Over some customers’ opposition, downtown Shawnee businesses largely support plans for old Wonderscope site

Downtown Shawnee businesses and property owners shared support for a proposed apartment project to be located on the site of the former Wonderscope Children's Museum. The 5700 King Apartments is comprised of 189 residential units on the site of the former Wonderscope Children's Museum.

While dozens of Shawnee residents have voiced strong opposition toward a proposed apartment complex on the site of the former Wonderscope Children’s Museum near downtown, neighboring business owners are largely supportive of the project.

Sunflower Development Group is planning to build the five-story 5700 King Apartments, including 189 multi-family units, just north of Splash Cove water park.

After a contentious planning commission meeting earlier this month in which residents spoke out against the project, an attorney whose firm is downtown began circulating a flyer to other local business owners urging them to share their support publicly.

Since then, Kristen Shelley-Chapin of Shelley Chapin Law says she has heard from at least 13 downtown business owners who all support the apartments. The primary reason: the project will provide higher density that the commercial district needs in order to thrive.

“After hearing that there was a very good chance that the project would fail, I started reading some of the information that was out there in opposition to the project, and I didn’t feel like the opposition that was being vocal told the whole story,” Shelley-Chapin said. “I was just concerned about the things that had been said in the meeting and that it wasn’t representative of the entire community.”

Shelley-Chapin said some business owners said that while they support the multi-family development, they’re afraid of going public in case the neighboring residents stop supporting their businesses. She hopes the business owners will share their support directly with the city council.

“I want the council to consider the whole story,” she said. “Hopefully once they hear that, they’ll say, ‘OK, there’s passions on both sides of this, let’s set the passion aside and let’s look at the facts of this.'”

The Shawnee Mission Post spoke with nine different downtown business owners to understand their perspectives. Three of them asked to remain anonymous, citing concerns that residents will stop supporting them if they publicly approve of the apartments.

Hearing from the other side

This story is focused on the opinions of several businesses owners in downtown Shawnee, who largely support the King Apartments project. The Post has detailed the thoughts of opponents in our previous reporting.

Businesses want higher density development

Downtown Shawnee has seen an uptick in new development and revitalization efforts. But some business owners fear that rejection of developments could contribute to further blight and business turnover. File photo.

Business and property owners contend that without higher density provided by the apartments, shops and restaurants will struggle.

Aaron Mesmer, a downtown property owner who was the sole voice in support of the project at last month’s planning commission meeting, said he’s concerned with the increase in storefront vacancies and business turnover.

“What you’re seeing is a direct result of just having a lack of customers, a lack of population,” Mesmer said. “I think we need more people if we’re going to support businesses like theirs and allow them to be viable for longer periods of time.”

Breck Liston, owner of I Heart Local, a local goods boutique  at 10919 Johnson Dr., said she supports the project, but she’s concerned that it will further exacerbate parking problems downtown. She wants to make sure the city addresses parking needs for the area.

Other downtown business owners who asked to remain anonymous said they felt higher density development could make downtown Shawnee more walkable and could actually be good for local residents’ property values.

Ann Smith-Tate with the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce said new residents in the apartments would be “a key component” to revitalization efforts downtown that the chamber supports.

“We’re appreciative of the steps the developer has taken to engage the community,” Smith-Tate said, noting the developer has made some modifications to the plan in order to try and appease residents. “Not all developers are as accommodating with their private projects. We are really at the precipice of what can really evolve for this area.”

‘Change is inevitable’

Some Shawnee business owners hope the city’s $38 million investment in Nieman Road will continue attracting new economic activity downtown. File photo.

The proposed apartments are part of a wave of downtown revitalization efforts in recent years, with the openings of two small breweries, two restaurants, a cocktail bar and another apartment complex under construction near Old Shawnee Pizza. The highly anticipated opening of Aztec Theater is also slated for this fall.

Denise Kirk, owner of Aunt Jeans Cup & Cone at 11210 Johnson Dr., said that although she’s nostalgic for the old Wonderscope museum, she’s “completely supportive” of the project to replace it and the city’s vision to make downtown more of a destination.

“I think change is inevitable,” Kirk said. “Shawnee should be proud of the fact that it’s ready to go to the next level as far as commerce and housing and being a destination city.”

Mike Unterreiner, who with his wife, Lisa, is retiring and closing Hartman Hardware after decades of being one of downtown Shawnee’s anchor businesses, said he believes the apartments will spur even further revitalization, attract more businesses and encourage walkability downtown, especially after the city just invested $38 million in the Nieman Road corridor.

He said Hartman lost some customers after publicly supporting the Nieman roadwork.

“Half the people are for it, half the people aren’t, but you’ve kinda got to look past that and go to what’s best for the community in the long run,” Unterreiner said.

Kevin Tubbesing, a local developer building a different apartment complex downtown, agreed with those sentiments, citing the city’s land use guide to attract new development downtown.

“This developer has come and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare plans for the city for their intention and invitation,” Tubbersing said. “So the fact that they would actually be resisted, now that they have come, is just utterly ridiculous.”

Some business owners said they feared that if the apartments are rejected by the city council, it could discourage developers from considering future projects in Shawnee. Mesmer, the downtown property owner and residential landlord, believes the Johnson County market for apartments is “very, very strong,” and not going forward with the new development could lead to more blight and vacant storefronts in the area.

“For most folks, it’s a benefit to have thriving restaurants, retail, places they can walk to,” Mesmer said. “But you can’t have that if you don’t have the population there to support it. That’s the choice that I think they’re effectively going to have to make.”

The Shawnee City Council has discussed placing the 5700 King Apartments on the Oct. 12 council meeting agenda.