Downtown Kansas City’s biggest boosters will be patting themselves on the back Friday for some good reasons.
The heart of the entire metropolitan area is beating more strongly thanks to positive actions in recent years. Residents are flocking to new housing units. Developers are building new hotels. The streetcar starts operating soon. And so on.
However, even as the Downtown Council hosts its upbeat annual luncheon at the Kansas City Convention Center, it’s also an excellent time to take a more sobering view of the challenges that remain.
The city’s taxpayers as well as political, business and civic leaders must make sure they are focusing on the highest priorities in constructing an even healthier downtown.
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The city’s heart needs a lot more revitalization to make sure it will tick strongly long into the future.
Among the challenges:
▪ The riverfront remains an embarrassing wasteland of missed opportunities.
Developers have talked for more than 20 years about how they were going to bring offices, housing, hotels and (fill in the blank) to the large stretch of mostly vacant land near Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park.
Yet precious little has happened, except for dreams washing up on shore.
The best ideas now should concentrate on capitalizing on the desire of people to live near water. Build more housing, as is being contemplated, with the goal of getting several thousand people to live there.
▪ Downtown still can’t hit the employment home run that will bring in lots more jobs.
Sprint decades ago went to Overland Park, not the riverfront. Cerner is building at the old Bannister Mall site. Burns & McDonnell is expanding big-time in south Kansas City.
It’s disappointing that downtown still lacks the needed mojo to attract construction of new, tall office towers. Or the ability to attract a Fortune 500 company.
Instead, downtown at last count actually had fewer employees than about a decade ago. While the housing boom is extremely desirable, bringing in more jobs would be a huge boost to a livelier and more successful downtown.
▪ Taxpayers are still funneling millions into downtown’s rehab, diverting money from paying for better public services.
It’s taking large dollops of tax breaks to entice too many investments in properties along or near the streetcar route. For example, a hotel planned for 20th and Main right on the streetcar line has received overly generous support from the public.
Notably, the heated debate over the planned BNIM redevelopment in the Crossroads has led to an odd situation. Even some downtown champions are lamenting that parts of the area still have plenty of blight and deserve a lot of public subsidies.
The long-term solution is for the City Council to insist that, as downtown gets even healthier, developers wean themselves of their reliance on taxpayer funds. And politicians must hold firm on that viewpoint.
▪ Downtown, especially its eastern stretches, features far too much vacant and underused land, as well as tired and often abandoned structures.
Progress has been made in the last decade to tear down an old bus station and some other eyesores. But the downtown housing boom has not been strong enough yet to entice development of large parcels of underused land and buildings.
As a result, many visitors from the suburbs and other cities still see far too many desolate and dangerous looking stretches. Many of these people will go to the highly taxpayer-subsidized Power & Light District but won’t venture to other nearby areas. Success is still spotty.
Yes, celebrate the renaissance of downtown. Let’s also redouble efforts to tackle the very real troubles that still face it.