D-Day is coming this Monday for the hotly debated Ranch Mart South shopping center development project in Overland Park, as a neighborhood united in its opposition prepares to go up against developers who want to build a $55 million multi-story apartment complex next to their homes.
On one side, the developers say the apartments will revitalize the center and improve the area just behind the center, at 95th Street and Mission, by replacing an aging parking garage and bulldozing a block of mostly unoccupied duplexes. On the other are neighbors who say the proposed apartments, which will be 77 feet tall at their highest point, will loom over their homes, with virtually no buffer zone in between. They have organized, with a valid protest petition and signs in almost every yard.
Monday night, the Overland Park City Council will consider whether to grant rezoning for the project, in what is expected to be a well-attended meeting.
A home for aging adults who want to stay in Overland Park
The developers, EPC Real Estate Group, want to build apartments targeted at “healthy adults” in the 55-and-over age range. The E-shaped building would go up directly south of the existing Ranch Mart shops, and would also include a self-storage area below ground. To make it happen, builders would have to demolish the existing parking structure and duplexes, and they would have to build over the street that now separates the center from the neighborhood.
Austin Bradley, vice president of development for EPC, said there won’t be an age restriction on the complex, but they should attract older adults because of the way they are sized and marketed. For instance, there will not be an emphasis on studio apartments that are more popular with younger renters. The complex won’t have a kitchen for meal service but will have continental breakfast, food and beverage coordinators, an activities coordinator, community garden and hydrotherapy pool. So far no price point has been set.
There are also many retail stores within walking distance, he said.
“We’re going to provide existing Overland Park residents an opportunity to stay in their community as they age, especially those that are healthy and not in need of additional care,” he said. The allure of that market niche is borne out by the wait list that has already begun, he added.
The apartments also will help an iconic retail center survive the difficulties of the modern economy, he said.
The Ranch Mart center and its sister just across the street to the north are both around 60 years old and remembered fondly enough by longtime Overland Park residents that they have a nostalgia Facebook page. But the pandemic and online shopping have taken a big bite out of retailers. Developers are answering that by creating mixed-use areas that bring more residents within walking distance of the shops.
“We see this as an opportunity to introduce residential to the existing center to insure the long-term sustainability of Ranch Mart for many years to come” Bradley said.
Neighborhood concerns over height and no buffer zone
None of those arguments assuage neighbors who live in the mostly low-slung homes just to the south of the Ranch Mart complex. For the past couple of weeks, they’ve been inviting city councilmembers and anyone else who would listen to share the view of the project site from their back yards.
It doesn’t help that the neighborhood is on the downslope of a hill looking up at the proposed apartments.
“It’s going to be massive,” said neighbor Eric Hernandez.
At Hernandez’s home, for instance, a duplex shields the backyard view of the shopping center garage. If the development goes in as planned, he said, that duplex will be gone, possibly along with the mature trees near the fence line. Then his home will be about forty feet from the highest part of the apartment complex.
So Hernandez and his neighbors have organized. The streets are aflame with bright red yard signs that say, “Stop the Ranch Mart high-rise apartments,” and they have an online petition with over 300 signers. They also have collected over $3,000 for legal fees.
And they have a petition that would require a supermajority on the Overland Park City Council to approve the project before rezoning could proceed.
Neighbors have a lot of issues with the project, but mostly it’s about the height and the lack of a buffer separating their homes from the apartment building.
“That this project ever made its way through the OP Planning staff is unbelievable to me,” said Lawrence S. Graham, a retired architectural engineer who has worked in Overland Park on past projects.
It’s not that the neighborhood is against development, said another neighbor, Jason Balk. “I feel this one is a little extreme — over the top,” he said. “I completely get the upside of development. I want development here, too. My point is the city council has got to protect the neighborhood.”
Joan Unger, a real estate agent and 35-year resident, wrote a detailed letter to city planners saying the height of the building and lack of buffer are likely to bring home values down in the neighborhood characterized by $400,000 homes built in the 1950s and ‘60s.
She said the Ranch Mart owners have let the property go, causing the very blight the development is aimed to correct.
Developer responds to concerns
But Bradley, with developer EPC, said the problems with the parking garage and duplexes stem from design problems of the era when they were built. The garage is not up to modern standards, and the underground infrastructure of the duplexes would never be built by today’s code. The developer had no intention of creating blight, he said.
Bradley added that the development team has tried to mitigate the height by stepping the upper floor back and by the project’s E shape, which puts the bulk of the building farther away from the homes. Public green space has also been provided. But Unger, the real estate agent, said that doesn’t help much.
“Claiming that architectural design will help disguise that height and help it feel less massive is like claiming that you will not see an elephant because it is standing behind a tree,” she wrote
Unger said neighbors are also worried about traffic and the increased burden on the wastewater system as it flows downhill toward their homes.
But Bradley said the current design is the optimal height. “We believe the design that is on the table is the best design not only for the neighborhood but also the community,” he said.
The council will decide Monday whether it agrees with the planning commission that the rezoning should go ahead. The Planning commission approved the measure on a split vote, with some members saying they were troubled by the height.
The council could also deny the project outright, or send it back to planning for more work.