The Johnson County appraiser’s office recently produced a map that charted all the teardowns and new home permits since 2015, and the results were striking.
It showed Prairie Village is ground zero in the metro area for this trend, with 84 demolition permits in just the past few years, far more than other Johnson County cities. The pace is only accelerating as this year’s construction season gets underway.
And it’s one of the most divisive, challenging issues for a city known for its charming, J.C. Nichols-designed communities. The question for city leaders: how to preserve traditional neighborhoods with small-town ambiance while adapting to changing times and new generations of families.
While many long-term residents want design restrictions and home size limits, others want to modernize the city’s aging housing stock with more spacious layouts and amenities, Mayor Laura Wassmer said.
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A new citizen survey shows residents split 50-50 on that thorny question, she said.
“It is a very difficult balance,” said Wassmer, herself a resident of nearly 26 years. “It’s pretty evenly split between those who would like to see everything stay the same and those who would like no restrictions so they can build whatever they want.”
The City Council is trying again to navigate this minefield, two years after adopting a few regulations to restrict home heights and widths.
More guidelines and restrictions are under consideration, especially to deal with the massive size of the homes and garages and to impose a green space requirement to address ongoing drainage concerns.
"We’ve had complaints in general about the large mass of these homes," said Assistant City Administrator Jamie Robichaud, who is working on the proposed regulations. But she said there’s pushback against too many limits on homes, driveways or garages, and the outcome remains uncertain.
“What can we do without prohibiting people from developing?" she asked. "The ultimate goal is to preserve the character of the neighborhoods but still allow development to happen.”
The council saw one set of proposals April 16, but more debate is expected June 4.
The city of Olathe is also grappling with modernizing its housing codes, although its homes are already generally larger and newer than in northern Johnson County.
Quality of life
In Prairie Village, many longtime residents fear all the new construction is destroying the very qualities that make people want to live there in the first place.
For three decades, Anne Vietti has enjoyed her close-knit Prairie Village neighborhood of small Cape Cod and ranch homes, where residents host summer block parties, Christmas open houses and other celebrations.
The homes, dating from the 1950s, are modest, many with two or three bedrooms, one-car garages and small but tidy yards with mature oak trees.
But as Vietti watches bigger homes under construction in the 7400 block of Fontana Street and on Village Drive, she worries.
“They are just being replaced with, I call them monster homes. They’re huge.” she said. “It’s just taking away from the quaintness of Prairie Village.”
Vietti and some of her neighbors want the City Council to adopt more regulations to preserve what they love about Prairie Village.
Meanwhile, young families who can help a city stay vital say they want bigger homes and the Prairie Village location is ideal — good schools, walkability, plentiful trees and parks, close access to Prairie Village shops and proximity to the Country Club Plaza and downtown Kansas City.
Because the existing homes are small, they’re less expensive to buy and tear down than larger homes elsewhere in Johnson County.
One builder, John Moffitt, says it’s time for Kansas City’s post-World War II suburbs to get a new wave of housing for the 21st century, and customers are appropriately driving these changes.
He said today’s homeowners want soaring ceilings, more space, bigger finished basements and garages. The original homes often have small living rooms, bedrooms and closets.
It’s a lifestyle and demographic change, he said. “It’s just a different world.”
In June 2016, the Prairie Village council agreed to lower maximum home heights on small lots from 35 feet to 29 feet and expanded the required distance from homes to side property lines.
But many longtime residents like Vietti say those guidelines didn’t go far enough. Now, the City Council is again grappling with additional restrictions.
The latest proposal includes:
▪ Requiring at least 60 percent of a lot size be made up of green space to ensure adequate drainage and privacy. The city already requires a drainage study, but Robichaud said complaints persist from adjacent homeowners about water runoff from these new homes. Currently the city has no green space requirement.
▪ Requiring street trees where they don’t exist, with one every 40 feet the average spacing.
▪ Providing architectural details such as windows to avoid large, unbroken mass walls.
▪ Imposing some limits on garages and garage door sizes, especially on smaller lots. The guidelines in April had proposed allowing no more than two forward-facing garages, but Robichaud said that limitation is being revised because many larger lots have space for three-car garages.
In Prairie Village, some council members are concerned that a proposal requiring 60 percent green space, plus limits on garages, could be too restrictive.
