Government & Politics

‘Now the stakes are even higher’: citywide vote on MLK Blvd. or Paseo approaches

Less than nine months after crews installed the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard street signs along what was known as The Paseo, the city is preparing for a vote on whether to take them back down.

Voters will head to the polls Nov. 5 to decide whether Kansas City should keep its newly-minted Dr. King Blvd. — approved in January by the City Council — or restore The Paseo. The question, put on the ballot by a group called Save The Paseo, has inspired a groundswell of support for the historic name and deep concern from ministers who pushed for the redesignation to honor the slain civil rights leader.

Kellie Jones, Save The Paseo’s communications director, said the group objects to what she called the “disenfranchisement” of neighborhoods along the street, as evidenced by the council’s decision to waive a community outreach requirement on the city’s books.

“We love Dr. Martin Luther King,” Jones said. “We want him to be honored, but with a great man, he deserves a great honor. That great honor should be something that’s not pushed and rushed.”

Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and one of several black clergy integral to the movement for a King street, noted that until this year Kansas City was believed to be one of the nation’s only major cities without one.

“So we’re the last to do that, and now we’ll be the first to strip that away if it were to occur,” Howard said, “so now the stakes are even higher than they were in January.”

While other communities have indeed removed King’s name from street signs, Howard said he worried about the signal it would send if Kansas City followed suit.

Andre Logan of Save The Paseo called Howard’s notion a “red herring.”

“That’s a great way to try and label people who are opposed to how the process is done as being something other than supportive of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Logan said.

From council vote to Question 5

A month after the council’s 8-4 vote, crews installed the first signs along the road, which runs nearly 10 miles through the city’s predominantly black East Side.

Shortly thereafter, opponents of the move began collecting signatures. Petitioners turned in more than 2,400 valid signatures in April seeking to undo the renaming. That elevated the question to a citywide vote.

The issue will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot as Question 5, asking whether the street should be again named The Paseo. Voting “yes” supports returning the street to its former name. A “no” vote keeps Dr. King’s name.

Since then, Save The Paseo has stayed active, with a 1,200-member Facebook group. Those who support retaining the King name have their own online group of about 100.

Aside from those groups and some community meetings, the campaign has been remarkably quiet.

A drive down MLK Blvd. reveals little that suggests the upcoming vote. Neither side appears to have planted yard signs, and Missouri Ethics Commission records show minimal spending on the race.

Save The Paseo, which didn’t register a campaign committee until Sept. 15, has raised $3,595 since then. There’s no committee on record to support the “no” vote, and no outside group has reported spending money, according to the MEC.

Jones said the grassroots group has been knocking on doors, handing out fliers and making shirts. Members have also been appearing at neighborhood meetings and plan to host a fundraiser in the coming days, Logan said.

Howard said his group, too, has gotten out in the community with yard signs and literature.

And while elected officials, including Mayor Quinton Lucas, played a central role in renaming the street, they appear to be staying in the background.

Lucas championed the redesignation this winter, and while he remains supportive, he said he hasn’t been active in the campaign to maintain it. He’s meeting this coming week with members of Save The Paseo.

“I will not hide my position in any way,” Lucas said. “At the same time, I think both sides have done a good job and will continue to do a good job of adequately informing the public of their perspective on the issue, so in case you’re wondering if I’m spending lots of time raising money for campaign ads and mailers and all of that, the answer to that is no.”

Lucas reiterated his position that renaming the street for King was a good idea.

“My position has not changed, and that is that I supported the renaming of the street,” Lucas said. “I think it’s something that is a good recognition for our community, and frankly, I think it actually can enhance what people think of the boulevard.”

Back to Paseo?

Save The Paseo and its supporters argue that the boulevard, with its ornate fountains, pergolas and broad green space, has a historical significance that should remain untouched.

“I view The Paseo, the name of The Paseo, as no different than Ward Parkway or Rockhill Road,” Logan said. “They were named that way for a reason. There’s no reason why we should go back and change those names, and there’s a deep history that’s assigned to those particular names.”

Part of the city’s original parks and boulevard system, The Paseo was designed by renowned landscape architect George Kessler, and derives its name from Paseo de la Reforma, a grand avenue that cuts across the heart of Mexico City. The north end of The Paseo is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Paseo supporters have also long argued the renaming was pushed through without citizen input. They point to a city statute the council waived that requires input from those who live along the street before it can be renamed. A panel convened in 2018 by then-Mayor Sly James ranked the boulevard a third choice behind the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport and 63rd Street as an appropriate honor for King.

Advocates for retaining the name maintain there was adequate community feedback. They said they gathered signatures of 100 residents of the street that support the name change, handed out literature and attended neighborhood meetings as requested by the council.

Lucas previously said the signature requirement the council waived is rarely enforced.

Supporters of the name change say the street’s beauty and prominence as a boulevard maintained by the Parks and Recreation Department make it an appropriate tribute to King.

“This is a gorgeous street,” said Sam Mann, retired pastor of St. Mark Union Church. “It is a beautiful street and will be Park and Rec, which historically gets better attention and more attention than the street department.”

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