Dozens of shoppers filed through Lenexa’s farmers market on Saturday, stopping at each booth to pick up late summer produce, fresh loaves of sourdough and local honey.
Nearby, kids swooped down the water slides at the city’s rec center. And hungry customers, tempted by the smell of spices in the air, chose between the samosas at Sohaila’s Kitchen or the fried sweet plantains at African Dream Cuisine at the packed food hall.
The bustling afternoon was the result of more than two decades of planning, and hundreds of millions of public and private dollars funneled into Lenexa City Center, at 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard.
And that’s just the first half of the project.
Momentum has been building in recent months, with the City Council granting approvals and tax incentives allowing several projects to move forward. Two cranes stand high in the air, hovering over the site of a new AdventHealth hospital and medical offices. A crew recently broke ground on the first phase of what is being called Restaurant Row.
The City Council this month approved tax incentives for two new hotels, combined in one building with shops as well. The engineering firm Kiewit is expanding its corporate campus with a fourth office building. And more apartments, retail and restaurants will crop up nearby.
“The best downtowns aren’t built overnight,” said Mike Nolan, assistant city manager. “I think we’ve seen the vision come to fruition over the last several years and we will continue to do so. We’re creating a place. Not a project, but a place composed of many projects over time. And I think people have begun to really embrace what we’re trying to do here.”
The center evolved from a community session in 1997, which resulted in a plan to build a new downtown in central Johnson County, 15 miles from Kansas City and west of Interstate 435. The destination emerged from what was farmland not long ago.
Helping to make Lenexa one of the fastest growing cities in the state, the hub now has 5,000 apartments and offices for several thousand workers. The site is now home to Lenexa’s civic center, with City Hall, an art gallery, library, rec center and Public Market, with a variety of restaurant stalls. There’s the Shawnee Mission Aquatic Center, hotels, and shops, including Made in KC and Gomer’s liquor store. And there are enough restaurants and bars that “somebody could make a real go at a bar crawl if they wanted to,” Nolan said.
Nolan expects development to take another 20 years before the center is complete, even with much of the site’s 200 acres now spoken for.
Some in town maintain concerns about the city committing too many resources and public dollars toward building City Center. They worry about the development taking away from the historic Old Town Lenexa, near Santa Fe Trail and Pflumm Road, as well as other older neighborhoods to the east.
“Old Town will always be Old Town, and we celebrate what it is. We’re not looking to replace it,” Mayor Michael Boehm said. Projects are going on there, too, including a $12 million activity center project.
But City Center isn’t your historic Johnson County downtown. It has a feel entirely its own. Officials attribute that, at least in part, to choices such as attaching the Public Market to the ground level of City Hall, which hosts live music and food trucks outside on Friday nights during the warmer months.
“The concentration of cool stuff is working well,” Boehm said.
Growth is ‘truly remarkable’
Earlier this summer, developers broke ground on an addition to City Center: Restaurant Row, a project that will eventually include several restaurants on the southwest corner of 87th Street and Renner Boulevard.
For now, developer Copaken Brooks is working on the first phase with two restaurants: Johnson County’s own Cactus Grill TexMex & Tequila, as well as North Carolina-based, Southern flavored Tupelo Honey. The developer is finalizing leases with two other restaurants, said Erin Johnston, vice president of retail brokerage. Future phases, she said, are expected to include multi-story buildings with offices.
Even with the food stalls in the Public Market and other choices like Jack Stack Barbecue and Sierra Grill, Johnston said there’s still strong demand for more restaurants at City Center. That ranges from upscale dining to more casual joints aimed at being a faster option for swim teams competing at the aquatic center. She hopes the first restaurants, planned to open next fall, will help meet that need.
Copaken Brooks, she said, has worked on building the southwest part of City Center for nearly the past decade. Throughout City Center, development has hit some snags along the way, with some ideas falling through and tenants turning over, mixed in with the pandemic and high construction costs and interest rates.
“That impacts everyone from all sides. It really pushes up the rental rates that are necessary to make the project economically feasible, and we try to be pretty transparent with that,” Johnston said. “Everyone has had to work a little harder to make it work.”
But now as City Center buzzes with activity, she said it’s no longer a hard sell when attracting tenants. Out of more than 2 million square feet in the southwestern district, Johnston said roughly 1.6 million is either developed or underway.
“It’s the kind of project where for a long time, it was more of a vision. And it took a lot of work to get others in the community to really buy into that vision, whether it was the retailers, people coming to live in the apartments,” she said. “I think we’ve come to a place where it’s now well-known. We have a lot of people excited to be here. And now we just need to create space for them. It’s a fun and exciting time to be a part of it.”
Johnston said unlike other developments that “start with the prime real estate and fill in from there, City Center has sort of naturally developed from back to front.”
