Kansas City civic leaders are mobilizing to tackle a vexing problem that has dogged the city for decades: the private sector’s unwillingness to spend much money on economic developments east of Troost Avenue.
A civic partnership has identified three priority areas for such investments. It has set a fundraising target. And it will soon recommend who would coordinate and oversee such developments.
John Wood, director of the city Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, says lots of public-sector economic development is already underway in Kansas City’s urban core. But it’s not enough — the area needs more private developers, real estate companies, banks and businesses to step up.
“It needed a little kick in the pants,” he said. “You have things happening, but in order to really make a major impact … I think it needed a big jump-start, to take a bold step.”
Since Mayor Sly James was elected in 2011, the city has invested more than $100 million in taxpayer money for projects like the East Patrol police station and crime lab, a planned shopping center at Linwood and Prospect, Beacon Hill infrastructure, and a host of smaller housing projects.
But it’s still hard to see a major transformation. Many residents complain that the broad swath of the city south of the Missouri River and east of Troost remains neglected and distressed.
That’s prompted this push for three priority development areas, intended to attract serious private money for housing, commercial and small-business development. It’s the only way to have a profound impact, supporters say, and be a catalyst for real change. Otherwise, all the money is spread too thin.
The three top geographic priorities in what’s being called the KC Catalytic Urban Redevelopment Initiative are:
▪ The Troost corridor, from 30th Street to Linwood and from Harrison Street to the Paseo.
▪ Ivanhoe, from 35th to 39th streets and from the Paseo to Montgall Avenue.
▪ The Prospect corridor, from 25th to 33rd streets and from Park to Chestnut avenues.
“The whole premise (is) to coordinate and target resources,” said Stephen Samuels, executive director of Kansas City’s Local Initiatives Support Corp., a key partnership member. “The argument has been we sprinkle. Then we do things on 20-year time frames because we sprinkle.”
Kansas City has studied development east of Troost and has plans galore, said Dianne Cleaver, executive director of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, which the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has created to help with its Big 5 goal of revitalizing communities there. UNI has partnered for more than a year with LISC, the city and the Mid-America Regional Council on this new push.
“Our focus was on why don’t these (plans) come to fruition? There needs to be more than a plan,” Cleaver said. “There needs to be an implementation strategy.”
So the partners raised $200,000 and hired a consulting team led by Washington, D.C-based Mosaic Urban Partners, plus DRAW Architecture + Urban Design and Parson and Associates of Kansas City. Since late last year, they have talked to more than 100 people, including developers, nonprofits, bankers and other community movers and shakers, and looked at a dozen areas for possible focus, including 18th and Vine, Blue Hills and 39th and Prospect.
In recent interviews with The Star, they explained the rationale for the selected areas.
“We really wanted to look at places where there was already some existing momentum, city investment, local nonprofits, investment over the years,” said Calvin Gladney, managing partner with Mosaic. “And places where we thought there either was a real estate market that could be improved, or one that was already moving in the right direction.”
Mosaic has also consulted on numerous urban core revival projects, including in Baltimore; Washington D.C.; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Houston; and Memphis, Tenn.
In Kansas City, Gladney said, that means building south along the Troost corridor, using the momentum already created in the gentrifying Beacon Hill neighborhood near 24th and Troost.
And in Ivanhoe, near 39th Street and Euclid Avenue overlooking Bruce R. Watkins Drive, it means strengthening an area of single-family homes that is already propped up by a strong neighborhood association and benefactor James Nutter Sr.
So this plan might finally attract private interest and lets investors know “the where.” But who will execute this development strategy, and how will they pay for it?
Those details are still being fleshed out. More information should be available late this summer, Samuels said.
One goal is to create a $30 million to $50 million equity fund, and to at least begin raising that money later this year, Samuels said. The second part of the plan is to create a new development entity to oversee the work and show solid results within three to five years, he said, because Kansas City now doesn’t have that kind of structure.
“There is no CDC (community development corporation) that has the capacity to do large-scale work. That’s why it’s not getting done to begin with,” Samuels said. The details on how such an entity would be created should be in a report late this summer.
“The idea would be to have staff people who wake up every day focusing on these priority areas,” Gladney said.
This type of urban core transformation has succeeded in other cities, but often with major players Kansas City lacks: huge institutional or academic anchors, or Fortune 500 companies located in or near the urban core that have a vested interest in that revival.
Examples include Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins University is part of a huge public/private partnership helping to spark the East Baltimore Development Initiative, to revive the area around its medical complex. Gladney and Mosaic are consulting on that project.
An even more profound example exists in Cincinnati, where Fortune 500 companies and other corporations teamed on the Over-the-Rhine project to transform, in the past five years, what had been one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States.
Gladney acknowledges Kansas City doesn’t have obvious business giants on the East Side to lead such an effort.
“You don’t have the scale of anchor that would make it easier to make the revitalization happen faster,” he said.
But Gladney said Kansas City still has partners that can foster the needed change.
“The thing the East Side does have is foundations that have been generous in their support of activities,” he said, citing the Hall Family, H&R Block and Kauffman foundations.
One source of optimism, Gladney said, is the “great energy of existing residents and organizations” in East Side neighborhoods. That’s not a given and doesn’t exist in many other cities, he said.
In addition, influential business leaders in the chamber of commerce have indicated their support by backing the Urban Neighborhood Initiative that spans from 18th Street to 52nd Street, Troost to Prospect. The three economic development priority zones are within those boundaries.
Cleaver said that when major funders and business heavy hitters were approached about the KC Catalytic Urban Redevelopment approach, they were generally positive.
“People were receptive to the idea of what we’re doing as a whole,” she said. “People have to feel like you have an implementation strategy. That makes it more likely you can raise the dollars. You don’t have to raise them all at once.”
Late this summer, the consultant expects to issue a report on how to start development in the three priority areas and how to raise the equity fund over time, in a phased approach.
Wood acknowledged some concerns from groups in areas outside the priority zones, like the Blue Hills neighborhood south of 47th Street on Prospect, and near the failed Citadel retail development at 63rd and Prospect. The city has already spent $15 million to buy that land, but a replacement for Citadel has yet to emerge. Blue Hills and 63rd and Prospect will still get attention, he said.
“We’re just not trying to write out anybody,” Wood said, while admitting that the priority zones are farther north on Troost, east of Bruce R. Watkins and Prospect.
“You start where there’s already areas of strength,” he said, “where you have some momentum going, and you build on that.”