By Kevin Collison
Last week’s “open letter” from Royals’ owner John Sherman about building a new ballpark in or near downtown, while not unexpected, still sent shock waves through the metro.
Gauging from CityScene readership, the immediate reaction was huge with a record 20,000 plus page views of the article about his $2 billion announcement and more than 500 comments on the Facebook page.
With the caveat that Facebook responders are not a scientific measure of public opinion, a majority of comments were negative. Major concerns were the downtown parking and traffic environment, the cost to taxpayers, and apprehension over losing The K.
“Do you not remember what the old stadium was like to park and get too. Have you tried to drive into the downtown area lately? Horrible idea,” one writer stated.
“No Not in Mr. Kauffman’s plan! Big risk when we ALREADY have a beautiful stadium with nice amenities!,” wrote another.
“I don’t want my tax dollars invested in that!!!!,” said another critic. “I don’t live downtown and cannot stand driving downtown so if that happens I’m definitely no longer going to Royals games!”
The idea did have plenty of fans as well.
“Love it,” wrote one. “Lots of parking within easy access of the streetcar line so that’s not a problem. Will be great to have restaurants within proximity as well. I hope they include lots of bike parking racks!”
So let’s walk through what we do know and don’t know about the Royals redevelopment plan with a ballpark at its centerpiece and how well is downtown positioned to accommodate it, at least as of November 2022.
First off, there is a lot of parking already available to the public downtown. Just within the Loop, there are 17,100 garage and 3,300 surface lot spaces, according to a survey done recently by the Downtown Council.
A 2012 parking survey done by the city found there were 52,000 off-street parking spaces in greater downtown of which 40,440 were listed as public parking. There were 1,557 metered street spaces and several thousand non-metered street spaces.
Greater downtown was defined as the River Market, West Bottoms, the central business district, Crossroads and Crown Center. The study found that peak occupancy of those off-street parking spaces was 55- to 60 percent.
“The findings of our occupancy study indicate that the current off-street parking supply in Kansas City is underutilized and exceeds the typical peak demand,” according to the city report.
“While these conditions can fluctuate throughout the year, currently there is sufficient parking supply to meet demand with a surplus of approximately 17,000 – 20,000 spaces throughout the study area.”
There’s also the streetcar, which by the time a new ballpark would open would extend on Main Street from UMKC to the riverfront.
If the East Village is the site chosen for the Royals ballpark, and most signs point to that location, it would be a less than a half-mile walk to the closest streetcar station at 12th and Main. That’s about eight minutes.
Fans could also use parking lots and garages along the streetcar route including Union Station, Crown Center, the riverfront and Country Club Plaza to reach their destination. People living near the route could leave their cars behind.
Many Facebook commentators expressed worries about reaching downtown via its freeways and the downtown loop, and then navigating its streets, particularly if they’re congested.
These are legitimate concerns.
The Loop can be a traffic headache, particularly at rush hour, although hopefully the situation will improve with the new Buck O’Neil Bridge. And downtown streets can be confusing to people not familiar with the area.
Some observations: finding those thousands of public parking spaces is a challenge and there needs to be some kind of universal signage. Many cities install easily identifiable, green circular signs with a big white “P” that indicate where spaces are available.
Traffic management by police also has be part of the solution.
When major downtown events are occurring downtown there should be officers directing traffic. It’s rare to see cops here standing in intersections and guiding drivers, a service that’s common elsewhere.
As for the highways, MoDOT (and KDOT) should utilize electronic signs to tell drivers which exits to avoid and what the best routes are to downtown games.
One important thing to remember, earlier generations used the existing downtown street grid when there were far more businesses and activities than today. Our downtown was built to handle a lot more people, albeit many used public transit to get there.
As for Kauffman Field, many people believe if the Royals simply stayed put there wouldn’t be significant additional costs vs. relocating the ball club downtown. Not true, according to Sherman.
In his letter he estimated it would cost more to renovate The K to “achieve our objectives” than building a new ballpark. The K, as we know it today, is not going to be around one way or another.
There’s also a notion that city taxpayers would be asked to be a big funder of a downtown ballpark. No where in Sherman’s letter is there any ask from the city, although there will likely be a request for tax incentive help.
Sherman states the primary local funding anticipated is a continuation of the 3/8th cent sales tax currently charged in Jackson County to help fund the Royals and the Chiefs homes at the Truman Sports Complex.
If that county sales tax was continued, it would generate an estimated $300- to $400 million dollars for each team over 30 years. While not all the funding, it’s a substantial amount.
As for private funding, Sherman said it’s “our own intention to invest hundreds of millions of dollars directly into the ballpark and the ballpark district.” Other financial help is expected to come from the state and federal governments.
When it comes to estimating the economic impact, that’s tricky. For every glowing private consultant’s estimate, there’s at least one academic slamming its accuracy.
“New development around the ballpark could attract 2,200 onsite jobs, with employment representing $200 million in annual labor income and more than $500 million in annual economic output,” Sherman estimated.
Whatever the actual number, a new downtown ballpark and accompanying redevelopment would be a substantial source of jobs. Importantly, they would be easily accessible to the people on the East Side and other neighborhoods near downtown who need them.
As for the spinoff development that would help generate private revenues for the Royals redevelopment plan, Sherman said it would include restaurants, shops, office space, hotels and “a variety of housing opportunities accessible for Kansas Citians from all walks of life.”
Looking at the preliminary renderings provided by the Royals, they show what appears to be several mid-rise apartment projects overlooking center field. Housing with restaurants and shops on the lower levels may prove to be a very attainable goal, hotels too.
Cordish, the operator of the Power & Light District, has had discussions with Sherman about potentially participating in the redevelopment plan.
As for building new office space, the downtown market remains sluggish as companies retrench and adapt following Covid. There’s also a glut of space being dumped on the market by Cerner in North Kansas City and western Wyandotte County.
On the other hand, there may be companies that want to locate by a new ballpark and the office market overall might be stronger by the time one may be built. At least from today’s vantage point however, office seems to be the least big draw for a potential development.
As for the ballpark design itself, a few clues are noticeable in the tentative renderings.
A fountain is indeed depicted in the outfield next to a green space. There are large video screens above the right and left field sections, and the top of a crown peeks over centerfield.
Fans would enter the ballpark from a plaza behind centerfield. There are three tiers of seats behind home plate and two along right and left fields. The ballpark may wind up having fewer seats than The K as well.
Finally, while the Royals are planning a listening tour of area fans about their concept, the biggest voice still remains to be heard from.
What do the Chiefs want? That ask will set the agenda for what’s to come.
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