It has been called everything from “toy train” to “transformational.”
When Kansas City’s $100 million downtown streetcar system opens Friday — bringing rail transit back to the city for the first time in nearly 60 years — the public can finally start to decide who is right.
For proponents it’s a time of great expectations. For others it remains a subject of skepticism and even scorn. A tiny trip from nowhere to nowhere is how one critic described the project.
And for businesses that endured many months of construction on the 2.2 mile Main Street route, it’s a mix of emotions.
The Star caught up with some key players for their perspectives on this long journey that is both historic and a huge gamble.
But first, a brief review of how we got here:
The last KC streetcar shut down in 1957, ending an era that began in 1870. Then followed decades of transit studies from 1966 to 1996. And then came NINE citywide transit elections between 1997 and 2008. All failed except for one, which was deemed unworkable.
The definition of insanity is trying something over and over that doesn’t work. So that’s when, according to former City Councilman Russ Johnson, planners finally focused on a starter route downtown where they knew voters had always supported higher transit taxes, even in all those failed elections.
State law has a mechanism for a small, localized election, and that’s what happened, with downtown residents approving a 25-year taxing district in December 2012 to help pay for the system. Both the sales and property tax votes passed by about 350 for and 200 against.
The cost to build the track, stations and maintenance facility, plus buy four vehicles, was covered by $37 million in federal grants and $63 million in local money.
That local funding election still rankles many property owners who couldn’t vote because they didn’t live downtown.
“I still believe it was a sneaky, rigged election that was very lightly participated in,” says River Market businesswoman Sue Burke, one of the project’s most vocal opponents.
But now that it’s open, some of the biggest downtown property owners and taxpayers are excited.
“Clearly we’ve gone through a lot of disruption, but it’s complete and we’re looking forward to having the amenity,” says Jonathan Kemper, chairman of Commerce Bank, Kansas City Region.
He plans to ride it regularly and praises how it connects disparate activity hubs from River Market to Union Station. He believes the ride — free of charge — will appeal to crowds of new downtown residents and visitors.
But by the same token, Kemper and others fervently hope this is just the start of a much more robust regional system with buses and commuter rail. And it may not take long to see if that unfolds, says Thomas “Buzz” Willard, president and CEO of Tower Properties, which manages major downtown buildings.
“A year from now,” he predicts, “we’ll have a good read on whether or not this was touristy froufrou or the first step on a much more important plan.”
For the past five years, they have poured heart, soul and countless hours into making the downtown streetcar a reality.
Elected and business leaders agree no one had a more integral grassroots role than Crossroads resident David Johnson, 42, and River Market resident Matt Staub, 36, in finally bringing fixed rail back to Kansas City after years of failure.
Living at opposite ends of the route, Johnson and Staub organized downtown, building by building, into a cohesive “streetcar neighbors” group of residents who voted in 2012 for a plan that could actually get off the ground.
It’s not as if they came from giant, dense transit cities and were trying to replicate that in Kansas City. Johnson grew up in Coffeyville, Kan. Staub is from Nebraska.
But both had ridden rail systems in places like Chicago and loved that lifestyle. They moved downtown in the early 2000s and grew accustomed to doing without a car. Staub mostly gets around by bike, and Johnson walks or rides the bus. Johnson started blogging about transit, and Staub was also part of the tiny transit activist community.
Some aging suburbanites enlisted their help in 2011, seeing in them a new generation of urban, progressive leaders who could finally accomplish the goal.
For Johnson, who works for the DSI technology company, and Staub, who owns his own marketing firm, Proxima, it became a second, full-time but unpaid job. They were a good team, with Johnson digging into all the planning detail weeds, while Staub had a more global messaging perspective. They now acknowledge they really had no idea how all- consuming this would become.
“They won those elections. I didn’t do it. The mayor didn’t,” says Russ Johnson, the former city councilman (no relation to David Johnson). “And if they hadn’t busted their butt, we maybe wouldn’t have had the same outcome.”
