In the early 1900s, the Kansas-born paleontologist Barnum Brown discovered the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton while in Montana. He shipped the fossils to his employer, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they are still on display. Today, a full-scale cast of Brown’s T. rex find stands guard in Overland Park, Kansas, only 70 miles (110 km) from Brown’s birthplace, in the great hall of another first—a mixed-use retail center directly associated with the American Museum of Natural History.
The second-most-populous city in Kansas, Overland Park is a fast-growing, affluent suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Home to Sprint’s world headquarters, the city has been named one of the top 10 best places to live by Money magazine; Forbes placed it third among “America’s Best Places to Raise a Family” and named it one of the “25 Top Suburbs for Retirement.”
In 2006, Merrill Companies’ Fred Merrill, a private developer who grew up in Kansas, decided to create a mixed-use retail entertainment center called Prairiefire on 60 acres (25 ha) in a rapidly developing sector of Overland Park. Having previously worked as a developer in Dallas, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., he wanted to provide Overland Park with an active, urban, high-density center, including structured parking and a focus on the streetscape experience.
This kind of development was unusual for a secondary market like the Kansas City metropolitan area, and rarer still for a suburban area dominated by parking lot–oriented retail centers. However, the demographics provided support for the concept. The average household income within a five-mile (8 km) radius of Prairiefire was $133,000, the median age was 38, and more than 60 percent of the population over 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Bringing Museums to the People
To help make Prairiefire a reality, Merrill sought a unique anchor—something that would offer a civic or cultural component, such as a library, museum, or performing arts center. Through a mutual connection, he was introduced to Uli Sailer Das, who at the time was working in the business development department of the American Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1869, the museum sends all the exhibitions it develops on tours throughout the country. Fortuitously, the museum’s leaders were seeking ways to bring its exhibitions to more people, especially those living outside urban areas where large museums are typically located.
The resulting conversation with Das led to the idea of creating the Museum at Prairiefire, which would be affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and put on its traveling shows. Das would leave her position at the New York museum to become executive director of the Museum at Prairiefire. The new museum could capitalize on the region’s history of paleontology, which not only included Barnum Brown’s prodigious skills as a fossil hunter, but also those of an amateur, Charles H. Sternberg, who discovered numerous fossils in Kansas in the early 20th century. One reason for Sternberg’s discoveries was that Kansas was under an ocean millions of years ago, which makes it a rich area for paleontologists to explore.
The inclusion of the museum enabled the project to take advantage of $81 million in state-issued sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds. These bonds, reserved for regional tourist attractions, will be paid off by the sales taxes generated at Prairiefire. The STAR bonds financed the museum, its associated parking, and some of the project’s roadway and utility infrastructure.
Municipal officials also were supportive of the mixed-use center because of its potential to curb sprawl. The city council approved the creation of a community improvement district, which adds a 1.5 percent sales tax on all purchases bought within the district. The city also agreed to issue community improvement district bonds, to be repaid with the tax revenue from the district. These bonds brought the total bond amount to $110 million. The rest of the financing comes from private debt and equity and from economic development revenue bonds issued by the city.
When the economic downturn hit in 2008, however, the project was put on hold, as were many mixed-use developments. Retail tenants pulled back, the single-family housing market declined, and investors became reluctant to back any more projects with a sizable amount of vertical mixed-use space.
Prairiefire needed to be retooled to bring in more single-user building tenants such as Fresh Market and sporting goods retailer REI, along with more traditional retailers and more horizontal mixed-use space to get the project started and the museum built. This strategy of relying on single tenants and national credit tenants could allow the project to proceed and evolve until the economy improved and reopened the prospects for vertical development.
Many of the first tenants to sign leases at Prairiefire were new to the Kansas City metropolitan area. The developer particularly looked for businesses that were relatively new and had fewer than ten locations—and because they had the same entrepreneurial mind-set as Merrill Companies, these were the businesses that expressed the most interest in Prairiefire. The theater/entertainment venue Cinetopia, the dining and entertainment venue Pinstripes, and Rock & Brews restaurant all fell into this category. Cinetopia combines movies, dining, and musical performance space; Pinstripes offers a bistro as well as bowling and bocce; Rock & Brews is a rock music–themed indoor/outdoor beer garden cofounded by two members of the band KISS. These nontraditional businesses were willing to experiment with a nontraditional regional mixed-use center.
The museum also helped the project weather the downturn. Having a cultural partner differentiated Prairiefire from many other mixed-use developments competing for shrinking resources. Even so, it was not until 2012 that the project was able to resume. The financing closed in December 2012, and construction started in January 2013.
Prairiefire opened in spring 2014. The first piece completed was the home services district, which includes REI and Fresh Market. Starting with national credit tenants provided a firm basis for the project. The next piece was the entertainment district, which includes the museum, Rock & Brews, Cinetopia, Pinstripes, and a number of local retailers. A six-level parking structure with retail space on the first level offers valet parking.
The developer also created a local business incubator on the second floor of one of the retail buildings. Called the Threshing Bee, the 6,000-square-foot (560 sq m) space offers a half dozen fashion boutiques operated by local designers, contributing to the creative character of the center and serving as a destination in its own right.
