Sunday, April 12, 2009

Blight in Lenexa: The Great City Center Folly

"If you build it, he will come."

This famous line from one of the greatest movies of all time, Field of Dreams, inspired Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) to build a baseball field in the middle of nowhere - and has been a cultural cliche since 1989, when the movie was in theaters. Whenever a stadium is built in a city in hopes of drawing a franchise, the line is repeated.

Here in Johnson County, one could say the famous utterance from that mysterious voice in the clouds has become the county motto, as nothing says "Johnson County" more than the many monuments to overbuilding, overpromising, and overreaching by city councils joined at the hip to developers spread throughout JoCo. Whether you are talking about old or new, "For Lease" or "Future site of" is the most frequently seen sign in town.

City officials, eager to make their municipalities host to the next lifestyle center or fancy new development, and undeterred by any effective check or balance, ran roughshod through both common sense and private property rights, granting a smorgasbord of TIFs, tax abatements, and other favorable treatment to both developers and corporations. We've all seen the cheesy and overused names -- the funny yet sad part is that terms "Pointe", "Town Center", and "Village" have come to mean "Ghost Town", "Mud Pit" and in some cases, "Pillage", for the poor peoples' homes which were destroyed in the process, all for the sake of progress. Right.

The proof is in the pudding -- one need only get in the car and take a tour through Johnson County:

Start in the northern part of the county, where a journey along Johnson Drive reveals a mess in Merriam and Mission, including, as Mike Hendricks describes in this article, "Half-empty strip malls. Giant vacant lots, like the one in nearby Mission, with signs promising that development is coming soon, only it doesn’t."

Drive a little further south to 67th Street and I-35, and you see the "Merriam Village" project, a similar area of vacant land where city officials once vowed would be home to a similar lifestyle center.

Go even further south and you hit the 95th Street Corridor, which is a mix of graveyards and neglect. Metcalf South, a fond memory for those who grew up in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, serves as a virtual time machine with an eerie mix of still-standing 80's storefronts from the mall's heyday, functioning fountains, and super-shiny floors. Rather than using creativity or simple face lift to this former county jewel, we saw fancy plans drawn up for yet another "lifestyle center" -- yet, like so many of the others, those fell through. Cherokee South (yes, 95th street was once South) sits half torn part after three years of a sign saying "development coming soon" and small tenants booted to the door. Valley View sits unimproved, ugly, and yet, refreshingly reminiscent of 15 years ago before the developers went bonkers.

Go further south to 119th and Nall and you find the Sprint Campus, which sits as a former symbol of promise and prosperity, but now sits as residue of ridiculous risk. Now, as Sprint tries to survive, the campus of dreams is now a prison of potential nightmares before our eyes should Sprint be sold or go belly up. Yet, there was no stopping it 10 years ago when again, there was no check or balance to counter the insanity.

Drive west on 119th Street to Olathe and you find a combination of several empty restaurants, newly built yet mostly empty strip malls, large fenced off areas at Olathe Pointe, and flat plats of mud around the vicinity of the Bass Pro Shop. And don't dare go southwest to the Great Failure that is the Great Mall of the Great Plains.

We could go on -- and on -- and on.

However, there is no other place in the county that is more of a symbol to civic silliness than the area around 87th Street and Renner Boulevard in western Lenexa -- otherwise known as the future "City Center" (which is hilarious since it's basically in the middle of nowhere) where the motto should actually be "if you half-build it, they surely won't come".

Yes, unlike in other parts of JoCo where you either see buildings completely built and vacant or not built at all, Lenexa takes the cake with three half built buildings: One is the Lifetime Fitness Center, which built it's concrete structure and has been stopped for weeks. A second building has sat about 80% built for well over a year, but is apparently finally near completion -- but a recent article in the Johnson County Sun revealed it only had two tenants. At least it will have graduated into "built but empty" status. The third, and the worst, is the building that may be 1/8 built and appears to be a parking garage, which you can still view in it's basic current form via the photo gallery at http://www.lenexacitycenter.com/.

