“Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart,” was a groundbreaking series originally published by The Kansas City Star 20 years ago this month.
It was written by former staffers Jeffrey Spivak, Kevin Collison and Steve Paul, with photographs by Rich Suggs. It was edited by former deputy national editor Keith Chrostowski.
CityScene KC thanks The Kansas City Star and Mike Fannin, its president and editor, for granting permission to republish this report.
While The Star retained the text of “Mending Our Broken Heart,” the original photos and graphics were unavailable. Photos of that missing material from a reprint of the series were used as much as possible.
If you want a sense of downtown Kansas City at its best, stroll down Eighth Street, one block either side of Broadway in the Garment District.
Take your time. Duck into a deli for coffee and watch people walk to work through a tree-shaded plaza. Check out the gutter a maintenance man is sweeping. Admire the charming old buildings with their rows of ground-floor windows and green, brown and gray awnings. And the old-style street lamps, the bricks embedded in the sidewalks, the occasional flower bed.
Let the sparkling new office complex to the west catch your eye. Inspect that big needle-and-thread sculpture, celebrating the neighborhood’s working heritage.
Hungry now? Among your choices: a jazz club, a sports bar, a Chinese restaurant.
These two bustling blocks display what urban planners call a “sense of place,” a quality that makes residents and visitors feel as if they’re someplace special.
Downtown Kansas City needs more such places.
“We just need to make downtown so compelling that you can’t not come downtown,” says architect Steve McDowell.
A powerful sense of place downtown would include more housing, a new arts palace and other big attractions, and efficient parking and transit.
But it also means cleaning up streets and sidewalks, overhauling blighted buildings, and making parks and public spaces inviting.
“We can talk all we want about drawing people to live here, but they aren’t going to move in unless the city is well maintained and they can feel comfortable,” says Michael Haverty, chief executive of Kansas City Southern, which just opened a new headquarters inside the freeway loop.
“The first thing you have to do is clean the streets, maintain the parks and trees, and improve the security. That’s basic 101 to draw people down here.”
But once those fundamentals are taken care of, urban planners say, downtown needs even more special touches for its sense of place to shine – from small-scale details to imaginative strokes.
Streets should be made much more walkable, by planting trees and reviving street-level spaces. The Missouri River should be embraced, not ignored. And a downtown revival ought to build on the city’s strengths – assembling our rich history at Union Station, promoting inventive public art, encouraging a barbecue district, perhaps.
The idea is to create a downtown that is confident, exciting and in touch with both its history and its future.
To see such a place, The Star visited Milwaukee, one of 16 peer cities studied for this series. It found lively public spaces and busy parks. It found a city that had rediscovered the long-neglected river that runs through downtown. And it found that Milwaukee’s varied downtown interest groups came together to keep the area clean.
Kansas Citians appear to be adamant about what should get attention in our downtown. In a Star opinion poll this year, 98 percent of metropolitan respondents agreed that all the dreary vacant buildings downtown should be renovated, demolished or at least made presentable. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said downtown needed cleaner streets.
“There has to be a willingness,” Mayor Kay Barnes told volunteers at a recent downtown cleanup day, “for all of us to get down on our hands and knees at times to make this community what it can be.”
Meet city property case No. 322848 – a long-vacant three-story garage at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue. It’s handsome, with elaborate art-deco ornament, but a city inspector cited it for cracked or broken windows and peeling paint.
The presumed owner didn’t register correctly with the city, so officials are still trying to figure out whom to hold accountable.
It’s hardly the only eyesore downtown.
Broken glass covers a stretch of sidewalk along Grand Boulevard. A mound of beer bottles, cigarette packs and empty cups occupies a parking space along Truman Road. Bold yellow and blue graffiti scrawls across the upper windows of a vacant building at 18th and Main streets. A tree grows from the rooftop of the shuttered Empire Theater on 14th Street.
Every workday, Aivars Sics parks his car and walks three blocks to work in One Kansas City Place.
“The first thing I pass by each morning is the abandoned building at the corner of 14th and Walnut,” he says. “It was the victim of a fire last spring and still sits undemolished. Broken glass and the stench of fire are still everywhere. … There are normally at least three or four broken whiskey bottles along the route.
“Behind the haunted house at 13th and Main sits a plastic Johnny on the Spot that someone torched. That was almost a year ago, and still no one has bothered to haul it away.”
