Steve Rose

Metcalf South mall plans shape up as retail only

Owen Buckley, president of Lane4 Property Group, used to live in the suburbs of Johnson County. Now, he lives on the Country Club Plaza, where he can walk to work, eat or shop.

We have met to discuss his plans to redevelop Metcalf South Mall, at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue and a sister center across 95th Street to the north in Overland Park. He chose a charming café in Brookside with a distinct urban feel.

Buckley is an urbanist at heart. So when he brought to Overland Park officials a year ago a mixed-use plan also backed by billionaire Stan Kroenke, he presented what he thought was a winner. He hoped his plans would mesh with the Vision Metcalf guidelines, a 30-year blueprint to urbanize the avenue.

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The proposed development on 60 acres included both the mall side south of 95th Street as well as the north side. The plan included retail, office and apartments, with an eye toward a pedestrian friendly development. But only to a point. Buckley believed then as he does now that the development must be friendly to people in automobiles, which is pretty much the sole method of transportation in Johnson County.

The proposal included generous surface parking spaces and a big box anchor store. City officials were fine with the big box store, but they opposed surface parking. They wanted multilevel structured parking. They also wanted more apartments. The plan called for 450 apartments. The city wanted 2,000. The developer withdrew plans in August 2015.

Now Buckley and his team are back, and in some ways the developers may be glad they were turned down the first time. The new plan is scaled back from $320 million on both sides of 95th Street to $80 million for just the mall side.

Buckley said market studies indicate Johnson County is now overdeveloped with apartments and a glut of office space. Some national studies he cites conclude mixed-use developments, particularly combining apartments with retail, may not work well. So Buckley’s plan now is pure retail. As such, it requires no rezoning, and for the first time in recent memory a large retail developer is not seeking tax incentives.

To the disappointment of some, gone is the urbanist’s vision at a key intersection.

Asked if he could name an area shopping district that would be comparable to the proposed development, Buckley said the plan will have the general architecture and parking layout of similar developments on 135th Street in Overland Park.

City officials and planners who designed Vision Metcalf might argue that is not at all what they had in mind. But as Buckley points out, there have been lots of economic changes since 2007, when the City Council passed Vision Metcalf. Those changes were fueled by the Great Recession, which began in 2008, as well as the revolutionary effect of the Internet on retail stores.

Some experts have noted that city planners and city councils, in an effort to create urban centers in sprawling suburbs, are missing one important ingredient — concentrated, massive, pedestrian populations.

Furthermore, most large retail developers still feel the need for at least one anchor tenant. It was, in fact, the successful commitment of a large anchor store, Lowe's Home Improvement, that made the new proposal financially feasible.

Clearly, this plan is not aligned with the urbanization Vision Metcalf envisioned a decade ago. However, the developer contends the proposal is consistent with other developments approved in Overland Park in the Vision Metcalf zone.

One thing is certain. The plan is a substantial improvement over the empty mall that sits there now. And it is a plan that probably will pass muster with city officials.

Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: srose@kc.rr.com.

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