Johnson County is betting big on millennials. Will they come?

A Wednesday morning crowd outside the Wild Way Coffee truck in downtown Overland Park. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

If you’re a twentysomething or thirtysomething denizen of Kansas City’s metro core, there’s something your Kansas neighbors want you to know: Johnson County, the land of cul-de-sacs and country club conservatives, is becoming cool.

Wait—where are you going? Don’t laugh. This is serious.

Some of the largest cities in Johnson County are distributing millions in tax incentives to remake themselves into a place that is more cosmetically similar to the Crossroads. There are breweries, there are modern restaurants, there are cute stores, there are pedestrian-friendly streets (sort of), and there are apartment buildings higher than one story. Overland Park even has its own version of First Fridays (it happens on the third Friday of the month).

Why the sudden change of heart in these big, beige communities? Because a horrible truth has begun to dawn upon city and county leaders.

Johnson County is aging.

The median age hovers around 37, but that number will continue to rise unless something changes, as the fastest-growing demographic in the county is senior citizens. The Best Times, the county government’s bimonthly magazine for seniors, pointed this out recently in an uncharacteristically downbeat couple of articles on financially strapped older residents. Quoting the U.S. Census Bureau, the story noted the 65-and-older demographic now makes up 14.5 percent of the county population, compared to 10.9 percent in 2010.

With an older population comes a bigger demand for services like subsidized housing and meal delivery. Those services are supported by the taxes of younger, working people. At the same time, cultural and economic trends have been unfriendly to Johnson County’s core strengths. Lavish shopping malls and big box stores? No thanks, the millennials seem to be saying. They don’t want to drive for miles to shop. They have Amazon.

If Johnson County wants to compete, some city leaders have concluded, it must begin to shed its image as an uptight haven for the well-off whose biggest worries are whether their neighbors should be allowed to keep chickens.

It’s a tall order, but Overland Park City Council member Paul Lyons thinks it can be done. He believes the next generation of residents will come for the apartments and jobs, but stay for the single-family homes near downtown.

“Once those folks [millennials] get into an urban area and realize they want to have a little more space and a little more of a safe area to be—an area where they can start raising children—I think that’s where we’ll be attracting them,” Lyons says. “For our long-term future, we’ve got to make our city appealing to the younger crowd.”

 

       

 

Walk around downtown Overland Park today, and you’ll find that what was once blocks of single-story buildings and free-standing stores have been torn down and replaced with high-rise apartments with retail at the street level. Front parking lots have been eliminated so those ground floors can come all the way to the sidewalk, making the whole experience friendlier to pedestrians. There’s an office tower and a parking garage going up, with other apartments in various stages of leasing and move-ins.

Meanwhile, Lenexa has its own very different take on the “live-work-play” philosophy of new urbanism. The city has issued millions in tax increment financing for the City Center development of apartments, retail, hotels, and office blocks on what had been hard land near Interstate 435. The center’s building style emphasizes sidewalks and puts parking into vertical garages. Lenexa has also built a rec center and moved most of its city offices there from its older east side.

Because it’s all new, the Lenexa development has a much different vibe than Overland Park’s downtown. Architecturally, there’s a sameness. But the city is betting on its Public Market, a city-subsidized food hall and pop-up business center with a common eating area, plenty of outdoor gathering space, and a new library right next door.

Shawnee’s Aztec Theater is getting an upgrade. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Don’t forget about Shawnee. It isn’t as far along in its downtown reinvention, but Realtor.com recently named it in a top ten list of the country’s “hot zip codes,” citing millennials as a big reason. “We have seen a resurgence of people coming downtown for several reasons,” says Julie Briethaupt, communications manager for Shawnee. Two new breweries recently opened up within blocks of each other, and a bakery is coming soon. The old Aztec Theater on the city’s main drag is also being rehabbed and due for reopening in less than a year.

Like Lenexa and Overland Park, Shawnee has begun to pay attention to the role design plays in the way it is perceived. Two years ago, the city embarked on a major reconstruction of Nieman Road, one of its main streets. In an effort to slow traffic, the street was placed on a “road diet” that cut four lanes down to three and added bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The city also intends to build two small public gathering spaces on either side of the road.

So far, Shawnee doesn’t have high rise apartments, parking garages, and the multi-use developments seen in other places. But developers have noticed the smaller changes and, perhaps, the Realtor.com ranking. In September, plans were put forward for a $16.1 million luxury apartment complex on Nieman, to be built with $3.1 million in tax increment financing money if the city approves it. Another mixed use project is under consideration, though it’s less ambitious: just two-and-a-half levels on two acres.

The Vue, an Overland Park luxury apartment building. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

“I wouldn’t say we’re trying to copy what the other cities are doing,” Briethaupt says, “but obviously we’re keeping a close eye on the other cities. We do hear from people saying they want to be somewhere where they can walk to go get dinner and entertainment.” But those same people say they value the “small town feel” of Shawnee as well, she adds.