When researchers scoured the city earlier this year to compile a litter index, they gave downtown the worst rating of any sector of the city. And its rating number was 41 percent worse than the national average for cities.
The litter and blight can mean real losses for downtown.
The Traders on Grand tower, for instance, at 1125 Grand Blvd., sits right between the Law and Professional buildings, each pockmarked with boarded windows or pigeon droppings. According to one leasing service, space in the Traders tower rents for an average of $12.75 per square foot, 13 percent below the average of other “Class B” space.
“Do the Professional and Law buildings hurt the Traders on Grand?” asks Greg Swetnam, a commercial real estate broker. “Yeah, they do. They’re eyesores.”
A couple of years ago, Shook Hardy & Bacon decided to vacate 21 floors of One Kansas City Place in the loop for a new tower at Crown Center. Several factors played into that decision, but Shook Hardy vice chairman Pat McLarney says, “If the downtown loop had looked better and had been more attractive, we might have made another decision.”
Dinginess challenges downtown on two fronts: shabby buildings and trashy streets.
In terms of blighted buildings, the city government has already done something. Prompted by Mayor Barnes, city property inspectors did a sweep last year.
They checked 968 properties inside the freeway loop and cited about 150 for code violations such as peeling paint, broken windows or general disrepair. Unlike the garage at 14th and Baltimore, however, owners have fixed up three-fourths of those properties in some way – at least to a minimum standard.
In most other cities, though, downtown property owners do more than the minimum. They pay extra to clean and police their downtowns – beyond what local governments do – through organizations called “improvement districts.”
Across the country, more than 400 of these districts exist, 60 percent of them created since 1990. All of Kansas City’s 16 peer cities either have a downtown improvement district or a similar agency.
Kansas City is just now joining this trend. It took so long because business owners here clung to the belief that it was up to City Hall to clean and police the streets.
But recently the Downtown Council, with help from the Civic Council of top executives, persuaded a majority of the downtown loop’s property owners to form a community improvement district, or CID. Last month, the Kansas City Council authorized it.
“It’s more than symbolic,” says Bill Dietrich, the new president of Downtown Council. “It’s the first time all the major property owners have signed on to the same idea.”
Those property owners will pay extra assessments – ranging from $50 for a single condominium to $61,000 for One Kansas City Place. The money will bankroll a $1.3 million budget for the improvement district.
By early next year, nearly three dozen privately funded workers in brightly colored uniforms will drive sweepers along every section of sidewalk each day, scrub off graffiti within 24 hours of finding it, plus walk the streets as safety “ambassadors.”
The ambassadors, for instance, could make regular patrols of little Oppenstein Brothers Memorial Park at 12th and Walnut streets, a place some office workers say they won’t go near because vagrants hassle them.
On downtown’s west end, Wes Miller doesn’t necessarily need the district. He works for Gerald Jones Co., a business furnishing dealership at the already revitalized Eighth and Broadway area. Yet, he helped collect signatures on the improvement district’s petition.
“Frankly, it’s not easy being a business downtown – it costs more to rent space, it costs to park,” says Miller, Gerald Jones’ director of new business development. “But we’re close to a lot of big, very important clients, like the city, DST and architectural firms. The CID will help my customers stay in downtown.”
Indeed, downtown improvement districts are seen as “more effective than government,” in the words of one study. And in another study they were found to reduce crime. In downtown Milwaukee, crime decreased by 25 percent after an improvement district was formed.
On The Star’s visit to Milwaukee it saw scrubbed and graffiti-free buildings. Gutters were virtually spotless. American flags lined the bridge railings spanning the Milwaukee River. A bustling public plaza offered visitors not only a lunch wagon but also a kiosk with a detailed map to help get them around.
Fernando Walker was standing with his bicycle at a corner in the heart of downtown. He was cheerfully handing out brochures to passers-by and serving as eyes and ears for the police as a uniformed ambassador for the improvement district.
“People from all over the world tell us that downtown is one of the cleanest they’ve ever seen,” Walker says.
Milwaukee’s 4-year-old improvement district has a $2.32 million budget, almost twice what Kansas City’s will be initially. That’s because Milwaukee’s district also puts on festivals and markets downtown attractions.
“Our program,” says Beth Nicols, the Milwaukee district’s executive director, “is about creating a sense of place, creating a neighborhood, giving downtown a personality, quality programs – it’s all of those things.”
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