One could make a strong argument that these long half-built buildings are "blighted" -- half built buildings surrounded by acres of dirt certainly meet the definition to a casual observer. What is ironic, as discussed here by Americans for Prosperity's Alan Cobb is that Lenexa was one of the cities, just last year, lobbying for a back door to eminent domain laws by asking for the authority to claim private property that they deemed as "blighted" -- a word oppressive local governments often like to use when they want to take private property for their own visions -- which included turning the land over to developers to build more "lifestyle centers" like Lenexa City Center.

The sad part? These three buildings are only a small fraction of the overall planned development. Indeed, this mother of all development dreams is so big and so grand it actually involves redoing traffic patterns and development projects on four different corners of 87th and Renner -- yes, Lenexa City Center actually has siblings -- Lenexa City Center East, Lenexa City Center North Village, Lenexa City Center Northeast, and one day, apparently, Village Green at City Center, whatever that is. All amounting to 200 acres and 4.5 million square feet of development. All for a town of 43,000.

So, what's the story here? Two decades ago, when the late Rich Becker was mayor, they turned Renner Road into "Renner Boulevard", a four lane thoroughfare stretching from 87th all the way to the Olathe city limit. They even labeled it "the next College Boulevard", if that shows you how far back their dreams go -- given that College Boulevard is a largely forgotten road, being replaced by 119th and then 135th and now 151st and 159th. But, aside from a few office buldings popping up over the years, it mainly served as a "mini highway" for people wanting to travel north or south in a big hurry with few stoplights or traffic.

In the meantime, little Lenexa, eager to catch up to its quickly-developing big brothers of Olathe, Shawnee, and Overland Park and even little brother Merriam -- got a little dreamy a few years ago and came up with "Vision 2020". Now, civic planning is not a bad thing in itself -- every city does it and looking towards the future is a noble activity. The problem for Mayor Mike Boehm and other Lenexa officials is that core to "Vision 2020", as described in this article, was and is Lenexa City Center, a real-life "field of dreams" for developers, traffic planners, and elite city officials nationwide. Unfortunately for Lenexa, all that is out there, with the exception of the aforementioned mounds of concrete and a few luxury apartment buildings, is just that -- fields.

Actually, that's not quite true. In true adherence to the "if you build it, they will come" motto, Lenexa transformed the easy-to-travel Renner into what is quite possibly the most annoying half-mile stretch of road anywhere in the country, let alone the county.

Rather than waiting for their grand visions to come to fruition, Lenexa decide to inconvenience drivers and waste millions of taxpayer dollars by ripping out what was a perfectly fine and speedy 45 mph stretch of divided throughfare and putting in its place not one, not two, not three, but FOUR "roundabouts" -- apparently in anticipation of the vast retail development just around the corner and the thousands of cars that would be coming with it -- at well, some time in the next twenty years.

Hey, at least they got a head start, right? In the meantime, Lenexa might consider contacting the DMV and using it as a Drivers' Ed Course.

What's even more silly is that they not only re-did the road, they adorned it with street lamps with little blue lights at the top of them that illuminate the road at night like it is some kind of alien landing zone.

Hey, that's an idea --perhaps Lenexa could be the new Roswell. Forget crop circles, we've got clearly-marked concrete "roundabouts" for our extraterrestial friends to land their spacecraft on. Looking for a close encounter of the third kind? Come to City Center. It could be big, folks.

In all seriousness and, for those in Lenexa, sadness, those lights represent a "flashing blue light special" to a mayor, city council, and developers who got too excited and committed a city, its land, and its tax money to a development blueprint that was at the best, too good to be true, and at worst, pure fantasy that wasted way too much of that town's precious time and treasure.

