Government & Politics

ATA says pick of developer for River Market land signifies new role in economic development

Among the properties the ATA owns that could be developed is the transit center at 10th and Main streets. Those operations will be moved to make way for the new streetcar line and because of revamped bus routes downtown.
Among the properties the ATA owns that could be developed is the transit center at 10th and Main streets. Those operations will be moved to make way for the new streetcar line and because of revamped bus routes downtown. Star file photo

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has picked a Northland developer to help the ATA transform itself into a force for economic development in the region.

With help from the Downtown Council, the transportation authority picked Briarcliff Development out of a field of five companies that responded to a request for proposals for 1.8 acres the regional transit agency owns in the River Market area.

The site at Third Street and Grand Boulevard is a surface parking lot with 193 spaces. That corner has long been seen as a potential transit hub, and the ATA has asked Briarcliff to build that potential into whatever design it comes up with for the property.

Shelters for Metro and MAX buses now stand alongside the parking lot, as well as a bike rental station for the city’s B-Cycle system. But next year, Kansas City streetcars are set to begin running past two sides of the property on tracks laid there this year, and transit planners have identified Third and Grand as a natural transfer point for a commuter rail line to the eastern suburbs, if one is ever built.

Briarcliff has until the end of the year to devise a viable proposal for the site, focusing on retail and office space in one or more buildings of a size that conforms with the neighborhood. That would mean three to five stories, perhaps, said Richie Benninghoven, Briarcliff’s president.

The BNIM architecture firm is among a half-dozen partners on the project.

Whatever is built, the same number of parking spaces or more must be maintained in some form, garage or surface spaces, under an agreement between the ATA and Kansas City that runs out in 2019.

ATA Chairman Robbie Makinen hopes a deal will be struck within the 90-day negotiating period that begins Oct. 1. He sees the project as a milestone for his agency.

“The opportunity for the KCATA to make this statement that we can be helpful in the economic development arena is huge,” said Makinen, who has worked to rid the authority of the mistaken image that it’s a wing of Kansas City government whose only role is to run the Metro bus system.

In fact, it’s an independent, bistate agency created by Congress with broad powers. Much like the New York Port Authority, which built the World Trade Center, the Kansas City ATA can be a developer and potentially could even run the airport, if that was Kansas City’s desire.

The project at Third and Grand, Makinen hopes, will be an example of how the ATA can work with developers on projects where transit is integrated into the design, known as “transit-oriented development.” In this case, that could mean building retail space that is physically aligned with transit stops, but also has businesses that cater to people making transit connections at that corner, such as coffee shops and restaurants.

Transit connections also might appeal to some office tenants there, Benninghoven said. And the remaining public parking might make the site an attractive park-and-ride location for commuters who would patronize businesses while passing through.

For Briarcliff, which has previously concentrated exclusively on projects north of the Missouri River, this first foray south of the river is also something of a milestone that could lead to more projects downtown.

“We are definitely honored to be selected by ATA,” Briarcliff board chairman Julie Andrews said.

For the ATA, it’s the first of what Makinen and CEO/president Joe Reardon hope will be other collaborations with developers along major transit corridors and on other properties it owns, such as the transit center at 10th and Main streets.

Heading the effort is the former top administrator for Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County, Dennis Hays. He now fills the newly created position at the ATA of vice president of strategy and economic development.

Hays retired in 2014 from the Unified Government, where he oversaw the creation of the successful Village West development. He and Reardon worked closely while the latter was UG mayor for eight years and will collaborate in helping developers incorporate transit issues into their early planning, rather than the tail end, Reardon said.

In addition to announcing the choice of a developer, Reardon also ticked off a number of transit initiatives and gave updates on others aimed at better unifying and enhancing the disparate parts of the area’s mass transit system.

“We are pulling together one seamless system,” Reardon said. To that end:

▪ A pilot program will be launched early next year that would make it easier to buy bus passes, perhaps even using a smartphone, as is possible in many other cities. Now, it is done by mail, counter-top service or at the fare box.

▪ All ATA buses will soon have WiFi service, as all Johnson County buses supposedly do now (the service can be spotty at times). Reardon also said rules will change by the end of the year allowing riders to bring food and drink on board. Some do now, but it’s against the rules on Metro buses.

▪ A new route study will look at making it possible for more workers to use transit to get to their jobs. Only 18 percent of jobs in the metro area are accessible by bus now, with the goal to double that in 10 years.

▪ Three of the four separate bus system brand names — the Metro, the Jo and UG Transit — will all go away within 18 months and be rebranded RideKC. IndeBus will co-brand a little longer, but will eventually get a new RideKC color scheme as well.