apartment/mixed-use projects that are opening up or under construction — downtown Overland Park’s first new market-rate apartments in more than 30 years. The largest project towers over Metcalf Avenue, replacing a car dealership and an old Sonic.

It’s creating a decidedly urban vibe to what has been quintessential suburbia.

It’s also generating angst about rapid growth and change.

“For the longtime residents, it’s very unsettling,” says Strang Line neighborhood leader Janiece Vohland, who lives in a home three blocks west of downtown. “It may be too much, too soon.”

Others say it’s a welcome trend.

“It’s got an authentic urban feel. It’s really in my opinion the only authentic urban area in Johnson County,” says Hal Shapiro, who developed the 41-unit Interurban Lofts that opened in May — the first of five major new projects that will add more than 650 new units, with the potential for more than 800 residents within a few blocks of 80th and Metcalf.

“It’s cheaper than downtown Kansas City. That’s what really grabbed our attention,” says 26-year-old Liam Reilly, a lawyer who moved with his girlfriend, a Blue Valley schoolteacher, into the Interurban Lofts. One-bedroom rentals there range from $1,190 to $1,450, while they can be several hundred dollars more in downtown KC, with extra expenses for parking.

Overland Park was convenient to his new Kansas City law firm job and hers in Blue Valley, while offering walkable access to the Overland Park Farmers’ Market, bars and ethnic eateries like Elsa’s Ethiopian Restaurant. Reilly sees only positives with all the construction.

“We were just talking about how exciting it is,” he said. “We’re some of the first, but there will be more people.”

But it’s also prompting worry for nearby single-family homeowners who have loved Overland Park’s family-friendly ambiance.

“We’re concerned about the sheer quantity of apartments coming in on such a short timeline,” Vohland said.

She and her neighbors are concerned about traffic, pedestrian safety, large crowds and parking challenges. Others say long-time residents have been left out of the planning loop, and worry that rising rents may push out some of the favorite mom and pop shops.

Vohland would like the city to take a breather soon, but developers say they are already scouting other parcels in and near downtown for more growth.

All the change is also prompting a rethinking of the farmers market, with a consulting study underway that could yield recommendations by year’s end.

Longtime vision

In some respects, this boom is years behind schedule. It’s an outgrowth of the city’s “Vision Metcalf” plan, adopted in 2008.

“It was a recognition at the time that some of the retail centers along Metcalf were struggling,” says Jack Messer, Overland Park planning director. The city wanted more density and contemporary development to update a vast landscape of car dealerships, auto parts stores and acres of surface parking lots.

Then the recession hit, slowing things down. It took several years to rezone the area for residential/office/retail and more years for developers to assemble property. But now those mixed-use projects are rising out of the ground.

Messer doesn’t see this as competing with downtown Kansas City, but says it is a way for Overland Park to stay up to date.

“Our past is rooted in suburban and single-family subdivisions,” he said. “We haven’t in our past built this kind of dense mixed-use environment. I think it’s meeting a demand.”

It’s capitalizing on a trend noted in a recent New York Times article, entitled “The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here.”

According to writer Alan M. Berger, millennials and others aren’t all flocking to the big city. “They may like the city, but they love the suburbs even more,” he writes. Yet he notes they want pedestrian-friendly connections to communal spaces rather than fenced back yards and traffic jammed streets.

Downtown Overland Park’s apartment investments so far total more than $103 million, with about $21 million in sales tax exemptions and tax-increment-financing reimbursements provided to help developers with land acquisition, construction materials, demolition, parking garages and infrastructure improvements.

Among those projects:

▪  Interurban Lofts, $9.3 million, 41-unit project designed by Finkle + Williams Architecture, open at 79th and Conser streets.

▪  Avenue 80, $40.8 million, 220-unit project at 80th and Metcalf. The first commercial tenants arrive in October, and residents in November. The developer, EPC Real Estate, also expects to break ground next year on Avenue 81, a 150-unit senior independent and assisted living project at 82nd and Metcalf, where the iconic White Haven Motor Lodge was.

▪  The Vue developed by Hunt Midwest, $44 million, 219-unit project at 80th and Marty streets, opening late 2018 or early 2019.

▪  Market Lofts, developed by Paul Goehausen, a $10 million, 36-unit project geared to 50-somethings and retirees, at 80th and Marty, opening in April.

EPC Real Estate President Mike McKeen says Avenue 80 targets millennials and empty-nesters with a spacious courtyard, two small pools, cabanas, interesting views and a variety of unit sizes.

“We love the charm and character that downtown Overland Park has,” he said.

Hunt Midwest also saw downtown Overland Park as a different option and price point than downtown Kansas City.

“It had the kind of unique quirkiness and kind of a great urban feel, for being in the suburbs,” said Brenner Holland, Hunt Midwest vice president of residential development. “We think it will appeal to people who work more in Johnson County or grew up in Johnson County and don’t want to make the move into downtown.”

Gordon Kauffman, 78, moved into the Interurban Lofts from a single-family rental two miles north. He enjoys the building’s diverse resident mix, from 20-somethings to retirees, and says the only things the neighborhood needs now are a grocery and New York deli.

Marsha Johnson’s family helped establish Overland Park and ran the White Haven Motor Lodge for decades. So when she moved back to town from Stillwell this year, she checked out Interurban Lofts and chose to live there. She loves people-watching from her balcony and the proximity to the farmers market.

But she’s also anxious about all the growth, especially the larger projects, Avenue 80 and the Vue.

“I’m kind of worried,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with traffic.”

City Councilman Dave Janson voted against the Interurban Lofts in 2015 because he felt its four-story height was too tall and backed up too close to the adjacent single-family neighborhood. He says the building’s units are “awesome,” but it’s in the wrong location, and he would not support more apartments encroaching on neighborhoods west of downtown.

But Janson also says the new apartments are high quality and most are welcome developments; for example, the Vue is replacing an outdated appliance store.

Artists and farmers

Just as the arts and farmers’ market were catalysts for downtown Kansas City’s growth, they are fueling downtown Overland Park’s energy.

One key venue is the Interurban Arthouse, run by founder and artistic director Nicole Emanuel and CEO Angi Hejduk.

Emanuel, a painter and arts entrepreneur, worked in the Crossroads in the 1990s, but she and her husband moved with their children to Overland Park in the early 2000s. She discovered a thriving suburban arts scene and founded Interurban Arthouse in 2011 as a community arts space.

As Emanuel watched all the construction, she feared rents might go sky high and wanted to assure affordable space for artist studios, galleries and classes. So after four years of negotiations, her nonprofit bought and renovated a post office at 8010 Conser St. With project completion in July, it’s now full of shows and hosts an Arts on Fire celebration Oct. 29.

Harper’s Fabric and Quilt Co. owner Elaine Johnson agreed part of downtown Overland Park’s vitality derives from this burgeoning artists’ community.

“There’s a real concentrated selection, grouping of a lot of artists,” she said.

Johnson is also part of a working group of city advocates, guided by a consulting firm, studying the farmers market’s future. The popular market has parking and infrastructure constraints, more eager vendors than available space. It’s also not well served by public transportation. The study could be completed by year’s end.

The market won’t move out of downtown, Johnson emphasized.

“That farmers market is only going to get better,” she said. “It’s going to be new and improved.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley