Overland Park’s downtown bustles on a winter’s afternoon. The street scene is busy. Busy enough that you have to step around shoppers who are catching up on each other’s news on the sidewalk. Busy enough that finding a parking spot may take a swing around the block.
It’s not a farmer’s market weekend. And there are no special events in sight. In fact, it’s not even a particularly nice day.
No, it’s just a normal Friday for a business district in the older part of town.
But oh, what a lot of Johnson County’s other old town business districts wouldn’t give for Overland Park’s “normal.”
As the economy emerges from the deepest recession in a lifetime, older downtown districts of Gardner, Olathe, Lenexa, Shawnee, Merriam and Mission are trying to redefine themselves in a way that will both improve surrounding housing values and support the mostly mom-and-pop businesses that dominate them.
Some, like Overland Park’s, have been a smashing success. Others, like Lenexa’s, struggle.
Older business districts have been written off countless times since the advent of suburbia and the car culture. The newer centers that keep going up on the outer fringes would seem to have all the advantages. Young, financially solid families living nearby with money to spend. Beautiful new buildings. And ample free parking as far as the eye can see.
Yet the old towns persist. Some, including Overland Park and Brookside in Kansas City, even thrive, serving as an example to other areas of what could be. That fact has kept city planners and real estate sales staff guessing at just what the magic formula is that brings an old business district back from the brink of death.
Old Overland Park got its start in the early 1900s, when William B. Strang Jr. planned the community and put in a rail line. The car barn still stands at 79th Street and Santa Fe Drive, though it now houses a furniture store.
When Curtis Arnold, retired owner of Arnold’s Lawn and Garden, started selling lawnmowers in the 1950s, the downtown looked much like it does now, but the business mix was different. For a while, there were four lawnmower shops and a Pontiac dealership right downtown, he said.
But as population moved, things began to change. In the 1990s, the city decided it was time to spiff up the downtown with the clock tower plaza and farmers’ market pavilion — two areas that have attracted plenty of weekend and Wednesday morning crowds.
Despite two major fires and the recession, things have gone well for the downtown. Ninety-one percent of the shops are occupied, and there are 296 businesses in the Downtown Overland Park partnership, says executive director Robin Fish. Business is booming so much, in fact, that parking has become a bit of a problem. The city recently sent out requests for proposals for a new parking structure to handle all the cars.
“Overland Park is the best example of a suburban town center that has come back,” said Christopher Leinberger, author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Leinberger and Overland Park planners say the city’s location along a corridor leading out of downtown Kansas City, plus its commitment to a dense mixture of stores, homes and office space with walking and public transportation options, is the key to its success.
If that sounds like New Urbanism, that’s because it is. There’s evidence that a desire by young professionals to be able to walk where they want to go may be a driving — excuse the pun — force in the economic health of these shopping districts.
In a study published last May, Leinberger said housing in the farther reaches of suburbia actually suffered a decline in value during the recession while neighborhoods closer in held steadier or even increased their value. He also quoted a survey by the National Association of Realtors showing 58 percent of homebuyers preferred mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.
Leinberger’s study of neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., area also showed that walkable neighborhoods perform better commercially and have higher housing values than those that have low density and are more car-dependent.
Walkability has become such a sought-after amenity that real estate brokers now use websites like Walk Score, which rates various neighborhoods and ZIP codes for their ease in getting around without a car, Leinberger said.
Just about every city planning office in Johnson County has dabbled in New Urbanism in one way or another, even if it’s just to put in some benches and a nice sidewalk. But real results demand a deeper commitment, Leinberger said.
“You can’t rely on just brick sidewalks. There’s no silver bullet.”
Having city zoning laws in place that encourage mixed use and density is also key, he said.
Overland Park planners have been big believers in density for their business district. So much so that the most recent buildings, like the Phoenix Building and another smaller one under construction at the western edge of downtown, are growing up rather than out.
The Phoenix Building also was built with flexibility and the future in mind, said city planner Jack Messer. The bottom level has retail, but the upper portion was built for loft apartments. When the real estate market hit the skids, however, the apartment space became office space.
But it could still become apartments later, and that’s the point, Messer said. The building and the zoning is flexible enough to allow that.
“Whatever might be hot at the time is what we can use,” he said.
“The mixed-use component is a huge component,” he said. “You need to provide life all the time.”
To that end, the city also a few years back built the Matt Ross Community Center, which draws residents even in the nonbusiness hours.
The downtown revival has been the result of the combined efforts of the city and small businesses, Messer said. The businesses all pay a special assessment, based on their square footage, that goes for improvements and upkeep of the area. The city also has made some cosmetic street and sidewalk improvements.
But perhaps the most important ingredient in downtown’s success is the zoning, Messer said. Two years ago, the city solidified its support of a diverse downtown with “form-based” zoning. With form-based zoning, he said, “you don’t worry so much about segregating the uses. What you do look at is what you want to get out of it. What we want is a walkable type environment.”
That pedestrian energy certainly played a role in Sheila and Katie Weiford’s decision to open Kookiedoodle, a walk-in arts and crafts studio, on Santa Fe Drive. Foot traffic from the farmer’s market and nearby cafes has brought in a steady stream of customers since the studio opened in September, Sheila Weiford said.
Her daughter, Katie, had lived for six years in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood and wanted to find a similar place where she could walk to work, Sheila said. Now Katie lives only a couple of blocks away from the shop.
“I think what we liked more than anything about downtown Overland Park was that young families lived in and around the area,” Sheila said.
The historic charm and small-town atmosphere of the business district also sold Cheri LeBlond, who opened the Mysteryscape bookstore last May. “I love downtown Overland Park because of the history, the other independent businesses and just the unique feel of it,” she said.
The Farmers Market, which is open Wednesday and Saturday mornings during the growing season, has been a big help, too, she said. Oftentimes customers from the market will wander over and take a peek at the books and gifts at the store.
Not everyone is fully sold, however. Arnold, who closed his lawn and garden store to retire, points out that most of the businesses downtown are niche stores or service-related businesses. All the improvements have not really helped merchants who offer basic necessities like garden supplies, he said. For that, people shop further out at the big stores in the suburbs.
“How many times will you impulse buy a lawnmower?” he asked.
Every Johnson County city would like to repeat Overland Park’s success story and most have tried at least some of the things in that city’s bag of tricks. Some, like Gardner, are only beginning.
With a huge new rail-to-truck freight center set to bring thousands of jobs into the area, this may be the year residents look back to as the time when their small-town life changed.
There’s already evidence, as traffic whizzes by on the two main streets of the business district.
The business district, centered at the intersection of Main and Elm streets, sports a wide variety of stores in a variety of building types. There’s a jewelry store, tobacconist, cafe, furniture and carpet store and antique stores.
And there’s the Dolphin Song, a pottery, yarn and book store that recently closed temporarily and reopened as Spinning Earth Pottery.
As Dolphin Song, the store, in a former bank building that dates back to around 1907, had a Hobbit-like interior with rounded corners, wood floors and products devoted to environmentalism and natural arts and crafts. “We’re all a bunch of tree huggers,” said Lisa Meisinger, whose family owns the store and the building.
When they opened on Earth Day of 1993, there wasn’t much competition for the environmentalist market, she said. Since then, though, environmentalism has mainstreamed to the point that even the Wal-Mart down the street sells organic food. And so, Dolphin Song got rid of everything but the pottery, which is being sold by appointment only.
Meisinger said she hopes the city will keep the old downtown’s character as it develops, but she hasn’t been encouraged by the modern architectural style of the new city hall about a block away.
In fact, the city is only at the beginning stages of deciding what to do with its downtown, Gardner City Administrator Cheryl Harrison-Lee said. The city has decided to come up with a vision for Gardner’s growth, and that includes the old business district.
“Successful cities have a vibrant downtown. We do not have a vibrant downtown,” Harrison-Lee said. The city will look at walkability and recreational uses as a part of that, she said. But so far at least, it’s all in the beginning stages.
Change is likely inevitable for the Gardner downtown, but that doesn’t mean everyone welcomes it. Jack Messer, owner of a barbershop called Jack’s Old-Fashioned BS, likes Gardner because it’s a small town where businesses are still doing fine.
“I’m anti-growth as far as small towns are concerned,” he said. “But once growth has started, you can’t stop it. They call that progress, but I don’t agree with it.”
Messer, a Gardner resident, cites Olathe as an example of growth gone wrong. “I grew up in Olathe but now there’s no reason to go downtown unless you’re in trouble,” he said. “That place is never coming back.”
It’s shortly after 2 p.m. on a weekday, yet the sidewalks are empty. It’s quiet. Quiet enough to hear the occasional rustling of leaves in a light breeze.
A walk along downtown streets shows few empty storefronts. For the most part, though, they hold lawyers’ offices, title companies and other court-related firms in a downtown dominated by the county courthouse.
Missing is the happy hum of people buying books, knickknacks and cooking equipment.
Kansas 4D Ultrasound, Peeps Babies and Bears is one of only a couple of retail stores in downtown Olathe. The store, offering expectant mothers non-diagnostic ultrasounds, has been open since fall of 2011 and has been doing well, says co-owner Dennis Newton. That’s not necessarily because of foot traffic, though there is a little, he said. The baby fedoras and afghans move mostly because of the web page and word of mouth.
