A steady stream of foot traffic flows beneath the Lightwell building’s signature feature — a winding overhead natural light design that spans nearly a city block — as employees returning to the workplace help the iconic downtown Kansas City landmark assume its new identity: 21st century innovation hub.
“A lot of people will talk about productivity in a remote work environment being acceptable — and, in some cases, being on par with productivity in the office environment. But I think that’s kind of an incomplete picture,” said Basel Bataineh, director of acquisitions for SomeraRoad, the New York commercial real estate and development company that bought the 30-story City Center Square Building (now Lightwell) in early 2019.
“We’ve just spent the past 15 months stuck at home, working around the clock because there’s nothing else to do. And that drives serious burnout. I don’t think it’s sustainable and our tenants have echoed the same thing.”
As the freshly renovated 657,070-square-foot building welcomes workers from startups and firms, large and small — many for the first time in over a year — they’re met with such newly finished features as a mid-century modern tenants’ lounge featuring bright pops of color, drinks on tap, a pool table from the famed St. Louis Playboy Club and an abundance of classroom, conference and event space.
Kansas City’s second WeWork location sits atop Lightwell’s third and fourth floors — the new home of the KC Tech Council — and an art gallery adorns the Main Street ground-level entry where Made in KC Cafe will soon open in the former home of Starbucks, which closed as a result of the pandemic.
Each element plays its part in a larger experience, Bataineh said, adding that for SomeraRoad, Lightwell’s potential has not only been realized: it’s barely scratched the newly-reconstructed surface.
“A lot of the elements that we talked about and hoped would come to fruition pre-project, have come to fruition,” he continued, referencing a previous article in Startland News that detailed SomeraRoad’s vision — alongside and driven in Kansas City by Tim Schaffer-led AREA Real Estate Advisors — for the space as an innovation district that itself served as an ecosystem for companies from ideation to startup to scaleup and beyond.
“Bringing KC Tech Council into the building was really important to us because of events, programming, and education; and that was important because the tech companies that were scaling up told us that their biggest challenge is attracting talent with the tech skills they need.”
Click here to read more about the Lightwell project’s road to completion.
Growing an ecosystem
“It took a ton of planning and plant selection,” Basel Bataineh said, walking the span of a 54-foot living green wall in the building’s main lobby.
“The bench is the irrigation system. There’s water running through the bench and it goes up the wall and then drips down. The lights are placed strategically to make sure that the plants get enough light.”
Such features are but a few of the thoughtful, highly curated design elements of the building which hopes to serve a modern (and largely millennial) workforce as both functional and aesthetically pleasing, he added.
The building has also become the headquarters for govtech scaleup PayIt and newly exited BacklotCars — another sign of Lightwell’s place as the city’s first, fully-realized innovation district, added Ian Ross, founder and managing principal of SomeraRoad.
And it’s progress that could have been utterly deterred, he noted.
“We’ve put our head down and cranked out a bunch of work over the course of the last 15 months. I think we’re in a really, really great place to unleash everything we developed,” Ross told Startland News during a tour of the space, which he noted is roughly 90 percent finished.
“Kansas City is a vibrant and growing tech scene of venture capital-backed startups growing across a variety of industries,” he continued, noting that such activity has for far too long been without a central place for fostering; but which now finds new opportunity with the opening of the renovated and reimagined Lightwell.
“What the tech scene in Kansas City doesn’t already have is a really modern, forward-thinking home and a landscape for [startups] to excel. If you look at the Crossroads [Arts District] … the Crossroads lacks centrality. It’s very cool! We love the Crossroads; we spend a ton of time there and have looked at dozens of projects — but the Crossroads doesn’t have a singular place, a gathering place for collisions and for sharing ideas amongst companies and amongst startups.”
Such qualities are needed by companies now more than ever, Ross added, noting Lightwell is ready to shine bright in a world that’s seeing a similar reemergence.
“As tenants start coming back to work or looking for a new space this summer and this fall, I think we’ll be in a really good place with a great offering and with a great value proposition to those companies,” he said.
“We’ve worked on this for years. It’s our baby,” Ross said. “It’s awesome [to be nearing the finish line.]”