The champion Osage orange tree towers over a backyard in downtown Olathe, making its owner Joe Vader smile every time he mows around it. He’s dwarfed by its humongous 18-foot trunk, with gorgeous swirling knobs and wood grain on the tree that likely dates to the Civil War.
“It has so much character,” Vader says. “Those gnarls are amazing to me.”
The tree, thought to be 150 years old, may soon be the only thing left in this block of 14 homes, bounded by Kansas Avenue, North Cherry Street, East Poplar Street and East Spruce Street.
That’s because Johnson County needs the land for a parking lot for the $182 million courthouse that voters approved in late 2016.
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Some of the homes are historic, and their owners had recently put thousands of dollars into fixing them up before the county told them in June that their properties would have to go. These owners join historic preservation advocates in complaining that voters who approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase for the courthouse project weren’t told these properties would have to be seized for it.
“It’s a shame that they have to tear down these houses to make a parking lot,” said Bob Courtney, board member with the Olathe Historical Society. “None of that was presented to the citizens of Johnson County when the plans for the courthouse were initially being proposed.”
He says downtown Olathe has already lost many homes from pioneer days to urban renewal, and this block, with a few 100-year-old homes and several Craftsman-style homes from the 1920s and 1930s, is another casualty in a long trend. Demolition is expected to begin Dec. 1 and take two months.
At the time of the 2016 election, the county expected parking would be satisfied by an existing city lot on the northwest corner of Kansas Avenue and Santa Fe Street, just west of where the new courthouse will be built.
But earlier this year, the city of Olathe sought development for that parcel, and received a mixed-use proposal for retail and residential lofts. That plan is still preliminary. But the block of homes, dubbed Block 29, north across the street from the new courthouse location, became the preferred site for construction staging, and then for a new lot with several hundred parking spaces.
Hannes Zacharias, county manager of Johnson County, is sympathetic to those who mourn the loss of Block 29.
“It is a loss of history, there’s no question about it,” Zacharias says, “We lament the fact we have to go ahead and do that.”
However, Zacharias says it’s the price of progress.
Zacharias says the $182 million courthouse, to be completed in about four years, will be one of the most significant buildings the county has undertaken in 50 years. The facility serves more than 400,000 people annually for all types of court activities. The new structure will get rid of the problems with the existing courthouse: overcrowded and poorly configured courtrooms, offices where jail cells used to be, and the situations where “criminals are literally shackled up and brought down in public view down the hallways.”
Zacharias notes 10 of the 14 homes in Block 29 were rentals, and most weren’t historically significant. The county has spent about $2 million in other funds — not from the tax increase that voters approved — to buy out the property owners and has $2 million more available to complete the parking lot.
“I don’t feel good about it, but I also believe that the overall objective is to revitalize downtown,” he said. “And this is a necessary way to go ahead and do that. In our society, people want to have some place to park. That’s how it’s going to be.”
For Kelli Larkins, the decision has been wrenching. She had lived in her Craftsman home on North Cherry Street for 27 years and in the past two years had spent thousands of dollars on a new kitchen, main floor bathroom and heating/cooling system. She thought she and her wife were set for retirement.
But then county officials showed up at her door June 5.
“They said they were going to buy our house and said we had until Oct. 1 to be out,” she recalled. “We were shocked.”
The couple didn’t feel they could haggle over the price, because hiring a lawyer would be cost prohibitive. For what they were paid, they had trouble finding a comparable home in Johnson County.
“We had to downsize,” she said. “It’s a smaller house in Lenexa.”
Mary Ann Verhulst and her husband had recently put $30,000 into updating a rental house on the corner of Kansas Avenue and Spruce Street that she believes dates back 134 years. She says the demolitions mean the loss of relatively affordable rental properties as Johnson County becomes increasingly expensive.
Vader, a retired lawyer who practiced for 53 years in Olathe, says the county definitely needs a more modern, efficient and safe courthouse, and has the right to take homes for a public purpose. He owned three 100-year-old Poplar Street homes as rental properties that he had planned to restore for law offices serving the new courthouse. He settled with the county to give those up, but now hopes that at least the Osage Orange tree can be saved, although an arborist will have to determine that.
Could this parking lot situation have been predicted and better planned for?
Olathe city spokesman Tim Danneberg says it’s been clear to city and county planners for years that the city hoped to redevelop the existing parking lot site with private investment. Olathe has spent more than $40 million in the past decade preparing downtown for private development: elevating train tracks that run across Santa Fe Street to stop traffic jams, reconfiguring railroad crossings to create a quiet zone free from train whistles, and making Santa Fe Street more pedestrian-friendly with new streetscape.
He says a private project emerged for the parking lot site in 2008 but the recession hit and it dissolved. So when the city put out a request for proposals in January, it was pleased to get one from Sunflower Development Group in partnership with Block Real Estate Services for commercial and loft residential spaces.
“Downtown is at a crossroads,” Danneberg said, adding that the district needs housing and retail and this proposal fits that bill. “We need to create opportunities to provide developers to come in here and flourish.”
Zacharias acknowledges the county knew the city had hopes for that parking lot site at the time of the election, but nothing had materialized.
“Had Olathe been wanting to go ahead and develop this block for the past two decades? You bet. These were all being marketed to go ahead, but nothing happened,” he says. “We get the vote passed. So now Olathe says maybe this is a good time to market this and and see if we have comers because now the environment has changed.”
So ironically, Zacharias concedes, the approval of a new justice center itself may have been the catalyst for finally getting private developers interested in the parking lot site, forcing the county to seek an alternate parking location, which became Block 29.
“The amount of investment in downtown Olathe in the last 10 to 20 years has been confined to public investment,” he said. “We’re happy that indeed our investment is spurring other activity in downtown Olathe. They’ve got interest here. That takes the block.”
In July, the Olathe City Council voted unanimously to sell the lot to Sunflower for $10, for what could be a $20 million mixed-use development of first-floor commercial space and upscale lofts on top. As part of the real estate agreement, the developers said they might seek a community improvement district and property tax abatement for the lofts. But whether the Sunflower proposal becomes reality isn’t yet confirmed.
Banks Floodman, Sunflower business development director, said in late September that the project is still in the planning stages that may take a few more months. He agreed the new courthouse is one reason they are interested in the site.
“I would argue it would be great for commercial or restaurant,” he said. “I just think there’s not a lot of class A product in this 2-mile radius. There are a lot of fantastic jobs close by, plus proximity to K-7 and I-35. We like the area.”
Back on Block 29, Courtney had teamed with a developer to propose saving and moving four or five of the historic homes to a vacant site north of downtown, to create a “heritage subdivision.” But the Olathe planning department told them they would have to build a road and other infrastructure, making it cost prohibitive, he said.
He and others still hope to save the Osage orange, which is on a Kansas Forest Service Champion tree list. Zacharias agrees, depending on how much space will be needed for a protective pad around it.
“It’s a matter of how we work around it,” the county manager said. “The wood is like iron. It’s tough to cut....If we can save it, we will.”