December 08, 2019

After a decade in the top job, here's why Cordish's local leader sees an even brighter future for KC

With the start of construction on Three Light expected, 2020 is shaping up to be another busy year for Cordish Cos. in Kansas City.

Nick Benjamin, executive director of the Kansas City Power & Light District and managing director of multifamily development for the Baltimore-based developer behind the luxury apartment towers One Light and Two Light, is very familiar with the transformation of downtown Kansas City. That's because he became executive director of the eight-block entertainment district in 2009.

A decade later, Benjamin told the Business Journal: "It feels like Downtown has really arrived, which is really exciting for us."

He said that since Cordish started the project in 2005, the south loop has become one of many downtown neighborhoods that continues to grow and thrive. And he's got some personal experience with that, too.

Benjamin and his family lived in Two Light for six months, and the experience validated the last decade of work the company has done because he could see the vibrancy of Downtown on weeknights along with the variety of people either going out, going to shows, or young families walking around the neighborhood.

This week, Benjamin sat down with the Kansas City Business Journal to discuss the Power & Light District's retail resilience, its upcoming projects and more.

P&L District is ready for future
According to Benjamin, the Kansas City entertainment district continues to perform well in the market. He reports that the district is 94% leased and that sales are up 10% this year.

Benjamin said the district's heavy focus on entertainment-based retail has allowed it to future-proof itself from ongoing changes in the retail economy. However, he has been watching the string of local restaurant closings.

During the last seven years, he said the P&L District has seen only two restaurant concepts go out of business across the 475,000-square-foot development.

The district also has been the center of action for Kansas City watch parties during the Women's World Cup as well as other local festivals and events hosted by the neighborhood.

One Light, Two Light, Three Light
While many residential units have opened around One Light and Two Light in the past several years, Benjamin said that leasing continues to be successful in both towers.

"We were really optimistic when we started One Light, but both buildings are doing better than we hoped," he said.

One Light is 96% leased, and Two Light is 97% leased, according to Benjamin, and the towers are seeing rent growth. He said that while those numbers are great, it also reflects how strong the multifamily market is in Downtown as a whole.

When Cordish started working on One Light, the downtown area had about 19,000 residents. Today, that's closer to 29,000.

"That's really put us over the hump as a neighborhood," he said. "We were really successful as an entertainment district for a number of years. But now it's both."

The company also has worked to offer different but equally appealing amenities across the first two buildings.

“We want the buildings to be perceived as equals where it's a question of personal preference," he said.

One Light has a grocery store on the ground floor, a 35,000-square-foot fitness center and a 30,000-square-foot roof deck with pool. Two Light has a larger amenity floor about halfway up the tower and different ground floor retail options.

According to Benjamin, the variety will continue in Three Light, which will be located at a site along Truman Road between Walnut and Main streets.

"As we've worked on the design for Three Light, you want to differentiate them so they're not repetitive or boring, but you want to do it in a way where the quality is the same across the buildings," he said.

With the recent revelation that work is expected to begin on Three Light sometime in early 2020, the company said it pushed back the start date to accommodate changes in design.

The changes added more units — going from 300 to 322 — at a greater cost — increasing from $130 million to $150 million. Those adjustments include the addition of more penthouses as well as smaller, lower-priced studios — Cordish's two best leasing floor plans in One Light and Two Light.

Is Four Light near or far?
Each tower has been triggered by leasing in the previous buildings, meaning that once Three Light is complete and stabilized in the market, the company then would look to the possibility of building Four Light.

The site for that project, which already has been designated and would sit to the west of Three Light along Truman Road, is undergoing its own renaissance. Nearby, the long-awaited Loews Kansas City Convention Center Hotel is set to open in April.

This week, the area directly next to the Four Light site got another boost when Waddell & Reed Financial Inc. announced it plans to build its new $140 million headquarters at 1400 Baltimore Ave.

Benjamin said that Cordish's vision for Downtown has been further validated by the interest and increase in downtown office space.

Beyond its own projects, Benjamin said that Cordish is continuing to watch how the market evolves within Downtown. He said that there appears to be a lot of pent-up demand for different housing price points and workforce housing in Downtown, and he expects projects to follow that need.

He also said that in an ideal world the city would take a more serious look at adding a greenspace park or cover to Interstate 670 where it splits the Central Business District and the Crossroads Arts District. Such a cover would connect Two Light, Three Light and Four Light with the Crossroads and the convention center hotel.

Cordish in KC for long haul
The local Cordish leader also wanted to clear up a perception that because the company is based in Maryland that it isn't investing in its Kansas City office. He said that isn't true and that the company employs about 1,000 in Kansas City, which is its second-largest office outside of Baltimore.

Benjamin said Cordish is in Kansas City to stay, and its workforce here continues to grow.

Benjamin said when he was last in St. Louis, where the developer also does business, he was asked how the city can become more like Kansas City.

He then relayed one of the many reasons why the company sees a bright future here.

"Kansas City can be like Nashville and Austin — and while we're not quite there yet, we could get there," he said. "Growth needs to be smart and responsible and there's a lot of effort that needs to go into that, but it's a really exciting opportunity."

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