The planned redevelopment of a nondescript building in the Crossroads Arts District has become a topic for white-hot debate among civic, political and neighborhood leaders in Kansas City.
The controversy will be further stoked by two new events.
On Monday evening, City Attorney Bill Geary issued a statement which raises the possibility that a current citizens referendum to put the project to a public vote may be illegal. That’s sure to infuriate opponents of the proposal.
And on Tuesday morning, the city-controlled Tax Increment Financing Commission is scheduled to hold a hastily called “special” meeting to try to push the project forward, despite heavy criticism from other taxing jurisdictions such as Jackson County.
Cooler heads need to prevail. This issue is ripe for a reasonable compromise that would help a solid and worthy redevelopment move forward without dunning taxpayers for so much of the project’s cost.
Keeping the BNIM architectural firm and its employees in the urban core is desirable. So is turning the structure at 1640 Baltimore Ave. into an innovative, environmental showpiece, which, among other features, would replace a surface parking lot with landscaped green space.
A compromise also could ensure that other taxing entities, especially Kansas City Public Schools, receive more revenue than now expected from the deal so they can provide better services to their constituents.
Mayor Sly James should be at the center of working out a deal that makes the most sense for the public and for the city’s future. On Monday afternoon, a spokesman for James said the mayor “is having conversations with stakeholders and will have more such talks in the coming days to reach a solution.”
Shirley Helzberg can help, too. She owns the building and is the leading proponent for using about $5 million of public funds for the $13 million project. But Helzberg seems dug in on her request for the full amount of approved tax breaks. In a recent Star story, she threatened to tear down the building if she didn’t get her way.
James badly muddied the waters recently with his machinations involving Philip Glynn, a city appointee on the Tax Increment Financing Commission.
Glynn voted against Helzberg’s project a few months ago, but the full panel recommended it to the City Council. There, the politicians approved it in late October.
Days later, Glynn and the commission refused to take the next step of endorsing a redevelopment agreement for the project in an expeditious manner. Instead, the panel put the issue off until January, mostly because a group of petitioners had started a referendum drive on the council vote. Essentially, these critics want to ask the public whether it approves of the tax breaks.
Enter James, who yanked Glynn off the TIF Commission and replaced him with Jennifer Dameron.
At its Tuesday meeting, the TIF Commission is supposed to again consider endorsing a redevelopment agreement for the project, the same pact that Glynn did not support. Presumably, James is confident that Dameron will be a crucial “yes” vote.
However, the calling of this “special” meeting has further strained relations among several parties that had been trying to develop a compromise for the BNIM project. It appears James, Helzberg and others in that camp are trying to get their way in any fashion possible.
“The commission should be ashamed of this abuse of power and blatant disregard of democratic principles,” Calvin Williford wrote in an email over the weekend. Williford, chief of staff for Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, often represents the county on the TIF panel.
City Attorney Bill Geary, in an interview a few weeks ago, had said the council-approved ordinance for the Helzberg tax breaks was “frozen” while the referendum petitions were being circulated. He said that ordinance could not take effect during this time. Petitioners have until Dec. 8 to submit 3,400 valid signatures but could get up to 10 days more.
However, Geary on Monday evening made an additional point when questioned by The Star.
He noted that the citizens referendum was “plowing new legal ground” and “there are many considerations, including past council actions on the 17th Street TIF Plan and state rules for implementing TIFs that will have to be considered.”
Online records show the City Council in 2008 approved the original TIF for the area that includes Helzberg’s building. So could it be too late for a referendum on the proposal?
As we have noted many times, the City Council needs to be judicious in approving tax breaks. But downtown projects often deserve special attention because too much of the entire area is not yet thriving.
The BNIM headquarters would be a great addition to the Crossroads but at the right price. James, Helzberg and a few others must provide leadership to find that point. A good resolution also could avoid an ugly showdown over the legality of a citizens referendum.