In pulling together the plan for the downtown Kansas City’s newly converted apartment tower, developer Michael Knight considered his own needs.
“Very simply, when you design for yourself, you’re less likely to make sacrifices or cut corners.”
But more importantly, he and his development team had numerous, thorough discussions with the surrounding community.
“If you want to be creative or intelligent, focus on being a good listener,” he said.
That’s how the $139 million Commerce Tower has become its own neighborhood, he says, with a slew of amenities that address every issue a prospective downtown resident could foresee. From an early childhood education center to an indoor dog park and everything in between, the development at 911 Main doesn’t cater to a specific demographic. Rather, the intention is to attract a mindset.
“People want to see your demographics on a pie chart, and it just doesn’t work here,” he said. “Because what we really have is all sorts of income brackets, backgrounds, and age groups, and the commonality between all those people is connectivity and a desire to be ‘in the mix.’ It’s a mindset, and mindsets don’t show up on pie charts. It’s much more communal, organic, and real, and you just can’t manufacture that.”
It’s proving to be true. Commerce Tower’s youngest renter is 22, and the oldest is 76. In the first two weeks that EPC Real Estate Group has marketed the units, 32 leases have been signed. In fact, it’s the fastest lease-up the Department of Housing and Urban Development has ever seen for a project of this scope.
The goal is to change up the status quo, Knight said. In doing so, the team saw support from numerous entities.
“It’s the most complicated project the city has ever helped put together or that anyone from HUD has ever done,” Knight said. “It’s been a long process but the cool thing is that we’ve had so much buy-in, from schools, the city, the state, the federal government, all the way up to Jonathan Kemper himself.”
During the design process, Knight and his team engaged the community via the Downtown Neighborhood Association. More than 75 area residents showed up to pre-planning tours and described their needs and desires. Developers also listened to the city council, taxing jurisdictions, the mayor’s office, senators, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in both Ft. Worth, Texas and Washington D.C.
“It was completely organic and authentic in that it wasn’t a manufactured community experience. This has been the most organic public-private project in town,” he said. “A commissioner once asked me why he should invest in the building. I said that if we dropped it on its side, it’d cover three square city blocks. We’ll have 500 students, 500 employees, and 400 residents. People educating, living, working, playing. To me, that sounds like a neighborhood. Why wouldn’t you want to invest in our neighborhood?”
The lower and first levels are home to Spectrum Station, the early childhood learning center with locations in the Northland, Platte City, and Blue Springs. The first floor of the building will house Park University, as well as an upscale restaurant, though Knight couldn’t yet announce the operator. Other amenities include Google fiber, a fitness center with a cloud-based virtual trainer, parcel delivery, 24/7 concierge, and trash chutes for recycling. On the 17th floor, the building has a club and event space, business lounge, and HD movie theater.
“Even if you rent the smallest unit, you can still go to the 17th floor and enjoy the 275-foot, unobstructed view of downtown,” Knight said. “Everyone has a right to that view.”
On the fourth through the sixth floor, the building will house 50,000 square feet of coworking space. Floor seven houses 13 fully furnished guest suites for residents’ family or friends.
It’s also the first project in Kansas City in which residents can fully control their unit from their phones, from lighting to water heater hibernation to lights and door locks.
Commerce Tower Group, which includes BNIM Founder Bob Berkebile, prioritized sustainability within the project, making it the first building to participate in HUD’s Green Initiative Program. Knight was also the only building owner to (voluntarily) participate in the City of Kansas City’s energy benchmarking program -- a highly contested measure in which almost every other building owner opposed. Today, the historic building is LEED Gold, and contains the most efficient boilers, chillers, light fixtures, European spec washer and dryers, WiFi smart water heaters and Nest thermostats. All in all, the building will reduce its energy consumption by about 50 percent, while residents will reduce their individual energy bill by about 30 percent.
“We ended up with a 1964 skyscraper with single-pane glass that is LEED Gold and a top 20 energy performer in the city,” he said.
Units range in size from 427 to 1,614 square feet, with rents ranging from $695 to $3,295, making the building more affordable than other new downtown apartment towers.
Prospective residents can’t yet tour a model unit, but they can explore a unit using a virtual reality headset, which paints an eerily accurate view of the apartment’s layout and stunning views of downtown.
THE PROBLEM WITH EDUCATIONAL TENANTS
Because Knight is a father to his six-year-old son, he knew he would need child care options and reliable schools. When he stumbled upon Spectrum Station, he was enthralled with its STEAM program, phonics classes, and Christmas pageants, and began the process of luring the program to Commerce Tower. The problem?
“Most downtown landlords won’t reach a deal with them, because setting up a school is very capital expensive on the front end, with very specific build-out and state licensing requirements. You have to build a quality facility; There’s no cutting corners,” he said.
Another dilemma is that school funding is tied directly to enrollment. Thus, the only way for schools to run is to have a period of stabilization, he said.
“Since the schools in this 500,000-square-foot envelope are only 10 percent of the overall package, we basically turn-keyed the space for them, built it out, and gave them the first year on the house so they could stabilize and reach enrollment,” Knight said. “Their success ensures our overall success in the neighborhood. Most landlords can’t say yes to these kinds of arrangement. Since this is a big deal anchored by apartments, we get to say yes a lot, and do weird fun stuff that most people think are crazy.”
The team used the same approach with Park University, which is running its new MBA program out of its newly built-out space at Commerce Tower.
EXPORTING THE CONCEPT
Next month, the development team is launching a similar project in St. Louis. It’s a $51 million 300,000-square-foot that will become 168 apartment units with the same amenity package, including energy conscious consumption, secured facilities, educational components, and coworking space. Most importantly, rents will be “attainable,” Knight said.
The team is also exploring additional opportunities in Milwaukee, Denver, and Indianapolis. EPC Real Estate Group will follow the team and provide management and leasing.
As for Commerce Tower, the development group plans to hold the asset for a minimum of ten years.
“If we’re going to do something, we’re going to make it a game-changer that we can be proud of.”