Downtown revival hinges on housing. Vibrancy comes with residents, many say.


Originally published in The Kansas City Star on 9/29/2002

What John and Sharon Hoffman were doing wouldn’t be startling in Chicago, Denver or Indianapolis. But in Kansas City, it provoked an incredulous question from friends: “Are you crazy?” They just couldn’t understand why the society couple gave up their off-Ward Parkway address this summer for downtown Kansas City. To the Hoffmans, moving from a mansion to a River Market condo and ditching their pool for a skyline view just made sense: They were traveling more and their two children were grown, so they didn’t need a big house. And they always liked urban life.

“We love the urban streetscape in this area, to walk to the City Market, to be five minutes away if we want to go to the Folly Theater or the Music Hall or the new performing arts center,” says John Hoffman, a longtime arts benefactor and brokerage executive. “We feel we can live here and incorporate the neighborhood into our lifestyle, as if we were in a small community.”

Kansas City is seeing hundreds more people move into high-ceiling, exposed-brick lofts downtown, one spark of life in an otherwise bleak business district. But downtown needs thousands more residents. Our downtown stretching from the River Market past Crown Center has about 6,300 residents. Vibrant downtowns across the country studied by The Kansas City Star have at least 10,000, and Kansas City Consensus, a citizens public policy group, has called for even more – doubling downtown’s population in a decade.

If that could happen, the payoff could be huge.

For starters, market research data show downtown residents spend a lot of their money on restaurants, bars and entertainment. So more downtowners would woo more night life. They would bring back some retailers. They would fill the streets, either walking or jogging or driving. All this would help downtown feel safer, make it a better place to work and buff up the metropolitan area’s image to the outside world. It might even put a sock in those Cowtown jokes.

“Adding residents downtown is probably the only way to save downtown,” says Kansas City Auditor Mark Funkhouser, who analyzes the city’s health. “If that doesn’t happen, nothing else will work.”

While reviving downtown will take a combination of changes, from more attractions to cleaner streets, housing is the foundation for everything that follows. It’s the thrust of a downtown vision plan, called the Sasaki Plan, adopted by the Civic Council of top local executives. That’s because across the country, there’s a revolution going on in big-city downtowns, and housing is leading it.

It’s given Minneapolis’ downtown liveliness. It’s helped erase downtown Indianapolis’ “Naptown” image. It’s brought downtown Denver back from the dead.

The Star visited Denver and saw firsthand the downtown residents crowding the sidewalks, filling a coffee shop, walking into a Niketown, climbing stairs into loft buildings, coming out of a drug store on the corner. A decade ago, you could fire the proverbial cannon through downtown Denver after work hours and not hit a soul. Today, before you could wheel your artillery into position, you’d likely knock over a dozen lattes at sidewalk cafes and be run over by a free shuttle bus.

“What’s so important about downtown housing,” says Dana Crawford, a pioneering developer there, “is it makes everything else healthier.”

Kansas City is at a point Denver was at a decade ago, in the eyes of developers familiar with both cities. Kansas City’s downtown population has started growing again after a half-century decline. With vacant buildings being converted in the River Market and in the Crossroads, parts of downtown are becoming hip enclaves with eclectic mixes of bohemians and bankers, 20-somethings and retirees.

Now, surveys done for the Downtown Council business association and The Star indicate thousands more people would consider living in a revitalized downtown. If Kansas City would just build on the momentum already there, downtown could have more scenes like this:

  • A lovely summer evening. The front steps of a Quality Hill apartment building. Three women – Anna Sik, Michelle Keller and Julia Austin – sitting, eating, drinking and commiserating. “If each of us have a bad day, I’ll call up and say it’s time for our porch drink,” says Keller, who met Austin at the lobby mailbox. The two later met Sik, an immigrant from the Ukraine. “Julia brings the drink, spiked lemonade, and I bring snacks. We like to people watch.” Demand, then supply

Cities have spent the last generation taking a big-bang approach to downtowns: build a galleria mall or an entertainment district or a sports stadium, then hope people show up. And that did happen – but only on occasion and only for a few hours. Housing, in contrast, keeps people downtown around the clock, every day.

“You have to start with the people, not with the facilities,” says John McIlwain at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “As you start to get a critical mass of people, the commerce comes in on its own.”