Prairie Design Elements
The design strategy was to create a well-scaled, highly active streetscape that functioned as both the pedestrian core of Prairiefire and a setting for community events. The street is framed by building facades constructed of native Kansas limestone and a balance of prominent storefront displays and wall graphics. The building design interprets elements of the region’s traditional architecture in a contemporary palette. Native plants and prairie grasses surround the development, reflecting Kansas’s natural environment.
Boston-based Verner Johnson was executive and design architect for the Museum at Prairiefire. The 41,000-square-foot (3,800 sq m) facility has an exhibition gallery for touring exhibits, a children’s Discovery Room, a lobby, a café, a gift shop, event and exhibit support spaces, classrooms, and administrative offices. The building takes its design cues from the tallgrass prairies of Kansas and the prairie fire burns that occur there. The project included preserving wetlands surrounding the museum and creating hiking and biking trails, sunflower and butterfly gardens, and interpretative signs about Midwestern prairies and wetlands and the history of Kansas.
The residential component includes a 300-unit apartment complex developed by Cityscape Residential of Indianapolis; a 130-unit multifamily building, also developed by Cityscape; and 18 villas along the Nicklaus Club golf course, developed by local company Lambie Custom Homes.
The project has done well since its opening. The museum has signed up three times as many members as projected for its first year—3,500 in 11 months. The museum was expected to be a regional draw, but it has pulled visitors from a much wider area, covering more than 1,600 zip codes from all 50 states, according to museum records, as well as Canada, Europe, and Asia. Paying visitors in the museum’s first six months numbered 100,000.
Many of the retailers have greatly exceeded their projected sales, as well. The most successful tenants in the first year have been those with the highest existing brand recognition and those that undertook the most concentrated marketing efforts to raise brand awareness, such as Pinstripes, which was previously unknown in the area.
Prairiefire has been the host of a number of community events, including the Tour de BBQ, a popular cycling event and fundraiser. The Big Slick Celebrity Weekend, a cancer research fundraiser for the Children’s Mercy Hospital of Kansas City, has attracted celebrities to Prairiefire to bowl at the Pinstripes lanes. The museum engages in joint marketing and activities with retailers, including a “Night at the Boo-seum” Halloween event and a dinosaur documentary screening at Cinetopia. In response to the popularity of the film Night at the Museum, which was set at the American Museum of National History in New York City, the Prairiefire museum holds an overnight event for children and their parents or caregivers that includes programs allowing the kids to camp under the famous T. rex.
The planning and approval process is under way for Phase II, which will be the culmination of the project. Located on 35 acres (14 ha) at the center of the site, connecting the east and west ends of the property, this phase will include another 150,000 square feet (1,400 sq m) of retail space built around a community park. Above the retail level on some of the buildings will be a total of 260 apartments; other buildings will have a total of 160,000 square feet (1,500 sq m) of office space on the upper floors. This phase will also include a boutique hotel. A five-story parking structure will be wrapped with retail space and up to four stories of office space. The second phase is expected to be completed in 2017.
Mixed-use developments that incorporate cultural or civic elements the way Prairiefire does could be replicated elsewhere if the conditions are right. As land values continue to increase, plans for tiered parking and higher density in retail centers are becoming inevitable. In addition, as department stores consolidate and retail trends change, more owners of shopping centers will be looking for innovative ways to fill large anchor vacancies.
At the same time, many cultural institutions are challenged by the diminishing pool of grant and foundation money, and many municipalities are strapped for funds to replace aging libraries, community centers, and other civic facilities. Incorporating cultural or civic elements into a private development can be mutually beneficial.
A partnership with a private developer, however, requires a dynamic institution that is open to outside-the-box approaches. In turn, the developer must be committed to including such a component and understand that the planning and execution will require a significant amount of additional time and effort. It is essential that the developer get to know the goals and objectives of the institutional or civic partner in order to create an agreement that works well for both parties. In the case of Prairiefire, Merrill Companies formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to operate the museum, which is unusual for a private developer. Merrill Companies built the museum building and arranged for the original contract with the American Museum of Natural History. That museum serves as a consultant and resource for the Museum at Prairiefire, providing two exhibitions per year for the next ten years.
This model requires regional tenants or national tenants that do not need proximity to a conventional department store anchor. And it depends on municipalities that are sophisticated enough to understand the impact of changing economic conditions and flexible enough to change zoning and land use requirements. Fortunately for Prairiefire, the officials of Overland Park understood the significance of making changes to get the project started so it could evolve.
Such a project also needs to be tailored to its community. The entertainment uses at Prairiefire are child friendly, creating a useful synergy with the museum, which attracts not only families, but also school groups from across the region. The museum’s architecture reflects the imagery of the famous Kansas prairies. The Threshing Bee allows local businesses to find their footing, offering products found nowhere else. And the layout and design of the center aims to provide a highly pedestrian-oriented, human-scaled, urban-style experience. In the end, the emphasis needs to be not just on selling retail square footage, but also on creating a dynamic place.
Rob Anderson is a principal at San Francisco–based Field Paoli, design architect for all aspects of the first phase of Prairiefire except the museum, and design architect and architect of record for the second phase. Fred Merrill Jr. is president of Merrill Companies in Overland Park.