Time to ‘tame the streets’ in College and Metcalf corridor, says group looking to revitalize aging commercial area

A group looking at how to make Overland Park’s College-and-Metcalf corridor attractive to businesses says taming traffic will be key. Rendering credit Perkins+Will.

Overland Park should make every effort to slow the traffic on College Boulevard for the long-term health of the College-and-Metcalf Avenue corridor, possibly by putting the street on a “road diet,” according to a presentation by the steering committee studying the corridor.

The city should also look into converting some of the parking lot north of the convention center into entertainment space, adding plaza gathering areas at the east and west ends of the corridor and adding bikeways and more landscaping to make the area friendlier for pedestrians, the report said.

The concept master plan for the corridor. Click to enlarge.

The committee presented its ideas to the city council committee of the whole Monday after about nine months of meetings and an online survey. The report offered a conceptual look at steps the city could take to breathe new life into the corridor and keep the city competitive for employers who are increasingly attracted to mixed-use areas and city centers.

Companies are looking for amenities for their employees, said Beth Johnson vice president of economic development for the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce. “The lack of amenities in that area has hurt us,” she said. “We know of at least a couple of companies that have left this corridor because they felt like they needed to move to areas like the Crossroads or Brookside in order to be more successful to be in an amenity-rich environment to attract employees,” she said.

A couple of other companies the city was trying to recruit ended up in places like Lenexa City Center, she said.

Parking lots north of the convention center could be used for entertainment purposes, says the group’s report.

“We’re competing with ourselves,” she said. A nationwide survey by the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks shows that 83 percent of office employers want a walkable mixed-use environment while only 17 percent are looking for “late 20th Century business parks,” of the type Overland Park is known for.

City leaders hope to keep more people eating out and being entertained in an area that is filled with workers during the day but mostly empties out after work is done. Allegra Gassman, a committee member whose job is on the corridor at Midwest Trust, showed a slide of the view from her window at 3:36 p.m. on a Friday. The street is devoid of traffic.

Colleagues with long commutes often have no interest in getting back into their cars at lunchtime, she said. And some would like to be able to have client lunch meetings. But walking anywhere is problematic because of the fast traffic.

“Unfortunately we usually drive into Leawood because that is where the nice lunch options are,” she said.

Co-workers desperate for a quick walk have a hard time of it, scorched by the sun and exposed to traffic, she said. “Cars are driving very quickly, it’s not a very pretty place to take a walk, so you look like an insane person walking on the sidewalk along College Boulevard,” she said.

A rendering of proposed streetscape improvement at College and Lamar. Click to enlarge.

“Taming the streets” was at the top of the to-do list offered by the steering committee. An inexpensive first step could be to restripe College, putting parking along the sides and reducing traffic to two lanes, said city planner Leslie Karr. That way the city could test how well a road diet might work without committing to a lot of expense.

The committee also put a premium on gathering space, proposing and east and west plaza areas off of Metcalf and Lamar Avenues, pedestrian bridge over Metcalf, streetscaping on 110th Street and a re-configuration of the parking for the convention center – now a large surface lot – to handle parking and perhaps an entertainment venue.

The report also proposes shared bike paths and bike lanes along the major streets in the area. At one point, councilmember David White asked whether a trolley should be in the mix of possibilities for the corridor.

The College plan is in its early stages and will undergo several more steps before anything goes in a master planning document for the area. Mayor Carl Gerlach said city officials should talk with businesses along the corridor before doing a test road diet, for example.

But council members were generally interested in the ideas. Councilmember Curt Skoog said the council’s interest in change will spur ideas from the private sector. “I’m excited about it, I think it’s the right thing. If you look around the country, you can identify urban office parks that are dying all over the country. It’s because they are in the middle of nowhere that you can only get to by car.”