Archive for Thursday, June 22, 2006

Reuse of city-owned property key to revitalization plan

Consultant suggests development of Miller Park, city shop area could initiate downtown district makeover

June 22, 2006

Approaching the revitalization of De Soto's downtown district much as a cosmetician would a makeover, urban planner Marty Shukert said the oldest section of the city could lose its plain Jane appearance by emphasizing its physical gifts and takes advantage of current city assets.

Admitting it was a "radical and ambitious" idea, Shukert sketched out a downtown district renewal plan last week that opened the city assets of Miller Memorial Park and the city shop area overlooking the Kansas River to development.

The Omaha-based principal in RDG Crose Gardner Shukert Inc. presented his concept plan to revitalize what he called the "central district" last Thursday to the De Soto City Council. If fully realized, the consultant estimated the makeover would add 160 new housing units to the area (130 more than currently available in the district), 133,000 square-foot of new commercial space and $40 million to 50 million in private investment.

Shukert first visited De Soto two years ago to perform a community housing assessment for the city and the De Soto Economic Development Council. The former Omaha planning director was invited back by the same two entities last year to start discussions on downtown revitalization.

De Soto Economic Development Council and Chamber of Commerce director Sara Ritter said the plan presented last Thursday was not meant to be a set-in-stone template for future revitalization of the downtown district. This plan -- and the one Shukert drew at the end of his visit last October -- presented options that she hoped would start community discussion on the subject.

"If there is one good thing to come out of this, it is that it starts people talking about what needs to be done," she said.

For her part, she welcomed the latest plan's ambition, Ritter said. Action was need if the old-town district was to avoid slipping into decline as the city grows to the west and south and new opportunities springs up in the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

"We have to get the ball rolling now," she said. "Main Street was built for a population of 1,000 people. We have to grow to sustain it."

De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson said Shukert's plan, although seemingly radical, simply addressed identified problems of aging and deteriorating housing stock in the district, shortage of affordable housing, lack of commercial space and need to keep existing draws such as the library, Post Office and bank in the downtown district.

"Those elements make it look pretty drastic," the mayor said. "What part of the ball of string do you grab?

"When you have someone like Marty put it all together, it looks pretty drastic. But it's pretty simple when you look at all the elements."

Trees define district

The plan presented last Thursday was completed after Shukert visited the city last week, talking with officials, property owners and touring the area.

The plan looks at what Shukert said was essentially a peninsula, defined by the Kansas River and Kill Creek and bordered by Ottawa Street to the south. That and its tree canopy were the two physical features that stood out while viewing the area during walking tours and aerial photographs, Shukert said.

"I'm not sure what that all means in terms of a thematic concept, but it's interesting how it all fits together in blue and green," he said.

Shukert broke down his plan into six different components -- the first of which raised eyebrows at the meeting.

Shukert proposed Miller Memorial Park be opened to mix-used development. An initial drawing showed a north-south street bisecting the park. Two- and three-story buildings, housing ground-floor shops and offices and upper-floor apartments, would line the street.

The park would be relocated across 83rd Street to a 40-acre site just west of Kill Creek. It shares the flat terrain of Miller Park ideal for soccer, baseball and softball fields and would have room for more to serve a growing city.

"Right now, its very nice but constrained," Shukert said of Miller Park. "There's very little room to grow.

"Frankly, as a park, its too small for what De Soto is beginning to become."

There was a deed restriction on Miller Park, requiring it be used as a park, Shukert conceded. That would have to be resolved, he said.

The area surrounding Miller Park would also be transformed. The mobile home parks to the southwest would be replaced with the "Osage Village," offering townhomes and apartments. The redevelopment would continue north of 83rd along Ferry Street, with room reserved of future Johnson County Library branch, at the northwest corner of Ferry and 83rd Street.

Eastern Lexington Avenue would be further developed commercially. Although oriented to automobile traffic, it would be pedestrian friendly with sidewalks and both sides to the streets and rear walkways connecting shopping centers.

Shukert noted the two-block section of downtown from Peoria to Shawnee streets, which will be the subject of a more detailed workshop next month involving property and business owners, was currently doing well, but had a shortage of storefronts. To help with that concern, Shukert suggested a landmark commercial building be built where the Dollar General Store now stands, which would extend into the adjacent lot to the east.

Alley an opportunity

Another way to add storefronts downtown was to take advantage of the sloping terrain and the walk-out basements of the buildings on the south side of 83rd Street. Shukert suggested the city could improve the alley to a secondary street to encourage retail use of the basements.

Another problem downtown was grade separations between streets and sidewalks that challenged mobility. Shukert said he'd worked with a Nebraska city with a similar problem, which now has a thriving downtown.

Downtown would also get distinctive lighting and landscaping that would be carried down 83rd Street to the Miller Park development, Shukert said. That three-block section of 83rd Street has several interesting older homes, some of which could be transformed into offices or shops. But the consultant said the "scale" of the neighborhood should be preserved, saying big-box department stores would not be appropriate for the neighborhood.

Shukert's model also had commercial and multi-family housing developing in what is now the city shop and old water plant at the northern end of Shawnee Street. There was also an opportunity for commercial development at the north end of Wea Street if homeowners there chose to sell, he said. If that happened, a tower or overlook park could be developed at the end of the street on the bank of the Kansas River.

"It's one of the best views in the whole valley," Shukert said.

The plan also pointed to the potential for commercial development at the corner of Ottawa Street and Lexington Avenue and for residential development on the east side of Ottawa south of 84th Street.

Finally, Shukert's plan tied the area together with new trails, sidewalks and "processional" streets or "promenades," such as Shawnee, and arterials of Lexington Avenue, 83rd and Wyandotte streets.

Discussion after Shukert's presentation tended to focus on the redevelopment of Miller Park.

Calling attention the "Memorial" part of its name, Leon Coker said moving the park would be like moving the cemetery. It was a gift, he said, and should remain a park.

On the other hand, Kurt Johnson of Mr. Goodcents said he saw the proposed reuse of Miller Park and the shop areas as keys to jumpstarting the revitalization process.

"They could be redeveloped reasonably easy as two showcases that would spur the rest of the development," he said.

Also expressing were skepticism about the park proposal were council members Ted Morse and Tim Maniez, although the latter said Miller Park was "way too small to be our main park."

Another concern was the park's elevation. Morse and Coker said the park flooded in 1951. City engineer Mike Brungardt said Monday the park wasn't on current flood plain maps, although part of the property proposed for a new park was.

Councilwoman Mitra Templin said she, too, was shocked by the idea of moving the park when she first heard of it. But, she said she came to see the advantages of moving the park to the more spacious property across 83rd Street.

Templin and Maniez expressed concerned about moving the library from the two-block downtown, noting the library, Post Office and bank attracted the most traffic to the district.

"That is why it deserves special consideration," Shukert said of the planned July work session on downtown. "We don't want to compete with ourselves."

Shukert said he would further develop the concept plan. In doing so, he would look at options, including leaving Miller Park as is and developing the property across 83rd Street instead.

Having campaigned on the issue, Anderson said he was determined to move the downtown district's revitalization forward. But he promised the process would be a community one with opportunity for public comment, starting with the July downtown stakeholders' gathering.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.