Why does JoCo want to become Chicago…and who decided that it should be that way?   

by Will Hoerl

Over the last two years, citizens of JoCo found themselves faced with an onslaught of “urban density projects”.  Initially, many of these projects made it thru zoning and to the city council approval process, before people realized what was happening. Overland Park and Prairie Village quickly became focal points for high-density development and a growing public concern that this rush to “high-density” is not what was wanted.

high-rise and urban density projects in JoCo

In 2022, Overland Park (OP) began actively rezoning parcels from low/med density to high-density ( RP-5 and RP-6 ) high-rise apartment developments, and the OP city council approved multiple “high-density” apartment projects. Some of these projects ( Metcalf 108 and Crystal Springs ) encountered only mild public opposition. Other projects, however, triggered significant citizen concern. Two of the more acrimonious projects Deer Creek and Antioch & 135th saw large crowds of citizens giving Public Comments against the proposals, and several citizen groups were formed to combat what was seen as projects that were detrimental to the safety, quality of life, and property values, in those neighborhoods.  

Prairie Village (PV) was headed down the same density path as OP, but PV mayor and city council took the extra step of considering changes to how city zoning actually works. The PV city council created the “Ad Hoc Housing Committee” with Councilmember Ian Graves as the chair. This committee was tasked with formulating a proposal for housing changes in the city.  

The initial Prairie Village Ad Hoc Housing Recommendation suggested substantial changes to current zoning, which would allow the re-zoning of single-family into multi-family and/or high- density, while at the same time placing limits on the rights and ability of PV residents to challenge the rezoning.    

Public opposition quickly formed against the Prairie Village Ad Hoc Committee proposals.   Residents against the proposal created a webpage StopPVrezoning citing homeowner rights to have a voice in what happens to their homes, their neighborhood, and their city. In response, another group (Prairie Village for All) supported the proposal saying that zoning changes are necessary to create “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion” in the community”.  

In one heated PV city council meeting, Mayor Mikkelson, tried several times to placate the crowd, saying that these proposals were discussed, but that no official resolution has been created nor voted on by the council. Eventually (Oct 2022) the PV city council paused the discussions and delayed further action into 2023. As of this writing, the battle in Prairie Village continues.  

Similar ‘density’ projects have been proposed (and some are being built) in other JoCo cities.    Merriam has a high-density project that has faced multiple hurdles. The Mission Gateway project has stalled out but is still looking for developers. Nearly every city in JoCo is approving high-density.  

Where did this sudden interest in urban density come from?    
How did every city in JoCo come to the same conclusion at roughly the same time, that “urban density” was the direction in which they should move?   

That answer comes from two public documents released to the public in 2021.   

The first is Housing for All ToolKit. This document was created by various groups working with/for United Community Services (UCS) of JoCo. In 2017, UCS (a non-profit organization)  used grant money from Kansas Health Foundation (and other sources) to convene the Health Equity Network (HEN). The stated goal of HEN was “creating health equity” and “creating a healthy Johnson County” with emphasis on “safe”, “sustainable”, and “diverse” housing.   

The second is the Johnson County Community Housing Study, created by a technical committee consisting of local JoCo city administrators, JoCo county staff, a representative of the Mid America Research Council (MARC), and members of the UCS/HEN committee.
This study was funded by Johnson County taxpayers. 
* Both studies conclude that JoCo needs to shift from suburban to urban.
* Both studies emphasize ‘density’ over single-family-owned homes.

The Housing for All ToolKit, suggests that “middle density” housing (duplexes, multi-plexes, row houses, etc.) is the missing link between high-density apartment towers, and single-family houses.

Historical Racial Inequity:  

While both studies start from the premise of “affordability”, reading through the studies reveals a quick segue to different goals. For example, in the Housing for All ToolKit, the emphasis shifts to “correcting historical racial inequity”. Pages 12-15 of the Housing for All ToolKit, are dedicated to “historical racial inequity”. Page 10 of the Housing for All Toolkit,  blames “restrictive zoning that favors single-family homes” as a significant racial problem, that can only be addressed with increased density.    

