Bit by bit, blocks of bungalows and small brick apartments in Kansas City are giving way to bigger buildings.
Those bigger buildings are squeezing out lawns, trees and parks. Going away is some of the green space that has long characterized the city’s parks and tree-lined streets.
“We’re losing the lawns of the bungalows,” said Carol Thane, who lives in a condominium — with a front yard — near St. Luke’s Hospital.
“We’re losing green space at an alarming rate, and preservation has to become a city priority, bought into by the city planning staff and reinforced by the city council and the mayor.”
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Nowhere is the diminishing green space more noted, more argued about, than on the tightly knit streets between the Country Club Plaza and Westport.
A surge in demand for apartments and condos has made that neighborhood hot for denser residential redevelopment — something that’s actually been the city’s intent for decades.
Twenty years ago a city-planning effort culminated in the “Forge Our Comprehensive Urban Strategy” plan. It was called the “Focus” plan for short.
“From the Plaza north to the riverfront, Focus called for that corridor to be denser,” said Gerald Williams, the lead planner in the city’s Planning and Development Department. “The Midtown Plaza Area Plan (passed in 2016) attempted to explain further where it’s appropriate to have density or not.”
Both plans became redevelopment guidebooks, written after years of citizen input and work sessions. Now, after a stretch of modest evolution, the recent building surge downtown and the Crossroads has seeped southward.
Neighbors who want to keep the residential character of the narrow street grid between Broadway and Madison say the trend comes at the expense of grass and trees.
Thane and a few other neighborhood residents went to a City Plan Commission meeting this summer to argue that a proposed second phase for The Mirabelle apartments at 45th Terrace and Wornall Road will be built on open space presented as part of the phase one plan. They didn’t fight phase one because of the green space expectation.
“Two phases lead to no green space,” Thane told the commissioners. “Can staff require some green space to remain?”
The simple answer to Thane’s question was that, yes, the city can — and does — require certain building setbacks from streets or sidewalks. It can — and does — require some types of vegetation or landscaping.
But rules depend on the precise zoning regulations assigned to a particular parcel of land, said Kyle Elliott, the development department’s division manager for long-range planning and preservation.
“Zoning tells what square footage can be added,” Elliott said. “It gives site-specific floor area ratios that tell the amount of the parcel that can be occupied, including buildings, parking, and sidewalks.”
Zoning guidelines for this area of the city, as set by the Midtown Plaza Area Plan, pave the way for denser developments than what they’re replacing.
Phase two of the Mirabelle was approved. It will have some landscaping, but if it mirrors phase one, the “front yard” will be a swath of grass barely wide enough for a commercial mower. Ditto for the large 45Madison apartments that fill the block between 44th and 45th streets. Just a bit more grass separates 46 Penn Centre apartments from Pennsylvania and 46th.
“What you’re seeing is a combination of what the developer wants and what the area plan calls for,” said John Eckardt, manager of the development management division in the city’s planning department.
“If it calls for density, we want to see density. But it’s always a balance between people who want to build something and people who want to scale it back.”
The scale-it-back forces won over the City Council last summer when it voted against a proposed 188-unit apartment complex at 44th and Washington. A majority sided with neighbors who said the plan was too big for the site. At least for now it remains an empty expanse of grass.
Bob Frye, a Kansas City apartment developer since 1982, has participated in the densification trend, particularly on Union Hill, near Crown Center.
“Density is complicated,” Frye said. “But if it’s done well, it allows you to provide a better product. You can move the money you’d spend on foundations, separate rooftops and land to the building.…Going vertical affords a higher quality in units and even in your landscaping.”
Frye described landscaping in his Union Hill development as “not wide, but intense” with streetside planters and a tree planted every 25 feet. But even though some of the multi-building development lacks surrounding lawns, he said the important thing is that the broader neighbor retains green space.
“One of our benefits is that Union Cemetery is right behind us,” Frye said. “Well-done density can relate to a concept called ‘eyes on park’^” — believed to help both security and walkability.
The trend toward midtown density is reflected in many cities nationally, Frye said.
“Trends happen when “demand and economics come together,” Frye said. “I think the demand side will be interesting over the next few years as all the new product comes online. The market is ruthless in its efficiency…But there’s no simple rulebook. In the end, I think the city overall is excited about what’s going on.”