Mission mayoral and city council candidates on the issues: Three-story building height requirement

Mission mayoral and city council candidates give their take on the city's "small town charm" and the three-story height requirement. Above, a variance to the height requirement: The Locale at Lamar Avenue and Johnson Drive. File photo.

The Post asked readers in August about the issues they wanted to hear candidates running for Mission mayor and city council seats address. Based on that feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire with the most important issues to Mission residents.

Each day this week, we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we’re publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

Mission is distinct in Johnson County for its “small town” vibe, but some residents say they’re concerned that feeling is being chipped away at by new development projects. Of note, the governing body has granted variances to the three-story height requirement for buildings on a handful of occasions in recent years. Do you believe the city should hold fast to the three-story height requirement? Why or why not?

Below are the answers the Post received from candidates on this issue:

Ward 4

Ray Ruecker

The city will wither without revenue coming in somehow. Let’s get rid of unnecessary codes and regulations that are hindering economic growth. Variances are fine but are a slippery slope. It needs to be enforced 100% or removed. Mission needs to evolve with the times and remove the requirement.

Ben Chociej

Not necessarily. For one thing, the East Gateway and West Gateway Districts, as defined in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, call for buildings of 3 to 8 stories, and in those locations, that height is entirely appropriate. On the other hand, a more restrained height profile is welcome in the Downtown District (“Main Street” zones), but 3 stories can still be too restrictive. Height and density are appropriate in parts of this area, too, but with careful consideration of context, topography, and neighbors’ opinions.

The Locale and the Mission Bowl projects are both good examples of projects where increased heights are appropriate. In the former, the location directly on Johnson Drive adjacent only to other relatively dense, walkable, commercial parcels means that increased height and density are a great fit. In the latter, the surrounding topography, proximity to dense commercial properties, and floodplain issues mean that the height variance is both necessary and unintrusive.

Many similar parcels would be too restrained by a 3-story limit, so in general I am supportive of thoughtful deviations from the rule in the Downtown District. But Mission’s small town feel and layout mean that a unilateral increase in the height limits is also probably not appropriate. I would support a small increase in height limits under specific conditions or for specific parcels, but lacking that, considering each variance on a case-by-case basis is a good approach.

 

Mayor

Arcie Rothrock

My dad has owned a small business in Mission since 1995. I have watched so many developments, redevelopments, and a good handful of transformations along Johnson Drive over the years. I am a huge advocate for Mission’s small-town charm, so I too share these same concerns.

I felt the same way when I voted No to the Locale. It is a beautiful building and a great addition to Mission; I just did not believe it belonged directly on Johnson Drive.

There is a three-story height requirement for a reason, and I will hold fast to that requirement unless there is an overwhelming need or response from the citizens not to. Just like any other important or complex decision, it’s not always black and white. Having a uniformed zone code is a great guide to have, but so is the ability to deviate when needed.

Sollie Flora

We’re currently in the midst of updating our Comprehensive Plan, which looks at land use in Mission. I sit on the Steering Committee, and one area we’ve been talking a lot about is increased density. We need increased density to support our cherished local business district on Johnson Drive and to improve our tax base, but we have to balance those needs with the desires of residents, including those in our existing single-family neighborhoods. Through the Comprehensive Plan process and the code/zoning updates that will follow, we’ll be able to evaluate where (if at all) it makes sense to as a general matter allow for buildings in excess of three-stories. I support this methodical approach, which includes opportunities for community input, as we’re giving focused consideration to what development that works for Mission residents and existing businesses looks like.

In any area where we’re considering new development and there’s a height restriction (three-stories or otherwise), it’s my view that we have to currently evaluate things on a project-by-project basis, looking at the benefits that the project will bring, as well as considering feedback from neighboring property owners. To me, allowing for developers to build in excess of three-stories for The Locale (approved before I was on Council) and the Mission Bowl Apartments (which I voted in favor of) made sense given their locations in/adjacent to prime commercial districts and the overall positive feedback received regarding the projects from our community. While I’ve been on Council, we also considered a proposed apartment development along Martway over by City Hall (to replace the “Pizza Hut” buildings). I was opposed to that plan until the height was reduced to meet code (the plan was still 4-stories but under the maximum total height in the code). Done right, some taller residential or mixed use developments shouldn’t damage Mission’s small town vibe and should in fact help preserve the Johnson Drive business district by increasing potential patrons and helping to foster walkability in that area.

Ward 2

Keith Viken

I love the feel of Mission, like a small town in a big city. However, it is not a simple black-and-white question. Having five-story buildings in Mission can be done, but we need to use caution. I think it would depend on where the building is to be located and what surrounds it. Take the example of the new building on Johnson drive, the Locale, other businesses surround it, so it works. Suppose it was on the other side of Johnson Drive, then I would say no. It would overshadow the properties to the north. There are plans for the old Mission Bowl to have a 4 or 5 stories multiuse building. The homes are to the south and site up higher, that could work. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach to anything. We need to look at the whole plan (area) and see if it works!

Lea Loudon

I grew up in small towns in Wyoming. The small town vibe is part of the reason I adore living in Mission. We get the best of both worlds living in a small community within a larger metro area. When I go back to these small towns, I find they are not the vibrant communities they once were. The median age of their residents has risen as citizens age and young people leave for better opportunities. Small businesses close because there aren’t enough customers to keep the doors open. New families don’t move in due to the lack of amenities that spark their interests. The quality of schools and community healthcare centers decline because it is difficult to recruit teachers, medical, and other types of professionals to a dying or stagnant community.

I have also seen other towns in our metro area transform into urban areas losing their small town charm. Big box stores and corporate chains replace mom and pop shops. Multi Level apartment buildings dwarf surrounding buildings leaving them looking old and shabby. I believe we have the opportunity to create a balance in Mission. We are fortunate the median age of our citizens is trending younger than in the past according to the 2020 census. Young families and professionals are still discovering the benefits of living in Mission. A vibrant business district, affordable housing options, Mission’s proximity, and the quality of our schools play a large part driving this change, but so does the small town vibe. We must preserve our small town feel while making Mission modern and keeping it relevant. Mission’s city council should consider each new development project through the lens of what a modern small town looks like by blending new construction into our existing business district with a modern touch. The city of Mission has worked hard over the years to rebuild storm drains and other infrastructure in order to move forward with renovations to existing buildings and aid in new construction. It makes sense to keep some of the old building requirements and grant the three story height variances on a case by case basis. Council should also give careful consideration to the number of house tear downs and rebuilds it approves. While construction of new and larger homes raises the property value and the amount of property tax the city receives, Mission needs to retain a number of affordable housing options. Low income housing should be a point of focus when applicable. Balance is key to keeping Mission’s small town vibe, housing affordability, new businesses, construction, and quality of life.

Joe Donaway

Did not respond.

On Wednesday, we’ll publish candidates’ responses to the following question:

Climate change continues to be top of mind for many Shawnee Mission Post readers. What steps can Mission take to prepare neighborhoods for increased flooding, along with extreme heat and drought events? What steps would you like to see the city take to build climate resilience?