While most of 63rd Street in Kansas City is flanked by commercial development, the street takes on a decidedly different character east of Bruce R. Watkins Drive.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
The pharmacies, medical centers and retailers disappear, replaced by a few blocks of homes. As the road skirts Swope Park, the homes begin to thin out and the street takes on a more rural feel, passing by a largely hidden office park until it arrives at Nate’s Swap Shop.
On the site of the former 63rd Street Drive-In, between Interstate 435 and Missouri 350, Nate’s is the beginning of the transition between Kansas City and Raytown, where city meets suburb. A couple of miles further on, past the Funky Town dance club and a large shopping center, is the city’s business district.
With storefronts just a few feet from the busy street and an iconic corner drugstore, downtown Raytown appears to have just what Kansas City planners were looking for a decade ago, when they drew up the walkable “villages” at 63rd Street’s intersections from Brookside to Prospect Avenue.
But closer inspection shows there’s still work to be done.
Many of the businesses, including a dog training club, martial arts center and rental hall are not of the type that call for a lot of walk-in traffic. A large bank building with a mostly empty parking lot takes up the better part of a block. A quirky one-lane bridge diverts traffic from the heart of downtown. And there are few people on the sidewalks as traffic whizzes by.
Like Kansas City, Raytown has a plan for its central business district along 63rd Street. It was adopted in 2002, about the same time as Kansas City’s plan.
The long-term Raytown plan calls for a “Town Square” area with benches and a central plaza. But there are more immediate plans for some streetscaping that would update the street lights and add landscaping. The plan also narrows 63rd Street from four to three lanes to make way for wider sidewalks and angled parking to replace the parallel parking now in place, said John Benson, director of community development.
Construction on the first phase of that plan is scheduled for spring, he said, thanks to a federal transportation enhancement grant.
Benson said there are more reasons to be upbeat about Raytown’s business district. Just a couple blocks north of 63rd, on Blue Ridge Boulevard, developer Chris Payne of Raymore has bought and is fixing up the Raytown Plaza Shopping Center, which he says is the oldest strip center in eastern Jackson County.
The 105,000-square-foot center has undergone extensive renovation and is now 50 percent leased, Payne said. When he bought it, only 20,000 square feet of the basement were leased.
Payne also bought the tallest building in Raytown, the 12-story senior living Bowen Apartments on Raytown Road.
He said he hopes his investment in the shopping center will drive more traffic into the city.
“The 63rd Street corridor goes to a lot of important places. Any new commerce I can bring to Raytown, the better, without a doubt.”
Steve Guenther, president of the Raytown Main Street Association, is another community leader with high hopes for a revitalized downtown. Last fall he was among the people present as the first plots were planted in what will become a downtown community garden on 63rd Street. The garden plots are on land adjacent to stables just a block or two from the main part of downtown.
Guenther and organizers hope the community gardens will lead to a farmers market, possibly a block north of 63rd on Raytown Road. In other communities, like Brookside and Overland Park, farmers markets have brought increased walking traffic and enhanced downtowns.
But he wouldn’t stop there. Guenther said eventually he’d like to see bicycle routes incorporated into the city plans, with access to the Katy Trail and perhaps even rail some day.
Not everyone in Raytown is completely sold on the downtown streetscape plan, though. The changes could make things difficult for customers at Fox’s Drug Store, which has an unusual corner parking lot at 63rd and Raytown Road.
Fox’s Drugs, open since 1939, serves an increasingly aged clientele, said second-generation owner Gary Fox. He worries that the new streetscape — while encouraging walkability — will increase the distance his customers must walk to the door, and will complicate parking.
“The community is old,” he said. “Demographics indicate it is declining.”
Fox said he’d like to see more evidence that the streetscape will draw in new retailers. But he added that he didn’t want to seem negative, only a bit skeptical.
Up the street a few stores, Vince Catalano, upholsterer at Superior Upholstery, thinks more young people are moving into rental houses in the area, and some also come looking for older homes.
“This is a neat little community if it comes back around, and I think it will,” Catalano said. “It will be worth waiting it out.”