La Vista pins town center hopes on a swath of green

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Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013 12:00 am

Creating a bustling town center and park from a tired commercial strip and golf course won't be cheap.

That's the reality facing LaVista, where officials last month put a $42 million price tag on the city's long-in-the-works plan to redevelop the LaVista Falls Golf Course into a sprawling park and green space that they hope will become the centerpiece of a new and improved downtown.

The Civic Center Park's cost, while still preliminary, is the first to be identified for the project. Formal plans for the park began taking shape in 2009 as a complementary piece to the city's Vision 84 plan to redevelop the struggling 84th Street business corridor between Harrison Street and Giles Road.

To fund the project, Mayor Doug Kindig said, the city is exploring all its public and private financing options — including a referendum to increase the local sales tax from 1.5 cents to 2 cents on the dollar.

“Well, I think we'll look at absolutely everything,” Kindig said. “Obviously, this is something that will be done over phases and over a very long period of time.”

Kindig cautioned that no decisions are imminent — despite some complaints that progress on the park and downtown is moving too slowly. A move to put a sales tax increase up for a public vote must be approved by the City Council. Even then, the soonest it could appear on the ballot would be November 2014, he said.

“It is a huge dollar figure, and we don't want citizens to be scared because of that,” Kindig said. “That's not something we're going to be able to do within even a five-year period. If we were to realize the entire vision we'd be multiple years out. It might be 10, 15, 20 years.”

Other funding options include using existing revenue, applying for federal or state grants, issuing bonds and finding private developers willing to take on some of the costs.

“We're not going to go out and do a $42 million bond issue,” Kindig said.

The park would be built in multiple phases, with the initial five phases costing $14.8 million. Six additional phases costing a total of $26.8 million are considered optional and could add features like a $7.4 million, 13,000-square-foot pavilion and streetscape improvements.

Kindig said the city is actively pursing public-private partnerships to revamp the business corridor and two nearly deserted shopping centers, but the park portion of the Vision 84 plan will be largely a public effort.

“We will definitely be the leader of that project, without a doubt,” he said.

A final master plan for the Civic Center Park was reviewed by the La Vista Planning Commission on May 16 and recommended to the City Council, which will inspect the plan at a future meeting.

Commission Chairman Michael Krzywicki voted to send the plan to council but said one question still looms large: Where will the money come from?

“The wild card in all of it is it comes with a very hefty price tag,” he said. “The only way it would go is if there's significant funding from outside sources, whatever that would be. ”

The 56-acre park envisioned in the final draft would feature a larger lake, a pavilion, a sculpture garden, an amphitheater and a lawn for community events like La Vista Daze. Renderings show cascading fountains and waterways, winding jogging and biking paths, and a nature playground that opts for shallow wading pools and climbable boulders instead of more traditional slides and swings.

“That's going to draw people into our corridor,” Kindig said. “The more people you can draw into our corridor, those people in turn are going to attract the new businesses we're trying to recruit to the area.”

La Vista has been working on the park and town center plan for years as a way to breathe new life into a business district and shopping centers with high vacancy rates and expanses of empty parking lots. In addition to the park, planners and officials have envisioned a walkable city center with a mix of apartments, restaurants, shops and public spaces reminiscent of other trendy mixed-use developments in larger cities like Denver and Kansas City.

The site of a former Walmart that moved in 2006 would become home to condominiums, offices and smaller-scale retailers. Residents have also requested a movie theater and a shift away from the type of “big box” stores — a Walmart, a Baker's Supermarket, a Gordmans department store — that helped the 84th Street corridor thrive decades ago before contributing to its blight after they closed.

The cost for the business part of the plan hasn't been finalized, though officials want to use tax-increment financing to persuade developers and businesses to invest in the downtown.

Kindig said a new community survey found that a majority of residents want an upgraded downtown, even if it means a local sales tax increase. Residents surveyed said they want the 84th Street corridor to be the administration's top priority, and more than 60 percent said they would support a local sales tax to help fund any redevelopment, he said.

“That's pretty strong,” Kindig said. “And that doesn't surprise us, to be honest. The 84th Street corridor has been an eyesore to the whole community now for about four years. They want something done, and that's the intention of council and myself, to bring that to reality.”

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