constructing Woodside Village

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I wrote several blog posts in 2011 about Woodside Village, a building project in my community, and this last piece is my attempt to move on from the issue and wish everyone the best. Read more below the fold. Or better yet go sneak into a swimming pool and take a cool arty picture like this one I shot at Woodside last night.

This week l hit up the newly renovated Woodside swimming pool for the first time. Pretty nice. If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject, you might be thinking that I’m totally against the place. But that’s not true at all — I love Woodside. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’ve been skeptical about seeing it get revamped and incorporated into an upscale housing project.

After reading my initial post on the subject, a friend joked that my slogan for a seat in municipal government could be “Lucas Wetzel: A man against progress.” A powerful platform, to be sure. But I learned back in high school that I wasn’t a good fit for government. I liked the attention, socializing and discourse, but was pretty lazy about actually getting things done.

The principals behind Woodside Village have been anything but. In addition to convincing the city council and zoning boards that this ambitious project was a good idea, they spent a lot of time discussing and promoting the project among skeptical individuals like me.

Some of the older residents have been understandably concerned about such a large project changing the character of the city as well as the population. I share many of those concerns. My skepticism comes largely from having entered the job market at a time of layoffs, foreclosures, budget shortfalls, and big civic/corporate partnerships fallen flat. Anyone making big promises in this climate, I surmised, must be naive or in some way crooked.

Or maybe in some cases just fiercely optimistic — both in their prospects for success and their ability to work the system. While I initially heard more from the opponents, enough people here supported the idea of Woodside Village to grant it the requested permits and incentives. Several people I’ve talked to in the past two years seem to think this could/will work, and the mayor and city council have certainly put their own political futures at stake over the issue.

Interestingly, it’s not the first time. A look through the city’s 50-year commemorative booklet contain this observation from Willard Oldberg, a member of the city council for nine years. He wrote:

“I served on the City Council when we voted to build the Woodside Racquet Club and the building on 47th Street and State Line. I remember how so many people were opposed to this, but we proceeded even when we knew it would jeopardize our political careers.”

Mr. Oldberg is also the man who, 25 years ago, convinced my parents that Westwood would be a great place to raise their family. They bought his old house and still live in the city today, as do I. Mr. Oldberg knows what he’s talking about.

Another person who understands that kind of risk and commitment is Blair Tanner, Woodside president and chief developer of the project. Blair’s father, Don, was the club’s founder, and I recently heard that he passed away last year. Having met and talked with Blair about the project, I think it’s fair to assume he wants this to succeed more than anyone, for personal as well as financial reasons.

All of this is my way of wishing him and the Woodside Village project well two years after I first publicly called its lofty ambitions and shrewd campaign into question. Compared to the upcoming work of demolishing, building and attracting tenants, renovating the pool will be the easy part. Much remains to be proved, such as how viable the market really is and how successful a health food store can be just blocks away from another brand-new grocery store. But the renovations so far look good, and the prospect of a successful Woodside Village is much more attractive than the alternative.

Skeptic’s caveat, however — it’s one thing to green light projects that lower the tax base, and another to promote the public good. Woodside Village could be an attractive development for the city, but it’s ultimately still a private venture. The WalMart grocery store will be more modern / antiseptic than the previous tenant, but it would hardly be shocking if after five or 10 years they go sniffing for better tax breaks elsewhere.

To me, the most important factor in Westwood’s livability is whether the elementary school remains open. Westwood View is one of the best schools in the district, with dedicated teachers, rich traditions and small class sizes, but almost every year there’s talk of the district / legislative bodies shuttering it in favor of consolidation with a larger, newer facility.

(Interestingly, Westwood residents opposed joining the Shawnee Mission District but the school was forced to by the Kansas Legislature in 1969. Another fun fact: the children’s activity center Kaleidoscope grew out of a program started at Westwood View by primary school teacher Rachel Chambers. But those are two different stories among the many illustrating Westwood View’s legacy.)

I’m confident the same council that’s looked out for the city’s future economically will also support the school — even if the district, governor and state legislature do not. As much as is riding on the future success of Woodside Village, the future of Westwood View has a much larger impact on the lives of the people already living here, at least in my estimation.

I’d love to continue with this post and maybe help prompt a new discussion, but I’ve only got an hour left before the pool closes. Happy summer and see you soon.

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