One reason that’s true for downtowns is because the people living there make more money than average and spend more of it on things downtowns cater to. The average salary in metropolitan Kansas City is around $35,000. But a survey done by the Downtown Council found that downtown residents earn an average of $55,800. These aren’t elites like the mayor or the county executive or top CEOs, because none of them live downtown, but graphic designers, sales reps and the like – often young and single – who work more in professions and less in the service industry.

A bunch of their extra spending is going toward culture and night life. A River Market resident spends 67 percent more than the average metropolitan resident on restaurant meals, according to Claritas market research data. A Garment District dweller spends 51 percent more at bars than a typical metropolitan area resident. And a Crown Center inhabitant spends almost twice as much on theater and museum admissions than the area average.

John Leisenring is typical of these downtown residents: He eats, shops, bikes, goes to basketball games and attends concerts there.

“I’ve lived in Kansas City for 30 years, and there were lots of attempts to bring downtown back by putting in restaurants and shops and entertainment, none of which worked in my view,” says the River Market resident. “But this is working. There’s a mass of people living here who have some money and are interested in those kinds of amenities.”

It’s a case of increasing the demand side of supply and demand. And for downtowns, that’s leading to uniquely urban neighborhoods – with things like music clubs instead of chain restaurants and specialized boutiques instead of big-box stores.

For a long time, however, downtowns focused on retail first. Denver, for instance, built the 16th Street pedestrian mall in the early 1980s, then produced a downtown plan with a shopping center as its centerpiece. A new mayor shifted gears, however. The shopping center was shelved. Instead, housing was tapped as downtown’s priority. So the city government opened a downtown housing office and offered financing. Then conversions of empty office buildings and warehouses into lofts took off. As that was happening, the city added things to do downtown by locating the Coors Field baseball stadium and a performing arts center there.

In the 1990s, Denver’s downtown population jumped by almost a third, passing the 10,000 threshold. The number of downtown restaurants grew by a quarter in the last half of the decade. And, lo and behold, specialized retailers popped up too, stores like Barnes & Noble and Virgin Records.

“It’s phenomenal,” says Anne Warhover, who ran Denver’s downtown housing office. “You can come on a Sunday morning and see people strolling the 16th Street Mall, going to breakfast, getting the paper. It’s not New York City, but it’s 110 percent different from 10 years ago.”

Kansas City’s downtown is beginning to show similar signs of life. The number of eating and drinking establishments increased 14 percent in the last half of the 1990s.

One of them was Garrett’s Corner Market. It opened in the River Market as a corner grocer with five shelves of food. Then it expanded into a deli. This year it expanded again, creating a new space adorned with sleek stainless steel shelves, railings and chairs.

One recent Saturday, the line to the deli counter stretched out the door, where people with exposed midriffs stood next to people with graying temples. The market’s growth and the neighborhood’s growth: “They’re parallel,” to Garrett’s owner Tucker Graves.

Kansas City’s downtown residential base, however, is still a ways away from attracting much of a retail market, even for neighborhood-type services. The number of liquor, drug, laundry and beauty shops in our downtown fell 13 percent in the last half of the 1990s, continuing a decline stretching back decades.

“Without a doubt, it’s very difficult still to operate a service business on an 8-to-5 weekday market,” says Chris Sally, downtown development manager for the city’s Economic Development Corp. “We’re still a little short on the population.” Urban trends
Indeed, our downtown population is somewhat small and scattered compared with 16 similarly sized, inland American cities – places considered our peers like Denver, Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Oklahoma City.

While our downtown is above average in geographic size, it’s 14 percent below average in population and 39 percent below average in population density.

Now a convergence of societal trends presents a rare window of opportunity for all cities – but particularly laggards such as Kansas City – to use housing as the cornerstone of a downtown revival. Urban and suburban landscapes are changing. In suburbs, traffic congestion has worsened, making some people want to live close in and close to work. In cities, the streets have become much safer, diminishing one of the barriers to urban living.

Violent crime in downtown Kansas City has dropped almost by half in the past decade. Of course, even when accounting for residents and office workers, downtown still has a few more murders than similar-sized suburbs. But downtown is actually a safer haven against more common crimes. According to The Star’s analysis of crime records, someone was more likely to be assaulted or have something stolen in Independence or Overland Park than in downtown Kansas City last year.