A subtle yet telling sign of how slow the development is going is that they actually renamed "Vision 2020" to "Vision 2030". The good news is that if you have a newborn, they might finally get to enjoy the glorious, complete, "City Center" by the time they graduate from college. Oh, if it weren't so pathetic it would be funny -- because by the time the whole thing is done, some of the "new" buildings will be old, and some of the "leaders" putting us on this path will be living in Sunrise Assisted Living at 87th and Lackman.

Of course, Lenexa Chamber President Blake Schreck and Mayor Mike Boehm, who understandably want to defend their project, will point to the economy as the reason for the project's snail-like pace. While that may indeed be part of the problem now, what they won't tell you is that the first parts of the project -- particularly Lenexa City Center East -- were originally supposed to start in 2005 and 2006, back when the stock market was soaring and the economy was strong. One could understand a building slowdown -- but there was nothing to slow down from, despite many quoted assurances to the contrary.

Make no mistake -- we are not saying development is bad. At first glance, the development plan and lofty visions are exciting. It would be nice to have a few more dining, entertainment and retail options in a city that is lacking in comparison to its neighbors. But, we should always be cautious of grand designs by artists - there is a 200-acres wide middle ground between doing nothing and the fantasy designs that Lenexa city and chamber officials have committed their city to.

Rather than putting in streets to nowhere, redoing major roads, and committing the city's land, time and treasure to the invention of a "city center" whose completion isn't envisioned until 20 years from now, perhaps the city might have been better to adopt a measured approach, building only when the economy -- and, most of all -- demand, called for it.

For the sake of Lenexa and the community as a whole, we hope City Center ends up being a rousing success. But, given the fact that city leaders openly admit that it won't even be completed for 20 years, even if built it seems a little unwieldy -- particularly coming from professional city planners.

Of course, this is what happens when you have government trying to force the free market economy. You end up with projects that can't be completed -- or even started -- because the demand (and therefore the cash) -- isn't there.

Furthemore, because of basic human nature, when you're so far down the road of community commitment as Lenexa is, it's hard to turn back, no matter how bleak the picture. Indeed, the brave leaders of the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce and City Government plod along with . Mayor Mike Boehm, much like Ray Kinsella, apparently can see things the rest of us can't see -- in this case, Lenexa as something akin to the Country Club Plaza. Indeed, in that same March article from the Johnson County Sun entitled "Lenexa officials hopeful about City Center", he actually said this:

“Renner’s hot right now. I-435 is a good place to be,” Boehm said. “If you look back at College Boulevard 30 years ago … Renner may be prime for that kind of development. It may not be Corporate Woods, and people get mad when I compare City Center to the Plaza, but it’s such a great project. From a blooming perspective, how College Boulevard has developed over the last 30 years, it is similar. I think with all the activity, Renner and the K-10 corridor are prime to be the next hot spot in Johnson County."

The Mayor's optimism is admirable -- he clearly believes in his project, and that's noble -- but he's doing it while spending a great deal of city time and resources, not to mention to the inconvenince of citizens. 

Don't look for it soon, though, apparently, says the Mayor:

“The Lifetime Fitness facility is creating the tax increment that will allow us to issue the bonds to do all the grading. That doesn’t mean next week we have a project coming out of the ground. It may sit for a little while yet, and that’s OK. We’re still working on some anchor tenants to really kick off the project.”

Wow. The sun must never set at City Hall. May sit for a "little while"?! They've been working on anchor tenants to "kick off the project" for 5 years! Oh, but wait - one half-built building is allowing us to use government bonds (i.e., taxpayer responsibility) to prepare us for MORE half built buildings! What relief!

Apparently optimism reigns at the Chamber, too, as Chamber President Blake Schreck continues to put on a rosy spin on the status of things:

“For 2009, it’s a matter of hanging on for the ride,” Schreck said. “This too shall pass. I believe when things turn back around, they will turn back hard, and we will be ready.”

For the sake of the city, we hope he's right -- because for now, their field of dreams remains just that. It seems that no matter what, to borrow another line from that immortal voice, city and chamber officials appear ready to "go the distance" on this project, regardless of the consequences to the city and its reputation.