A proposal to privatize stretches of two streets in the Westport business district has supporters arguing it would enhance security but detractors saying there must be a better way than taking away public streets.
The Kansas City Plan Commission, a citizens advisory group, will hear the debate at its meeting Tuesday. City staff, which usually takes a position on planning and development proposals to the commission, has declined to make a recommendation for or against the Westport street idea. No matter what the plan commission decides, the Kansas City Council will have the final say.
The proposal calls for privatizing Pennsylvania Avenue from West 40th Street on the north to Archibald Street, and Westport Road from Broadway on the east to Mill Street. The land would be handed over to the Westport Community Improvement District through quit-claim deeds.
“This is a move on the city’s part and on our part to ensure the safety of our customers,” longtime Westport business booster Bill Nigro said Friday.
He said privatizing the streets would allow police to use wands periodically to search for and keep weapons and firearms out of the core of the Westport entertainment district on crowded weekend nights. If those streets were privately owned, guns could be banned. If the streets are publicly owned, they can’t, Nigro said.
The City Council in December approved a memorandum of understanding between the city and the Westport Business League that outlines the privatization concept. It says that the roads would be used for traffic and other public purposes except during specific times and events: Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. the next morning, and during about 20 other festival and event times when the streets may be closed for 24 hours.
The proposal outlines seven events for which fees could be charged to enter the area. The memorandum of understanding allows for a cover charge, with the proceeds going to the cost of increased public safety. Provisions would allow access to water and sewer infrastructure and for fire trucks and other vehicles in emergency situations.
Nigro insisted Westport is a safe and fun entertainment area, but he said security becomes a crucial issue as larger and larger crowds gather in the streets on certain late weekend nights.
“It’ll create a safer area,” he said of privatizing the streets. Nigro also said Westport contributes millions of dollars per year to city coffers, and its success matters to the city’s economic vitality.
Under the proposal, the city would still pave the streets, but the Westport Community Improvement District would contribute to that cost and pay to maintain trees, sidewalk planters, streetlight fixtures and other amenities.
Rick Usher, the assistant city manager who has worked with the Westport Business League on the memorandum of understanding, said Westport already gets permits to close off streets for summer weekends and festivals, so the proposal would codify what’s already taking place.
Usher noted that other entertainment districts, such as the Legends and the Power & Light District, have pedestrian spaces with no vehicular access where people can congregate.
But Thomas Morefield, an urban planner and longtime Kansas City neighborhood advocate, disagreed that turning public streets into private property is the right approach. He and other critics have questioned this strategy.
“There has to be a better way to make Westport safe than giving away public streets,” he said. “This is not the right tool for the challenge.”
Morefield said large crowds congregate long past midnight at Westport because that district has made the choice to allow 3 a.m. bars in a concentrated area. “They’ve very fiercely protected the 3 a.m. license,” he said, adding that closing bars at 1:30 a.m., as is required in most other areas, could solve the safety problem.
Morefield also worried that Westport would start to charge for entry. He said once the city agrees to give up ownership of the streets, “it’s gone forever.”
The city staff report notes that a similar proposal surfaced in 2001 but the Plan Commission at that time recommended denial. The ordinance was dismissed by the City Council a few years later.
The report also says the Midtown Plaza Area plan is not supportive of street closures or privatizations, although Usher said the idea wouldn’t violate the area plan.
City planner Ashley Winchell left it up to the plan commission to decide the question.
“The request seeks to balance the assurances of rights available to citizens within the public right-of-way and the overall goal of keeping patrons of a popular neighborhood safe,” she wrote. “Due to the previously described complexities, staff is not making a recommendation in regards to the requests.”