Less than two months since its opening, Lenexa’s City Center development is already transforming the way that city’s residents interact with their government, and changing how the metro thinks about the Kansas suburb.
The project, just one in a set of sprawling properties centered around 87th Street and Renner Boulevard, is the culmination of 20 years of work to make real a long-standing community vision for a new downtown.
The process began in 1997, says Beccy Yocham, director of community development. “Then-mayor Joan Bowman involved, really, people from all around the community to look at what they wanted the future of Lenexa to be.”
Yocham says residents voiced a need for a gathering place that included civic buildings, retail shops, and commercial and entertainment opportunities.
That the city’s governing bodies have largely stuck to that vision over the course of two decades is remarkable, and a testament to municipal efficacy and responsibility, says Lenexa Mayor Michael Boehm.
“Since 1991 — well before the visioning process — we've not had an elected official removed from office by the voters,” Boehm says. “I think they trust us.”
“Their visions, we implement and they embrace,” he says. “It's been fabulous.”
The achievement, though, didn’t come without challenges. The city paid out more than $600,000 in legal fees in 2005 when they split with former developer the Haile Group. Lenexa, like the rest of the country, was greatly affected by the Great Recession in 2008, and a half-built, multi-story parking garage was torn down in 2012 after a developer went bankrupt.
“Because the council was committed to what we were doing, and because they didn't choose to take the easy way out and just abandon this vision, we were able to continue to think about and work on making this the special place that it is today,” says Yocham.
“Honestly, west Lenexa is in a much better place today than it would have been 20 years ago, had we started this project at that time,” he says.
Despite the fact the new collection of buildings are surrounded on all sides by as-yet undeveloped fields of dirt or grass, residents are making the most of their new civic center.
“A few months ago, when Pokémon Go was a big deal, we left [the old] City Hall after a meeting one evening and there were people in the parking lot, and we were kind of afraid actually because there was never anyone at City Hall before,” says Mayor Boehm. At the government’s new digs, though, “there are people walking around in the public space, which is so gratifying.”
During a recent live broadcast of KCUR’s Up To Date from City Center, visitors to the site chatted over coffee from The Roasterie Café, grabbed lunch at Topp’d Pizza + Salads, and made their way to and from a new recreation center, just west of City Hall.
The recreation center includes an elevated track, fitness studios, basketball courts, gym space for kickball and soccer, table tennis, and a 14,000-square-foot indoor pool that features two big slides.
“My son goes there everyday to swim,” says Alejandra de la Fuente, who sells tamales in the Public Market, an 11,000-square-foot market and food hall on the first floor of City Hall. “You see families everywhere and I think people are super happy.”
City officials hope to attract more vendors and entrepreneurs like de la Fuente to set up shop in City Center.
Jill McEnroe, who owns Frannie Franks Coffee Cakes, makes her baked goods in a commercial kitchen space in Independence, Missouri, and then trucks them across the border to sell in the Public Market.
“We're just excited to possibly get a kitchen space in this area so we're not driving almost an hour away,” McEnroe says, “because that makes it difficult to keep up with demand.”
As with any brand new building, this one’s still got kinks to be ironed out.
“It is chilly in our building,” says Emily Semadeni, who works for Lenexa as a legal assistant, “and, I would say my office is approximately 150 feet and three walls from the restroom, and I can hear the hand dryers all day long.”
Despite the inconvenience, Semadeni appreciates the new workspace.
“Not everything works as smoothly as you hope it does when it starts,” she says.
As residents take full advantage of the new facilities, city officials are looking forward to more.
“The Johnson County Library will be building a new branch immediately south” of City Center, says Yocham, “Shawnee Mission School District is building an aquatic stadium just a little bit to the west,” and Lenexa Hills Elementary School is currently under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2018.
For a suburb that has pined for decades for a non-traditional downtown, City Center is like the realization of a dream.
“We've always been a community that looks ahead and tries to be on the forefront of things,” Yocham says. “What we're doing here is building a place, it's not a project, and it won't have a definite beginning and end.”
You can hear all of Steve Kraske's conversations with Lenexa officials, residents and business owners here.