Eleven days ago, Kansas City lost one of its strongest advocates and one of our closest friends.
J. Philip Kirk Jr., founder of DST Realty, was an extraordinary man who proved to be the architect of downtown’s renaissance and a guiding light to our organization.
Phil was a giant in the real estate world — a rare breed who could sway his detractors and focus his allies, while rebuilding our urban environment. His business acumen was balanced by compassion. He never accepted the easy fix. Instead he sought solutions to accomplish complex objectives that were in the best interest of his home town.
“I don’t know if I’m on a boulevard in Paris or on the war torn streets of Beirut.” That is how Phil once described the uneven conditions of downtown at a City Council meeting in the mid-1990s. Some blocks had been redeveloped; others were blighted.
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Phil decided to take back the streets of the central business district. Many people had written off downtown. Its infrastructure had been ignored, retailers moved away and unregulated surface parking lots dominated the horizon.
At a time when it was easier to develop suburban green fields, Phil turned his attention to the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding the city center. He spoke of cities and their buildings as having souls. To him, their decline was a tragedy that needed to be righted.
He had the innate ability to come to a negotiation with a definite idea and goal in mind, but halfway through the conversation you were pretty sure it was your idea and quite pleased with how you steered the negotiation.
Phil taught us that by doing the right thing, real estate can be saved and life enhanced. A great example was the stand that Phil took more than 25 years ago with the DST Systems campus on the west side of downtown.
Certainly it would have been easier to build the campus in the suburbs, but Phil believed that by restoring century-old buildings, DST could create a richer environment for workers.
He was right. And for the first time in decades, people began to believe that maybe, just maybe, we could have our downtown back.
As his tenure with DST Realty was winding down, his desire to help others was reaching new heights. His list of accomplishments is astounding. He built a world-class Central Library that not only restored a historic bank but led to the redevelopment of every building surrounding it. He built Hope Lodge to help cancer victims. He gave financial support and direction to homeless shelters, rehab institutes and urban youth projects. He combined his real estate intelligence with his love of children and created a home for the Crossroads Academy Charter School.
Phil treated a stranger on the street with the same respect as an accomplished CEO. He was an artist, poet, philosopher, teacher and architect all combined in an approachable gentleman.
He could make the complex understandable and disarm detractors with his smile and convictions. He taught us that real estate was not about the physical structure but what the project could do for humanity.
“Phil talked about a strand of pearls stretching from the Plaza to midtown to Crown Center and the River Market,” recalled Al Mauro, a former chairman of the Downtown Council. “But he said the strand is only as good as each pearl and as the string that holds them together.”
For us at the Downtown Council, Phil was the string that brought, and continues to bring, it all together.
Michael Hagedorn is the chairman of the Downtown Council of Kansas City and the president and CEO of UMB Bank.