The changes that might attract younger people to the suburbs go far deeper than a few brewpubs and some streetscaping. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and member of an Overland Park visioning steering committee that seeks to lay out what the city should look like in twenty years, says neighborhoods without kids are “writing on the wall.” He argues that the city needs to attract a more diverse population. Hamilton cites, in part, his own daughters to illustrate his point.

“They don’t want to live in Johnson County,” he says. “They start talking about ‘Johnson County beige,’ and that’s not just the color of our houses but it’s often the color of our skin and the way we do things. They both say diversity is really important, and they’ll defend with the last strength they have their friends who are gay and lesbian and are getting picked on by other people.”

Several JOCO cities have recently taken the opportunity to prove themselves on that last point; 2019 may be remembered as the year of non-discrimination ordinances, as municipality after municipality— OP, Shawnee, Prairie Village, Leawood, Lenexa—did what the Kansas Legislature would not and wrote legal protections for LGBTQ citizens.

It hasn’t been without controversy or pushback. Most of those ordinances received quick approvals, but the Northwest Johnson County Republicans and some residents opposed to the NDO—including, notably, long-time area meteorologist Mike Thompson—packed Shawnee City Hall in August to argue that the measure intruded on the religious freedoms of others. (The measure passed, 5-2.) Other efforts to prioritize diversity have faced considerable opposition as well. Earlier this year, an overflow crowd turned out to object to a plan for an Islamic community center in Overland Park, ostensibly because of concerns about traffic and disruption of the peace and quiet.

A multicultural mural was the subject of a small controversy earlier this year. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

And a generation that moved to the suburbs precisely because it wasn’t a downtown has gone on the warpath in Overland Park. Neighbors living around downtown Overland Park have resisted all manner of changes, swarming the city council on a semi-regular basis with complaints about everything from parking shortages to a redesign of the downtown park that included the removal of a 1980s era replica gazebo. Recently, they objected to murals on the walls of downtown businesses, saying the art—some of which depicted indigenous women from around the world—was out of character with the historic area.

One of those neighbors, Ralph Beck, says new urbanism is at odds with all the reasons people love suburbia.

“My feelings are, you don’t walk into a neighborhood with an older downtown that has basically a one-and two-story character and start throwing up massive buildings that just overshadow the character of everything else,” Beck says. “To suddenly change it from a suburban community with a small town feel into an urban, downtown Kansas City, Missouri—it’s just not what we’re about. It’s not why people want to live in the community.”

 

       

 

Looming in the background of these anxious aspirations is one very significant cause for hope in Johnson County, which is that Kansas City proper is getting expensive. That’s, of course, bad for aspiring city dwellers. But it is potentially good news for Johnson County, which can market itself as a more affordable place to live.

Jared Campbell, president of Kansas City’s Downtown Neighborhood Association, acknowledges as much. “It’s [affordable housing] definitely an issue of growing concern,” Campbell says.

He’s most concerned about the hollowing out of the middle in rental rates in KCMO. Plenty of luxury apartments are being built, and there are also some low-income units. But the typical young college graduate teacher or non-profit worker may be close to being priced out, Campbell says.

Tommy Wilson of the Downtown Council of Kansas City says young renters may be starting to get disillusioned with rent prices. He thinks the city needs to continue to look at affordability.

“Although,” Wilson adds, “I also believe there is affordable housing down here and people just don’t realize it.” He cites Mulberry Lofts, the New England building, and the New Yorker as more affordable places, using the city-set $1,100 or lower per month as the definition. “But we always need more.”

The Overland Park Farmers’ Market hosts live music and other performances. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

At first glance, comparing rental averages between Kansas City and some Johnson County cities makes JOCO look very reasonable indeed. Rent Café, an internet listing service, lists monthly rent averages from a low of $933 in Shawnee to $1,076 in Overland Park, with square footage ranging from 1,042 in Shawnee to 970 in Overland Park. By contrast, KCMO, came in at $1,004 for 899 square feet.

But that search includes places that may be far from the hipper downtowns. A closer look at specific apartments doesn’t paint as pretty a picture for Johnson County. KCMO’s The New Yorker, for example, showed a Zillow listing of $950 for a one bedroom apartment of 745 square feet. Avenue 80 in Overland Park is charging $1,195 for a one bedroom apartment of 625 square feet.

In other words, many of these new JOCO high-rises are charging KCMO prices—an approach that seems unlikely to attract very many millennials fleeing urban KC’s steep rents. Notably, though, these developments are simultaneously targeting a demographic less concerned with hipster aesthetics: empty nesters. Many of the same things that attract young people to urban settings—low-maintenance apartment living, public transportation and a nearness to good restaurants and bars—also look pretty good to those deep into middle age and beyond.

