In a marathon meeting, the Shawnee City Council narrowly rejected a rezoning request that would have paved the way for redevelopment of the vacated site of the old Wonderscope Children’s Museum near downtown.
The Council voted 5-4 on Monday to turn down a proposed five-story apartment complex at 5700 King St., the former home of the Wonderscope facility, which is a converted elementary school that was built decades ago. The museum moved into a new $15 million home, which opened in October in the Red Bridge area of south Kansas City.
The proposed apartment complex has drawn strong opposition from hundreds of residents, who worry about the building towering over their homes, hurting the character of their neighborhood and adding to traffic congestion.
Resident Cindy Hayth helped form a citizens group and submitted a protest petition. She worried that the complex — which would include 189 apartments and stand 68-feet-tall at its highest point — would lower the property values in the area.
“We’re just trying to save our homes and our resale values, and represent those who cannot physically be here or fight for themselves,” she told the City Council during a discussion that lasted more than three hours.
But developers argued that the project was a rare catch for downtown Shawnee, similar to other massive, luxury apartment buildings rising in Overland Park, Olathe and elsewhere. Korb Maxwell, attorney with the Polsinelli law firm representing the Sunflower Development Group, argued that the $50 million investment would spur new development downtown.
“The businesses of downtown Shawnee asked for this. They need this. They’re hurting from COVID right now,” he said. “They need more residents. They need more sales. They need more people in their businesses. And what’s better to bring that than class A multifamily?”
Jason Swords, a partner with Sunflower Development Group, said that it would pay about $4.5 million in demolition, environmental and infrastructure costs before starting to build the complex. He said density is needed to make the project feasible.
Some city officials said that if rezoning was approved, the developers would seek a 10-year abatement on property taxes.
Downtown Shawnee has been transforming in recent years, no longer a traditional bedroom community, thanks to new breweries and restaurants, as well as the major reconstruction of Nieman Road. Other apartment complexes are being built nearby. And like other Johnson County cities that have redeveloped their downtowns, the city is grappling with change.
Many business owners supported the apartment complex, arguing they can’t thrive without more residents living nearby.
“This is not a development that is being proposed in the middle of a residential neighborhood. This is in the middle of downtown,” said Kristen Shelley-Chapin, an attorney who owns a nearby law firm. “I don’t think we can go with this idea that there are more projects that are going to come down here that are better than this. That is a roll of the dice.”
“Then we’re left with a significant part of downtown that is blighted.”
While some City Council members agreed with that argument, others supported the concerned homeowners.
“That is a high level of density for housing proposals in this city. And it really becomes a core issue. It requires a five-story building with a large footprint,” Councilman Eric Jenkins said. “There’s little green space and no transition from single-family residential to a large and imposing apartment building.”
“The argument that it may bring additional revenues to Shawnee is based on assumption,” he said. “This development will pay no property taxes to the city for 10 years.”
Others, though, said that they at least supported rezoning the land to make it possible to redevelop in the coming years. But the proposal failed, with Mayor Michelle Distler casting the final dissenting vote.
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