“It’s not necessarily surprising, because you have a lot of office workers who are working inside, in their offices, and the business district is not a place where a lot of criminals live,” says David McDowall, co-director of the Violence Research Group at the University of Albany in New York.

Another trend involves urban and suburban portrayals in popular culture. Movies like “American Beauty” increasingly roast suburban life, while popular TV sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City” feature downtown-like apartments with eclectic eateries and hangouts nearby.

Kansas City is certainly no New York City, but that kind of aura is part of the reason Jason and Sandra Martinek chose a downtown loft here with picture-window views of the Garment District’s ornamental brick buildings. They were drawn to things the suburbs couldn’t offer – the historic charm, the walkable streetscape, the architecture.

“I wanted a place where there’s a lot of character,” Jason Martinek says.
Finally, one other trend offering opportunity for downtowns has to do with demographics. As the faces of the nation are changing, so are the faces of downtown.
While the number of minorities has grown nationwide, the number of African-Americans living in downtown Kansas City has almost doubled in the past two decades, and the number of Hispanics is up almost 50 percent.
Also, baby boomers are entering their senior years. In 2000, 23 million Americans were ages 55 to 64, but a decade from now that age group will swell to about 35 million. Many will be empty nesters who no longer have to worry about children’s schools and who no longer want to worry about things like yards or roofs. Various national surveys show that a third of people ages 55 to 64 prefer city living.
“They’ve lived in the ‘burbs, but they don’t want to die in the ‘burbs,” says Kansas City downtown loft developer Dana Gibson.
Already, three-fourths of the people walking into the new Richards & Conover Lofts leasing office are empty nesters. And this year’s downtown homes tour drew high numbers of curious middle-age couples like Drew and Carol Kingery.
The Kingerys left their dog at home and trekked down from the Northland. They walked from building to building in the Garment District, checking out the red brick walls, white carpeting and exposed silver ductwork, and contemplating what retirement would be like downtown.
“It’s kind of cool,” Carol Kingery says. “I’d say in retirement I’d want to move downtown.
“I just think it’s missing something. When you see the skyline, it looks really neat. It just seems like it could be more vibrant. More things to do, more options.”
It’s hard to predict how many aging boomers or young singles would choose downtown living, but consider this: A Downtown Council survey a few years ago determined that as many as 8,400 downtown workers wanted to move downtown but couldn’t because of limited housing. And when a poll done for The Star asked 608 area residents about living downtown, 11 percent indicated they would consider living there now.
Such surveys indicate enough interest to more than double downtown’s population. And, in fact, Kansas City’s downtown housing market already is heating up.
After just eight units opened in downtown Kansas City during a four-year period of the early 1990s, almost 1,000 apartments and condos have opened in the last four years. About 1,300 more units are under construction or on the drawing board, and developers are eyeing the twin-spired skyscraper at 911 Walnut or even under-used parts of Penn Valley Park.
“We have some of the best suburbs in the country. What we need is a stronger urban environment to balance that for the people who want it,” says Vicki Noteis, Kansas City government’s planning director. “The key to downtown housing is its role as an eclectic choice.” Appealing to City Hall
Minneapolis’ downtown has almost 18,000 residents. Indianapolis’ has almost 14,000. Kansas City Consensus, the local public policy group, studied big cities and found that those with “soul,” where people worked and played almost around the clock, all had at least twice as many residents as Kansas City’s downtown.
For our downtown to reach that point, it’ll take more than just a convergence of trends. Based on experiences in other cities, it’ll take more help from city and civic leaders.
Downtown housing in Kansas City has gained some momentum without much public-sector help. Imagine if City Hall got as motivated as governments have in some of Kansas City’s peer cities.
The Downtown Council here is lobbying for exactly that.
“The city needs to become more directly involved so downtown can continue to grow,” the group recommended in a report this year to the mayor and City Council.
One way the Downtown Council wants the city to help is by offsetting downtown’s high costs of redevelopment, which are typically due to land prices and parking expenses.
The city government could go so far as to free up developable sites, such as parts of Penn Valley Park. Or it could start a loan program that focuses on downtown. Louisville’s city government did that. So did Denver’s. Columbus, Ohio, has made it part of a new downtown strategy.
