Government & Politics

Courtroom battle over billboard affects downtown KC hotel proposal

This billboard at 20th and Main streets in downtown Kansas City is holding up a construction project as the subject of a lawsuit; the city wants it removed. The case is underway in Jackson County Circuit Court.
This billboard at 20th and Main streets in downtown Kansas City is holding up a construction project as the subject of a lawsuit; the city wants it removed. The case is underway in Jackson County Circuit Court. The Kansas City Star

A showdown over a giant billboard in downtown Kansas City is heating up in court and could have a big impact on a proposal for a $19 million hotel at the entrance to the Crossroads.

Lamar outdoor advertising company is challenging Kansas City’s move to condemn its billboard at the southeast corner of 20th and Main streets and remove it to make way for the hotel.

A trial began Friday and continues Monday before Jackson County Circuit Judge Margene Burnett in a lawsuit filed by Lamar.

Condemnation of the billboard would clear the way for Sunflower Development Group to build a five-story, 110-room hotel on behalf of Overland Park-based True North Hotel Group. True North would operate the first Hilton Home2Suites in the area, providing contemporary extended stay suites with kitchens.

The City Council has unanimously approved the condemnation, saying its decision is justified by studies showing the parking lot where the billboard sits is unsightly, unsanitary and substandard, and that the looming billboard is a hindrance in a location that should be ripe for redevelopment because it’s situated so close to Crown Center and the planned streetcar line.

“It just is a blighted area,” said Councilwoman Jan Marcason, who represents the district that includes the property. Marcason said in an interview that the development site sits right across from the vacant lot where the Hereford House steakhouse burned down in an arson fire, and it remains an eyesore.

“It was not what we wanted to see as the gateway to the Crossroads,” she said, adding that the project would be a great addition to the neighborhood and that Sunflower is a very capable developer, with such signature projects as the Ambassador Hotel at 1111 Grand Blvd.

But Jim Bowers, a lawyer representing Lamar, said this is a property rights case and the city can’t just take the billboard to make room for the hotel.

“This billboard is not blighted,” he told The Star on Friday. “Lamar wants to keep its property.”

The billboard has a visual easement that says nothing can obstruct its view, but Bowers said he firmly believes the hotel can still be built without having to remove the billboard.

The developer and hotel operator have said in the past that the project won’t work with the billboard and its restrictive view easement in place, especially because the city has asked for a building that fronts not just on 20th Street but also on Main Street to have more visibility on the streetcar route.

Cities are allowed to condemn private property for development if it gets rid of blight and is part of a “carefully considered development plan” that doesn’t benefit a particular business.

Councilman Ed Ford, a lawyer, said the city believes it is on solid legal ground. “We believe there’s blight, and we have the right to use eminent domain if there’s blight,” he said.

But in court on Friday, Robert Fessler, vice president and territory manager for Lamar in Kansas City, testified that the company has a strong interest in keeping the billboard where it is.

“Location, location, location,” he said, in explaining how billboards have their maximum advertising impact.

He said this particular billboard is “one of our top five” signs in the city, particularly because it is one of only two full-sized signs between downtown and the Country Club Plaza on Main Street, and the only one owned by Lamar.

The billboard’s south side currently displays a big ad for Sprint, and its north side displays an ad for the Moosejaw store on the Country Club Plaza.

In the past it has had ads for numerous other businesses and organizations, Fessler said, including the Nelson-Atkins museum, Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Fessler said the sign is kept in good condition and has never had any code violations from the city. He also said that, under the current billboard law, this sign cannot be relocated to another major artery with similar visibility anywhere in the city.

Testimony continues Monday, and it is not known when Burnett will rule. She told attorneys for both sides Friday that she expects no matter how she rules, it will be appealed.

The hotel is not part of the litigation, which pits Lamar against the city. But Roxsen Koch, an attorney representing Sunflower Development Group, said last week that it’s not unusual for property owners facing condemnation to challenge the blight and redevelopment arguments in court, and she believes the city has a strong case.

Still, she said, any delay in a court ruling could impede the project, and the developer is eager to get going.

“They need to get started sooner rather than later,” she said. “Anytime there’s litigation, it’s a concern in any development. This does create uncertainty.”

Ford said a circuit court ruling could bring clarity to the issues and allow negotiations to resume on a fair price to acquire the billboard. While the city would buy the billboard, the private developer would ultimately pay that cost and then would be reimbursed over time through a tax increment financing approach that the City Council has already approved.

In addition to dealing with the billboard, the city is also taking steps to remove the closed Walnut Street ramp off the Main Street viaduct, which runs through the development site. City public works officials said the city plans to put that project out to bid in just a few weeks.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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