Inflating streetcars’ economic effect isn’t helpful

04/08/2014 6:01 PM

04/08/2014 6:01 PM

The good news is, the Kansas City downtown streetcar plan has lots of people excited.

And for the most part, that’s a wonderful thing because it’s an important boost to our hopes for joining other progressive U.S. cities embracing rail transit.

The concern remains, however, that streetcar backers are overstating its effect when it comes to stimulating development, setting people up for unrealistic expectations.

That was my takeaway from last week’s discussion on “Development in the Age of #KCStreetcar,” sponsored by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance.

It was a good update on some new projects: George Birt’s River Market West apartment project and the 1914 Main apartment plan by a Colorado developer. And it was a progress report on two older proposals: Jon Copaken’s Crossroads apartment deal first floated in 2007 and the 51st and Oak Whole Foods plan announced by VanTrust Real Estate in 2012.

But again, a map produced by nextrailkc.com, the website produced by BNIM Architecture as part of the streetcar expansion information effort, laid out a 39-item list of projects in the downtown area under the headline “development impact” of the 2-mile starter line just getting underway.

It was more refined than a similar map released by the Downtown Council, but it still listed stuff that has little or nothing to do with the streetcar — except for the fact the projects are in the district established to pay for it.

And the downtown streetcar, while welcomed by developers on the panel last week, will not replace the need to provide parking for cars for the foreseeable future.

Scott Richardson of Linden Street Partners, whose firm is planning to break ground on a 44-apartment building at 1914 Main St. by late summer, was by far the biggest streetcar booster. The Colorado developer said the five-story project was the reason his firm decided to invest in Kansas City.

But he also estimated it will be 10 years before developers will begin reducing the need to provide parking for the downtown projects.

Still, Richardson said the city’s streetcar plans were precisely what drew his firm’s attention to the Crossroads Arts District.

“The streetcar is what’s exciting about this part of town,” he said. “Kansas City has a great heritage of streetcars. We would not do the apartments without the streetcar, and we project it will lease up 50 percent faster.”

Richardson’s firm is pursuing two other apartment projects along the streetcar route, he said, and evaluating a couple of other sites not directly on the line.

A bit farther south of Richardson’s 1914 Main project is the site of a 75-unit apartment project being pursued by Copaken Brooks at 2100 Wyandotte St. in the Crossroads. It’s been almost seven years since Copaken floated a plan to build a multi-family development on the site, and it was a condo project then.

Jon Copaken offered no hard date for construction to start, saying he hoped sometime this year, but said the streetcar wwould help market the project. He also touched on what, to me, is the most significant aspect of our first stab at streetcars, the psychological boost.

“The benefit is not just ridership,” Copaken said, “but the perception, the ‘coolness’ factor of the area we’re talking about. I don’t want to minimize the marketing potential beyond how many people get on it.”

George Birt, who plans to begin construction on his 137-unit River Market West apartment project in May, has previously described the streetcar as an important amenity that young adults in the Millennial Generation want. His five-story project is expected to open in spring 2015.

Finally, Tom McGee of VanTrust Real Estate discussed his firm’s plan for a mixed-use project at 51st and Oak that would be anchored by a Whole Foods supermarket with 140 luxury apartments above it. The University of Missouri-Kansas City also is planning a medical clinic there.

The plan, first disclosed in July 2012, has had its share of challenges. But McGee said serious progress has been made, and one major stumbling block is gone. The developer is no longer asking for a driveway off Brookside Boulevard that would cut through the popular Trolley Track Trail.

Arrangements also have been made to relocate the historic Kansas City Young Matrons Club. He added that Whole Foods had decided to add 10,000 square feet to its original plan, bringing the store to 40,000 square feet.

“We’re hoping to make it a reality relatively soon,” McGee told the audience.

He also noted that the proposed extension of the streetcar down Main Street as far as UMKC would end near the development.

As for that streetcar expansion plan, it’s going to take a major selling job to convince voters living in the affected area.

The price tag of extending the line down Main and building branches on Linwood and Independence Avenues was estimated at $471 million.

Even if the city receives what it hopes is $250 million from the feds, that’s a lot of money to raise from a one-cent sales tax and property assessment from people living within one-third of a mile of the tracks.

But panelists were united about the need for the city to keep pushing forward beyond the initial downtown line.

“If you start and stop, it doesn’t send the right message to developers,” Richardson said. “Denver has had momentum for a number of years with light rail, and that’s impressed developers.

“It’s important that money spent by investors will have a return.”

McGee, who’s worked in local development for many years, first at DST Realty and now VanTrust, offered a blunt warning.

“If we get too set in our ways that Kansas City has to be the way it’s always been, we may end up like Detroit.”

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