Johnson and Staub realize many people still think the vote was manipulated to guarantee a minuscule electorate. But, as Johnson points out, the turnout wasn’t far off from other city elections. Plus, he says, there are many hugely expensive capital projects (such as the massive Grandview Triangle and the $295 million subsidy for the downtown entertainment district) that don’t get a public vote.
They know they are perceived by critics, Johnson says, as “cocktail-swilling 30-somethings who just want to party on the streetcar.”
But they say it was much more than that. It was about building a real city and a real downtown like countless other regions have. They say the voters they organized were condo owners, not renters, who write their own personal property tax checks to help pay for the streetcar.
Once the streetcar elections passed, both Johnson and Staub stayed very involved as Streetcar Authority members overseeing all aspects that the public will now experience, from the station placements to the bell that announces the streetcar’s arrival.
But seeing how downtown has come to life even before the streetcar goes live has made the journey worth it.
“Some of the challenges are good for us as a city, to grow up,” Staub observes. “This is giving people permission and a template for living a different life.”
Johnson says he had expected denser development to follow in the five years after streetcar operations began. To see it already happening, he says, “has totally exceeded my expectations.” He’s optimistic the system will achieve at least the projected 2,700 average daily riders.
Now that it has actually been built, Johnson and Staub say it has unleashed a host of unexpected results, such as their encounter with musician Kemet Coleman (Kemet the Phantom), who was inspired to write a rap anthem to the project.
There’s the Leawood Chamber of Commerce asking for a presentation on the streetcar because, Johnson says, “a lot of people who weren’t really normally into the topic were really drawn by the razzle-dazzle development.”
And there’s the reaction from Portland, Ore., streetcar boosters who recently visited. “They wanted to tear down their shelters and rebuild, because ours are really good-looking,” Johnson says.
“And they want our cars,” Staub chimes in.
It’s bigger than 2 miles, Staub says, as a demonstration project and a development jumper cable. He hopes it expands but says that even if it doesn’t, it’s still valuable. “It’s a cultural beginning,” he says. “It’s a shift.”
For some, though, it’s just a huge boondoggle.
Sue Burke, the River Market business owner, vociferously opposed the downtown streetcar when the plan was unveiled in 2011. She thought it was an outrageous waste of money and taxation without representation.
Now that streetcars are running right outside her building at 415 Grand Blvd., has her opinion changed?
Not a chance.
“I thought it was going to be disruptive to this area,” says Burke, a tiny but feisty businesswoman whose Kansas City Air Filter business sells products to all Kansas City government buildings as well as numerous other customers. “It’s ended up being even worse than I thought.”
She says she lost customers during the 18-month-long construction process. She’s not thrilled about the $600 property tax increase. But the 1-cent sales tax increase has been even more detrimental, costing her numerous longtime customers who notice the 9.35 percent sales tax.
“They say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ I say, ‘You’re helping to pay for the streetcar.’ And they say, ‘I don’t care about the streetcar.’ ”
Burke started at Kansas City Air Filter in 1979 and bought the business in 1993 and the building about eight years ago. She has always liked the mix of light industrial plus City Market and food wholesalers. A sewing supply business remains next door, but an auto shop down the street moved to the suburbs in opposition to the streetcar, replaced by a restaurant and architecture office.
Now Burke, who lives in Brookside, sees all the old vacant lots and former industrial buildings being converted to loft apartments, many of them tax-abated while she still pays full taxes. She hates how this once laid-back neighborhood is changing, with constant traffic and parking hassles and the streetcar making it difficult for clients, especially delivery trucks, to get to her front door.
“I still view it as the personal transportation for hipsters who live downtown and want to get drunk on the weekend and don’t want to have to drive their car,” she scoffs. “I don’t think anyone else is going to ride it.”
Burke opposed the project at a court hearing where then-Jackson County Judge Charles Atwell ruled the streetcar district and funding mechanism were legal.
