$65M Pickwick Plaza renovation is almost ready for occupancy

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It’s the ultimate flip,” Bryan Smith said.

Smith, executive vice president of Gold Crown Properties Inc. in Overland Park, was talking about the firm’s long, challenging effort to restore the historic downtown complex that San Diego-based Pickwick Corp. built in 1929-30

The Kansas City Business Journal gets a tour of the East 9 at Pickwick Plaza project.

By Nov. 1, roughly a year after the renovation was launched, the first 45 apartment units are expected to be ready for occupancy in the north tower of complex, which has been rebranded as East 9 at Pickwick Plaza.

Scheduled for completion by March, the $65 million project will include 260 apartments with finishes, amenities and rents designed to attract millennials; 27,432 square feet of retail; a 6,453-square-foot, 11th-floor penthouse space, which could be put to residential or commercial use; and a 280-space parking garage.

Located on the east side of McGee Street and stretching the entire block between Ninth and 10th streets, Pickwick Plaza originally opened as a colossal hotel and bus terminal, which were completed for the then-colossal cost of $3.5 million.

Bryan Smith said he and his father, Gold Crown President Tom Smith, will spend almost that much on just the indoor swimming pool, hot tub and sauna that will serve residents of East 9 at Pickwick Plaza. Measuring 16 feet wide by 72 feet long, the pool will be built on a sloped surface that used to be a ramp inside the Union Bus Terminal that connected the complex’s north and south towers. Topped by a four-story stone arcade with recessed clock, the bus terminal space continues to serve as the visual centerpiece of the sprawling property.

Renovation of its north wing, which includes the parking garage and a seven-story building last used for offices decades ago, was tackled first. But work is also well underway on the 11-story south tower, which used to be the Pickwick Hotel and soon will include the remaining 215 apartment units.

Designed by Helix Architecture + Design and built by HarenLaughlin Construction, East 9 at Pickwick Plaza will feature an amenity package making it “the finest apartment project in the city and one of the finest in the country,” Tom Smith said.

Besides the restaurant and wine bar that the Smiths are expected to sign to a ground-floor lease, the project will include a huge basement lounge with wide-screen TVs and other attractions, such as pinball, a movie theater, a mini bowling alley and simulated golf. It will be called Harry’s Hideout in honor of Harry S. Truman, who frequently retreated to the Pickwick Plaza Hotel to record his thoughts and experiences in a journal that came to be known as “The Pickwick Papers.”

The project also will include a conference room, business center, a fitness center, community kitchen, private wine lockers for residents, and a lounge with a pool table and washers and dryers, though most of the apartment units have their own hook-ups. Free Wi-Fi will be available in all common areas, and tenant services will include recycling, dry cleaning, grocery delivery and dog walking services.

The apartments, which can be leased and toured online at east9kc.com, will come in 29 floor plans ranging from 350-square-foot studios that rent for $750 a month to 1,008-square-foot two-bedrooms that rent for $2,000.

In addition to the regular apartments, 13 fully furnished guest suites, which will be available for daily and more extended-stay rental, are being built on a mezzanine level overlooking the south tower’s grand lobby.

At sme point in the past, a roof was added over the lobby, separating it from the mezzanine level. But Bryan Smith said it will be removed within the next couple of weeks to restore the lobby’s original ceiling height.

In the meantime, workers with Kansas City-based PlasterKraft & Mural Masters are re-creating the ornate capitals for the columns that support the original lobby ceiling.

To qualify for state and federal historic tax credits, the developers had to re-create the capitals and other original trim by having artists create handmade replicas from photographs and then make molds of them.

Gold Crown also had to have the original standard windows that remained in the north tower restored at a cost of $3,600 each. The larger, arched windows on the lower floors of the north tower cost $8,000 to $10,000 each to restore.

There have been plenty of costly surprises, such as how much concrete restoration was required in the garage ($5 million more than expected) and how much steel had to be installed to support the swimming pool (lots). Thus, it might prove tough to stay within the project’s $65 million budget. But the Smiths said the opportunity to return Pickwick Plaza to the luster of its glory days has been priceless.

Designed by Wight & Wight, the Kansas City architectural firm that designed landmarks including City Hall and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Pickwick Plaza was built with a brick-and-stone exterior featuring ornamentation that hinted at the Art Deco style that was just beginning to emerge at that time.

According to various histories of the Pickwick Corp., it built its first hotel in 1926 in San Francisco and during the next few years added hotels in San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Kansas City — each with its bus terminal and radio station. (The Pickwick’s 11th-story penthouse was occupied by KMBC and WHB from 1930 until 1968).

Besides serving as a hub for Pickwick’s luxury bi-level sleeper coaches of the early 1930s, the Union Bus Terminal provided more standard transportation via Pickwick-Greyound routes that radiated toward both coasts, Canada and Mexico.

“The Bus Terminal, billed as one of, if not the, largest terminal west of the Mississippi River, accommodated 4,433 scheduled departures monthly in the early 1950s,” states an application for the Pickwick Plaza’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the 1960s, however, public transportation and downtown Kansas City were in decline. By 1972, the 11-story Pickwick Hotel tower had been converted into a subsidized housing project, called the Royal Towers — a use that continued, albeit with high vacancy — until Gold Crown bought the hotel and bus terminal portions of the complex in April 2010.

Also in 2010, Gold Crown began work on the 228-unit Heights of Delaware Ridge, the first new apartment project built in Wyandotte County in 27 years. The Smiths decided to sell that project a couple of years later and use the proceeds to advance the Pickwick project. But they had to clear several hurdles before kicking off construction. Besides the recession, those included removing a federal deed restriction that limited the hotel tower’s occupancy to low-income residents; securing the separately owned north tower and garage, which they acquired last year; and landing incentives and financing.

Originally posted in the Kansas City Business Journal
Reporter- Kansas City Business Journal
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