Government & Politics

Upgrades coming to Santa Fe Commons Park. But some say ‘keep the character’ in OP gem

Plans call for construction of a new performance stage that resembles a paper airplane.
Plans call for construction of a new performance stage that resembles a paper airplane.

Changes are coming to Overland Park’s central downtown park, in ways supporters believe will increase its public appeal but critics feel steals from the downtown district’s history and character.

The Overland Park Planning Commission on Monday approved a final plan to redevelop Santa Fe Commons Park, which will be renamed Thompson Park in honor of benefactor Frank Thompson.

The changes to the park at 8045 Santa Fe Drive include demolition of the existing gazebo/bandstand, shelter and parking lot and the removal of 44 dead or dying trees. Plans call for construction of a new performance stage that resembles a paper airplane, plus enhanced green space and new trees, a water feature, two open-air shelters, restrooms, a play area, new sidewalks and lighting, and new on-street parking stalls.

Overland Park resident Ralph Beck implored the commission to fix the existing bandstand instead of replacing it with the contemporary structure, and to keep the bulk of the park as is. He said he has heard from hundreds of other Overland Park residents, through a petition and Facebook posts, who share his appreciation for the existing park.

“People love the gazebo. It fits the heritage and the community,” Beck said. “Keep that character. That’s what the people are asking.”

But several commission members said too few people visit the park, and it needs a refresh.

“I live relatively close to the park myself, and I’ve often wondered how come it isn’t much more utilized,” said commission member Steve Troester. “Maybe some more robust programming will now take place in the park to make it a more active place.”

The city bought the 3.8-acre park in 1979. The property includes the quaint stone Strang Carriage House, which is more than 100 years old. The Carriage House, currently vacant, will remain, and the city is deliberating new uses for that building.

Last year, Overland Park engaged the Omaha-based RDG Planning & Design landscape architecture firm to determine how to breathe new life into the park. At a series of public forums last summer, residents quickly shot down one idea — to move the nearby Overland Park Farmers’ Market into the park. The Market will remain in its current spot. But many participants embraced the other park improvements to create a more appealing and attractive public destination.

The City Council blessed the park’s revitalization concept last fall. Monday’s planning commission approval allows construction to move forward this summer. The transformation could be completed by next spring.

The budget for the improvements is $3 million, with $1 million coming in a donation from retired car dealer Frank Thompson, a long-time Overland Park philanthropist, and his wife Evangeline. The council has approved the park’s name change to Thompson Park once the upgrades are completed.

Still, these proposed changes have prompted an outcry from some residents who complain that the name change occurred with almost no public input. They also feel the new performance stage and other amenities erode cherished parts of downtown Overland Park’s past.

Beck told the commission that when he posted a picture of the paper airplane design next to a picture of the existing bandstand, on the “We Grew Up in Overland Park Facebook page,” he heard instantly from many people who prefer the existing amenities.

“Downtown Overland Park is the nearest thing we’ve got in Overland Park to what you could call a historic district,” he told the panel. “It seems like our historic character down there is at risk for gradually being erased. It’s one of those things where a lot of people are really concerned about that.”

Beck was also concerned that changing the name from Santa Fe Commons Park to Thompson Park removes another crucial city link to the historic Santa Fe Trail. Commission members said the City Council had made the name change decision and that wasn’t anything they would debate.

Despite Beck’s objections, commission members unanimously approved the final development plan, praising its creativity and forward-looking ideas.

Commissioner Rob Krewson said he realized many people appreciate the existing bandstand/gazebo. But he thinks people will also embrace the contemporary paper airplane design, which is meant to evoke Overland Park’s aviation history.

“The gazebo has been a location for many memories for lots of people,” he said. “What I look for is a new iconic location that brings new memories to the community and people.”

Bruce Niedermyer, landscape architect with RDG, said his firm took the public’s comments to heart and incorporated them into an approach that balances history with a modern flair.

“There’s certainly a preference to keep historical items,” he said. “That’s why we’re maintaining the Carriage House for its historical significance, and ramping up the programming in the rest of the park to make it more successful.”

Lynn Horsley reports on Johnson County for the Kansas City Star, focusing on government, politics, business development and battles over growth and change in the county. She previously covered City Hall in Kansas City for 19 years and has a passion for helping readers understand how government affects their lives.