Overland Park council advances plans for arboretum expansion with visitors center and amphitheater

Overland Park city leaders have given a preliminary OK to plans that call for a new visitors center and amphitheater at the arboretum. Photo credit Benjamin White. Used under a Creative Commons license.

After close to four hours of discussion, a preliminary plan to expand Overland Park’s arboretum got the city council’s blessing – but only on the condition that more discussion will follow later on as the plan is developed.

Council members voted 11-1 in favor of a plan that expands the visitor center and adds parking and an amphitheater in a natural bowl in the garden’s topography. The amphitheater is a sore point with neighbors to the north who worried that the city intends to add to the number of large events like the Luminary Walk that disrupt traffic, shine lights into their windows and cause noise. Councilmember Faris Farassati was the dissenting vote.

A rendering of the proposed amphitheatre and visitors center by Confluence.

The neighbors, who filed a protest petition and formed a Facebook group to “preserve the Overland Park Arboretum,” had wanted the city to delay a decision and give their group more input on its development. In the end, they got assurances from council members that the arboretum leadership has no intention of hosting the loud rock concerts they feared. And in any case the next city council with its three new members will have oversight over the final plan and special use permits required for public open-air events, supporters said.

“We love the arboretum,” said Jeff Cox, who lives in the nearby Wolf Valley subdivision. “We are advocates for the arboretum. We live and use and give money to the arboretum. What we’re against is ruining the arboretum.”

Cox expressed a common concern that addition of the amphitheater and lawn space will result in more events that will commercialize the idyllic spot near 179th Street and U.S. Highway 69. “Natural places don’t need to keep getting developed forever.”

His views were echoed by Anthony Gosserand the lawyer for the neighbors. “Green is good. Don’t mess with something that is beautiful,” he said.

Noise, light and traffic pollution top concerns of neighbors

Neighborhood residents said they generally support the arboretum and had no qualms with the expanded visitor center. They could even live with the four disruptive large events that cause bumper-to-bumper traffic on 179th Street, they said.

But they pulled out all the stops in objecting to other parts of the plan, criticizing the noise and light studies as being inadequate and saying the extra traffic will overwhelm the two-lane road. Gosserand also said that because Native American artifacts have been found in the area, the city should have an archeological study done before proceeding.

Expansion plan backers countered that objections about ruining the peaceful natural surroundings could just as easily apply to the housing developments that have sprung up since the arboretum land was purchased in 1986.

Arboretum officials and volunteers said they will closely monitor noise levels with a decibel meter and that they have learned from a Brewfest event that got noise complaints. Irene Parsons, chair of the Luminary Walk, said the amphitheater will have no benches or chairs and no lighting, making a night rock concert impossible. The types of events she envisioned included a ballet, sing-alongs, weddings or an outdoor classroom, she said.

Vicki Lilly, executive director of the Arts and Recreation Foundation of Overland Park, said the vote would be a pivotal point for the arboretum planning, which also eventually includes a building for tropical plants and chapel.

“The (arboretum) has the potential of being something extremely special in this community, in this entire region,” she said, “and I plead with you not to let unfounded fears and exaggerations stop us from doing this.”

Council members who voted in favor noted that the first phase of construction is for the expanded visitor center, which the neighbors and council both support. The amphitheater would come perhaps years later, as the foundations raise money for it. As it is, the visitor center will cost $17 million, an increase over the $12.75 million originally estimated, said City Manager Bill Ebel. Part of that money is being raised privately.

Councilmember David White said there are plenty of safeguards and opportunities for oversight. Future councils will get approval over the final plan and whether to fund it in the budget. They’ll also have a say over the permits required for large events.

Farassati asked the council to limit attendance at the amphitheater to its estimated capacity of 850, but that died for lack of a second.