Viewed from a certain angle, the brand-new City Hall in Lenexa looks
a bit like the Starship Enterprise, albeit with a Great Plains bent:
A glass-and-metal saucer on the building’s west side sits atop an edifice
clad in tan Kansas limestone – pointed, it seems, to the future.
By: Joel Mathis
And it is the future, or at least part of it. The new civic center – a $75 million campus that includes a recreation center, parking garage and public market – represents a bet by Lenexa’s officials that by planting their flag here, on more than 80 acres just west of 87th Street Parkway and Interstate 435, that they can get private developers to follow and help create something the city hasn’t really had before: a thriving downtown.
The vision? That the downtown will help Lenexa transform itself from just another fast-growing Johnson County suburb into something unique: a city in and of the greater Kansas City area, but with a distinct identity as a place for millennials and their young families to live, work and play for decades to come.
“It’s good that we’re part of everything that’s going on in the metro area, because Kansas City’s kind of the thing right now,” says Mike Nolan, an assistant to Lenexa’s city administrator who has been heavily involved in bringing the project about. “But we still wanted to differentiate ourselves from everyone else.”
So forget “Star Trek.” This is the stuff of “Field of Dreams.” If you build it, city leaders believe, they –developers, businesses and residents – will come.
“This is our downtown. This is what we’re building,” says Andy Huckaba, a Kansas Leadership Center coach and member of the City Council since 2003. “And we want to be right in the middle of it.”
TRIAL, ERROR AND TIME
In January 2018, Money magazine named Lenexa as the 59th best place to live in the U.S., the highest rank among communities in Kansas. The magazine cited the opening of the civic center as one of the amenities that Lenexa is offering to “give locals more to enjoy within its own borders.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The journey to building a downtown Lenexa has taken 20 years, a lot of patience, the endurance of some setbacks and not a little bit of serendipity.
All the while, city leaders watched as other Johnson County suburbs seemed to race ahead. Lenexa wasn’t doing too shabbily – the population has risen from 20,000 to 55,000 over the past few decades – but it wasn’t the “it” spot for hot, new developments.
It wasn’t Lenexa’s time to grow yet, Huckaba says, and city officials had to do some groundwork to think about how to create the conditions for the community to take a big leap.
“Like any adaptive challenge, these things take time, and they take some trial and error, and you don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like when you start,” he says.
HERE’S HOW IT HAPPENED
The idea to create a downtown for Lenexa first emerged in the late 1990s, when groups of residents began meeting to create Vision 2020, the city’s long-term planning document.
Those groups envisioned “a downtown that would act as a gathering place for our community, a downtown that would be a common place where people could live, work and play,” Huckaba says. The city’s historic Old Town district – a small strip of shops near the BNSF Railway in an older part of town – didn’t offer much room for growth. So city leaders began assembling the acreage where City Hall is now; they also got approval from voters in 2008 for a 20-year sales tax to help fund the project.
Leadership requires engaging a wide range of voices to help steer the course, something that Lenexa officials endeavored to do early on. The project “required a commitment from the citizens to be part of this,” Huckaba says now. “To bring their knowledge and their passion for Lenexa and this area to the table.”
Skin in the Game
It wasn’t long before city leaders decided that a new City Hall would have to be the centerpiece of a new downtown.
“Civic investment in this neighborhood begets private investment,” says Nolan, a maxim repeated in various forms by other city leaders.
That decision, Huckaba added, was the result of research and travel to places like Southlake, Texas, near Dallas.
“When we visited developments, sort of like this, around the country, the ones that were most successful were the ones that had a City Hall as a strong civic presence,” he says.
But it’s an endeavor that doesn’t come without risks. The investment has been considerable. The new City Hall includes a 250-seat auditorium that will also serve as classroom space for Park University. The nearby rec center is a 100,000-square-foot facility that has a walking track, two full basketball courts, a climbing wall and an indoor pool, among otherfeatures. And to the south of both those buildings is a brand-new, 500-space parking garage. But none of those amenities will mean much unless the campus also attracts a lot of people to use them.
With that in mind, City Hall also features the Public Market – a sort of food court where long-term vendors can mix with pop-ups – that opens from a cavernous indoor area to an expanse of outdoor seating. The market also includes a demonstration kitchen.
In leadership, if you want something to change, you have to put a stake in the ground at some point, not knowing how things will turn out. But the city’s calculated risk is starting to catch the eye of developers.
“This is the city’s new downtown, not because we put together a pretty brochure, but because the city has declared it so and put its own money there,” says Erin Johnson of Copaken Brooks, a private real estate firm helping to develop the neighborhood.
Lenexa’s city administrator, Eric Wade, has been in the job since 2004 – and his predecessor served for 18 years before that. Mayor Michael Boehm was elected in 2003; with one exception, the entire eight-member council has been on the job since at least 2011. That could lead to sclerotic government in some cases, but Huckaba says that in Lenexa’s case, it has allowed the city’s leaders to take the long view.
And that long view came in handy when – at the same time Lenexa voters approved the sales tax – a recession came along that put a kibosh on development for several years. But a committed council made the determination to hold to their purpose of establishing a new downtown.
“I think that if you’ve got short-termers, they become more anxious in terms of, ‘Let’s make something happen now,’” Huckaba says.
“Our group is less about that and more about, ‘How do we do the right thing for Lenexa? How do we do the right thing for the community as a whole?’”
GETTING THE BALL ROLLING
Challenges, of course, exist. It could take a decade or more for the project to fully blossom. Some in the community have grumbled about the expense of the project. Others worry that their parts of town will be left behind in favor of Lenexa’s sparkling new jewel. The key, Huckaba says, is to ensure such folks are being heard while staying true to the vision supported by the larger community.
“You listen to them because you want to see if what they’re talking about is something we’ve neglected,” he says.
But the council certainly hasn’t been able to please everybody. There have been losses city officials have not quite been able to speak to yet.
In August, a bicycle activist group called iBike Lenexa, objected to an ordinance that banned skateboards and bicycles from portions of the downtown, labeling them a “public nuisance.” Supporters of the measure cited concerns about safety and fears of skateboard damage. Supporters of bicycling contended that the restriction represented just another ding in Lenexa’s reputation as a city that’s not particularly friendly to bikes.
Some merchants remain wary of the enterprise, too. “I know that they spent a tremendous amount of money on a planning firm that came in and planned a whole bunch of stuff for downtown down here,” says Shawn McCune, the owner of Kitchen Design Gallery in Old Town Lenexa, but he hasn’t seen that planning turn into much.
Still, there are signs of life in the neighborhood. The Johnson County Library broke ground last year on a new, 40,000-square-foot facility adjacent to City Hall. Groundbreaking is also set for The District, a development east of City Hall that will feature 175 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 45,000 square feet of office space.
It’s not that there aren’t still unknowns. But Huckaba is glad to see 20 years of work and vision starting to come to fruition. The future, it seems, is finally here.
“It feels like we’ve been pushing the snowball uphill,” he says. “Now the snowball is starting to roll by itself. It feels pretty good.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.