Shawnee City Council deals blow to apartment plan for old Wonderscope site

After more than three hours of discussions and hearing public comments, the Shawnee City Council on Monday rejected on a 4-5 vote a proposed apartment complex on the site of the former Wonderscope Children’s Museum near downtown. The 5700 King Apartments is comprised of 189 residential units at 5700 King. File photo.

After more than three hours of discussions and public comments, the Shawnee City Council on Monday narrowly rejected a rezoning ordinance for a proposed apartment complex on the site of the former Wonderscope Children’s Museum, dealing a blow to hopes for redeveloping a key piece of real estate near downtown Shawnee.

The measure fell by a 5-4 margin.

Located just north of Splash Cove water park, the 5700 King Apartments was a proposed five-story structure, with 189 residential units on the four upper stories and parking on the ground floor. Heading up the project is Sunflower Development Group, a company based in Kansas City, Mo., that is also building apartments in Mission.

The plan has faced public opposition from neighboring residents, who filed a protest petition on the rezoning item related to the project. The petition required that the governing body reach a supermajority — at least seven out of nine yes votes — to approve the rezoning item. Meanwhile, several downtown business owners have quietly supported the project but have expressed concern about coming forward with their support out of fear of losing business.

Mayor Michelle Distler and councilmembers Eric Jenkins, Mike Kemmling, Kurt Knappen and Tammy Thomas cast dissenting votes. Councilmembers Jill Chalfie, Lindsey Constance, Lisa Larson-Bunnell and Matt Zimmerman voted in favor of the plan.

The specific action item voted down Monday was to rezone the property from single-family residential to TownSquare district for construction of the multifamily project. While the council was not necessarily considering approval of the project itself, Community Development Director Doug Allmon and City Attorney Ellis Rainey said the council is obligated to consider the actual project attached to the rezoning item.

At times, the councilmembers argued whether the project fits with the city’s vision to revitalize the downtown area and also whether the change would be positive for surrounding single-family homeowners.

City staff noted that the 5700 King site has been “designated as appropriate for redevelopment as high-density residential” in the city’s future land use guide, according to a city memo.

Considering last night’s rejection of the project, Jason Swords with Sunflower Development Group said he’s unsure at this time about next steps for the site. Property records indicate the Regnier Family Foundation remains the owner of the 5700 King site.

“It’s too early to tell,” Swords said. “We are kind of regrouping with our team and trying to figure out if there’s a path forward.”

‘The city called us’

“This might be the greatest building we’ve ever designed that we’ll never get to build,” said Jason Swords with Sunflower Development Group.

Korb Maxwell, an attorney with Polsinelli who represents Sunflower Development Group, urged the council to consider this project as a complement to the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown district, attract investors and increase density in the area.

“One of the first things that I don’t think can be… overstated enough is that we stand here tonight as Sunflower Development Group because the city called us,” Maxwell said. “You asked for us to come forward and bring forward this application.”

Jason Swords, a partner with Sunflower Development Group, said his team believes in the project and the value it can provide for neighboring homes and businesses. He had hoped to work toward compromise, not controversy.

“This might be the greatest building we’ve ever designed that we’ll never get to build,” Swords said. “That’s how I really feel about it… In my mind, if this plan does not move forward, we’re going to have a blighted building on our hands here in downtown Shawnee for quite some time.”

Nearly 70 people showed up at the Shawnee City Council to share comments of support and opposition for the 5700 King Apartments project near downtown.

A mixed bag of public comments carried the evening, as about 20 people shared variations of opposition and support for the project. Nearly 70 people showed up, many of whom gathered outside of city hall due to restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilmembers and neighboring homeowners who opposed the project said their primary concerns were the project’s high level of density compared with the surrounding single-family homes. They argued the project would not fit the character of the neighborhood, and that it will cost the city to provide emergency services and utilities during the development’s 10-year property tax abatement.

“Development is not automatically a good thing,” Jenkins said. “Change can be good or bad… The argument that it may bring additional revenue to Shawnee is based on assumption.

“I am somewhat saddened to say ‘no’ to this project. It is a good project, but in the wrong location. It not only does not work out with the character of the neighborhood, in my opinion; it does not work out with the character of downtown Shawnee.”

On the other hand, some councilmembers in support of the project said they think the apartments make sense in the downtown area. A similar project, Sixty16 Apartments, is under construction on the other side of downtown, near Old Shawnee Pizza.

“While I would love to see a plan come to us that was satisfactory to the neighbors, that sort of checked all the boxes and got everybody to a happy place in the middle, I don’t feel that my reservations that I have on the project are sufficient for me to override the professional development of [the] planning commission and city staff,” said Councilmember Jill Chalfie.

‘Not just saying that we don’t like it’

“…We are not just saying that we don’t like it. We are saying that this doesn’t fit in this space in this part of Shawnee,” said Cindy Hayth, a neighboring resident and spokesperson for a citizen interest group in opposition of the 5700 King Apartments project.

Cindy Hayth gave remarks as the representative of a citizen interest group, the driving force behind the protest petition. That group largely supports efforts to build a town pavilion for a farmers market on the 5700 King site instead of apartments.

“The biggest thing we heard knocking on hundreds of doors and having our big meetings was we don’t want this, why don’t they listen?” Hayth said. “We are saying that this doesn’t fit in this space in this part of Shawnee.”

Other issues included fear of reduced property values, increase in traffic and crime, a lack of green space, the height of the project at 60 to 68 feet, and an exacerbated parking situation in a part of the city where parking is already at a premium. These concerns come after the developer made changes to the project to reduce the height of the project on the north side, eliminate on-street parking along 57th, and add green space abutting 57th by moving the building further south, away from the single-family homes.

Kristen Shelley-Chapin, an attorney whose law firm is in downtown Shawnee, asked the city council to reach consensus in support of the apartments, which she and other businesses believe will bring vital density to spur revitalization and growth in the area.

Supporters were mostly local business owners and property owners who said residential density is vital to support downtown growth.

“I’m asking you to support a developer who has spent over half a million dollars on this project and would spend millions more in support of downtown Shawnee, support about the developer who cares enough about our community to meet with the people, to make changes to his project, and probably, if given the chance after tonight, would even consider more changes to try and bring consensus to downtown and to our entire community of Shawnee,” said Kristen Shelley-Chapin, an attorney and downtown business owner.

“That’s really what we need from you as councilmembers, is to not provide further division in our community, but to help us build consensus.”

Dan Pflumm, a former councilmember, also shared support for the 5700 King project. Pflumm had voted against a similar apartment proposal by Vantage Point Properties, over which the city won a lawsuit after denying that project a few years ago.

“I thought it was a huge impact, a positive impact, for the residents in Shawnee, and it’s a huge impact for the people that own businesses downtown,” Pflumm said, noting the rising values of surrounding properties near new apartments in Johnson County. “I was the deciding vote on Vantage apartments, a ‘no’ vote, and it’s very different from this property right here, not only the landscape but the developer.”