Around the corner and inside the Park Cherry Building, Doughy’s Cafe owners Angel and David Usdansky are hoping things will pick up for their eatery, which has been open about a year and a half. They see their share of lawyers, judges and county employees, but would like to see a few more shoppers.
“It’s really just dead,” David said. “There’s nothing to draw people down here.”
He hopes the city would work toward making downtown Olathe more of a shopping district, like the Country Club Plaza or Crown Center.
The city wants to get a more vibrant downtown and has invested millions in improvements, said Emily Kukal, the city’s public works customer outreach coordinator.
So far the results have been mixed.
The city built a multilevel parking structure and made safety improvements at 11 train crossings that made it possible to have the downtown area be a place where freight trains do not have to blow their horns. And work continues on a downtown streetscape project that widens sidewalks and adds landscaping and on-street parking to Santa Fe Street.
But bringing more variety to the law-dominated square remains the biggest challenge, Kukal said. The post office and library downtown are still heavily used, she said, and there was talk before the recession of some apartments going up near downtown. However, that idea never got too far off the ground, she said.
“It’s definitely still in our plan,” she said. “We are working to get the public infrastructure in place.”
In the meantime, events like Old Settlers Days and a neighborhood arts festival bring in visitors and give hope to Crystal and Chris Grohs, co-owners of Kansas Coffee Cafe.
Crystal said she’s seen a steadily increasing traffic of people coming from nearby houses who walk or ride bikes. And the special events also help.
“It’s just getting the word out that there is life in downtown Olathe, not just at the courthouse.”
Like its Johnson County neighbors, Lenexa has signed on to the dense and walkable credo of New Urbanism. But instead of applying that to the city’s older core, the city has put most of its resources into building a business district from scratch west of Interstate 435. The development, dubbed “City Center,” has had fits and starts for years, the most noticeable of which was a partially-built parking garage that had to be torn down after its developer ran into financial trouble and could not finish it.
The city has financed another, smaller garage on the same site, and there have been signs of more development to come. But officials acknowledge it could be 25 years before the development is complete.
Meanwhile, the historic downtown, which stretches for two or three blocks along the railroad tracks and Santa Fe Trail Drive, languishes. Seven of the 19 storefronts were unoccupied on a recent check. A large metal building that was once a 1920s grain elevator and a clock shop sits empty at the east end. Across the street, pipes stick up from a concrete pad that was to be part of a small shopping center. Construction there came to a halt in 2005.
Lenexa city officials point to past investments in Old Town, including a city-owned parking lot and construction of a community center and senior center in the 1980s. The city also recently bought a downtown building across the tracks from the business district to house its parks and recreation offices and holds July 4th events and a chili cook-off on the street. But some merchants and residents argue privately that more needs to be done.
“It’s an area that does need to get a little life back into it,” says City Councilman Andy Huckaba. “The question is, how far ahead should the city get of the merchants?”
Huckaba and others at the city said they’d like to see more involvement of residents and merchants in the area. A merchants’ group and a residents’ group used to exist for Old Town, but both have disbanded. “What should the private/public partnership look like? For the future of Old Town, that would require private-side participation, too,” he said.
Augie Bogina, developer of the partially finished shopping center and owner of some other downtown property, said there are special problems with older downtowns that make development tough going.
Many of the buildings are fragile and expensive to restore properly, he said. His Old Town Center development was to have been a $3 million, 24,000-square-foot project. So far, one building has been finished and has a tenant, but the second structure had to be halted when the first-floor tenant withdrew from the agreement during construction.
Bogina, who sits on the Shawnee Planning Commission, said he’d like to see the city taking a stronger role in Old Town, perhaps exploring the feasibility of special taxing districts or a quiet zone for the two busy rail crossings. And he said he doesn’t want to see the city relocate events away from Old Town.
“Granted, the city is concerned with keeping Lenexa (City) Center in the black with commitments through general funds because of the hiccups in their plans since 1992,” Bogina wrote in an email. “That concern with golf courses, parking garages and hotels takes planning and thought away from the downtown business district.”
Whatever changes the city makes in its vision for Old Town, they will not be soon enough for Lori Broadfoot, owner of Satch’s Jewel, A Diamond in the Rough Boutique. Broadfoot recently closed her business and is looking for a spot in a more vibrant area — such as Overland Park.
Broadfoot said she looked for a place in Old Town for 15 years before opening the store two years ago.
“If this could be developed, it would be amazing,” she said. “It has the potential to be like downtown Overland Park, if people would just get together and decide.”