Mike McKeen, whose EPC Real Estate has built several big projects in Johnson County, is noncommittal about which demographic is drawing his new renters. The Domain and The District in Lenexa and Avenue 80 and Avenue 81 in Overland Park are a big chunk of the JOCO apartment building boom, and are filling up, he says. Whether they fill up with baby boomers or millennials depends on the locale and the price point. Avenue 80 is one example of a project that has had success with younger folks, though it still draws empty nesters, he says.

The Lenexa Public Market, a food hall operated by the city, opened in 2017. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Perhaps the biggest question is what appeals most to older millennials who want to get out of the apartment life and start families. In the past, of course, they’ve moved to the wide open spaces of the suburbs. Lyons believes that will continue, but the new wave of young parents will arrive with different preferences. Instead of moving to large homes spaced far apart on twisting streets, he says studies show they’ll want to live in tighter residential neighborhoods that are still within biking or walking distance of jobs and entertainment. That description puts single-family homes in northern Overland Park in a great position for the future, he says.

Campbell, of the KC Downtown Neighborhood Association, sees that, too. But he also says he sees a lot of migration going to Brookside, Longfellow, Columbus Park, and other KCMO neighborhoods, rather than Johnson County.

“I’ve seen more of that versus just fleeing across the state line, which is like what I used to see five, ten years ago,” Campbell says.

McKeen thinks Johnson County is lagging behind on pulling people from KCMO mostly because of jobs. Many jobs and company headquarters are located in downtown Kansas City, and if you live down there, you can easily bike or walk to them. JOCO is also at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to transportation. KCMO also has a fairly extensive and flexible public transportation system to get people to work, compared to Johnson County’s limited transit options, most of which don’t even run on weekends. 

“There’s tons of jobs in Johnson County,” McKeen says. “But right there in downtown Overland Park, there are not a lot of jobs. Yet.”

 

       

 

Well—what do the youths think about all this?

Alley Ulrich, 24, says she seriously considered a move to Lenexa’s City Center after deciding recently not to renew her lease in Westport. She’d become tired of the petty crime happening near her building. Her boyfriend’s car window was smashed recently—for a second time—so someone could steal a bag of change. Her sister, who lives nearby, frequently returns to her car to find it has been rummaged through when she’s forgotten to lock it. “That kind of stuff happens all the time around here,” Ulrich says. “I think people just walk down our street and try to open the door handle.”

The Lenexa apartment complex had a gym, a pool, and balconies, and it was within Ulrich’s price range. “It [felt] like you’re getting a lot more for what you’re paying for,” she says.

The Lenexa Public Market, located in City Center, holds a collection of local merchants. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

In the end, though, it was about more than the money. Many of Ulrich’s friends live in KCMO, and she likes to be close to the goings-on downtown as well as a variety of restaurants and food delivery. There’s also a culture issue, she says. “I think there is a more diverse group of people [in Kansas City]. I see more pride flags around here than I do in JOCO. So, I think it’s a little more inclusive of a community.”

The suburbs may be safer at night, but they’re quiet. Maybe too quiet, she says. “I guess it’s just not my scene.” In the end, “We found a place on the Plaza that is pretty cool,” Ulrich says.

Alyson McNaghten, 26, used to live in Brookside but is now living the dream in the River Market area, where the streetcar picks her up and drops her off near her downtown job. With everything going on downtown and at the market, she said she doesn’t really see Johnson County as competition. “I don’t know anyone living there,” McNaghten says. Emily Niemann, 24, considered JOCO as she finished lunch at the Lenexa Public Market, close by her office job. She said she likes the City Center area, but doesn’t know much about Johnson County. When she does eventually move out from her parents’ place in Gladstone, she’s thinking the Crossroads or the Plaza.

On a recent Third Friday in downtown Overland Park, there are clusters of millennials out and about, many of them pushing strollers. Street musicians wearing old-timey costumes play banjos and zithers under the clock tower. All’s quiet at the new apartments a couple of blocks away, but the Peanut is doing decent business, and The Upper Crust, a pie shop, even has a line out the door. Even if you adjust for the late-evening rain forecast and imagine a few more people, though, it’s still light years away from the crowds that descend on First Fridays in downtown Kansas City.

Ultimately, it remains an open question whether a younger crowd might actually choose JOCO over Kansas City. Many of the developments—the apartment complexes and the restaurants, bars, and shops that hope to serve their residents— are just too new. But Campbell, of the KC Downtown Neighborhood Association, sees a kind of original sin preventing the progress JOCO leaders crave. Kansas City was built for people. Johnson County was built to move vehicles around efficiently.

“So as much as they try to focus on the walkability or pedestrian experience— or, to a lesser degree, the bicycle experience—that’s just not what Johnson County was designed for,” he says. “Whether or not they’re making strides, that could be argued. But will they ever overtake Kansas City? I will say no.”


On Twitter: @roxiehammill. 

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