KEVIN COLLISON

Downtown Council moving to Commerce Bank Building

Updated: 2013-05-15T03:22:07Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

Ten years after the Downtown Council launched its successful community improvement district staffed by the now familiar “yellow jackets,” the organization is moving to more visible digs in the Commerce Bank Building.

The Downtown Community Improvement District, which began operations in April 2003, played a huge role in the revival that in many ways rescued downtown from increasing irrelevancy in the life of the metropolitan area.

The big redevelopment projects including the Power & Light District, Sprint Center and Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts were critical. But the Downtown Council, by essentially imposing a new tax on its members to create and fund the district, demonstrated that someone finally cared about how downtown looked and felt.

As a result, many, many more people feel comfortable about living, working and playing downtown.

“This space represents a milestone of capturing that expansion and progress,” said Bill Dietrich, president and CEO of the Downtown Council. “It also symbolizes our goals for the next five years, including doubling the residential population and how to position downtown for new customers.”

Fittingly, the reception area of the new offices in Suite 200 of the Commerce Bank at 1000 Walnut St. is dominated by a 10- by 15-foot glass wall illustrated by a photo of Main Street looking north from Petticoat Lane around 1907. The bygone sidewalks are bustling with pedestrians; dozens of stores grab your attention; and a streetcar rolls into view.

One of the Downtown Council’s current tasks is helping the city design and implement its streetcar route, which will follow Main Street from Crown Center to the River Market.

Until the downtown business community stepped up 10 years ago with the formation of the private improvement district and other improvement ventures, it was largely limited in influence to fruitlessly complaining about City Hall’s indifference to their needs.

“I think they’re doing great work,” said Thomas R. “Buzz” Willard, president of Tower Properties. “Since Bill and Sean (O’Byrne) got there, they’ve changed the dynamics of downtown completely. We never had a voice at City Hall” before the Comunity Improvement District was started.

Tower Properties and Commerce Bank have had strong ties to the Downtown Council over the past 10 years. The space the group is leaving on the lower level of Commerce Tower was owned by Tower Properties until the building was sold to a Los Angeles investment group in 2006.

The new 5,400-square-foot office suite being leased for the next 10 years to the council by Tower Properties has a more open floor plan with huge windows. They offer a panoramic view up 10th Street to the west that reveals other aspects of the past decade’s renewal.

A development corporation established by the Downtown Council helped renovate the historic First National Bank building at 10th and Baltimore into the new Central Library. The Community Improvement District staff maintains the landscaping of what’s now called the Library District, where several hundred people call home in renovated buildings.

Around the corner at 10th and Main is the CVS Pharmacy, a business that was about to leave downtown a few years ago until the Downtown Council and others lobbied it to stay. A couple of blocks away at 11th and Grand, a project spearheaded by the council replaced the decrepit Shoppers Parkade with a well-designed parking lot.

And O’Byrne, the vice president of business development for the council, is particularly proud of the leading role the organization took finding a new developer for the old Cosby Hotel at Ninth and Baltimore. The 1881 building was on the verge of demolition, and now a deli is preparing to open as part of a redevelopment plan.

Another big accomplishment was the overhaul of Oppenstein Park at 12th and Walnut. The park is owned by Jackson County, which let it deteriorate to the point homeless people were using the fountain for a shower. Now, through the work of the Downtown Council, it’s well landscaped, clean, and a popular place for a brown bag lunch.

“There is a noticeable change in downtown; the central business district is a jewel box,” O’Byrne said. He quickly added, “It’s a fragile environment, and we still have a lot of work to go.”

Since the Downtown Council kicked off its much more active role a decade ago, the budget has grown correspondingly, from about $300,000 to $4 million.

The ranks of the “ambassadors,” as the yellow-jacketed staff members are called, have grown from 36 to 63 since 2003, and their responsibilities have grown beyond the original boundaries of the central business district within the freeway loop. They now maintain the River Market improvement district and have contracted to watch over the 18th and Vine District and inside the Central Library.

The new space at Commerce Bank also has a lower level where the ambassadors will assemble and be able to store equipment and their distinctive yellow and black uniforms.

The big move into the new space will be next Monday, and an open house is planned for June 7 as part of the First Friday festivities.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/kckansascity.

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