Housing and Transportation:   

The Housing for All ToolKit also lists “transportation cost” and other peripheral living costs, as integral parts of housing costs. To reduce these costs, the study recommendation is to  “co-locate housing with jobs, services, and other amenities”. This recommendation effectively means that the current zoning for suburban neighborhoods…(single-family houses and even rental areas where the only building is apartments/duplexes)…would have to end.  

So…where does this leave JoCo citizens

The current debate has generated questions that so far, have not been resolved.    

1.    How does “density” by itself solve the affordability problem?

The end cost of housing is affected by the cost of JoCo land, the labor cost of construction, the cost of materials, tax load, national inflation, and of course the developer’s profit margin. Neither published study addresses (at any level of detail) exactly ‘how’ increased density solves the affordability problem. The implication seems to be that zoning more housing units on smaller plots will increase the housing supply and thus lower the cost of housing. While this aspect of supply & demand may make some slight difference, no one has explained how ‘density’ will address increases in construction/labor/land costs, or how ‘density’ will offset the myriad other factors (Ex: energy and taxes) that affect housing affordability.  

2.    Is density a ‘one size fits all’ solution? WHERE should density be built?
A frequent complaint from the public on prior density projects is the placement of the project. Some areas of JoCo seem ready-made for density, whether it be high-rise buildings or row houses. A prime example is 95th & Metcalf. That is (and has been) a high-traffic corridor.   Putting high-density buildings in that area makes sense to most citizens.

Conversely, plopping a dense development in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood (Deer Creek for example) does not make sense to many citizens.   

3.   Tax Increment Financing
Should JoCo be building density projects as TIF (Tax Increment Financing)? TIF means the property is sheltered from having to pay local taxes. This ‘tax break’ is most usually in part (rarely total taxes) and is granted for a specified number of years (10 – 30 years depending on the project).

Once granted, the developer (and thus the residents) do not pay full taxes. They use the streets, police, fire, MedAct, etc. but do not pay for these through a tax charge. Concerned JoCo Citizens have asked “why” these projects get sheltered, leaving single-family homes to pay.

4.   How much influence will residents have on zoning decisions that affect their home/neighborhood?

The most often stated concern in public hearings on zoning/density has been the impact of density on local streets, schools, and the quality of the neighborhood. Citizens point out that they bought their houses under the belief the neighborhood was and would continue to be,  zoned single-family. Citizens have been finding out that zoning can change, and (in many cases) their concerns tend to get ignored. As mentioned earlier in this article, Prairie Village went to the lengths of trying to remove Zoning appeals, making it impossible for local citizens to have a say in what happens in their neighborhood.  

Other cities have not gone quite that far, but citizens are finding that the power of developers and ideological city councils can, and sometimes do, override entire neighborhood wishes.  

5.   Do JoCo residents WANT urban density instead of suburban life?
The 2022 JoCo Citizen Survey says that 98% of JoCo residents are satisfied with Johnson County as a place to live, and 97% are satisfied with JoCo as a place to raise their kids. This high degree of public satisfaction suggests that people like their suburban community. The basic question (‘do JoCo residents WANT to become a dense urban area’)  has not been asked in JoCo.

The ultimate question (which has not yet been addressed) is….
Will the decision of ‘urban’ versus ‘suburban’ be decided by a majority of the residents or will the debate be controlled and decided by vocal sub-groups?

So far this issue has been largely controlled by political sub-groups, developers, and a handful of local politicians. Citizens have been late to the game, and (at least so far) have not been very welcome when they participate.   

Many in JoCo do not know this “density plan” even exists. Each neighborhood finds itself entering the discussion only after learning of a proposed development. They come to the council meetings ill-informed, and often quite alone. Neighbors one housing division away often have no idea that anything is going on until it becomes their turn for zoning changes and density.

There is little doubt that this density process will continue and that it will pick up speed. What is not so certain, is how Johnson County residents feel about this. Will they support it, or speak out against it? 

Only time will tell.

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  1. Will, I have watched you faithfully taking notes and sitting in the meetings. Reporters should be flocking to you for accurate information. Thank you for caring enough to be at the meetings and researching these things.

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