Serena Schermoly has constituents living in small lots on busy streets like Nall and Lamar avenues, 71st and 79th streets.
“If you make a 60 percent requirement for green space, residents in my ward couldn’t put a circle drive in,” she said. "I’m concerned about being so restrictive that people won’t want to live in our city anymore."
In Olathe, the city is working to strengthen tree and landscape requirements and to deal with an increase in single-family attached dwellings such as villas and duplexes. The city may also increase the minimum single-family lot size, currently 7,200 square feet. Overland Park and Lenexa require 8,000 square feet, and Shawnee, Leawood and Merriam require more.
The proposal is tentatively on the Olathe City Council agenda for June 19, but no action will be taken until possibly later this year.
While possible guidelines are pending, this year’s demolition and new building permits are on pace to be the fastest in five years in Prairie Village, increasing the urgency for some decisions.
“We’ve seen our number of new building permits go up drastically,” Robichaud said.
Since the beginning of this year, the city has issued 14 demolition permits and 16 single-family permits. That compares with 18 demolition permits and 16 single-family permits for all of 2014.
Between 2015 and early this year, Prairie Village issued 96 new dwelling permits, compared with 37 in Fairway, 17 in Merriam, 14 in Roeland Park and nine in Overland Park.
Much of the work is concentrated east of Nall Avenue and west of Belinder Avenue, from Shawnee Mission Parkway to 95th Street.
Wassmer said many of the new builds are beautiful and blend with their neighborhoods, but “there are other homes that don’t necessarily fit. They’re too big. They tower over the neighborhood, and it’s obviously a new build as opposed to something that fits more naturally.”
She doesn’t see the trend slowing any time soon. She leaves office at the end of this year but would like some type of resolution by then.
“I think we will see some additional changes,” she said, but added they may not be dramatic. “There’s too much pushback from developers.”
Moffitt says the home rebuilds are concentrated in Prairie Village and northern Johnson County for a variety of reasons. Older homes can be acquired for about $200,000, while they cost more in most other Johnson County cities. The new homes for sale are often in the $750,000 to $800,000 range. Moffitt said he’s also done a lot of remodeling, but in some instances now, it’s more economical to build new than to remodel.
John Riley, who lives in the same neighborhood as Vietti, has a new home by Moffitt going up next door. He said he doesn’t think it’s too outsized for the lot, and he’s more worried about two larger homes on a cul-de-sac on Village Drive.
“We’re looking at having to probably do some additional landscaping in the back to maintain privacy in the back of the lot,” he said.
Moffitt said the new homes are attracting young families back to Prairie Village, as well as people in their mid-50s looking to downsize from larger homes in south Johnson County.
He believes the market and customers can help guide this change better than government regulations.
But home builders Scott and Molly Koenigsdorf believe some guidelines can be helpful for both neighborhoods and developers.
Their company, Koenig Building + Restoration, builds 12 to 18 homes per year in Prairie Village, Fairway and old Leawood. They say it’s a good architect’s job to design tasteful homes that aren’t shoe-horned in and respect neighborhood character and privacy, even on smaller lots.
Scott Koenigsdorf said Fairway also has the 60 percent green space requirement, and he believes that can work in Prairie Village to ensure a home fits well in the lot.
Molly Koenigsdorf noted that Fairway’s planning commission does site plan review for new buildings, an extra step that gives neighbors "a chance to voice their opinion before the project goes through.”
Prairie Village considered an architectural review board, but Wassmer said that process slows things down too much and hasn’t gained community support.
Many existing residents have expressed concerns about the new-home impact on storm drainage and wet basements.
Every new home requires a stormwater drainage study. The City Council last month approved a new full-time position for a stormwater engineer, replacing a part-time consultant, to manage those drainage permits.
Scott Koenigsdorf said that extra stormwater review “has really helped to cut down on increased runoff.”
While change is hard, it’s also a way cities can revitalize and renew themselves, said Molly Koenigsdorf, who grew up in Prairie Village and cherishes her hometown. She said allowing bigger homes ensures families can grow and remain in the village instead of having to move farther south.
“What I would tell people is to embrace change,” she said. “It’s not always what you like, but it’s good to retain families and keep our population variable.”