Traffic on Johnson Drive whizzes through the heart of Shawnee’s downtown business district, too fast for very much gazing at the variety of businesses that have located there. But despite a few snags and empty storefronts — and the notably still unfinished Fine Arts Theater — merchants and city officials say things are on the upswing.
The location of city hall, a water park, historic Old Shawnee Town and Wonderscope Children’s Museum all have helped bring people into the business district, and the city also is looking forward to the new Ikea store in Merriam, which is expected to improve business for miles around.
“Most people down here are still doing all right,” said Mike Unterreiner, owner of Hartman Hardware and chairman of the Downtown Merchants Association.
The city started its vision of a mixed-use walkable universe after hiring a consultant about a decade ago, said neighborhood planner Julie Hurley. What followed was more than $51 million in public and private investment in the old downtown. Included in that were financial incentives to property owners to fix up their buildings, street and sewer improvements, the building of Splash Cove Aquatic Park and the addition of fountains, benches, brick sidewalks and decorative light posts.
Of course there have been hitches. The rehabbing of the Fine Arts has been stalled for years and is not on any immediate timetable to be finished. But new businesses have moved in to the former Commerce Bank building, which closed in 2011.
That means more people walking by and looking at what’s available, said Michelle Rice, owner and cake designer at Iced Art. Rice recently added cupcakes and pastries to her wedding and special event cake repertoire to take advantage of walk-ins during her slow season.
“There’s not a huge amount of walk-in traffic, but I definitely get more than I used to,” she said.
The city has worked steadily for the past decade on improvements and curb appeal in Merriam’s downtown. The result is about 90 percent occupancy, mostly of niche businesses, said Stoney Bogan, president of the Downtown Merriam Partnership.
Some buildings are still vacant, but things are looking up because of the new Ikea store that is scheduled to open just across the interstate in 2014, he said.
There have been some victories for the city in its battle for improvement, Bogan said. Most notable is the purchase of the former Dutch Maid Motel, an old stone structure that, when it was in operation, was a source of blight, he said. The motel is now owned by the city and will be demolished.
The city also put up a roofed farmer’s market pavilion similar to Overland Park’s and smoothed out a once rough railroad track crossing on Johnson Drive, said Bryan Dyer, community development director for the city.
Merriam’s location has both good and bad points, Dyer said. On one hand, it has the natural beauty of Turkey Creek, with a nature trail running through the heart of downtown. On the other, it has the Turkey Creek floodplain, which is an impediment to development. Dyer said the city hopes to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for some flood proofing over the next decade.
Johnny Pieters, co-owner of the Merriam Feed Lawn and Garden Center, has watched the area evolve since his dad started the business in 1952.
Because of its location and the fact that many of Merriam’s business are automotive related, there isn’t a lot of walking traffic, he said. But special events and the farmer’s market bring in a few more people.
The Irene B. French Community Center has been a good addition, as well. But Pieters said traffic has always been heavy and will only increase once the Ikea opens up.
Mission merchants and planners are looking both east and west down the length of Johnson Drive for the shape of things to come. Will the big new Gateway development on the east end, with its Wal-Mart, hurt or help the mom-and-pop stores? Will the Ikea to the west in Merriam, bring customers to town or lure them away?
Mission’s downtown consists mainly of a long stretch of Johnson Drive, along which a variety of shops and stores exist. There are some national chains, a school, apartments and the smaller storefronts. Just off the street to the north is ScriptPro, a pharmacy management company and one of the larger employers in the area.
Mission has a newer look than some other older business districts. Most of the development there dates from the 1950s and ’60s, said Martin Rivarola, community development director.
The City Council did an informal survey on occupancy and found only 22 vacant spots out of 500 licensed businesses, he said.
Much of the city investment has centered on improving the street, which is four lanes. Rivarola said the city will start rebuilding the street this year with new curbs, wider sidewalks and some protected signals that will make it easier to cross the street. Diagonal parking may also slow down some of the traffic, but the four lanes will remain, Rivarola said.
The new Gateway center, which is itself designed with a nod toward mixed use and walkability, “will be a very positive effect,” on the existing businesses, he said. “It’s been a 17-acre vacant site for many years. It will create a lot of activity and synergy that will spill into the surrounding area.”
Rachael Wohletz, owner of Gunsmithing Only on Johnson Drive, is not so sure. Although Wal-Mart shouldn’t affect her business repairing guns, Wohletz said some other stores may be hurt by it. “In a town that touts small business and unique business, it’s a disappointment to see that coming in,” she said.
But Carla Clark, co-owner of Dips & Sips down the street, is excited about the changes. “I think it’s a wonderful thing and it’s going to be beneficial to Mission. I’m not worried about the competition.”