She said some of the most noticeable sites are now ready for development, with upcoming projects expected to change the face of major intersections.
Across from Restaurant Row, crews are moving dirt on AdventHealth’s campus under construction on 25 acres at 86th Street and Renner Boulevard, to be built in three phases.
“The growth and success of Lenexa City Center over the past eight years is truly remarkable,” Mid-America Region CFO Bill Heinrich told The Star in an email. “It has not only physically changed the landscape of a major corridor but has culturally shifted an entire community. With large companies, multi-family housing, single-family homes, restaurants, entertainment and civic space here, health care was really the one service that is missing.”
Heinrich said AdventHealth has a long history in Lenexa, at one point owning land now in City Center that the city bought from it in the late 1990s. Its campus at Kansas 7 highway and Prairie Star Parkway opened in 2007, and the hospital has “seen growing demand for more of our services in this area.”
The first phase, a $247 million project, includes a 240,000-square-foot, 98-bed in-patient hospital and 56,000-square-foot medical office building. The hospital will offer 24/7 emergency care, surgical services, an intensive care unit, heart care and more. AdventHealth stands to receive more than $9 million in tax increment financing from the city for the first phase, which will go toward reimbursing development costs.
The medical office building and the hospital are expected to be completed in 2025. Johnston said Copaken Brooks also is working on leasing retail and office space for the first phase of AdventHealth’s campus, expecting them to open around the same time.
‘Amenities, amenities, amenities’
Earlier this month, the Lenexa City Council approved a bundle of tax incentives for the development of two, five-story hotels under one roof off 87th Street Parkway and Penrose Lane.
St. Louis-based Midas Enterprises already runs a City Center hotel, the SpringHill Suites by Marriott, which opened in 2017. But Linda Eigelberger, chief commercial officer, said, “quite honestly, that hotel has grown every year.”
“As the City Center developments around us have been realized, as the aquatic center gets busier, as there’s more and more things to do in the area, our hotel gets busier with it,” she said.
Busy enough, she said, to pitch the idea for a dual hotel. With the hospital and new corporate offices expected to bring visitors, Eigelberger said Midas has determined there’s enough demand. And she anticipates projects elsewhere in Johnson County, like the $4 billion Panasonic battery plant in De Soto, will help fill up the 260 new rooms off of I-435 as well.
“Why City Center? Amenities, amenities, amenities,” Eigelberger said, speaking on the phone from her St. Louis office. “There’s great access to the interstate. My son goes to the University of Kansas, and we stay in Lenexa every time we come in to see him. And it’s also just a place people want to be. There’s a lot of energy around making this area a success.”
Midas plans to build a Marriott-branded AC Hotel and Residence Inn, along with ground-level shops and a parking garage, including some spaces dedicated to the general public. The City Council approved tax increment financing for the project, capping reimbursements at $26 million over 20 years. Officials also approved the issuance of $80 million in industrial revenue bonds and a 1% extra sales tax expected to total up to $6.5 million.
Eigelberger said construction should begin early next year.
Nearby, the engineering firm Kiewit is adding a six-story, 175,000-square-foot building to its Lenexa campus that will accommodate about 800 employees. Construction on the company’s fourth building is expected to be complete in early 2025.
Nolan said a multi-family project, with 338 units in three buildings, is underway at at 93rd Street and Renner Boulevard, and should be completed within the next year. And the next phase of that project will be the construction of three office buildings.
Across I-435, Nolan said, work is moving along on the last retail piece of Sonoma Plaza, with the Mediterranean restaurant Meddys opening on the southwest corner of West 88th Street and Maurer Road. Two other retail tenants in the building are yet to be announced.
And another piece underway, on the corner of 87th and Renner, an apartment project has stalled. Nolan said it is unclear when work will pick up there.
Meanwhile, the city’s Public Market continues to jump-start restaurants through its business incubator model. Butterfield’s Bakery & Market, which has served baked goods from the food hall space since 2020, recently announced it was leaving the market, and will focus on its new downtown Overland Park spot.
The city is looking for a new tenant to fill its space. Kimchi and Bap opened a stall in the Public Market in August.
Lenexa owns a plot of land at 87th and Renner next to Jack Stack Barbecue, Nolan said, which “might be one last piece you see get done.”
Including the recent projects coming down the pike, Nolan said it could take another two decades before City Center is completed.
“We’re building a downtown. We’re not building a commercial activity center that’s meant to look like a downtown. So we’ve taken a different approach than some traditional suburban commercial developments,” Nolan said. “And it is certainly very busy. It’s a testament to everybody who has invested in City Center and everyone who has bought into the vision our citizens had in 1997.”
Includes reporting by The Star’s Jenna Thompson.