East Topeka, Hi-Crest neighborhood leader shares vision of housing subdivision, community center and more – The Topeka Capital-Journal

A major development is on the horizon for East Topeka, and it could bring a new housing subdivision, a community center, condominiums and more to the area.
Over the past few years, local nonprofit SENT Topeka has been working to acquire land in the capital city’s Hi-Crest neighborhood, specifically along S.E. Fremont Street, between S. Kansas Avenue and S.E. Adams Street.
With that land — 29 acres to be exact — now in SENT’s back pocket, the organization is looking to work with public and private community partners to stand up new housing options and amenities in an area of Topeka that SENT’s board chair Johnathan Sublet says has suffered from lack of investment in recent decades.
“That piece of land — at sunset, it has the best view of the Capitol in the entire city,” Sublet said. “But it’s been planted in a neighborhood that is one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the state of Kansas, historically.”
He pointed to neighborhood health information available on the city of Topeka’s website that shows at least half of Hi-Crest — which is bounded by S.E. 29th Street, S.E. 37th Street, S.E. California Avenue and S.E. Kansas Avenue — has consistently over the past 20 years been labeled an “intensive care” or “at risk” zone.
And the recently announced development efforts hope to turn that trend around.
“It takes a holistic approach,” Sublet said, adding that improving the area’s housing stock and resources should help the neighborhood retain talented individuals and empower its existing residents.
“Businesses follow rooftops, because most people shop and spend their money close to where they live,” Sublet said. “So if I want businesses to move into the area, I have to increase the housing stock. Say that I’m really passionate about infrastructure — and I know that plays a part (in attracting businesses). How do we invest in those things? Well, it’s the houses on the tax roll.”
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According to Sublet, tentative plans to increase the neighborhood’s housing include standing up 39 homes on the west side of S.E. Fremont Street to create a mixed-income subdivision. That would be phase one of an ongoing effort.
He said 29 of those homes will be affordable housing units, while 10 will be sold at premium market rate. A community clubhouse, pavilion and walking track are expected to complete the subdivision, he added.
But it would be impossible to build such structures without first acquiring land, which is something SENT has been working for a few years to do.
“When I saw that land inside of that area when I moved here — and even on my interview trip before I moved here — I said, ‘Man, there is this tremendous opportunity with this land that’s been sitting there,'” Sublet said.
So he made a Facebook post about his hopes for the property, and soon after, the pieces began to fall into place.
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A family trust that had owned a portion of the 29 acres, he said, decided to donate their land on the west side of S.E. Fremont Street to Fellowship Hi-Crest, the local church of which Sublet is a pastor.
“They said, ‘We see the work you’re doing in the community, and we want to donate it,'” Sublet said.
But since the church isn’t a developer, he added, Fellowship Hi-Crest donated the land to SENT.
That land, though, only accounted for about half of the 29 acres SENT now owns. Sublet said the nonprofit pulled from saved funds and raised additional money to purchase the rest of the acreage, which sits on the east side of S.E. Fremont Street.
The total purchase price for the land east of Fremont came out to about $80,000, he said, with SENT contributing $40,000 and the rest coming from a private donor.
“We were able to close (on the land) in January 2020,” Sublet said.
Since then, they have been drawing up plans, as they inch toward making SENT’s vision a reality.
But SENT isn’t embarking on the endeavor alone, as it has already partnered with The Acquisition Group, a Kansas City-based firm, to move the project forward.
The Acquisition Group will be somewhat of a co-developer, said president and owner Tarold Davis.
“We pretty much specialize in repositioning distressed communities and ones that have experienced dis-investment over the years,” Davis said. “We do this a number of ways. … But our overall goal is really to create social and economic impact in the communities we serve through the provision of affordable housing and workforce housing.”
Davis said his organization became connected with SENT through local entrepreneur Manny Herron, a Kansas City native, who is involved in multiple housing-related business ventures in Topeka.
“I really was sold on SENT Topeka’s vision,” Davis said. “That really compelled me to try and get something going for them.”
Davis expects to contribute his business knowledge and resources to the potential Hi-Crest development, in part, by helping SENT determine financing options.
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Sublet said they don’t yet have a total estimated cost for the development, as it is still in the early stages — and he and Davis indicated the project could play out over the next several years.
“These things can take time,” Davis said. “If they get the right fuel and fire behind them, they can happen relatively quickly, but I think we’ve still got a little ways to go and a few things to work out.”
Sublet’s hope is that standing up the housing subdivision — and consequently, increasing home ownership — on the west side of S.E. Fremont Street will lead to further development on the east side of the street.
On that side, Sublet envisions building a community center that local nonprofits could access, erecting several floors of condominiums above the community center to bring additional high-quality housing to the area, and standing up a permanent food co-op to eradicate Hi-Crest’s designation as a food desert.
But first, he said, they have to clear the land of trees and brush — and they need public and private community partners to come forward to help them make that first step, and future development, a reality.
“We’re asking the city and other entities — the county and different public and private-sector businesses — to really get on board and help us do this,” Sublet said. “We believe this is going to have a snowball effect. … If we could pull off even this first phase, and especially phase two, then this can really be a momentum builder that changes the face of southeast Topeka.”