Such subsidies could attract more development interest, beyond the tax breaks available from the city, the state and the feds. This also could result in lower housing prices, which would expand downtown’s population by expanding its market beyond just high-end housing.
There’s certainly demand for that. Sarah Bent and her husband lived downtown and looked for a place to buy there. But they found no condos in a price range akin to starter homes. So they moved away from downtown.
“The problem is the residential development downtown is all geared toward luxury or upscale, which of course limits who will live downtown,” Bent says. “I will miss the wonderful view we had, high above the river and the downtown airport.”
Another way the Downtown Council wants the city to help is by reducing red tape in the building codes department.
Every downtown housing developer interviewed by The Star complains about obtaining approval for a rehab plan from the codes department, then being ambushed by a codes inspector who decides that doors, stairs or something else built according to the approved plan is not right and has to be ripped out.
“If you get a stamped set of plans and every page is approved for construction, you ought to have a reasonable expectation that you can do what’s on the plans,” says downtown developer George Birt. “You shouldn’t have to be going through all this.”
Mayor Kay Barnes is pledging to help. Recently, she assigned the issue to her Service First program, a trouble-shooting initiative that brings department heads together weekly to iron out specific problems.
“I want City Hall to be part of the answer instead of part of the problem,” the mayor says. “I will continue to push for resolution of those issues that get in the way of that.”
Still, those who want downtown to come alive again say more needs to happen. Downtown needs to be cleaned up, to polish its appearance. And it needs more attractions, to become more of an entertainment center.
But all see downtown housing as a glowing ember. It just needs some gusts of air to burst into flames.
“It’s achievable. It can be done,” says downtown developer Tom Trabon. “Residential development means life for downtown. It has meant life for other cities, and it will mean life here.”
About the series
The Kansas City Star spent six months reporting this series, which began last weekend and is running on six straight Sundays.
LAST SUNDAY: Kansas City’s downtown doesn’t measure up to those in our peer cities.
Today: The first step to revival: adding more residents.
NEXT SUNDAY AND AFTER: In-depth looks at what Kansas City must do to attract more entertainment downtown and fix parking and transportation difficulties. Plus, a final-installment analysis of how civic and politcal leaders can join forces so downtown doesn’t keep falling behind. On the Web
The poll
As part of the reporting for this series, The Star conducted a poll of area residents to gauge their feelings about downtown. Here are some of the responses as they relate to housing. More from the poll can also be found at What does downtown need?
1. More housing such as apartments and condominums?
Yes: 51%
No: 49%
Poll respondents are lukewarm on this strategy, a position at odds with many experts who believe housing is the key to downtown revival. Men are more likely than women to support more downtown housing, 57.3 percent vs. 44.4 percent.
2. Something done with vacant buildings?
Yes: 98%
No: 2%
3. Should downtown still be a retail center for the city or metropolitan area?
Yes: 78%
No: 22%
Again, the opinion of poll respondentsis at odds with experts who believe that even under the best scenario, downtown will not regain its role as a major retail center. Minority respondents were even more vocal in their support for retail with 93 percent saying yes.
4. Do you think downtown should build on the momentum of loft apartment construction and concentrate more on adding housing?
Yes: 48%
No: 52%
Age groups responded differently: 50.6 percent of people over the age of 55 endorsed the idea but just 41.7 percent of those ages 18 to 34 did.
5. Would you consider living downtown as it is now?
Yes: 11%
No: 89%
Some groups were slightly more receptive than others: the percentage of male respondents saying yes was 15 percent vs. 6.2 percent of the women, and people 18 to 34 were more favorable than those older than 55, 19.1 percent vs. 6.9 percent.
6. If downtown were revitalized, would you ever consider living there?
Yes: 45%
No: 55%
Answering yes was a majority of single people, 60.2 percent; people 18 to 34, 61.7 percent; people without children at home, 55 percent; those earning less than $50,000, 56.2 percent; and minorities, 65.1 percent. The groups most against the idea? Married respondents, 64.6 percent, and those earning more than $50,000, 60.5 percent.
When looking at the poll results in total, the margin of error, at a 96 percent confidence level, is plus or minus 4 percentage points. That means that if this study had been repeated under the same circumstances 100 times, the results for each question would not vary by more than 4 percentage points in 96 of the 100 times the study was conducted.