Revitalizing Kansas City’s Columbus Park

Known as the metro's “Little Italy,” the neighborhood is one of several areas near downtown to welcome innovative redevelopment initiatives.
Kelly Hrabe, Owner at Prairie Fire Development Group

Kansas City has been riding the wave of economic transformation for a few years now. As employment and population continue to grow, several neighborhoods around the city’s core area have started to implement a series of revitalization programs in order to keep up with the rising demand for modern housing, shopping and dining venues.

Power & Light District and River Market were among the first ones to attract new projects and, more recently, they began to see an upswing in luxury communities and live-play-work developments. This has pushed rents higher than what many of the existing residents could afford, and as a result, the demand for affordable housing increased, as well.

The Columbus Park Lofts, a 108-unit low-income community located in Columbus Park, is one of the most recent and innovative developments to address the need for affordable housing around the downtown area. The five-building project is the first phase of a larger, $70 million redevelopment project initiated by Columbus Park Developers, a group of companies that aims to revitalize one of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhoods, nicknamed “Little Italy.” The designers, Clockwork and GastingerWalker & Architecture, highlighted that the apartments are intended for the creative class, including young professionals in the art, startup and design industries.

Multi-Housing News reached out to one of the architects, Clockwork, and the general contractor, Prairie Fire Development Group, to find out how challenging it was to deliver a low-income community in an older neighborhood and to gain an award one year later.

Innovative community

Columbus Park Lofts is located at 770 E. 5th St. on a plot of land which had sat vacant for many years. It was initially expected to include only market-rate units, but because funding was difficult to procure, the developers reworked the concept to make half of the units affordable. As a result, the developers managed to raise $11 million in low-income housing tax credit.

Columbus Park Lofts, 770 E. 5th St., Kansas City
Columbus Park Lofts, 770 E. 5th St., Kansas City

The housing market in Columbus Park was stable but not necessarily increasing in supply, given the lack of developable land. The neighborhood is attractive to many, but the availability of land for new development was limited,” said Kelly Hrabe, head of Prairie Fire Development Group. “Prairie Fire Development teamed with the master developer CP Developers and presented a plan to the City of Kansas City and the neighborhood to redevelop four blighted blocks at the entry of the neighborhood.” 

The community, which was delivered in 2017, comprises:

  • three two-story, 16-unit buildings
  • one three-story, 54-unit building
  • one two-story, six-unit building with 6,000 community space which can be used for social gatherings

Throughout the five buildings, the common areas are designed to include a cyber café and coffee shop, a fitness center and a gallery and studio space for artists.

The project offers standardized, flexible and efficient floor plan layouts to appeal to a wide variety of residents, while keeping construction costs down. We were able to create a flexible-use community event space and gallery to promote civic engagement and community involvement,” said Jason Lutes of Clockwork. “The buildings offer a variety of unique attributes to each space, yet the floor plans are quite regimented for efficiency of construction, cost and time. This greatly simplified the ordering of materials and increased speed of construction.” 

Columbus Park Lofts, Kansas City
Columbus Park Lofts, Kansas City

Each unit features polished concrete floors, granite countertops, black appliances, several windows allowing for ample natural lighting and wireless connectivity. The property is within a short distance from River Market and the streetcar stop, as well as close to a bike repair shop, dog park and several restaurants.

The first phase of the project helped to achieve full occupancy one year after it opened and was recognized by the Kansas City Business Journal within the 2018 Capstone Award ceremony in March.

Challenges and impact

Jason Lutes, AIA, Clockwork
Jason Lutes, AIA, Clockwork

For Hrabe and Lutes, being part of a project which aims to revitalize an older neighborhood was a challenge that ultimately ended up as a success.

Columbus Park is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kansas City. It’s a very diverse neighborhood with a strong community vibe. Its walkable scale, combined with its proximity to downtown and affordably priced housing has led to its renewed success as a vibrant Kansas City neighborhood,” said Hrabe.  

What is the biggest obstacle in building/designing low-income, modern communities in an old neighborhood?

Hrabe: Sometimes anything “new” in an older neighborhood is met with caution from longtime residents. From a design and development perspective, we also have to be sensitive to the character of the neighborhood and make sure our project integrates accordingly.

Lutes: By far the biggest challenges are staying ahead of the project metrics when you’re working on a design that has so many moving parts, along with managing the goals of all the stakeholders—including the end users. Any time public money is involved in a project, the process has to meet a very specific set of procedural steps, and this project was no different.

Columbus Park Lofts, Kansas City
Columbus Park Lofts, Kansas City

What is the impact on the community?

Hrabe: CP Lofts had an immediate impact on the community by eliminating blight: Dilapidated buildings, vacant parcels and abandoned construction materials were all removed from the development area. In its place were five new buildings bringing more than 150 new residents to the neighborhood. At the same time, neighboring businesses have started to make improvements to their own buildings.

Is there something in particular you’re proud of regarding this project?

Lutes: In the end, it’s all about the tenants who will live in Columbus Park, and we achieved a first-rate project with livable spaces. We’re at 100% occupancy, which illustrates the need and desire for a project of this type and the increased desirability to live downtown.

Images courtesy of Clockwork and Prairie Fire Development Group