She then sued to stop the project, but that lawsuit also failed. Her co-plaintiff, Jeff “Stretch” Rumaner, an artist who owns a restaurant, gallery and other property in the Crossroads at the other end of the route, is also still steamed about the project.
“I think it’s still a big farce and will slow the rest of the city down,” he says, adding that it will just make driving downtown a real pain.
“It’s a bunch of crap, but it’s here,” says Rumaner, arguing that downtown was on the rebound without the streetcar, and the route is just a trip from nowhere to nowhere.
Some advocates have suggested that being on the streetcar line makes Burke’s property a gold mine, and she should just sell. But she says she has gotten only lowball offers for less than she paid for the building, and it’s not easy to move a decades-old business.
Still, she may get out in a few years. She’s sure any potential buyer will move the business to Kansas or North Kansas City.
“Because of the streetcar and because of Kansas City’s taxes … and seeming lack of interest in having these kinds of businesses here,” she says. “All they want Kansas City to be is hotels, restaurants and bars.”
Keith Novorr, the third generation owner of Michael’s Fine Clothing, has a wonderful black-and-white photograph in his store at 18th and Main streets, showing an old-fashioned streetcar right outside what was then his grandfather’s business in 1928.
And now the streetcars are once again gliding past. This historic business is going back to the future.
Novorr greets that prospect with the same anticipation and apprehension as many other downtown destination businesses that have long survived by catering to suburbanites. He sees the streetcar as one spark for downtown’s residential and hotel boom, bringing new customers to his store.
“The nice thing about all of this is all the young people that have moved into this area with the revitalization of downtown,” he says. “People are interested, and our walk-in traffic has quadrupled.”
But by the same token, he resents that he, as a Prairie Village resident, never got to vote on his building’s property tax increase to help pay for the project. And he wonders whether car-centric Kansas Citians will actually ride the thing.
“We’re not a mass-transit city. We go from our garage to a parking lot,” he says.
Still, his business is good, and remained so even during a very stressful 18-month-long construction season. Novorr navigated the mess better than others because he has his own parking lot.
Now he and other business owners hope they are poised for even more growth. At all the meetings he attended, economic development boosters kept saying fixed rail would bring new building.
“You know what?” Novorr says. “They’re not wrong. I’ve got a hotel behind me, condos, apartments … it’s a hot area.”
Other businesses hope for the best.
Martin and Katrin Heuser, who run the Affare fine dining restaurant at 19th and Main streets, went through hell during the construction, which tore up the street and sidewalk outside for more than a year. They survived thanks to financial help from Country Club Bank and Prairie Village Bank, rent relief from an understanding landlord and patronage from a loyal clientele.
They’re exhausted but cling to the belief it will be worth it.
“I know the locals down here, they’re going to like it,” Martin Heuser says, “but what for me is important is that people from outside the city, Overland Park and further, Wichita, surrounding cities, come here to try it out.”
Downtown economic development advocates say the city has been fortunate to see increased population and vitality even before the streetcar opens to the public.
A recent Downtown Council development tally from 2013 to the present shows more than $1 billion in new construction, including 3,450 residential units, nearly 600 new or renovated hotel rooms and 135,000 square feet of retail space. Another $900 million in development is on the drawing boards.
Of course much of that would have happened without the streetcar. But a December 2014 survey by the Kansas City Economic Development Corp. found 24 developers, responsible for $600 million in private development, indicated the streetcar was a positive or major factor in their location decision. The EDC is now updating that survey.
“We meet regularly both with city and out-of-state developers who follow these (rail) systems around the country and invest in them,” says Downtown Council CEO Bill Dietrich, citing in particular a group of Colorado and California investors who just completed the 44-unit apartments at 1914 Main St., on a former vacant parking lot right across from Affare.
Dietrich believes the streetcar will dramatically change the way the region experiences downtown, benefiting nearly all the businesses paying for the system.
“It adds to that whole destination element,” he says. “The place where you go for those unique experiences: Sprint Center, Kauffman Center, Power & Light and the streetcar.”